Monday, April 28, 2008

The Space of Prayer

[Originally published in "Weavings", July/August 2007]

Once upon a time there was a terrible drought. The crops failed, the livestock died, the people were in misery. As the drought grew worse, they tried increasingly desperate measures. The shamans danced and banged pots, the priests made offerings to the gods, and the children went on pilgrimage to the mountains. A few individuals even shot arrows at a stray cloud, hoping to pierce the membrane that held back the water, or so they thought. Any charlatan who came along claiming to be able to make rain fall was hired to try. Always the outcome was the same: he would take the money and run.

One day the villagers spied a beggar trudging down the road, leaning on his stick. “Go away old man,” they said. “We don’t have any food and water for ourselves, much less for the likes of you. And we’re not hiring any more so-called rainmakers.”

Unperturbed, the old man said, “Keep your food and drink, and your money. But if you will loan me a hut for three days and leave me in peace, who knows, something good may come of it.”

So the villagers showed the beggar to a spacious if somewhat smelly chicken shed, whose clucking inhabitants had long since succumbed in the pounding heat, and the old man shut himself in. The villagers thought him mad and went their separate ways, muttering about the drought making people crazy, and who was going to pull the corpse out when the three days were over, and whether they should just burn the shed without opening it. But the novelty soon wore off, and one by one the villagers sank into the lassitude and despair that are the foretaste of death.

Two more stifling days passed. No one gave a thought to the old man; there was not even enough energy to curse with the curses of those who have been disappointed one too many times.

But on the third morning everyone awoke at almost the same moment. Something was different. The people came slowly out of their houses, wondering. A breeze so slight as to be barely perceptible caressed their faces. As they stood there, stunned with disbelief, the air itself began to change, becoming thick with humidity. Clouds piled up. Energy gathered until the atmosphere crackled with lightning. The people covered their ears, laughing at the tremendous booms of thunder and the rain pouring down in just the right quantity.

“But where is the old beggar?” asked a small boy who had been intrigued that anyone would want to be shut in a chicken shed whose stench never quite left him after he cleaned it each month. Everyone ran to the shed. The door was open, the beggar gone.

“There!” cried the boy, running after a speck limping toward the horizon. Everyone pelted after him.

“Old man!” the village headman called, gasping with exertion when the crowd finally caught up, “Don’t leave us! We will make you king; we will feed and house you and give you such treasures as we have.”

“Thank you,” said the beggar, “but as you can see I have no use for kingship or treasures. As for food and drink, the fields and creatures supply me, and water falls from heaven.”

“But if you won’t stay with us,” the headman wheedled, “please tell us your magic so that we can make it rain when there is another drought.”

“There is no magic,” replied the beggar, “and I am no sorcerer. The rain is always with you. But if you fill your world with too much activity and too much noise, if you cut all the trees and plough your fields relentlessly, the rain cannot gather itself from its hiding places to make a storm. All I did was to inhabit an empty space where the rain could find its focus and fall on its own terms.”

[To be continued]

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sermon for Mansfield College, Oxford [February 27, 2008]

"The Church is like a swimming pool: all the noise is at the shallow end." —Robert Runcie

Tonight's remarks may seem a bit strange because I am going to use a minimum of religious language, most of which, in my view, has become useless. It's not very hard to understand why this has happened. Religion is not about believing seven impossible things before breakfast; it is a series of metaphors about the work of silence and the relationship of silence to speech and behaviour. Religion and its language become bent out of shape if the people using the metaphors, making the rules and writing the doctrine do not practice silence.

One of the main reasons for this distortion is that there is a fundamental disconnect between the authentic work of silence, which is organic and focuses away from itself, and speech, which can only ever be dualistic and self-regarding. Religious language becomes distorted when silence is no longer the ground from which it emerges and to which it returns. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, the institutional church effectively banned silence, and since then has progressively become the kingdom of noise. Until it recovers silence as its context, goal and primary tool of interpretation in everything it does and everything it teaches, institutional religion cannot reform itself, understand its own texts, or help us in our times of crisis.

