Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Discernment is a key word in Christian life. There is an interesting story which helps us to understand what discernment entails.
It was said concerning Abba Agathon that some monks came to find him having heard tell of his great discernment. Wanting to see if he would lose his temper they said to him:

'Aren't you that Agathon who is said to be a fornicator and a proud man?'
'Yes, it is very true,' he answered.

They resumed, 'Aren't you that Agothon who is always talking nonsense?'
'I am."

Again they said 'Aren't you Agothon the heretic?'
But at that he replied: 'I am not a heretic.'

So they asked him, 'Tell us why you accepted everything we cast you, but repudiated this last insult.'

He replied 'The first accusations I take to myself for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God.'

At this saying they were astonished at his discernment and returned, edified.
This story reminds me of Paul, who is willing to endure anything and everything, in order to know Christ deeply and to make him known widely. He desires to be with Christ, but obeyed the calling to remain in the flesh for a while longer for the sake of the Church (Phil 1:22-23). Jesus prays compassionately for his disciples and all believers that they may know God more deeply. He prays for Peter that his faith will not fail (Luke 22:23). The biblical writers have this in common: Their writings point us to God. That is discernment at work. Discernment in the Hebrew Scriptures points us to knowledge/wisdom. The word 'bin' in Hebrew can be translated 'to understand with great care' or 'to discern with knowledge and wisdom.' It has always got to do with the fulfilling of God's mission and vision in the lives of the people of God. The word was used to show forth Daniel's righteous character while the prophet was in Babylon. It was used to describe the character of Joseph who virtually saved Israel from famine (Deut 41:39). It was used in the selection of leaders for the tribes of Israel (Deut 1:13).

On the other hand, punishment and downfall awaits those who are dull to discernment.
When its limbs are dry, they are broken off;
Women come and make a fire with them,
For they are not a people of discernment,
Therefore their Maker will not have compassion on them.
And their Creator will not be gracious to them.
(Isa 27:11)
Does that mean that discernment is compulsory for Christians? Affirmative, but it is not one fenced by an iron rod of forced compliance. It is one soaked with the thirst for God. A lover will not find loving the beloved any difficult. How can anyone say to the person who loves apples, that he has to eat an apple a day? He will be more willing to eat more than one! The desert fathers express this deep thirst and hunger for God, by subjecting themselves to spiritual disciplines not to punish themselves, but primarily to seek after God in an unhindered manner. If the world prevents them from knowing God, they will forsake the world. If family and friends stand against them in their journey to God, they will let them go. If food and luxury distracts them, they will fast and abstain from material riches. Another story points us to the difference between adopting spiritual disciplines for its own sake, or for God's intimacy.
An old man was asked, “How can I find God?”

He said, “In fasting, in watching, in labors, in devotion, and, above all, in discernment. I tell you, many have injured their bodies without discernment and have gone away from us having achieved nothing. Our mouths smell bad from fasting, we know the Scriptures by heart, we recite all the Psalms of David, but we have not that which God seeks: charity and humility.”
These two stories point us to one single desire of the desert fathers: God. Abba Agothon is willing to bear all things, except that which imply separation from God. Like a fish needing to get back to the water, he thirsts for God. Like fire that requires wood in order to burn, he seeks the ultimate Fire of Love. Like one who needs oxygen to survive physically, the desert fathers knew that spiritual survival means needing to breathe in God's presence. The Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians:

"I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better." (Eph 1:17)

Wisdom and revelation is Paul's prayer request for the church at Ephesus. Is it for them to live a meaningful life? Yes. For them to live a good material life? Maybe. For them to live a fruitful life? Surely. Most importantly, it is for them to draw near to God. This drawing near to God, is the single most important factor in any Christian discernment process. The reason why we are to despise the world and to count all things but loss is because these things distracts and draws us away from the fountain of life, the giver of water that satisfies.

