I suspect most of us, certainly most clergy and religious, would say that they do their best to say ‘yes’ to God in any and every situation. Sometimes this leads to acts of great heroism. Unfortunately, it can also lead to exhaustion and burn-out. Learning to say ‘no’, or rather, when to say ‘no’ is more difficult because it presupposes discernment, only possible through prayer and reflection, and a genuine desire to do God’s will rather than one’s own. The trouble is, I think, that we tend to confuse God’s will with our own will and are often very happy to lose ourselves in some sort of ‘good’ activity rather than face the shocking hollowness within. Conversely, if someone is tired or strained, we exhort them to rest without necessarily thinking through whether it is possible for them to rest: the sacraments must still be celebrated, food prepared and eaten, and so on and so forth. We come back to the idea of discernment and taking responsibility for our decisions.
Discernment is not especially difficult, but it does presuppose our having a choice to make and the necessary intellectual and moral acumen to make it. Sometimes there is no choice. Civilians caught up in the horror that is Syria or subject to Boko Haram raids in Nigeria have no choice in the matter: they must endure as well as they can. We who do have choices can be curiously reluctant to take responsibility for them. We are unlikely to receive a voice from heaven telling us to do this rather than that (just as well, I’d run straight to the doctor if I were to receive any such message), and even in the most austere of monasteries, obedience is rarely reduced to the absurdity of ‘do this because I say so’. No, we make up our own minds and are expected to use all the gifts God has given us to choose wisely and well. It is easy just to follow what everyone else seems to be saying or doing, even in the Church; but that isn’t always right, and that is where discernment becomes more complicated. Learning to say ‘no’ can be a very lonely business — and it isn’t always the loneliness of the prophet we’d like it to be but simply the loneliness of the oddball, the one who doesn’t fit in, who sees differently.
Many people are confident that their vision of the Church is the correct one, indeed the only one tenable. Others are sure that they must do this or that if they are to be truly Christian (it is even worse when they assume that of others, too). To cut through all this we need, as I said, to pray perseveringly, ask ourselves what is really required, and be prepared to accept the consequences. I have recently adopted a much tougher stance with the enquiries we receive at the monastery. I haven’t the energy I used to have, so I do the best I can with what I can rather than struggling to reply to every one. Occasionally, I feel guilty, because I know that I am probably missing something important, but I have to remember I am not the only person involved. Learning to say ‘no’ is not merely good for our physical and mental health; it is also good for our spiritual health. It reminds us that God is in charge, not us; that it is what he wills, rather than what we think he should will, that ultimately matters.