Monday, June 25, 2007

Discernment, Part 1

This is a follow-up to the 'Some Doubted' posts of two weeks ago. It seemed that we were left without real-life examples of discernment, and I will try to remedy that with a few observations.

Should I enter a religious community or not? Should I marry this person or not? Should I take this job or not? These decisions are among the most important ones we can make in life, and today many shy away from them out of fear of making a mistake or of getting 'caught' in a situation that limits us in some way.

First of all, we should realize that we are exercising our wills (or failing to exercise them) at any moment. If we only become aware of our wills when big decision loom, then we probably have not been acting consciously most of the time. Most people think of discernment with regard only to the big choices, but in order to frame properly the import of big decision, and in order to act decisively when needed, we need to cultivate an awareness of the discernment that goes on at the level of the everyday, even every moment.

In order to back up and learn awareness of the impact of each moment of our lives, we need to become aware of our thoughts. Most people are unaware that our minds are receiving and generating thoughts almost constantly. We might only notice this when something is troubling us (our minds 'race' or we 'brood' over some thought), or when we attempt to pray quietly and realize that thoughts are constantly distracting us.

Because we are often unaware that we are thinking, we are often unaware of the motives for our actions. We grab a handful of potato chips as we pass through the kitchen without noticing that this action was preceded by a series of thoughts and other actions. In order to have carried out this action, aside from having purchased the chips (perhaps because we were hungry when we were at the store), we needed some motivation for eating them. Perhaps we were actually hungry and that was the easiest thing to grab. Perhaps we were sad and felt that this would cheer us up or take our mind off of whatever was bothering us. In any case, we probably did not consciously say, "I am choosing to eat these chips," with full awareness of the possibility of other options.

If we snack like this regularly, what we will discover is that to exercise free will in not snacking becomes an ascetical effort. We might even experience ourselves as unfree. Here, we may reach the conclusion, after some reflection, that we have done a poor job exercising free will all along. Instead of consciously choosing to eat at proper times proper amounts of reasonable and healthy food, we have had our decisions made for us by a combination of forces: our appetite, advertising agencies and grocery store managers (who want to convince us to buy potato chips), our lack of courage in dealing directly with whatever is bugging us and driving us to take refuge in poor eating habits.

The same problem, on a broader scale, afficts us when we put off life decisions. There may be good reasons to put them off: marriage to the person I am considering may indeed be imprudent, I may not be called to religious life, and so on. However, if we lack the tools to make these sorts of assessments accurately and instead just put things off because we 'are not ready to make that decision', we will have some decision made for us by external factors outside our control. For example, if we put off entering religious life, we may someday be denied entry because we are too old. If we move from one relationship to another, we grow accustomed to seeing relationships as transitory and this makes marriage appear less realistic and desirable.

If this whole concept of discernment is new, it might even appear a bit daunting. Where does one begin to acquire the virtues of discretion and self-control that make good discernment possible? We should never be discouraged when we come to the realization of our lack of freedom in some area of our lives, but rather rejoice in this discovery. Once we recognize such an area, we can begin to work with God's grace to introduce real freedom and joy into our lives. God desires our freedom because only someone truly free can truly love. Jesus Christ comes to bring us Truth: and the Truth will set you free. The process of assenting to the truth and allowing it to change the way we think and act is called conversion or repentance. The invitation to conversion is always a moment for rejoicing because it is a step forward toward true human happiness and acutalization. Initially, it may feel like going backwards as we undo bad habits (we are often very attached to our bad habits and feel an aversion to seeing them go!), but as Dante found at the conclusion to Inferno, in the life lived unconsciously according to unnamed biases, what appears to be up is actually down. Conversion to the Truth and to freedom is a true personal revolution toward living life fully. What could be more exciting than that?

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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