18 January 2014

On Developing a Spirituality of Discernment

Occasionally the daily lections can surprise us with their relevance. I found that happening recently. Two weeks ago the readings were, in one way and another, about being discerning people who open our entire selves to the Word and will of God in our lives. In some ways what was given to us was a spirituality of discernment, that is, a spirituality which takes seriously the first word of the Benedictine Rule, "LISTEN!" or, more fundamentally, the identity of Christ as the One who was defined as obedient (that is, whose mind and heart were open and responsive to God) unto death, even death on a cross. In other words discernment is a process undertaken by one who listens with the whole of themselves to the whole of reality for the Word and will of God present and active there. A spirituality of discernment is a spirituality permeated by this same process, a spirituality of which attentive listening and responsiveness  (hearkening) is the very heart and soul.

The Challenge of Discernment: Moving through the Second Week of Christmas

Throughout the week we moved from discerning good from evil, light from dark and that which was of Christ versus that which was anti-Christ, through the challenge of discerning more ambiguous reality, and finally, to the difficulty of an even more demanding spirituality of discernment when we are asked to choose between goods. The author of 1 John sees discernment as the core and foundation of all authentic discipleship. On Monday the first lection was about "testing the spirits." 1 John saw all of reality as either of Christ or of the antiChrist and he asked us to choose Christ in everything. Our own world is less literally but no less really inhabited by such "spirits" and it is certainly no less demanding of this discernment. We are asked to pay attention with and to our entire selves --- to our feelings, emotions, bodily sensations, our dreams, imaginations, thoughts, etc, and to choose that which is God's will. This requires practice, time, and effort. It means we work at developing the skills associated with such active listening in every situation in which we find ourselves so that we can hear the Word or will of God and act on it.

On Tuesday the author of 1 John continued his exploration of this spirituality of discernment by defining for us what real love is. Interestingly he is clear that before love involves us in preaching, teaching, healing the sick, feeding the hungry or otherwise ministering to the poor it means receiving the love of God. In other words we must first of all be persons who have allowed God to love us with an everlasting and entirely selfless love before we go out to the world around us and try to love others.

Our world is marked and marred by all kinds of fraudulent and distorted forms of love. We have each been touched by these and we often continue the cycle in ways we are not even aware of  -- but which surely need to be redeemed: children who have never felt loved and have children to fill the hole while those children too are often inadequately loved, those who have been wounded by what passed for love in their families, those sold into modern slavery by human traffickers, sex billed as love, and so forth --- all of these and so many more are prevalent today. Someone must break this cycle of fraudulent and inauthentic love and we Christians believe that Christ, the preeminent "receiver" and transparent mediator of God's love has done that. Only those who know THIS love and have been made into new creations by it are truly capable of ministering to others. Breaking the cycle of fraudulent  and distorted love in Christ is precisely what disciples of Christ are called to do --- but first of all, both foundationally and temporally, we do so as receivers of God's love in Christ.

On Wednesday the author of 1 John continued his exploration of the nature of love and the demands of discernment. He reminded us that we are to abide or remain in God and explains that love casts out fear. Here he provided us with one criterion of discernment but he also prepared us for engaging in genuine ministry. How do we know the cycle of fraudulent love has been broken in us? Love casts out fear. If we abide in God his love makes us capable of giving our lives for others without hedging our bets or compromising our gift out of concern for ourselves. It makes us compassionate and generous because we are secure in God's love and fearless in these things. Others come first, no matter how wounded or contagious, no matter how needy or broken. We are ready for ministry if we are first of all people who receive the Love of God as the utterly trustworthy foundation of our lives --- and do so on an ongoing basis. Otherwise, our ministry will be unwise or imprudent, presumptuous, and perhaps even dangerous to those who need this love so badly today.

Friday's Climax: Jesus shows us a spirituality of discernment

And then on Friday the Gospel gives us a portrait of Jesus in which all this comes together in a vivid and unforget-table way. Jesus heals a leper. In a world which was terrified of the contagion of illness and evil, a world which characterized everything from mold on the sheets to actual Hanson's disease as "leprosy" and then called it all unclean and unworthy of human and divine contact, Jesus reached out his hand and touched a man suffering from leprosy and made him whole in body, mind, spirit, and in his relation to others. He restored the man to physical health and to his rightful place in his family, in his relation to God and right to worship, and with his People. More, this healing lessened the fearfulness of the world as a whole for those who had hardened their own hearts in order to accomplish and deal with the ostracism of this man. It is a wonderful story in every way.

But the lection did not end here, nor with Jesus staying around to heal those who thronged to him upon hearing of his healing of the leper. Instead Jesus withdraws to the desert to pray; despite the unquestionable need of the multitude for his healing touch and the undoubted good of remaining to minister in this way, he returns in a solitary way to the foundation of his life --- the God who is the source of his life, his compassion, and his authority to heal --- the God whom he loves in the same way he himself is loved first. There are three reasons for this I think.

