The Christian tradition has always seen ‘discernment’ as central to the spiritual life, and not only in the sense of discovering what state of life God calls us to. In its Latin and Old French usage, the word discernment also referred to a process of separation by means of sifting: sifting through the many demands or claims on our attention to get right down to what is most important, so that we can organise our lives accordingly.
But this process of sifting also helps us discover the state of life God is drawing us to. Against the cacophony of modern life, we are called to tune out all the background noise so we can hear more clearly what God is saying to us.
So what kinds of challenges are posed to this kind of discernment by ‘the modern world’? And what are the remedies?
It’s easy to generalise about the challenges of the current moment without offering any concrete solutions, but since discernment is so central to Christian spirituality, it's worth exploring these challenges, and their possible remedies, in more depth. So in this, the first of a two-part series on this topic, we hear from two people who have given these questions considerable thought: Katherine Stone from the Missionaries of God’s Love Sisters reflects on some of the challenges for discernment in religious life today, and Fr Jerome Santamaria, Director of the Melbourne Vocations Office, considers two significant challenges and how we might begin to remedy them.
In Fr Jerome’s estimation, there are two main challenges when it comes to discernment. The first is environmental and the second has to do with role models.
‘By environmental challenge, I mean the challenge of finding the true context for discernment,’ he says. Discerning God’s will is our life’s primary task, but listening attentively requires a quiet disposition on our part. ‘The world is trying very hard to stop this from happening,’ he says. Echoing Mother Theresa, he suggests that today’s world is one in which we find ourselves ‘starved of silence’:
There are just so many claims on our attention. Indeed, much of our economy is based around claiming our attention, getting us to like, share, engage, swipe. Basically, we are in the business of distraction. Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God, but many other kingdoms are increasingly vying for our attention.
In the midst of this, we also need role models: people whose lives radiate joy, who live their vocation in such a way that it becomes a deeply attractive thing. ‘Who wants to imitate a miserable person?’ Fr Jerome asks. ‘We need people who think that Christianity, and their vocation in particular, is wonderful and so want to share it.’
This is especially challenging today, when the cultural environment can make people nervous about sharing their faith in Jesus, let alone their specific vocation. Yet, it’s only when we are able to share our joy freely, happily and without anxiety that our lives can become an attractive witness to the joys of serving the living God.
Not surprisingly, Fr Jerome regards prayer as the foundation of all discernment. For this reason, he believes, adopting a ‘rule of life’ can be very beneficial.
A basic rule of life is common to every religious community. Obviously, an individual wouldn't need anything as detailed as that, but a simple rule of life that aids prayer would include a few important ingredients: time spent in silence, for starters, quietening the distractions of modern life so that we can listen more easily.
It is also vital that people familiarise themselves with the Scriptures, he says, because that is ‘our family language and story’. And part of this rule must also be communal and liturgical, involving regular participation in the sacraments: ‘We need to know how our family operates and lives together.’
Finding a spiritual director—someone to guide and mentor us in our journey of faith—is also worthwhile, especially if they are older and with more experience in discerning the movements of God.
We should also have a commitment to grow in self-knowledge, to better understand our strengths and weakness, the people who inspire us and why. ‘A bit of bravery and common sense goes a long way,’ Fr Jerome thinks. ‘Ask people you admire what they did, how they got to where they are. Find patterns that you recognise in your own life.’
Katherine Stone is a sister with the Missionaries of God’s Love (MGL), a religious congregation with formation houses in Canberra and Melbourne, and missions in Sydney, Darwin, Indonesia and the Philippines.
From her perspective, a huge challenge of discernment to religious life in the modern era is simply that religious life is a lot less visible in society than it used to be. ‘Most people don’t grow up naturally seeing it as an option that they might discern,’ she says. One of the benefits of working so closely with youth and young adults, a particular charism of the MGLs, is that they are surrounded by people wearing the habit, living the vocation passionately and joyfully.
That means we’re already around in their lives, showing them that this is an option, when they’re ready to discern!
Another challenge relates to values: the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience are not ones that tend to appeal to the modern consciousness. Letting go of one’s possessions is rarely attractive in our acquisitive culture; people struggle to make sense of celibacy in an ‘over-sexualised’ world; and obedience seems unattractive in an era when a person’s independence and autonomy are valued far more highly than perhaps they were in the past.
However, ‘These things only become beautiful when we stop viewing them as negations,’ she says, ‘and see them in a positive light …
Poverty as a statement that there is no thing that can satisfy the human heart like the love of God; celibacy as a statement that there is no one that can satisfy the human heart like God can; and obedience as a recognition that there is no way that will fulfil us more than God’s way. But that requires the sort of relationship with God where you come to know him like that.
There is nothing more valuable in one’s discernment than ‘a healthy prayer life, built on a real and personal relationship with Jesus. If you love him and trust him and talk to him regularly, you’ll find that following where he leads comes pretty naturally.’
The idea is that with familiarity comes knowledge: the more time you spend with someone, the better you come to know their habits, their mannerisms, their body language—even their silence becomes telling if you know them well enough. Familiarity with the person of Jesus Christ, and how he speaks to us, is something that grows over time and with time spent in his presence.
Katherine Stone opened her life to the voice of Jesus and now she has the incredible privilege of sharing the Good News of God’s love with the world, surrounded by other women who are passionate about the same thing. This mission is the most important one in the world: to get people in touch with God’s infinite, absolute love. ‘It’s what the human heart is made for, and so many people don’t know it!’
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli06 October 2022
Melbourne Catholic06 October 2022