Sunday, July 15, 2007

Discernment, Part 2

We noted in our first post in this series the importance of a regular conscious exercise of our wills. If we are in the habit of acting deliberately in our lives, then the occasion of major decisions is less frightening. First of all, we are accustomed to using our wills and so the prospect of having to decide is itself less unfamiliar. Secondly, these day-to-day decisions produce in us a 'character': we 'co-create' ourselves, as it were. God gave us the body, mind and soul that we have, but by our own decisions, we have crafted this raw material into a more or less coherent person. The more we work to make rational decisions, the more our lives will be coherent and tend to be pointed toward goals. The less we consciously decide our actions, the more we will be driven by external forces to choose actions that are at odds with one another, and our lives will lack coherence. Lacking coherence in our lives, we will find the future unpredictable and perhaps frightening as well.

This points to the need to manage our thoughts and feelings rationally to the extent we are able. So often, when I speak with persons who are thinking about religious life, I hear the following sorts of reasons given for decisions: "I just feel at home here." "I think I need more activity." "I really enjoy the academic world and think I should do that instead." "I feel God's presence here."

These reasons/feelings make up raw data for decisions, to be sure, and we do need to pay attention to them. But then we need to ask: why do I feel the way I do? Why do I feel at home here and not there, and is this really an objective sign that God's want me to stay? Our feelings are often the product of many hidden sources, and (I hate to say it!) they are often not very sensible when we stop and think about it. The reason we don't feel at ease might be as trifling as the fact that Br. So-and-so happens to look like my father, with whom I don't get along. Is this a reason to leave a community and discern elsewhere, or an invitation to mature in love of strangers who have done us no wrong? Will we even have the chance to identify this dynamic if we simply do what our feelings tell us and never examine them?

In the case of rationalizations for action like "I just feel like I need more activity," we should be similarly critical. Do I really need this, or am I just afraid that my self-esteem will suffer if I can't be proud of some project? (This is a special problem for American men, in my opinion.) In so many of these cases, we are not the most qualified judges of our own motives. For this reason, we need outside input. Generally, I recommend this from two sources: prayer and the Church. I will end this post with a word about prayer, and pick up with the Church next time.

If we really pray as we ought, we will encounter, perhaps obliquely, perhaps directly, the Living God whom we all seek as whose will we seek to do. Unfortunately for us, as St. Paul says, "We do not know how to pray as we ought." Thankfully, we have the guidance of the Holy Spirit to assist us, and so we must learn to test the spirits and know how to follow the Holy Spirit and not some other spirit.

What this means is that we need to have some reliable formation in prayer. In other words, we need to learn to pray from the Tradition (anticipating here something about the necessity of the Church). In particular, the Word of God in Scripture and the parameters given us in Church teaching help to form us in prayer. Scripture is especially important, and this is why monks spend hours a day chanting Psalms and Canticles and doing lectio divina.

I strongly recommend praying with Scripture in our time because we no longer can take for granted a cultural formation in the basics of Christian history and doctrine. In fact, we are de-formed by cultural pressures antithetical to Christianity. We get funny ideas from the world about God, about Jesus Christ, about the Church, about human happiness, and these ideas need to be weeded out of our subconscious set of assumptions about the world and replaced with the good solid truths in tradition. Once this has happened, then we will have a clearer sense of when God is speaking to us and when not. We will know something more about the character of God and have a kind of sixth sense for what are things of God and what are not. We should end with a clear example.

Let's say that I have a sense of being called to the priesthood, but because of past sins, I feel unworthy of it or that God could not possibly call me. One morning, I open the Bible and happen upon the passage of the Prodigal Son. At once, I am moved by the compassion shown by the Father to the wayward son, and I sense that this is the answer to my dilemma: I really should begin the process of looking at the priesthood. After a brief moment of euphoria and joy, a tiny doubt creeps in: but I've never really been sorry (in my own estimation!) for my sins. I am afraid that I would be a disgrace to the priesthood. I've never really fit in. I turn to God and apologize again and decide I will just do more penance or try to find some worthwhile charity to help out instead of becoming a priest.

Notice that the second set of thoughts had nothing whatsoever to do with the objective information coming through Scripture. Almost everything I describe in the second portion is based on feelings and not on reason or on God's love and fidelity. The sorts of thoughts and feelings I am relating here are usually habitual: we grow accustomed to them and even dependent for the stability of our lives on them. God is trying to reach us and call us out of our unexamined feelings and suspicions, to grow in trust of him and in freedom of heart in following Jesus Christ. We have to be willing to hear God's Word as a challenge at times. In fact, when we really read the Bible (and as Christians, we should always relate what we read to the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament), we should be shocked regularly. The Good News that Christ brings is truly radical! If what we read ends up fitting too snugly with what we always thought to be the case, one wonders if we are hearing God or hearing ourselves.

This is another reason why I am fond of recommending lectio divina. Some of the more modern forms of meditation and devotion, while beautiful and salutary in many circumstances, can sometimes lead the less experienced of us into a place where we simply hear ourselves. This happens more subtly when, say, we have a good experience at devotional prayer, but when we hear it broadened in some way, we resond coldly or even with hostility. I have seen this happen, for example: a zealous young person has a profound experience of God's presence during Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. He even has a kind of inward vision of Christ's Body sacrificed for us. The following Sunday, this same person hears a perfectly good homily on the Church as the Body of Christ. The person gets angry and dismisses Fr. X as a liberal and as suspicious of the Real Presence. Father of course said no such thing (he was even working on starting a Forty Hours devotion!). The person getting upset is not following reason or Church teaching; he is instead resisting following the voice of Christ into a deeper understanding of His presence under other forms because to do so might jeopardize the good feelings and mystical signs he has come to expect in Adoration. Reading St. Paul would clear this up in a hurry!

So enough for today. Next, we will return to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
Peace to you!

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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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