First, as important as individual healings are, Jesus' mission is different than this; it is deeper and more far-reaching or extensive as well. Jesus' real mission is the healing and freeing of reality itself --- the whole of reality. He is called to reconcile all things to God and bring all things to fullness in him. This will only be accomplished by remaining obedient (open and responsive) to God even to the depth and breadth of a godlessness which permeates and distorts reality --- not by individual healings even if these number in the hundreds of thousands -- indeed, even if they included every person that  ever existed. Reality itself is estranged from God and falls short of what it is meant to be in God; the illnesses with which Jesus is confronted  in us are merely symptoms of a more profound disorder and incompleteness. Jesus' mission is twofold, 1) to deal effectively with the actual disease, not merely with its symptoms, and 2) he is called and commissioned to bring all of creation to its fullest potential in God. (Had there been no sin, Jesus' call would still have involved this second prong of his mission.)

Secondly, Jesus reminds us of John's lesson at the beginning of the week: [[this is love: that you receive the Love of God. . .]] While every homily I have heard on this lection refers to Jesus taking "time out" to pray in order to recharge his spiritual batteries and draws the lesson that ministers need to do similarly, I am convinced that true as this is, it is not precisely what the lection is getting at. That is especially true given the context in which we heard it two weeks ago when it was coupled with a series of readings from 1 John. Instead, focusing on Jesus' withdrawal to pray reminds us that more fundamentally ministry must always flow from contemplation. This is the dynamic of Dominican spirituality,  the way in which the Camaldolese especially but all Benedictines experience their call to a Gospel-centered life requiring serious silence and solitude. It is the way St Francis of Assisi and Clare experienced their own vocations and lived out their calls to evangelical poverty and today it is the explicit standard of the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious). Authentic ministers of the Gospel are always those who receive God's love, live from and mediate it. As with Jesus this is primary both foundationally and temporally.

Thirdly, Jesus shows us clearly that what we rightly discerned to be good and the will of God yesterday might not be the good we are called to today. It is not enough to be people who can discern good from evil or even the less authentic and more ambiguous from the more authentic; we must also be people who can and do discern the specific good we are called to at this specific point in time. This discernment is much harder than determining or choosing good from evil. Our most difficult choices are always between what is good and what is (perhaps) better today in this new situation. For this reason, discernment must be a way of life for us  because the will of God comes to us freshly at every moment and in every new circumstance.

The relevance of all this:

As a hermit my greatest difficulty in discernment comes in determining when to say yes and when to say no to opportunities for active ministry. At first I thought this was a difficulty that would go away in time. (Maybe I just needed practice I thought!) Later I came to see it was something that would always be with me; I simply hoped discerning would become easier and be needed less frequently. But now I realize that this tension is not only going to be present for some time, but that it calls for me to see discernment not as a process I only pull out occasionally to resolve problems or make big decisions but instead as the very basis of any Christian spirituality. As I read this week in a talk by Richard Gaillardetz (Ecclesiologist), Pope Francis speaks of a "spirituality of discernment" --- which is probably typically Jesuitical of him, but also of course, profoundly Christian. I have come to see that Paul's statement about Jesus' obedience unto death could also be translated as a corollary (or its presupposition!): Jesus was discerning in all things even unto death, death on a cross.

Moreover of course, I find a lot of reassurance in what 1 John says about the nature of love: it is first of all about receiving God (Love-in-act) in our lives and only secondarily about active ministry. As contemplatives know, the command that we abide in God, that we remain in the love which is God, is the heart of our own vocations and the heart of all truly Christian life. Often the choice I have to make between active ministry and withdrawal (anachoresis) will mean withdrawal; of course that is hardly surprising. After all, this is the overarching reality and context I am called to by God and the Church, just as it is the call I have publicly (canonically) committed to for the sake of others. Thus, when the choice presents itself,  I may well have to say no to active ministry, not because it is an evil (it emphatically is not that!), but because I am called in a fundamental way to something else first.  Thus, I MUST repeatedly discern my response anew, for what was good and the will of God yesterday may be less good than the alternative and not the will of God today.

This choice will not disappear from my life anytime soon --- and that is not at all a bad thing --- for not only does it indicate new opportunities for serving God and loving others continue to come my way; it also means I must continue to develop a spirituality of discernment which itself is essentially contemplative and solitary in the best sense. The presence of this choice as part of the constant dynamic of the vowed hermit who belongs integrally to a parish and diocese  further establishes the diocesan eremitical life as one of fundamental importance in the Church. In fact, we hermits especially embody the Gospel lection from two Friday's ago in a way which witnesses to the lesson it holds for every Christian. Namely, good and imperative as active ministry is, something more fundamental in our world needs healing and that, even for those living primarily ministerial lives, requires and is truly empowered only by the habit and foundation of obedient withdrawal in prayer.