Tuesday, April 15, 2008

III Whatever Happened to Discretion?


Discretion cannot be taught; it is supremely mimetic; it is learned by example. This is especially clear in the discretion of the desert tradition. The monastic divides his or her time, more or less, half in the cell and half taking counsel with the elders, who, like Abba Moses and Abba Abraham, are exemplars of discretion. One learns from such people not so much by baring one’s thoughts, although this is often mentioned, but far more by absorbing the elders’ example through a kind of spiritual osmosis. The insights of the life are hard-won, unstructured, pretty much a hit-and-miss affair.

When one visits an elder, perhaps the light of charism is lit, perhaps it is not. Often the disciple lacks the discernment to recognize the light, much less the discretion to receive it. His mind is too full of his own ideas. The abba or amma may offer food or not, may allow the seeker to stay or not, will most likely not speak. On the other hand, the disciple may receive a word to do the best she can, to eat when she is hungry, and sleep when she is sleepy, and pray as she is able. On rare occasions, the disciple might be allowed to stay and imitate what the elder does in silence.

The desert tradition also reveals that discretion is not a skill; it is more like an art, the creation of an atmosphere where new connections can be made. It occasionally can be learned from abject failure, but only by looking honestly at that failure. If we are protected from our failures, if we are taught always to look for extenuating circumstances, to blame others and excuse ourselves, then discretion can become alien, frightening.

We instinctively seek security in what we know, in the closed tomb of our own looping ideas, no matter how flawed and confusing they are, no matter how much suffering they cause us. When crowding is familiar, space becomes scary; when noise assaults our ears in every waking hour, silence can seem enormous, even menacing. Yet our only true security is to be found in the resurrection of the silence of receptive waiting, in the spaciousness of God, which is the true wellspring of our lives and our truth.

Part of our problem today is that there are few models for discretion. People rarely hear the word anymore, and our go-getting commerce-oriented educational system teaches us to look for its exploitive opposite. The Archbishop’s discretion described above was not recognized as such even by most of his fellow clerics; indeed, religion today is not, generally speaking, a place where one would look for it. For the most part, religion has become indistinguishable from the culture, polarized between “extreme” (fundamentalism) on the one hand, and “whatever” (vague, fuzzy, warm feelings) on the other; or, more traditionally, between ideology and magic, credulity and cynicism. People are all too quick to regard their impulses as direct communication from God, or the latest “spiritual” fashion as the quick-fix way to what ends up being a twisted simulacrum of salvation. The cultivation of a pressure-free space where faith can grow without distortion appears to be a notion almost entirely foreign to contemporary religious hustle and bustle.


This state of affairs is nothing new. For example, the author of the fourteenth-century Cloud of Unknowing, a master of discernment, writes to a reluctant disciple:

"I say all this to let you see how far you still are from knowing truly your own interior dispositions; and second to give you warning not to surrender to nor to follow too quickly, in inexperience, the unusual movements of your heart, for fear of illusion. I say all this to explain to you what my opinion is of you and your stirrings, as you have asked me. For I feel that you are over inclined and too eagerly disposed toward these sudden impulses for extraordinary practices, and very swift to seize upon them when they come. And that is very dangerous ." [9]

How far this mentality is from the twenty-first century “if it feels good, do it” attitude that often passes for discernment; from the carnival atmosphere of exotic practices for sale in the spiritual marketplace; from narcissistic self-regard or fatuous, overconfident claims of biblical inerrancy and literalism; from thundering condemnations of other human beings for the way God happens to have made them—all such indiscreet activities masking, of course, agendas of power and self-promotion.

"[The devil] [2] will sometimes change his likeness into that of an angel of light, in order that, under the color of virtue, he may do more mischief. . . . He persuades very many to embrace a special type of holiness above the common law and custom of their state of life. The signs of it are . . . devout observances and forms of behavior, and openly reproving the faults of other men when they have no authority for it. He leads them on . . . always under the pretext of devotion and charity; not because he takes any delight in works of devotion or of charity, but because he loves dissention and scandal… ." [11]

The Cloud author shows us the source of destructive religious dissentions in our own day. It is a mentality that arises from the sloth (medieval people would say “fornication”) of indiscretion. He is perhaps glossing Matthew 12:34–35: “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure” (NRSV).

In every age, religious demagogues are quick to condemn people and situations of which they not only have no understanding but which they also choose not to understand. This deliberate closing of the mind is not only culpable; it exposes bitter, narrow hearts that lust for power. Their judgmentalism is at the root of much of the evil abroad in today’s world.

"If . . . grace is ever to be won, it must be taught from within, of God, when you have yearned longingly after him for many a day with all the love of your heart, and by emptying out from your inward beholding every sight of anything beneath [that is, other than God] him; and this even though some of those things that I bid you empty out should seem in the sight of some to be very worthy means whereby to come to God. . . . For to him who wishes to achieve his spiritual purpose, the actual awareness of the good God alone suffices as the means along with a reverent stirring of lasting love. He needs no other." [12]

If we are to recover discretion in our lives and in our world before our heedlessness makes our planet unihabitable at any level—physical, moral, or spiritual— this is where we must begin: with silent, receptive awareness, “the hidden love offered in purity of spirit,” which is God’s working in us. [13] But we face a herculean task. To merely begin, even to attempt to alter our knee-jerk response of anesthetizing our sin and pain long enough to allow this working to begin in us requires an extreme cultural ascesis.

To make space for God means examining every daily pressure to which we are exposed, from within our selves or which we receive from others, allowing each to fall away unexercised. It is in this pressure-free space that discretion is born. This space is not “my space” but a space in which the mystery of the other and of our selves takes on a far greater significance; a space where God’s working may perhaps find a way of sorting things out beyond human limitation; a space where we may learn the discretion of doing “only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way.”


Editor’s Note: This article is closely related to “The Space of Prayer” forthcoming in the July/August 2007 issue of Weavings.
[NB "The Space of Prayer" will soon be published in this blog.]


[9] The Assessment of Inward Stirrings [original Middle English title: A Pistle of Discrecioun of Stirings] in The Pursuit of Wisdom, trans. and ed. James A. Walsh, SJ, (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1988), 137.

[10] The Cloud author makes clear that “the devil” is shorthand for “the spirit of the flesh and the spirit of the world,” which arises from the human heart. The Discernment of Spirits [original Middle English title: A Tretis of Discrescyon of Spirites], in The Pursuit of Wisdom, 110.

[11] The Pursuit of Wisdom, 111.

[12] Assessment of Inward Stirrings, 141-42, emphasis mine. It should be noted here that “love” refers to the faculty of knowing God. See The Cloud of Unknowing, particularly chapters 4 and 6.

[13] A Letter of Private Direction [Middle English title: The Book of Privy Counselling] in The Pursuit of Wisdom, 234-35.


Post a Comment

<< Home