Often when dealing with the concept of discernment I hear people say things like, “when I figure out what God wants for me” or “I need to solve the mystery of what God’s will is for my life” etc., etc. Now of course it is a good thing to want to know what God’s will is for your life, but the problem here is fundamentally one of orientation. Because if we see the process of discernment as one of figuring out a puzzle or solving a mystery, we have miss-aligned ourselves with God’s Spirit and have missed the point of discernment. No, discernment is much more. Discernment is about a relationship. Discernment is about falling in love.
A relationship of love
Because we are fallen human beings living in a fallen world we can sometimes miss the fact that our God is always reaching out to us, always trying to speak to our hearts. We then in turn need to find time and the place to encounter our Lord, to keep falling in love with our God. When we remember that at each moment we are in a relationship with the Lord of the universe it affects everything we do. This is discernment. Not trying to solve a puzzle or figure out a mystery but strengthening our relationship with God, falling in love with Love itself more and more each day. When we do this, God’s will becomes, through His grace, what our will desires. Discernment.
Just as a lover begins to desire the will of his or her beloved, so too for us as we fall in love with the Lord. If we orientate ourselves toward Christ and the RELATIONSHIP discernment becomes the grace it was meant to become. The decisions we make in life then, big or small, start to become what God wills.
Peter walking on water
My favorite example from the Gospels of how discernment works is the story of Peter trying to walk on water to be with Jesus. Here we have Peter and the other Apostles, who have begun their relationship with the Lord Jesus, and they encounter Him walking on water. When Peter sees Jesus walking on the water and hears Him say, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter does what is at the heart of discernment: he longs to be even closer to the Lord. So Peter responds to Christ, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water;” and Jesus says, “Come.” And what does Peter do? He responds to the invitation, gets out of the boat and walks on water. He didn’t think about anything else. He focused on the Lord and his relationship with Him. And because of this Peter was able to walk on water. It’s when he focuses on the wind and storm around him that he begins to sink. He took his eyes off the Lord, and if we do the same we sink in our discernment as well. We take our eyes off the Lord and focus on the storm when we over think or analyzing solving the mystery of where we are called or what we are “suppose” to do. To discern is to keep our eyes on the Lord, listen to his voice and then just get out of the boat.
St. Alphonsus Liguori and discernment
If we are truly going to discern by focusing on the Lord, whether it be what our vocation is in life to whether or not we should go on that weekend trip with our friends, there are some practical measures we can take so that His will in our lives remains clear. Our friend the great Italian 18th century saint and moral theologian St. Alphonsus Liguori has a few pointers to help us:
• Remain pure of heart. Go to confession regularly and exam your conscience daily – essentially St. Alphonsus is reminding us that it is the “pure of heart that see God.” These are essential for allowing God’s grace to make us “pure of heart.”
• Grow in virtue: spiritual reading, spiritual direction, discuss God with others regally, establish a regular prayer schedule – when I was a lay person teaching high school these were especially fruitful for me in growing in my relationship with the Lord and hearing his call to following him as a consecrated religious friar. Try to be as faithful to it as you can.
• Ask the Lord (just as Peter asked the Lord to command him to come out on the water) to call you to a particular state in life (Lay, Religious, or Ordained). - Since it is the means and path of our salvation our state in life is important. As you fall in love with Love itself let Him fill your intellect, will and heart with the desire for a particular state in life.
• Do not put any obstacles in the way of grace. Be open and ready to do the Lord’s will in all things – we ask the Lord daily to help us with our selfishness and concupiscence.
• Carefully avoid overindulgence. Retire into the solitude of your heart, remembering that God is always near you – in our culture especially be aware of over indulgence. It’s everywhere.
• Go on retreat – this not only benefits religious and priests (they are required by canon law to do so) but for any lay person as well. And, if your schedule and life does not permit it at least find some time to think reflectively.
And so at the end of the day there we have it. The God of the universe wants us to fall in love with Him. Nothing more and certainly nothing less. If we pray that we can fall in love with the greatest of all Lovers, to enter the greatest of all Romances, to enter into the Mystery each and every day we shall be able to discern all things in our lives. All we have to do is get out of the boat.