So tonight I am going to try to give you a nano-course in the work of silence that will help you in every aspect of your lives if you will simply sit down and make room for it. If you wonder why your work isn't going well, why you feel anxious, why emotional pain guts you and seems to go on forever, why you seem to have two left feet, and most of all, why you seek a way to blot it all out, then the work of silence is your best resource. It's simple, it's free, and it works. It doesn't mean your problems will go away, but you will be able to deal with them much more easily; the effects of trauma will disappear more quickly; exams and tutorials will be less frightening. Most of all, if you pursue the work of silence even for six months, your life will change dramatically, and if you persist you will find the joy that no one and nothing can take from you, no matter what happens.

I'm going to sketch it out, and then we're going to have five minutes of silence.

Silence is normative for the human person. Think about it: humans have been around for about 2 million years. For most of that time, our core silence enabled us to survive in the wilderness. We haven't lost this gift; it's the reason we are riveted by wildlife programmes on TV because as we watch the animals' core silence at work in relating to each other and the environment, we are looking at our own lost nature.

From the 11th century on, a rising tide of dialectic—and this university is founded on dialectic—coupled with the growing secular power of the church drowned the inheritance of the first thousand years of Christianity, which was more about the resurrection of the mind through the body than that of the body alone.

At this time, silence was as essential to education as the ABC. It was understood that silence helped to structure the mind. But the deaths of Aquinas and Bonaventure in the late 13th century mark the beginning of the end of scholarship that understood the relationship between silence and speech, and in 1310 Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake for writing a psychologically accurate account of the work of silence, refusing to degrade it into the pious clichés of the clergy.

Let's get practical. Without silence we lose our humanity. Life and language get flat and one dimensional—life imitating not art but cartoons. Without silence, we cannot hear how words resonate psychologically, how they are layered and laterally connected—this is especially true if you have an iPod in your ears while you're studying. You may think it's helping you to focus, but it's in fact confining you to only one very narrow frequency of a feedback loop. (On the other hand, if you chew gum while you revise, your memory may improve as much as 40%.)

Shared silence is essential to deep relationships; you can read another's heart by using your own silence to read theirs. In addition, relationships that seem irrevocably damaged can often be reconciled by sitting in silence together.

You don't have to be a psychologist or a philosopher to understand how the mind works in silence. As that 14th century misogynist, Jean Gerson, observed, even women and idiots can arrive at the highest forms of contemplation. Anyone who observes their mind can understand some basic things about it.

The most superficial level is characterized by noise. There is the observing I/eye which comments on everything and can make us really miserable. There is the swirl of data coming in, which is distorted even before we register it at the second level of interpretation as "experience"—and it's important to remember that all experience is interpretation. There is something called "identity" which is a pastiche of what we surmise (usually wrongly) other people think of us, what we think of them, of ourselves and any number of other red herrings. In other words, in its ordinary state, this first level of the mind is a mess and without silence it is out of this mess that we try to deal with the day-to-day world. No wonder our lives are chaotic.

It doesn't have to be this way. There are ways to get beyond the noise to give your mind enough breathing space to sort things out. In fact, forgetting the mind for a moment, if you can simply train your body to sit upright in a chair, perfectly relaxed and perfectly motionless for thirty minutes, you will acquire an unshakeable interior stability to which you can always resort.

To include the mind, turn your eyes toward the space between your eyebrows, or look at a point in the middle distance from beneath lowered lids. Count your exhalations up to ten and start again; alternatively, you can follow a word into the silence. Allow all expectation to fall away; rest in the breath.

But meditation is only one way into silence, just the first step. You have to feed the silence with good things. There's a bit of the "garbage in garbage out" factor here. It's not that you can't get rid of the garbage—violent images, sado-masochistic pornography and the rest—but such images take longer to dissolve. Alcohol is also problematic: for every unit you drink you will have a day when meditation feels like swimming through mushy peas. But if you meditate, drink becomes irrelevant.

Other good things can come from images, texts, even smells, as Proust reminds us. Any of these, like a vast Alaska landscape, can focus your attention away from that pesky observing, commenting I/eye. You can learn to read sacred texts like Mary Poppins and Bert stepping into sidewalk chalk drawings. In other words, you can learn to read them for their "gaps" and for the paradoxical images that momentarily stop the mind that bridge the abyss between linear language and organic silence. These gaps open into silence. You can learn to fall through them into stillness.

