Discernment means to think through our decisions and actions, not just by rational calculation but by listening for His Spirit, recognizing in prayer God’s motives, invitations, and will. There is a principle worth remembering in these times: ideas are debated, but reality is discerned.
. . . This is a difficult thing for those of a more impatient disposition, who believe that to every problem there must be a technical solution, as if it were merely a question of finding the right switch. Many religious people, too, struggle with discernment, especially those who are allergic to uncertainty and want to reduce everything to black and white. And it is quite impossible for ideologues, fundamentalists, and anyone else who is held back by a rigid mindset. But discernment is vital if we want to create a better future.
Faced with this uncertainty, ideology and the rigid mindset have an allure that we must resist. Fundamentalism is a means of assembling thought and behavior as a refuge that supposedly protects a person from a crisis. Fundamentalist mindsets offer to shelter people from destabilizing situations in exchange for a kind of existential quietism. They offer you an attitude and a single, closed way of thinking, as a substitute for the kind of thinking that opens you to truth. Whoever takes refuge in fundamentalism is afraid of setting out on the road to truth. He already “has” the truth, and deploys it as a defense, so that any questioning of it is interpreted as an aggression against his person.
Discernment, on the other hand, allows us to navigate changing contexts and specific situations as we seek the truth. Truth reveals itself to the one who opens herself to it. That is what the ancient Greek word for truth, aletheia, means: what reveals itself; what is unveiled. The Hebrew vowel emet, on the other hand, connects truth to fidelity, to what is certain, what is firm, what does not deceive or disappoint. So truth has these two elements. When things and people manifest their essence, they give us the certainty of their truth, the trustworthy evidence that invites us to believe in them. Opening ourselves to this kind of certainty calls for humility in our own thinking, to leave space for this gentle encounter with the good, the true, and the beautiful
. . . Tradition is not a museum, true religion is not a freezer, and doctrine is not static but grows and develops, like a tree that remains the same yet which gets bigger and bears ever more fruit. There are some who claim that “God spoke once and for all time—almost always exclusively in the way and the form that those who make this claim know well. They hear the word “discernment” and worry that it’s a fancy way of ignoring the rules or some clever modern ruse to downgrade the truth, when it is quite the opposite. Discernment is as old as the Church. It follows from the promise Jesus made to his disciples that after he was gone the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). There is no contradiction between being solidly rooted in the truth and at the same time being open to a greater understanding. The Spirit continues to guide us in our translating the Good News into different contexts, so that the words of Jesus continue to resound in the hearts of men and women in every age. That is why I like to quote Gustav Mahler, that “tradition is not the repository of ashes but the preservation of fire.”
The Spirit shows us new things through what the Church calls “signs of the times.” Discerning the signs of the times allows us to make sense of change. In interpreting and praying over events or trends in the light of the Gospel, we can detect movements that reflect the values of God’s Kingdom or their opposite.
In every age people experience “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), a cry that goes up from the margins of society. If we discern in such a yearning a movement of God’s Spirit, it allows us to open up to that movement in thought and action, and so create a new future according to the spirit of the Beatitudes.