By Fr. Sean McDermott
Christian experience is full of tension and struggles. Jesus admits as much: "Watch and pray so as not to fall into the power of temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mt 26:41). Paul picks up the same language and admonition: "Listen to me: walk according to the Spirit and you will no longer accomplish the desires of the flesh. Because the flesh and its desires is opposed to the Spirit and the Spirit to the flesh; these are opposed to each other so that you may not do what you want" (Gal 5:16-17).
And again in Romans 8, Paul enters into a longer meditation on the tension within the Christian life. He calls the Romans to a cruciform life, to put to death the works of the flesh in order to live. And he also, in the face of such a serious charge, offers hope to the Romans. "You have received a Spirit of adopted sons which makes us cry: Abba, Father! . . . the Spirit himself intercedes for us with unutterable groanings" (Rm 8:15, 26). Still, the situation is pretty clear. One may either live by the Spirit and with his help, or one may live in shackles to flesh. This all leads the Christian to question whether his desires or impulses are of the Spirit or the flesh. It demands discernment — true discernment rather than a lifeless application of moral rules.
In his book Grace Can Do More: Spiritual Accompaniment and Spiritual Growth, Andre Louf wisely argues that any discernment of the Spirit is linked to listening to the Word of God. If one is to discern whether his desires are of the flesh or are aligning to the desires of the Holy Spirit, one must begin by using the most effective tool: the Word of God. The Christian must realize, of course, that the Bible is the Word of God; once this is believed, then any encounter with the Bible is the start of discernment. It opens oneself up to the guidance of God's Word and works against inattentiveness. This is why lectio divina is so important: it demands that we read the Bible as a process of listening to what God is speaking to us. Louf writes: "The Event [of lectio divina] does not leave a person unchanged: the Word of God listened to reaches the heart, makes it move and leap, producing the special fruit of a greater sensitivity to the movement of the Holy Spirit" (15). The author of the book of Hebrews says this explicitly: "Indeed the Word of God is living and effective, sharper than a two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart" (Hb 4:12). What a beautiful gift God has given to us.
However, the gift demands a type of responsibility: conversion. If the Word of God can speak to the heart, helping us to discern, then we must be open to its effective power. It demands a constant renewal of the reader, an openness to conversion from flesh to Spirit. Paul puts it wonderfully: "Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, and pleasing and perfect" (Rm 12:2). Notice how Paul connects this renewal or conversion with discernment! As we discern the movement of the Spirit, inevitably we will have to move away from the flesh. The Spirit demands this conversion and conformity. As such, discernment demands obedience.
This process of discernment assumes prayer and action, since prayer is the action in which and the means by which discernment occurs. As we have noted above, Paul strongly asserts that not only does the Spirit precede our prayers, but the Spirit has been gifted to us so that we might pray in the first place! Louf writes: "Prayer is a kind of discernment in action, to the degree that it consists essentially in abandoning oneself progressively to the Spirit's prayer in us each time that it comes up, a little at a time, to the surface of our consciousness" (22). Personal prayer, in this way, should be seen as a slow process of discernment. And while it is true that we "literally bathe in the light of Holy Spirit and in his prayer at work within us," we might only perceive echoes of it from time to time. It takes much training and much time to understand these echoes or murmurs, to understand the desire of the Holy Spirit. It takes much training and much time to convert our desires to the desire of the Holy Spirit.
Louf summarizes, then, that discernment is a bit paradoxical because it demands an inward examination, a deep recollection in order to perceive what one must do outwardly. One must retune his own heart's desire so that it sings in harmony with the Spirit's urgings. And once that inward conversion happens, then one must act outwardly in the same tune. This demands recollection or returning at least every day, and such exercises have been encouraged by the Church for a long time.
Given the type and amount of work that is required for spiritual growth, it is natural that the Church advises penitents to seek out advice and direction from a spiritual director. It is quite easy for us to avoid recollection, to focus on the wrong desires, and to reject the voice of the Holy Spirit. A director not only provides encouragement but redirection as the penitent seeks to grow in God. Through this relationship, God will help reveal His purposes and desire for the penitent. In the next piece, therefore, we will take a closer look at the role and purpose of the director.
Fr. Sean McDermott is Curate at All Saints Anglican in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar.