Written by Keith Strohm
One of the readers of my blog, Take Your Place, rightly commented on the difficulty involved in discernment: "But how do you know if the Holy Spirit is calling you? It is precisely because I can't discern what He wants that I find myself pulled in too many directions."
Spirit-led, authentic discernment is perhaps the single greatest enterprise needed in the Body of Christ today. We are, as lay members of Christ's faithful people, somewhat adrift--scattered. Our gifts lay dormant, our giftedness largely unrecognized and unformed--by a Church that too often focuses its gaze inward, and by our own individual capacity for false humility, fear, and capitulation to the inertia that so often prevents spiritual and personal development.
Within the Church, we have ministry fairs, where anyone with a passing interest in a particular area of service can sign up and find himself engaged almost immediately in a given ministry. And so we have thousands of catechists who find themselves forming our youth because they were warm bodies needed to fill a space, neither called nor gifted for that particular work. And then we wonder about the state of catechesis and the difficulty that our next generation has in participating in the life of the Church.
Ouside the Church, we have career counseling programs, job training and degree programs, and a host of other secular tools that focus too often on success and building wealth, without ever really trying to connect the identity, talents, and giftedness of the individual with a particular area of 'vocation.' And then we wonder why it seems that our culture 'churns and burns' millions of individuals beneath its fast-paced grind without ever seeming to grow any healthier.
Don't get me wrong, ministry fairs and career preparation or counseling programs aren't necessarily bad things. Too often as Christians, however, we start to see only our methods and forget the spiritual reality that these methodologies were created to help us experience. We come armed with our strategies and vision statements, our councils and our commissions, and we forget that we are more than simply a civic organization applying purely human resources for a humanitarian end.
Discernment is, ultimately, a spiritual experience.
A profound one.
It is, in a very real sense, a dying to self--for the word comes from the latin, discernere, which means 'to cut away.' When we enter into a process of discernment, we are dying to the false elements of our self, to the way our culture, our family, and our own fallen personality tell us we should be. We cut away the clutter and cast off the baggage so that we may follow more perfectly the One who called us out of darkness and in to the Light of Truth. We can't take our place, until we know where and what that place is.
Authentic discernment is difficult and, often, painful. No wonder we avoid it wherever and whenever we can. But Paul, like Christ, asks us to consider our calling, to make discernment a regular part of our lives. The question we should ask is: Why is discernment so difficult for us?
The problem, I think, lies in our fundamental approach to the 'problem.' As modern-day Christians--especially in the U.S.--we tackle the discernment question with rugged individualism and a naked desire to succeed. We gauge where God is calling us utilizing only the lens of our own thoughts, feelings, and experience. Most often, when someone says they are discerning around an issue, it generally means that they are weighing the options and plumbing their own internal depths to see how it resonates there. This is a necessary step--for grace builds on nature, and God often calls us through our joys and passions. However, it is not the only step!
Since we have been called together as a People, and been united in the Body of Christ, there is a communal dimension to our lives from which we can never be separated. For baptized Christians, our lives simply do not make sense in isolation. This is exactly what Paul referred to when he said "And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?" (1Cor 12:16) In the depths of our being, we are relational. Our meaning is fulfilled in the context of the life of the whole Body.
Therefore, we are each responsible for one another and are called to be Stewards of the vocation of each member of our community. True discernment, then, can never happen outside of the context of the Body of Christ. Bringing that down to a more practical level, we as parishes (the Church inserted into the local neighborhood) need to become schools of vocational discernment, communities where the giftedness of each member is discovered and fostered, and where opportunities for utilizing those gifts in the world are presented. We must become comfortable with naming the giftedness of others, as well as providing gentle and loving feedback when others are engaged in areas of service for which they have not been gifted or called.
Discernment is challenging. Yet, the grace of God provides us with a multiplicity of opportunities to reflect and receive help from our brothers and sisters in this holy endeavor. Make no mistake about it, unless we enter into this discipline fully, another generation of catholic apostles will grow up ignorant of the true power, authority, and jurisdiction of their role in the mission of Christ to the world.
Discernment is a team sport--and God is our captain! Who wants to play?