Desiring God is something we seek to practice. Yet, we must be humble to recognize that we are still sinful beings, and have not arrived at a state of perfection. We cannot fully appreciate God until we see his kingdom come in all his glory. Until we are given new bodies, our desire cannot be complete. It is the 'desiring' that continues to catapult our heart from longing for Christ to belonging to Christ. From the state of longing to that prolonging of being with God. It not only feels good. It IS good. Michael Casey, in his reflections on Bernard's desire for God has this to say:
"Desire for God is not a visible, measurable factor within human experience. It is an element of the inner life of every human being, yet it is only glimpsed fragmentarily through successive and disparate manifestations. As such, it cannot be described in the language of ordinary experience; it is forced to rely on abstraction and symbolism. To penetrate to an understanding of desire for God requires the 'gradual construction of a quite different mode of apprehension and of expression.'" (Michael Casey, Athirst for God, Kalamazoo:Cistercian Publications, 1987, 129)
Casey points out an important observation. Desiring God must never be measured in human terms, although it can be expressed humanly. This desiring is part of the discernment process of informing our senses:
  • Which is the best way toward God?
  • What can I do to know God better?
  • Which is the best path where I can walk closer with God?
  • What are the impediments and barriers that prevent me from a closer walk with Jesus?
  • Which steps appear 'correct' but is actually leading us AWAY from God? We must avoid anything that draws us away, especially subtle things.

This third story is one I really like. It is about one's desire for God, that prayers made out appear on the surface to be a selfish one. However, such 'selfishness' is actually driven from a desire for a deeper and longer time with God. Two persons have different objectives, but their desire to obey and to be with God is played out very differently.
I must tell you how the venerable Father Benedict once wished for something but could not obtain it.

His sister, Scholastica, had from her infancy been dedicated to the Lord Almighty. She used to come to see the man of God once a year. He would come down to her with some disciples. They devoted the whole day to the praises of God and to holy conversation. As the shades of night were falling, they ate their meal together. They were still eating, and it was getting late as they continued their holy talk when his sister, the holy nun, put this request to him: 'I entreat you, do not leave me tonight so that we may talk on till morning about the joys of the heavenly life.' 'My sister,' he replied, 'what are you saying? It is completely impossible for me to remain outside my cell.'

At the time, the sky was so serene that not a cloud was to be seen. When she heard her brother refuse her, the nun placed her hands on the table with fingers intertwined and rested her head on her hands to pray to the Lord Almighty. When she raised it up again, such violent thunder and lightning and such a downpour of rain broke out that neither the venerable Benedict nor the brothers who were with him could put a foot outside the door of the place where they were sitting. For the nun, while laying her head on her hands, had spilt streams of tears on the table, and this was how she changed the serenity of the sky to rain. Nor did the inundation begin a little after her prayer, but the prayer and the downpour were so closely related that she raised her head from the table along with the thunder and it was at one and the same moment that she raised her head and the rain fell.

Then the man of God, amid the lightning, thunder and immense downpour of rain, seeing that he could not return to the monastery, began to complain sadly: 'May God Almighty pardon you, sister! What have you done ?' 'See,' she replied, 'I asked you and you wouldn't listen to me. I asked the Lord and he listened. Go now, if you can. Leave me and go back to the monastery.' But he had to stay under that roof. He was not willing to remain freely in the place, so he had to stay unwillingly. And so it happened that they passed the whole night in vigil, and each fully satisfied the other with holy talk on the spiritual life.

It was of this incident that I said that he wanted something but could not prevail. For if we consider the thought of the holy man, evidently he would have liked the good weather he had while going down to have continued but, contrary to his wishes and by the power of almighty God, he found a miracle coming from a woman's heart. Nor is it any surprise that the woman who wished to see her brother for a longer time was on this occasion stronger than he, for according to the words of John, 'God is love,' and by an altogether fair judgment, she was able to do more because she loved more.
Let our discernment process never be done in isolation from the love of God. Let our love of God be the main lens of discernment. Discernment has got to do with wisdom and knowledge. It can be found in wise decision making. However, discernment is never true, never complete without love. The love of God which surpasses all understanding.


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