On discernment

True, I am a simpleton, with a weak hold on the English language (and yet weaker on any other). My difficulties begin with basic vocabulary. There are words that pass over my head, not as the baptismal dove, but like some poorly-aimed vegetable matter. Even if it splatter me — as for instance let us take the word “discernment” — it leaves little beyond a desire to wash.

I can, for instance, discern the colour blue from the colour red; or the direction up from the direction down, given planetary gravity. I can do singulars and plurals. I am also good on telling left from right, though not always at judging if the wind is quite southerly. Hawks and handsaws seem distinct, at close range.

This morning I discerned a crow, atop an apartment elevator shaft, two blocks away. This was because it was saying, “Caw, caw.” And, “caw.” Too, it was coal black, and when viewed from my balconata, through my 7×50 binoculars, had a distinctly crow-like shape and profile. Might it instead have been a raven? On mature reflection, I decided, no. It had not the size or shagginess for that. The beak was slimmer, and it lacked the wedge tail. Moreover it was pacing, just like a crow.

Quite frankly, I would rather have seen a raven, but had to admit (if only to myself) that “the facts is the facts.” Even more, I would have liked to see a hummingbird, or a peacock. Or best of all, a pterodactyl. But no luck. On the other hand, I thought, “A crow beats yet another pigeon.”

But let us consider instead my hero, Saint Philip Neri. He was renowned for “the discernment of spirits.” This was within his “charisma,” or gift. As any art, it was honed in study and practice. Saint Philip was an inveterate reader, especially of “books beginning with the letter S” (i.e. those about saints). He had the faculty for giving people his full attention. He had the task of the direction of souls, beginning with his own. I can easily believe that, had he to deal with a penitent like me, he could teach me things about myself that I had not previously known.

Or Saint Francis of Sales; or others of the more extraordinary spiritual directors in history: who had that praeternatural ability to “discern” what, in Christian terms, might be described as the configuration of good and evil spirits. I am thinking here especially of Christian psychology prior to the irruption of psycho-analysis and other pop-science frauds; back when, for instance, the voices in your head might be deemed to originate elsewhere; and the soul might be “discerned” to be struggling with principalities and powers; or the man to have admitted the wrong sort of spirits into his confidence.

Which are the spirits that flatter, or torment? And which are the ones that reason? It is well if the penitent can tell these apart.

From my cruelly limited understanding of the Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, it seems to me he is the enemy of illusions. But here some brief attention is required, for these are hardly the sort of illusions our contemporaries might identify, about the very existence of good and bad angels. Ignatius does not doubt they are there. Rather he is conveying, in a carefully structured, precise, and I would almost say “scientific” way, a key to illusions about one’s self, and about one’s disposition towards the good and bad angels. He offers clear and distinct ideas. Verily: the Exercises are useful, for the procedures of spiritual surgery, because they are incredibly sharp.

We must learn, or if you will, discern, that joy has its entry through conscience, and not through the imagination. It is a little paradox that we, as moderns, are ill-equipped to discern. We would rather seek paradise in all the wrong places.

Such as, to give but three examples: sex, and drugs, and rock-and-roll. We are easily convinced that these will make us happy, and that restraint will only make us sad. And surely God wants us to be happy. So He is to blame if they make us sad. How many people I have met, who blame God for the consequences of their own actions. Could there be something they have not discerned?

Yes: the distinction between good and bad angels. For the former tell the truth, even when we don’t want to hear it, and they intend our happiness. But the latter tell us lies, and do not intend our happiness. That is why it is so important, why it is even in one’s personal interest, to distinguish the former from the latter.

Since we are all moderns, in this cyberspace at present, I should mention that while there are some who deny, everyone believes in angels. This much is innate. Their presence is acknowledged in every culture, and I will not hear any nonsense to the contrary. Only a bad angel could tell you that angels do not actually exist; and only a fool will believe him. Discernment might begin in suspecting that we are being had on, by this bad angel.

But how much worse if one were being had on by a priest. And worse still, by one who thinks he is discerning “grey areas” between good and evil; who encourages us to think there could be good mixed in certain evils, and evils mixed in certain goods. As opposed to helping us clarify the one from the other, in all things. To his wide experience with souls, we appeal for help. How to extricate oneself from an evil, without sacrificing the adjoining good? That is his job, on assignment from our Master — quite broadly, the cure of souls.

Sometimes it is complicated. Never is it mush.

Christ did not propose any “reasonable middle way” between good and evil; between the truth and the lie. He was totally partisan, and downright confrontational. (Oh please, gently doubtful reader: go read the Gospels for yourself.)

I think we are dealing with a new concept or definition of “discernment”; and therein lies my confusion. The idea that there are, and I quote, “overly clear and distinct ideas,” has my little head spinning. Even though raised by non-practising post-Christians, I was never fed sludge like that. I would not have thought that moral distinctions could be made clear enough. If an angel told me to avoid clarity, I would jot down his rank and badge number. The one who suggested that my sins might be “okay,” in the murky context of my previous mortal sinning — that I was now “good to go” for Communion, in that execrable state — well, what can I say?

“Bad angel!”

He is setting me up. He is feeding me the exact opposite of mercy.

Now, perhaps I would continue to sin, because, after all, I am a bad person. But knowing sin is sin is a start. Already one has some small distance from it. To be told, rather, that it is not crisp objective sin — to be douched, rather, in some grey lagoon — cannot be helpful. It leaves one with no prospect of ever being clean. It does not turn the mind towards holiness, purity, sanctity; rather, towards the contemplation of, “What can I get away with?”

A crow is a crow is a crow. That, I affirm, is the beginning of wisdom. There is more to know, but we can build on that.