Sunday, December 9, 2018

Helping One Another to "Discern What is of Value"

"And this is my prayer:
that your love may increase ever more and more
in knowledge and every kind of perception,
to discern what is of value,
so that you may be pure and blameless
for the day of Christ,
filled with the fruit of righteousness
that comes through Jesus Christ
for the glory and praise of God."

~Philippians 1:9-11  .

This beautiful New Testament text is rich in meaning for daily life, and also gives broader indications for the Christian vocation in the Church and in the midst of the world.

Saint Paul prays that the love of the Philippians might increase "ever more and more" with knowledge and, indeed, with "every kind of perception" so that they might carry out a very crucial task: "to discern what is of value" in life and thereby bring forth "the fruit of righteousness."

There is much to be learned from meditation on this text. Jesus tells us, "Do not judge" and this is crucial, because each person belongs to God, and God alone knows their heart, their degree of moral responsibility, and His own plans to draw them to Himself.

But it is something different to practice "discernment." By the grace of the Spirit, and reason enlightened by faith and vivified by love, we can engage concrete realities in our own lives and give guidance to others (above all those entrusted to our care in various ways).

We are called, and given the grace, to discern "what is of value" as we journey through life. This is certainly important for our own lives. But it also suggests one important component of how we look at others and even the world at large. It's easy for us to fall into a pattern of looking at other people and trying to see what's wrong with them. We are inclined to search for their faults and for ways of behaving that are objectively sinful, then to reduce their identity to these negatives, and judge them rashly in our hearts (if not in our gossip-filled conversation).

Discernment, however, takes a different approach when looking at others. It is not blind to their faults and gives full weight to the hindrances of sin in their lives (knowing well enough how sin hinders all of us), but it does this within a larger perspective, as only one part of a broader focus.

Discernment seeks out "what is of value" in a person's life; it tries to discover (as much as possible, with great humility and respect for the person) where God is working to draw forth or enrich their heart's desire for goodness and beauty, their soul's search for truth and wisdom.

Discernment requires us to listen to the person, to allow them to talk about themselves and tell their story. It not only listens to their speech but also watches the way they treat others and the way that reality fascinates them and draws them beyond themselves. It looks for signs of how and where God is working. This is not to imply that such "signs" are going to be easy to find or to understand—God's action is essentially hidden, but by listening to a person's own words, to their story, and watching the way they respond in ordinary situations, discernment can at least gain some useful insights and learn something about "who they are" and "what matters to them" in life.

Then, in a crucial part of the process, discernment asks in prayer, "Lord, how do you want me to foster your work in this person's life? How can I be your instrument to build up the good, or at least to enliven and increase the desire for the good in them, so that they might draw closer to you?"

What kind of graces does a person hope to receive in this prayer? They seek graces associated with fraternal charity and the spiritual works of mercy, and for help in using the virtue of prudence elevated and further enlightened by the Gift of the Holy Spirit called "counsel."

Of course, some people may have a more particular gift, a "charism," for grasping the concrete good and helping others to see it more clearly and move toward it. A gift for discernment makes a person helpful to others. It is not a licence to be obtrusive, nor does it bestow psychic powers to read minds and predict the future.

Let me be clear: it is extremely rare for a person to have the extraordinary charism of "reading souls," and that is not what discernment aims for in any case. Ordinarily a person who claims such power should be avoided, especially in light of recent disasters in the Church caused by situations where the "cult of personality" dominated the interior lives of others. Genuine Christian relationships should enrich and deepen the experience of freedom as a gift from God that inheres in the inviolable core of every person.

The stories of a saint like Padre Pio "reading souls" have some measure of credibility in the context of his whole extraordinary life. Such stories are particular episodes that have been reported among many other remarkable occurrences. Padre Pio himself was a rare kind of saint, a wonderworker whose extraordinary charisms were bestowed on him for the good of the Church and the service of his brothers and sisters (and please note well: acknowledging the credibility of these remarkable gifts does not mean endorsing as true every story or rumor that circulates about Padre Pio on the internet).

Above all, Padre Pio was a saint, a man who loved God and human beings and whose holiness of life drew people to seek him out. He did not "advertise" his special gifts and he always humbly submitted to restrictions imposed by ecclesiastical authorities (even when they weren't fair). He called himself "a poor friar who prays," and his biggest "external" aspiration and concern was the building of a very special hospital called the "Home for the Relief of Suffering." He never wrote a book. He never went on a speaking tour. We have his own words from discrete correspondence. His humility was profound.

This digression about Saint Padre Pio (and certain misconceptions that might try to cite him as an example) is intended to point out that in seeking discernment we don't seek these kind of extraordinary powers. We seek to open our minds and hearts to the delicate breeze, the "still, small voice" of the Holy Spirit who works among us, and for a strengthening of practical reasoning informed by faith and assisted by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. With reference to others, discernment aims to serve them by helping them (without any kind of psychological manipulation, with profound respect for their freedom) to discern God's will in their life. Also, it entails helping to build up and nurture in them the love of whatever draws them closer to God, whatever is truly "of value" in them insofar as we are given to recognize it.

Obviously discernment is concerned with sinful behavior and never approves of evil. But by calling on God, being attentive, and loving what is good—what is "of value" here and now in a person's life—a discerning approach seeks to help the person in their particular struggle with evil, their need to resist sin. "Admonishing the sinner," even in the most basic rhetorical sense, requires attention to what might really be a useful or even comprehensible warning for a person. Genuine discernment will allow more space for God to shape a necessary admonition to the need of a particular person and to His grace.

Beyond that, however, a discerning approach can open us up to being instruments of God in building up, supporting, and serving one another on the journey we are making together toward our final fulfillment in Him. We are united as members of one Body in Jesus Christ.

He wants to give us abundant graces to help one another. There is no need for some artificial structure here, no need for special meetings where people sit around criticizing one another or making rash claims that "God told them that you need to do x or y." No, that quickly becomes a strange and manipulative situation.

The terms used to describe our relationship in Christ are "brothers and sisters." We can exercise discernment as we seek together "what is of value" within the connections and bonds that develop organically among Christ's members.

The relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ remain human relationships that grow in particular places and along the various and sometimes bumpy roads of human communities. They require the appropriate regard for the dignity of persons that allows space for the development of genuine and mature human friendships.

"Friendship in Christ" must not be a label we misuse or devalue. It is real human friendship informed by Christian love. Friends can help one another in the work of discerning God's will, by a humble but very real charism of the Holy Spirit that takes shape within the friendship as a human reality—a reality that is all the more profoundly human in the measure in which it is imbued by grace. Christian friendship is the life of faith vitally realized within a genuine human friendship; it is warm and familiar (in different ways, and not without the flaws and quirks that characterize all human things); it is respectful, trustworthy, well grounded, open beyond itself, and inserted into the life of the local and universal Church. It is the foretaste of a communion of persons destined to last forever.

Indeed, such friendship is in itself a thing of great value.