A Few Thoughts on Discernment

Lent has brought with it more than the usual number of vocation enquiries, which I am slowly working my way through, so it may be useful to say a few words about discernment — not just vocational discernment, but discernment in general.

First, let us be clear what Christian discernment is not. Discernment is not the Holy Spirit perching on one’s shoulder and whispering into one’s ear, ‘This is the way, follow it.’ (No prizes for placing the scriptural allusion!) There are occasions when God may choose to make clear his choice for us in dramatic ways, but not often. He respects us and our manner of being, and he works with what we have, not with what we don’t. As Aquinas remarked, Gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit. (‘Grace does not do away with nature but perfects it.’) In other words, discernment is, first of all, a natural process before it becomes a supernatural one. We use reason, information and reflection — rather as the cardinals will be using them to discern who should be the next pope. Grace informs this natural discernment, but it does not do away with the need to do the hard work of finding out and thinking through the possibilities.

In the case of vocational discernment, there is a twofold process at work. The candidate for monastic life has to think about what she is seeking, what attracts her to a particular community, her own strengths and weaknesses; the community has to think about these things, too — and how will she fit in here, how will she grow, how the community will grow because of her presence. It would be nice, but unrealistic, if all this could be conducted at a ‘spiritual’ level. In practice, there will be consideration of such things as health, temperament, background, or, as one old novice mistress of my acquaintance used to say, ‘teeth and laughter are as good a guide as any’. She wasn’t being frivolous. Experience had taught her that good health and a willingness to learn were a sound foundation for the novitiate. Degrees in monastic history or the ability to sing plainsong were not.

It is when we bring prayer into the mix that I think many people become confused. What exactly are we doing? We are not asking God to short-circuit the natural discernment process (though sometimes he does), nor are we asking him to absolve us of responsibility for the choices we make. I think we are asking him to become involved in the process and enable us to overcome some of our habitual blindness and prejudice. Provided we are not putting up any deliberate barriers, I believe we can trust that he will be with us. In other words, when we pray for guidance, it will be given us, but we need some delicate tuning in to the Holy Spirit to recognize it for what it is: part of a process, not the whole story.

Although, after the process of discernment, we may say someone or something is ‘God’s choice’, we have to beware of understanding those words literally. God does not guarantee the ‘rightness’ of our decisions, only that he will be involved in and work with the choices we make. Thus, we believe, for example, that whoever the cardinals choose as pope will be someone God will bless and uphold as supreme pastor of the Church. In that sense, we speak of him as ‘the man God has chosen’. Whether the man in question will live up to the demands of his office is another matter. We all have free will — even popes — which is one reason why Infallibility is a necessary protection against human error.

This way of looking at things is not as clear-cut as some other traditions of discernment in the Church but I believe it is worth thinking about because it applies to so many of the decisions we have to make in life. Some are of immense consequence — life choices in every sense of the word. Others are more trifling but still make huge demands on our emotional and intellectual energy. And we have to cope with all of them without knowing that we are absolutely right. Discernment is about judgement and perception; and as we grow older, we can all look back rather ruefully on occasions when we made bad choices for which we cannot blame the Holy Spirit.