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Discernment is Not About Choice

October 25, 2019


I was recently asked to give a talk to a group of seminarians and other young men discerning the priesthood about St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Rules of Discernment. As I prepared, the theme of the talk began to unfold – true discernment has been reduced to choosing amongst a plethora of options when in Ignatian practice it’s not about choosing at all. Instead, discernment is about discerning between what is of God and what is not – avoiding what is evil and embracing what is good. When discernment is reduced to choosing, the pressures of making the choice often paralyze people into making no choice at all.

To put it another way, discernment should be about knowing your heart so well that you know when something is not as it should be. It’s like your favorite space, maybe your bedside table or your desk, or in this technological age, your phone screen or computer desktop. When something is moved or missing, you know it. If your favorite book or pen has been moved or the email app or desktop shortcut is gone, you know it and you fix it. Then you put things as they should be. Your heart should be the same way.

Another problem with making discernment all about choice of goods or acts is that we then equate freedom with choice when authentic freedom is only about choosing Goodness Himself. As St. John Paul II says, freedom lies in choosing what you ought. You also run into the occasional choice between two goods – especially in vocations. The choice between the married or celibate religious life is not a choice between good or bad. It is a choice between two goods according to what God has given as the greatest freedom particularly for you.

Discernment is also a journey and not a destination. When discernment is reduced to choice, the choice becomes our goal or our destination. The destination cannot be anything other than eternity with God. Many people think that once they’ve discerned this choice, everything will be right. In other words, no more suffering. This will make everything fall into place. Suffering is part of the journey. In fact, it is part of discernment and a life with God is not void of it.

Your vocation cannot be your destination. Your career cannot be your destination. Having children cannot be the destination. Getting married, writing a book, starting a ministry, reconciling with someone that has become estranged, landing your dream job…these things cannot be destinations. In other words, these things cannot be the source of happiness.

In this way, discernment never really ends. You may discern this to be of God and pursue it. It requires knowing your heart, distinguishing whether the good spirit or bad spirit is at work, and then taking action. We have to realize that taking action does not change our destination. There are wrong turns or pit stops along the way but those delays do not change our destination in and of itself.

And therein lies another problem, our issue with waiting. Wrong turns and pit stops might mean that you arrive at the destination later than you planned or with a few more bumps and bruises from the trials of the journey. We want what we want and we want it right now. There has to be joy in the waiting. All of the waiting aids us in the journey, making it richer, making it more worthwhile, making the destination all the more beautiful. But when we stick to the waiting without any real destination, paralyzed into false choice without real discernment, it makes the waiting burdensome.

It reminds me of the play Waiting for Godot. Godot never comes. The play is really about the waiting and even more about the lack of action due to waiting for something that may never come. Which begs the question that if discernment is about choice (which as I have ascertained, it is not), what does choosing accomplish if we don’t actually do anything about it? Furthermore, what if the thing you are choosing is not really the source of your happiness? The characters in Waiting for Godotrealize that their days seem to be repeating, their waiting is circular and now they’ve been waiting for so long that it seems too late to change. How many of us have been in that same place with discernment? Or even worse, how many of us have made discerning, being a discerner, who we are? It becomes our identity.

There is a remedy to the false reduction of discernment. I think it’s a threefold approach.

First, practicing silence. There is absolutely no way for a person to understand the state of their heart if silence is not a part of their lives. I recently helped to facilitate a silent retreat for women, and the first night, I invited them to embrace the silence. We fill it with common day-to-day noise – music, podcasts, television, etc. – but even when silence is offered, we fill it with activity. At the retreat, I invited them to go so far as abandoning rote prayer and other devotion to immerse themselves in silence. When is the last time that you sat in total silence? The posture of the human person is necessarily receptive and true receptivity lies in silence.

Second, practicing interior reflection. We are surrounded with trigger warnings and blame games and so many reasons to be “offended”. Our reactions are often exterior and never, ever interior. Interior reflection means that we must grow accustomed to looking inward before ever looking outward. Even the act of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist or receiving absolution in Reconciliation requires interior reflection. How can we make room to receive if we don’t know what lies inside, what needs to be removed to make way for what actually belongs there?

Lastly, we must reclaim authentic freedom. It is a natural reduction of discernment to choice when we think that we are not free if we have no choice. It’s all around us – “This is my choice!”, “This should be my choice!”, “I have the right to choose!”. In fact, the only choice is to choose freedom and true, authentic freedom is to choose what you were made for, to choose that you are loved. Christoph Schönborn writes in From Death to Life that man’s only choice “is either to sink below his human dignity or to transcend himself through divine rebirth.” This is the only choice. Everything contributes to this choice but this is the only freedom – to choose divine life.

This journey is all about transitioning from this life to death because the Christian is aware as Socrates said to Callicles “Listen to me and follow me to the place where you will be more happy in life and in death.” Death can only be elevated to such a state when we realize that the destination is really eternal life. Discernment doesn’t lie in choice at all but instead in distinguishing the way of this journey in a life that has already begun to surrender before the body finally does. The only choice is God.