Our goal should be to be in harmony with God’s will

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  • June 1, 2011

A group of Christians, of different traditions, was discussing business at a Canadian Council of Churches meeting. I didn’t realize the word “discernment” kept coming up until a guest leaned over to me. She’s fluent in English, but it’s not her first language. “What does ‘discernment’ mean?” she asked. I opened my mouth with a ready answer but an inward pause. It’s simple enough to define, at first blush, but less simple to understand.

And why is it so often so difficult to do? Christian traditions have produced many ways of discernment; it’s an art, a science, a way of the cross, traversed with blood and anguish. It might seem, too, that trying to consult God just makes things tough; don’t our atheistic friends have an easier time of it? How does it differ from decision-making? Does discernment involve faith?

A secular definition of “discern” speaks of coming to see, or otherwise recognize; such as discerning a sail on the horizon. A spiritual definition of discernment might also refer to seeing: learning to see as God sees. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face-to-face,” says St. Paul (1 Cor 13:12); St. Augustine  picks this up, saying faith means knowing now, darkly, what we shall then see directly.

So, discernment can seem like being in darkness. Once we decide to seek God’s will rather than just go our own way, we commit to entering that darkness: the darkness of going beyond what the senses and intellect can discover. It’s the darkness of death itself, which none of us has yet entered fully, but all have tasted. Sometimes we run away from it. Sometimes we’re able to let ourselves be led a little further into it, and our spiritual sight, the sight of faith, is strengthened.

At times we can choose to enter such darkness, but at times we’re plunged into it. There are saints on the June calendar who show us how to be in such darkness and yet witness the light.

John Fisher and Thomas More are celebrated June 22. I’ve known the story of Sir Thomas More since high school, studying Robert Bolt’s play about him. Thomas is a witness in courage, and in discernment. He didn’t seek conflict with King Henry VIII, when the monarch was wrestling with the Vatican; the two men were respectful friends. Thomas looked for ways to avoid opposing the King. When he discerned that to remain silent or acquiesce with the King’s plans would contravene the truth, Thomas spoke.  

How did he discern God’s will in extraordinarily trying circumstances? A reading of Thomas’ life reminds us he was a man of prayer and spiritual discipline; he had already well-developed spiritual muscles, and faith-filled eyes that could see God’s harmony in the midst of human chaos. We don’t suppose he walked perfectly with God every step of the way. But when the time came, he was able to stand in truth, as he saw it, even at the price first of his possessions, then imprisonment, and finally execution. He and John Fisher, beheaded two weeks before Thomas, teach us the power, and the risk, of faithful discernment.  

Their witness doesn’t stand alone. After Henry’s death, under Catholic Queen Mary, Thomas Cranmer (Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and architect of the Book of Common Prayer) was charged with treason for his defence of truth as he saw it. He recanted to avoid execution, but was still sentenced to burn at the stake. When the fire was lit, it’s said, he stretched out his right hand, which had signed the recantation, saying, “Burn this hand first.” His path of discernment can be respected by Catholics; just as the Anglican Church now honours, on July 6, both Thomas More and John Fisher. Political correctness didn’t subsume them, though they paid the highest price. All three struggled to engage their personal wills in a way that would be faithful to God’s creative will in their lives.

God doesn’t transgress our free will; but when we actively participate in His will, we can come to see more truly. Christ Himself is our guide. St. Maximos Confessor, in the seventh century, gave his life for the seemingly abstruse question of montheletism: did Christ have only one (divine) will, or a human will also? The Sixth Ecumenical Council answered the question: Christ has two wills, divine and human; but these two wills are in complete communion with each other. That’s our goal, too, that our wills be in harmony with God’s.  

So discernment doesn’t mean we stop willing. To kill the will in a person is to kill the soul. Discernment means letting God’s good will penetrate into every corner of our willful wills. Then we can follow Augustine’s intensely difficult but wonderful teaching: “Love, and do as you will.” For God’s will is the will of love, and as we become like God, our wills too become godly.

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca.)

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