We, too, live in difficult times like the early disciples. In the first century, they were without proper churches, no convenient copies of the Bible, and no internet or television or radio. We, however, are not challenged by the lack of many things but by their abundance. We have an abundance of churches, an abundance of printed Bibles and an abundance of web pages, television channels and radio stations. But what use is all this abundance to us? How does it help us? A whole case of 50 Bibles is only useful if there are people to read them and a whole case of inappropriate books is not useful, even to one person. So, this is our task, what to keep and what to discard, what to embrace and what to put away from us. This is the task of discernment.
Our times are punctuated by the need for discernment at every turn. What should be our standard, how do we know what is good for us and what is not?
Rule 1: First and foremost, we should use the eternal test: Is this something that has value for eternity? Am I reading something that will help me to reach the pearly gates or am I simply reading to pass my time? Does this reading lift my soul toward God or away from him?
Rule 2: We need to use the moderation test. We need to ask, “Is this thing that I am doing in a good balance with my responsibilities, duties and obligations?” We all have duties to perform as part of our state in life. Are we a parent who has the obligation to support their spouse on their way to heaven or obligations to feed, house and educate the children? Then faithfully, lovingly and sacrificially fulfilling these obligations may leave very little time for other things, good as they might be. Are we single or widowed and not bound to these types of obligations, then perhaps we need to revert to rule one — the eternal test — or the following two rules.
Rule 3: Is this in line with what Jesus taught in the Holy Scriptures and in line with Church teaching? Of course, to apply this rule you need to be familiar with the Holy Scriptures, especially the Gospels, and you have to be familiar with Church teaching, especially the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But when are you going to find time to read the Scriptures and the Catechism? You will make the time by following rules 1 and 2.
Rule 4: Would this fit in the Sacred and Merciful Heart of Jesus? Is this thing that we are about to do motivated by love or self-interest? Is it for our own gain or for the benefit of someone else? Are we the center of our universe or is the love of God and his holy and merciful will the center of our universe?
Some might say: “All of this is well and good, deacon, but every case is different and there are nuances that general rules cannot cover.” This may be so, which is why I saved the best for last.
Rule 5: Have I surrendered this and my life to God? Ultimately, proper discernment is grounded in a heart and a mind and a life that is continually being converted and transformed more and more into the likeness of Jesus who is our model, our example and our goal. St. Paul said it well in the Letter to the Ephesians, “Living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15)
My dear friends, the reasons why general rules, though useful in themselves, don’t work in every case is that only God could possibly know the exact decision that is best for us, only God could know which path leads to the desired outcome, and only God knows which outcome is truly in our best interest. So, we need God at the core of our best discernment. St. Teresa of Avila, who was both a master in the spiritual life and a person who had to engage in much discernment in her own extremely busy life, understood that the best way to discern properly is to give ourselves totally to God, to surrender to his plans and then to ask insistently for his holy guidance. Below is a poem and prayer that she wrote that captures well how we can surrender ourselves to God and rely on his aid in guiding us with what we ought to do in our lives.
In the Hands of God
I am Yours and born of You, What do You want of me?
Majestic Sovereign, Unending wisdom, Kindness pleasing to my soul; God sublime, one Being Good, Behold this one so vile. Singing of her love to you: What do You want of me?
Yours, You made me, Yours, you saved me, Yours, you called me, Yours, you awaited me, Yours, I did not stray. What do you want of me?
Good Lord, what do you want of me? What is this wretch to do? What work is this, This sinful slave, to do? Look at me, Sweet Love, Sweet Love, look at me, What do you want of me?
In Your hand I place my heart, Body, life and soul, Deep feelings and affections mine, Spouse – Redeemer sweet, Myself offered now to you, What do you want of me?
Give me death, give me life, Health or sickness, Honor or shame, War or swelling peace, Weakness or full strength, Yes, to these I say, What do you want of me?
Give me wealth or want, Happiness or gloominess, Sweet life, sun unveiled, To you I give all. What do you want of me?
Give me, if You will, prayer; Or let me know dryness, And abundance of devotion, or if not, then barrenness. In you alone, Sovereign Majesty, I find my peace, What do You want of me?
Give me then wisdom, Or for love, ignorance, Years of abundance, or hunger and famine. Darkness or sunlight, Move me here or there: What do You want of me?
If You want me to rest, I desire it for love; If to labor, I will die working:
Sweet Love say: Where, how and when. What do You want of me?
Calvary or Tabor give me, Desert or fruitful land; As Job in suffering or John at Your breast; Barren or fruited vine, Whatever be Your will: What do You want of me?
Be I Joseph Chained, Or as Egypt’s governor, David pained, or exalted high, Jonas drowned, or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me?
Silent or speaking, Fruit bearing or barren, My wounds shown by the Law, Rejoicing in the tender Gospel;
Sorrowing or exulting, You alone live in me: What do you want of me?
Yours I am, for You I was born:
Yours I am, for You I was born:
What do You want of me?