How do we discern?
How do we discern?
To choose well is to choose what is the best. Not the best for me, or from my point of view, but the best in a given situation and according to objective criteria. Discernment is not always obvious – which criteria do we adopt in order to decide? How do we choose? When do we choose? What do we choose?
We first recognize our strengths, weaknesses, faults and our own competences. Am I personally in a number of ruts? A possible list is – hastiness, passion, emotion, indecision, a more or less conscious impartiality, letting others decide for myself, being swayed by others, looking for the first, the easiest and the most obvious path, only seeing part of the problem, not seeing that I am facing a choice, believing that it is enough to reflect without praying or vice versa, believing that it is enough to be at peace with yourself in having made the right choice, etc.
Discerning and deciding are free acts
Men and women are created in the image of God and are able to love freely. To love is first of all an act of will and not a simple feeling, even if feelings may accompany or precede the will. The will is the ability to make choices for ourselves, and it is manifested by free will – the power to choose. The latter is only a disposition to be free, being open to what is possible. It is often confused with freedom. In fact there is only authentic freedom when I choose a genuine good.
Moreover, choosing evil, something bad, said St. Augustine, is to alienate and hinder our freedom (or that of another). So it is by acting in love and truth that I am freest and it is by love that I lead another person on the road to freedom – in an act motivated by love, even more by Charity. The problem is that I do not spontaneously know what is good, what is a genuinely good. To discern is to precisely determine what is authentically good, genuinely good. And this means that we do it according to certain criteria, standards and with a certain idea of truth and of other human beings. The Gospel, ultimately, is the standard of real freedom, it helps us to form and inform our conscience.
The intention to do what is Good
Among these standards, there is first of all the intention to do what is good. To will what is good. It is not because everyone thinks or does this that it is good – beware of conformism. And then, from among the possible good outcomes, I weigh the alternatives I see regarding such a choice – which is more just, for example? What would the consequences of such a choice be? Is this choice realistic? Etc.
Our experience and the advice we receive
We must not ignore our own personal experience which will help us in our choices. We must also know how to listen or seek advice when we need it, even if the advice does not necessarily determine the choice I have to make. There are always people more competent and experienced than myself. There is the person who has authority over me, over the Community, over the Church.
God created us as intelligent beings and the Holy Spirit works through our intelligence. Reason allows us, through reflection, to rise above determinism. We can thus stand back and distance ourselves from the problem (otherwise it is spontaneity or opportunity which will guide me). This allows me to gauge the soliciting determinisms (conformity, moralising, family considerations etc.) and fix my own position. What appears spontaneously to be good is not always the real good etc. When I have made this act of deliberation I can make my choice.
The decision is the act of the will that makes discernment concrete and provides the means for its implementation. This decision is often made with difficulty, sometimes even with a struggle. To act on what one has decided, by seeking the better Good, is to be consistent with the Gospel. We are often amazed at how doors open and how Providence has prepared our way forward.
From a teaching by Gilles Malatre in training leaders of the Emmanuel Community.