Tuesday, April 08, 2008

II Whatever Happened to Discretion?

Discretion has to do with preserving such a space where a creative, even salvific potential can emerge that is beyond what we could determine by self-conscious reason alone. Within this space is the possibility of harmonious integration of every aspect of our lives, a potential that is brought to bear on every decision to act or to refrain from acting. Within this space are silence, stillness, and waiting.

Jesus gives a perfect example of discretion when he is confronted with the woman taken in the very act of adultery. He is entirely aware of the many agendas that her accusers bring along with her. He knows that he holds someone’s life, perhaps many lives, in his hands. He is silent. He squats and writes in the dust. (Much ink has been spilled speculating on what he wrote, from doodles to the names of the mistresses of the accusers.)

But the accusers—“the devil” is “the accuser”—cannot bear Jesus’ silence. They try to force the issue and by doing so elicit one of the great rejoinders of all time. Jesus stands up. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (One hears, perhaps, a quiet, quizzical, ironic voice.) He squats again and resumes his writing. After the men have left, he stands to address the woman. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? . . . Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:7, 10-11, NRSV).

Jesus could have taken sides. He could have thrown the first stone to his political advantage. He could have blasted the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He could have allowed himself the short-term, personal gratification of inflaming petty factionalism for his own benefit. He could have ignored the woman after the men went away, which would have been proper protocol in his culture.

But Jesus’ discretion brings the resolution of the situation to a completely different and far more profound and relevant level. No one is condemned but no one can go away unashamed, either. By simply creating a space where all the resonances can refract off one another, Jesus has chosen to enable the potential for a greater good.


The present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has taken office at one of the most difficult periods of history for the Anglican Communion. He has set aside his own preferences to keep all sides talking and, more importantly, to try to get them truly to listen to one another. He has kept silence, eschewing empty public statements, when many thought he should have spoken in support of one faction or another. Instead of haranguing the rich provinces fighting over the spoils, for example, he quietly visited the Anglican Church in Sudan, which is fighting for its life.

Finally, after the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States elected a woman primate, [5] while in the same moment the Church of England was still debating whether it would allow women bishops at all, or even if a woman bishop was possible, Archbishop Williams deemed the moment appropriate to speak. But rather than promulgating a dictat, which in any event would have been inappropriate to the largely symbolic jurisdiction of his office, he issued, instead, some “reflections,” which amounted to neither a judgment, nor a proposal, nor a declaration. They were exactly what he said they were: reflections, no more, no less.

His rationale for this step became evident the following week in his opening address to the Synod of the Church of England, when he summed up his vision of Anglican unity:

"I make no secret of the fact that my commitment and conviction are given to the ideal of the Church Catholic. I know that its embodiment in Anglicanism has always been debated, yet I believe that the vision of Catholic sacramental unity without centralization or coercion is one that we have witnessed to at our best and still need to work at. That is why a concern for unity—for unity (I must repeat this yet again) as a means to living in the truth—is not about placing the survival of an institution above the demands of conscience, God forbid. It is a question of how we work out, faithfully, attentively, obediently what we need to do and say in order to remain within sight and sound of each other in the fellowship to which Christ has called us. It has never been easy and it isn’t now. But it is the call that matters, and that sustains us together in the task." [6]

Let’s look at the three adverbs he uses as key components of learning discretion—faithfully, attentively, obediently—because he is not using them casually but as they arise from a lifetime’s study of the history of these words in classical and Christian tradition.

“Faithfully” means going beyond our tightly held prejudices and opinions as to how the world should work, opinions that can reflect only a small and blinkered aspect of the truth, and which we should always regard as provisional as we wait in faith for a larger vision to be given. “Attentively” means not only listening but listening at a level of receptive responsiveness, allowing the words of the other to reach deeply into our hearts so that we may glimpse, however obliquely, their vast mystery, the mystery of the human person before us, which is as deep as the mystery of the God whose nature each of us shares.

“Obediently” draws us to its root sense of the listening of the heart that Christ teaches us and, by extension, the listening that is the foundation of monastic tradition. “Listen” is the first word in Benedict’s Rule; it implies a continually expanding self-knowledge, a heart that knows there is nothing, good or evil, of which it is not capable, a heart that longs for conversion from the conviction of its own judgment to the eternal perspective of the mind of a merciful God.

All three of these words point to a discretion that arises from a matrix of silence. “Sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything,” said Abba Moses, who of all the desert Abbas should know, having been black and suffered prejudice for it, but having persevered all the same in a life of silence and example—not excluding the occasional riposte, which is another aspect of discretion. [7] Discretion is also exemplified by Abba Abraham, who went to the brothel where his niece had immured herself after being raped. He paid the brothel keeper for her time, ostensibly for sex, but in reality to persuade her of her continuing worth as a human person no matter what she had suffered, and of God’s loving welcome, and his. [8]


[5] The American term for primate in the Episcopal Church is “Presiding Bishop.”

[6] The full address, as well as reflections that preceded it, can be found at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s website, www.archbishopofcanterbury.org.

[7] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward, SLG (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1975), 118.

[8] Benedicta Ward, SLG, Harlots of the Desert (London: Mowbray, 1987).


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