Good liturgy, leisurely liturgy, can also be helpful to silence, accompanied by appropriate music and texts that are read slowly with understanding, with plenty of time to reflect. The rule of thumb for liturgy is every true sacred sign effaces itself. Good religion takes us always beyond itself, beyond the interpretations we call "experience" into the imageless, wordless silence, which becomes a fountain of new life.

What's going on in the silence? First of all, the mind functions in a series of narratives, paradoxes and reversals. Religious texts are written with narratives, paradoxes and reversals to mirror the working of the mind. For example, we have to forget in order to remember and we have to remember in order to forget. Scientific research has confirmed that we have to "sleep" on what we learn, that those Greek verbs you've been memorizing won't seat themselves until you've let them go out of conscious thought for a while.

Or take the phenomenon of the word on the tip of your tongue. You have no chance of recovering the word unless you forget both what you can't remember and that you are trying to remember, and even then there is no guarantee it will be given back to you. This sort of forgetting without expectation or guarantee is a good example of what religious people call "faith" but it's operative in scientists too, no matter what they want to call it, for the phenomenon is universal. On the other hand, if you're recovering from a traumatic experience, you have to remember it, look at it objectively, and stare at it until it dissolves.

In other words, there's part of the mind over which we have no direct control. We can access it only indirectly, but it will work for us in a positive way if we let it. I call it transfigurative silence. In this part of the mind, all the signs by which we live are mutated, reshuffled and reintegrated into something creatively new.

You can use this transfigurative silence to help you write essays. Say you get the assignment on Monday. Think about it for a few moments, then consign it to the silence as you go to your next appointment. During the week, phrases may start to flicker though the back of your mind; pressure will start to build up. When you sit down to write, you may find the essay partially formed or even almost finished, often with information or connections you had no idea you knew. This process works for any kind of problem solving. The more you use it, the more fruitful and efficient it becomes.

We can enter transfigurative silence more profoundly in one-pointed meditation. During this process it seems that all thoughts fall away as the mind comes to a single focus and then—if we are lucky—beyond this focus into perfect attention.

But while it may seem that the thoughts are forgotten, they are in fact falling into transfigurative silence. Within it, all the perceptions by which we live—data, emotions, traumas, interpretations, what we call "experience,"—are changed, and our lives are given back to us clarified, healed, a new creation. To use religious language for a moment, we must lose our life—our pseudo-life—to gain the real one. While it may seem that we go from one frustrating meditation to another, thinking that not much is going on and there's only noise in our heads, six months faithful practice for as little as half an hour a day can change your life.

The more you do the work of silence, the more the deep, core silence will be the wellspring from which you live. Among other benefits, this means that engagement with life no longer feels like our identity is putting on and taking off Hallowe'en costumes as we move from one context to another.

The work of silence enables us to live the truth of our selves. It's hidden within this core silence. The Hallowe'en costumes are constructs. In Salinger's language, the construct we call identity is a phony. The final paradox is that we can never know our own truth, we can only live it. When we say to someone, "Don't be so self-conscious; just be yourself," we're saying, don't look at the construct we call identity, focus completely on the task at hand and let the chips fall. It's only when we look away from our selves that we can live our own truth; "who loses life shall gain it." To put this into God language, God wants your phoniness so he can give you your truth.

Over time, if you persist with the practice of silence, you will not only engage the world from the depths and clarity of that truth, you will become whole, autonomous, incoercible, and your own interior state will cease to be of much interest. You will lose the fear of death. This is a highly subversive way to live: as Archbishop Tutu is fond of saying, "If governments knew how subversive contemplation is, they would ban it."

So now let's let the silence woo us, seduce us for a few minutes. Sit straight in your chair with your feet on the floor and your hands flat on your thighs. Close your eyes and turn them toward the space between your eyebrows, or focus into the middle distance. Take a couple of deep breaths, and then start counting your exhalations up to ten, at which point start counting at one again. Relax into it. Or choose a word or phrase such as "Jesus mercy" and simply repeat it slowly in the rhythm of your breath. If you get distracted, just gently return to counting or to the word. Your breathing will slow naturally as you follow the counting or the word into the silence. That's all there is to it. But remember, it's only a beginning. If you do the work of silence, you will find great riches and joy beyond measure even in the midst of pain, but always we must start where we are.


