Discernment: It’s one of those words you are probably very familiar with if you grew up in the Catholic faith and one you’ve probably never heard of if you didn’t. In recent years, I’ve grown very wary of this word. People throw around the word like they should be discerning every life choice. “I’m not sure if I should apply to the program, I have to discern. I’m discerning if this is the right college for me. We are discerning a relationship.” These casual references to discernment, however, detract from the real meaning. Even more than that, I’ve found myself truly frustrated with those people who use ‘discerning’ as a way to push off a commitment or a decision. Several times I’ve heard that discernment is a Catholic’s way to make procrastination seem okay. At the same time, however, discernment is a process that is taught and endorsed by the Catholic Church, so shouldn’t we support it? Well, that depends on the definition and context of discernment.
Discernment can be defined in so many different ways. We can consider spiritual discernment, vocational discernment, career discernment or everyday discernment just to name a few. Digging deeper, we can even consider different approaches to discernment, most notably Ignatius discernment. With all the different types of discernment, however, the most important aspect remains the same, and that is to be acting in accordance with God’s will. Sounds easy, right?
In a conversation with Ed Mack who works with students at ND seeking guidance in discernment, and quite an expert on the subject, he noted that the two most vital things in a discernment process are honesty and prayer: honesty, especially with yourself, and prayer, taking time out of your day and in your decision process to spend time with God. It seems like nearly everyone has a different opinion on how to go about the discernment process, with all of their suggestions including finding peace in your decision. Again, this doesn’t sound super simple, so let’s break it down.
What does it mean to be honest with yourself? Well, this should be the easy part -- if we just eliminate all the influences constantly surrounding us. Unfortunately, that’s generally impossible to achieve. So what do we do? Maybe we give up. Or maybe we first try to be honest with ourselves; are we simply using this discernment period to delay a decision or are we truly struggling with what is the right decision? And then we find those people in our lives who we can always talk to. Those people who will allow us to talk through our decisions and offer advice that we value. Our family and friends often know us best and if they’re true friends, they’ll support us in decisions we think are best for us and will push us to do better when we go down a wrong path. So talk to a friend, a spiritual director, a priest, or Ed Mack! (His office is in CoMo right by the ball floating in water and he is quite open to students dropping by whenever.)
Praying also seems like an easy task. We’ve all been taught how to pray at some point in our lives. However, when we think about finding peace with our decision through prayer, we immediately come up against the question of, how do we know if we’ve found peace? What does that mean? The problem with starting discernment in this way is that if we’ve never known or felt peace, how will we recognize if we are at peace with our decision? As a result, in addition to Ed Mack’s two criteria, I would add a third: if we have never felt peace in our lives, most importantly in our prayer lives, we must learn what it means for us to be at peace. This perhaps is the hardest piece of the puzzle – knowing that we have come to the right decision.
In his most recent interview with America magazine, Pope Francis offered some wisdom on the process of discernment. He said, “Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later…I am always wary of decisions made hastily. I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have to make a decision. This is usually the wrong thing. I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time. The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong.”
The process of discernment takes time and generally relates to big decisions in our lives. We need to be patient in these decisions, but also ready to take the first step. God works with each one of us in a unique way, all we have to do is listen and follow.