From the Archives: On Being Too Precious About Discernment

This article originally appeared on Dec 8, 2014

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
--  (Julius Caesar, Act 4 Scene 3)

Today we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception. I trust your priest has done an adequate job of reminding you that it is Mary's and NOT Our Lord's conception to which the feast refers. Defined by Pius IX in his Ineffabilis Deus of 1854, the Immaculate Conception is a relatively recent doctrine, compared, let us say, with the Council of Ephesus' declaration of her to be Theotokos (Mother of God) in 431.


But I want to bring your attention to the young saint, Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879), whose visions of a lady in a grotto in 1858––less than four years after Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception––helped foster a devotion and love of this doctrine. To Bernadette, as to all within the church until the last three or four decades, the term discernment referred not to a process but to a skill in our soul.

Discernment, to Bernadette, could not take more than an instant. The senses provide the soul with phenomena. The imagination relates this to previous sensory experiences to form a picture. If trained properly, the imagination will do this quickly and accurately.

We practice discernment all the time. Am I to drink a gin and tonic or martini at this cocktail party? Do I wear the green or the blue tie with this suit? Should I switch lanes now or wait until after the next signal? Discernment––the imagination's readiness to judge well and quickly––does not come about through repeating the same judgement over and over again. And if we truly wanted to train ourselves to discern in serious matters, we would do well to read great works of literature rather than attend discernment retreats. Homer, Vergil, and Dante invite our imaginations to step outside our selves and enter into decisions of great weight and magnitude.

Believe it or not, your choice whether to become a priest, religious, consecrated virgin, layperson, is not the most important choice in your life. Your perseverance in that choice every day is.

When we wrangle and set ourselves on endless strings of novenas, we are precious and self-absorbed. And we are never so sure to doubt our happiness or resolution as when we spend days and weeks considering our own state.

Discernment is not a year-long process. Discernment is not a sacrament, a sacramental, or a spirituality. By making it a period of adolescence marked by being overly precious about ourselves, we have forgotten that discernment is a skill to practice every moment of our life.

As Hamlet says, the readiness is all...

And the readiness in little Bernadette Soubirous was all.


Beer and Book: "Loose Leaf" [Odell Brewing Company] & Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibilty

Following Bo Bonner's excellent invention, I will conclude with a drink recommendation. But I will try to pair your drink with a literary dish as well. Today, I recommend Odell Brewing Company's Loose Leaf. As with discernment, the readiness is all with this brew. With strong hops mixed with fruity tones from the green leaf infusion, it is heavenly when properly judged by itself. The subtle hint of tea in the Loose Leaf will put you in the proper British mood for Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility--the novel I would most recommend for those who wish to conceive of how discernment is a educable part of the soul.