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.

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,

[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).

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Whatever Happened to Discretion?

[Originally published in Weavings, May-June 2007]

To write about discretion today seems almost subversive. In an age when we now must legislate behavior that used to be recognized as common decency, the constituent adjectives of discretion are seditious: courteous—in Middle English, the word has theological overtones of God’s graciousness—modest, unobtrusive, reticent, patient, humble (that is, seeing things exactly as they are), unflinchingly honest and disinterested (both of which require commitment), responsive, supple, patient—all in service of something other than self.


To try to understand what has gone wrong, what we have lost, and how we might take steps to remedy the situation, we need to look briefly at the history and context of this word. [1] We cannot understand discretion apart from its companion, “discernment,” for in antiquity they were the same word, discretio, and were considered inseparable. They were two sides of a coin: judgment or discernment of the truth, and the ability to act appropriately according to that truth.

Before the eleventh century, students were taught not only how to construct an argument, but also how to understand the difference between what was true and false, particularly within themselves. It was only then that they were taught rhetoric, the art of persuasion by which they learned to convince others to act on what they themselves had already come to believe to be true. [2]

In our day, however, we have not only split discernment from discretion, we also have emphasized discursive reasoning almost to the exclusion of other ways of knowing. Discernment has to do with perception, with discovering how one thing differs from another. This perception is not confined to linearity but engages our subtle senses, intuition, and a sorting-out process that lies beneath our everyday awareness. Although today the word “discernment” is often substituted for “discretion,” the two words are not the same.

Discernment does not entail discretion. To substitute the word “discernment” for “discretion” eliminates the notion that there might be additional factors outside the discerning process that determine wise choice. We may see perfectly well the difference between good, questionable, or bad options (discernment), but because we commonly make choices based on short-term gratification, not to mention the frisson that comes from doing something contrary, we frequently cast discretion to the winds, if indeed we pause to think at all.

Discretion ponders choice of action—or, more frequently, non-action. It determines how we decide to use or not to use what we have discerned. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, Ged the mage says, “It is much act than to refrain from acting....[Do] nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble...; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way.” [3]

Discretion entails and elaborates discernment. It has two potentially conflicting meanings, according to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary: “Deciding as one thinks fit,” and—outrageous to an in-your-face culture—“being discreet, discernment, prudence, judgment.” Even more startling, it defines the word “discreet” as: “judicious, prudent; circumspect in speech or action; unobtrusive.”


The notion of discretion figures prominently in every religion. Perhaps the most nuanced presentation is the Tao Te Ching, a collection of Chinese texts that span some eight hundred years before the Christian era. The Tao is about “the middle way” and had its counterpart in the West, known as the “royal road” derived from Numbers 20:17: “[We] will go by the king’s high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left” (KJV).

But this middle way is not to be confused with the “golden mean” of geometry. Nor is it a “place” on a continuum. It is a space apart. Not only will the extremes of our behavioral options on the continuum war against each other, they will also try to obviate the possibility of our escape to what Aristotle called the space where virtue is found. [4]


[1] I am grateful to C. A. Conway for some historical observations.

[2] Today we equate rhetoric with “spin.” But in the world of the Bible and in the medieval world, rhetoric was the means by which you established your relationship to the truth, both for yourself and in your interaction with the community. This task of learning rhetoric was moral and ethical, and pertained especially to the care with which you constructed your memory, so that what came out of your mouth would be both truthful and pertinent to the situation being addressed. The care with which you thought and spoke determined how others judged your character. This was, at least theoretically, the foundation of politics. See the marvelous books on memory by Mary Carruthers, especially The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Religion is political in the best sense of ancient rhetoric; and the Bible, especially the New Testament, can be understood as a collection of rhetorical documents by authors who have discerned the truth and write “so that [we] may believe.” In other words, the Bible gives us difficult material in a form digestible to our memories and on which we can extemporize in an inventive and relevant way in any given situation. See Carruthers, The Craft of Thought, 1–9 especially.

[3] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore (London: Bantam, 1969), 67.

[4] We might think of this space as the center of the Christian paradox where resurrection is found. See “The Space of Prayer” forthcoming in the July/August 2007 issue of Weavings, and my Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity , reissued by Seabury Press in 2007.