Discernment: The third rule is prayer
In the latter part of 2020, I began a discussion of how we find our vocation and even choose our lesser missions, purposes, activities and goals as our lives unfold, and I offered a first and second Rule of Discernment:
- The First Rule of Discernment is to recognize and obey what the LORD tells us to do through the Church. [Discernment: The First Rule]
- The Second Rule of Discernment is that every gift we have is to be used for God’s glory. [Second Rule of Discernment (or) How we rescue the Church]
Once we observe these two rules, we ensure two very important outcomes. On the one hand, we approach every problem from the right perspective. On the other, we set definite limits to how far we can go wrong. To go further, one could study something like the Ignatian rules for discernment, or the works of other great saints on this delicate subject. But I also note that mere knowledge of these rules has done little to preserve anyone, including St. Ignatius’ own Society of Jesus, from worldly temptations. This is because every methodology fails without a consistent habit of sincere prayer.
The Third Rule
This was both implicit and explicit in rules one and two. I was not indulging in an effusion of saccharine piety when I stated, as part of the second rule, that God gradually brings us to know what we must do “through an authentically Catholic life of prayer”. Moreover, I had already written in discussing the first rule that “It takes a lifetime of prayer to grow proficient in discerning God’s particular will among a variety of morally acceptable options in daily life.” Clearly, it is not possible to follow rules one and two without prayer and, lest this be overlooked, it is perhaps best to state the need for prayer as a third rule.
Of course, we could just as easily start with the life of prayer as the first rule, which must be protected by what I described as rules one and two (which would shift up to rules two and three). For convenience, however, I will continue with the first two rules as I outlined them, but with the immediate caveat that these rules cannot bear genuine fruit without rule three, which focuses specifically on prayer. Thus the Third Rule of Discernment is that the habit of ongoing prayer is essential so that God has a chance to guide us interiorly in the way He wants us to go.
Or as St. Paul advised the Thessalonians:
Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. [1 Thes 5:15-18]
This citation highlights both the spirit and the practice of Christian prayer. I should add that a genuine life of personal prayer for the Catholic includes two other components: First, regular participation in the formal sacramental life of the Church; and, second, an openness to sound spiritual direction, as a check against self-deception. This “openness to direction” must usually be cultivated naturally if it is to develop supernaturally, simply because the virtue of humility plays a huge role in it. In any case, such openness to direction serves in the life of prayer as a safeguard against the deficiencies of our own personalities and character, which can lead us to make discernment more about us than about God.
Note, however, that I define “spiritual direction” somewhat loosely here, as a way of highlighting the supreme importance of spiritual listening. This listening is a principal component of prayer, including the prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture. But to develop the habit of listening within prayer it must be cultivated also outside of prayer, and this can take a variety of forms: Formal direction with a sound confessor; careful attention to the suggestions and observations of one’s spouse; discussions with other good Catholics whom we have reason to admire and trust; and spiritual reading or attendance at spiritual conferences, including retreats. Each person, over time, will develop his or her own approach, which includes more than one of these forms of spiritual listening as important components.
I daresay it is even important to learn to slow down and effectively listen in our discussions with those we regard as wrong or even sinful. Every form of listening is an act of humility, which leads to insight that reaches beyond ourselves. Bringing this back to prayer, silences in which we truly listen will become more frequent, and more fruitful for discernment over time.
In a world in which even spirituality has been redefined as either “left” or “right”, the problem of polarization can also be a real danger in prayer. This brings us back to questions about the discernment of spirits, at just the right time. Without trying to go deeply into so complex a problem, I should at least mention the danger of misattributing our feelings to God’s inspiration, when in fact they can be either purely human or stimulated by the Devil. In a nutshell, if in prayer we feel disturbed or angry, then we have not yet attuned ourselves to the Person with Whom we are supposed to be conversing. Indeed, it often takes some time at the beginning of a period of prayer to leave aside our own agitation (or preoccupation with various distractions) and enter into God’s peace.
Here is how the process is described in Scripture:
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” [1 Kings 19:11-13]
The basic rule of thumb in prayer is that all forms of agitation and distraction come from ourselves or the Devil, whereas God communicates with us in a kind of deep peace and serenity, in the whisper of gentleness and love. This is just as true of self-righteous anger as it is of any other form of emotional or even sensual excitement. Thus, in anger we may be drawn to a course of action that is not being suggested by God at all, and the same is true of the emotional excitement we might feel at the thought of undertaking some good or grand work designed to remake the world according to our own vision. In the discernment of God’s will, we are rather looking for a consistent tug accompanied by a feeling of peace. A new commitment or course of action is seldom to be discerned and decided on all at once, and is never to be chosen suddenly in the heat of emotion or the thrill of imagination.
It took Ignatius of Loyola himself some time to come to grips with the lofty and thrilling thoughts which distracted him whenever he tried to study what he needed to learn before guiding souls. He could not make progress until he realized that these delightful imaginings were actually distractions, which is to say temptations. Only then could he concentrate sufficiently to make rapid progress in the course work which the representatives of the Church had encouraged him to undertake.
The Devil may appear either as a frightening fiend or as an angel of light (Lucifer), or he may simply urge us to indulge our own thoughts. Moreover, our human preoccupations, including socio-political preoccupations, may distract us, causing us to nurse our anger until we mistake it for the Divine will. I’ve done this often enough, and then jumped onto my keyboard to write something in haste. But patience and the understanding that God comes to us in peace, tranquility and constancy is sufficient for discernment, especially if we are shrewd enough to seek advice when we find ourselves unsure.
An extended and growing commitment to the Catholic life of prayer, then, is the soul of discernment, and the essence of Rule Three.
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