Monday, March 7, 2011

A Rush to Discernment

In pulpits all across America this morning, in parishes where the Lectionary is practiced, preachers will be giving Peter a pounding (but not with pickled-peppers). He is one of three people to accompany Jesus on a hike up a mountain. He is one of three to observe Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, foundational figures in the faith long ago deceased. He is one of three to witness the Transfiguration, where for a brief moment our Lord’s divine nature eclipses His human body. But he is the only one to say something to try to make sense of it all. Let’s give Peter credit for perceiving the gravity of what was happening. Indeed, this was a momentous event. Building a shrine to commemorate it was certainly an option worth considering. But Peter ends up on the receiving end of a holy, verbal beat-down: “This is my Son. He was around before creation was called forth. Don’t you think it might be a good idea to get His input!”

And what does Jesus say the disciples should do? He directs them not to tell anyone about it – not a word – until after He has risen from the dead. We might want to consider that Peter’s blunder here was a rush to discernment. He wanted to act before he had absorbed. He wanted to respond before he had reflected. He wanted to enshrine before he understood. He would have been very much at home in our contemporary society with its go-go-go-tweet-comment-send-as-quick-as-you-can approach to life. We too are impatience and impetuous. We act first, dive in, and dash ahead pretty much all the time. Have many times have we thought or said, “I should have stopped and thought about before I did it?”

If the rush to discernment was Peter’ faux paus in this situation, Mary, the mother of Jesus, models the other end of the spectrum. You remember the Christmas story: how an angel appears to her and tells her she will have a son even though she is chaste; how they travel to Bethlehem for the census and the baby is born in a small animal shed because she and Joseph could not find more suitable lodging; and how shepherds appeared in the night to worship the child, telling fantastic tales of an angelic chorus. Do you remember Mary’s response to all of this? She did not suggest that Joseph, a carpenter by trade, might want to convert the barn into a shrine. Scripture says she “treasured these things, pondering them in her heart.” Pondering – the opposite of rushing to discernment.

In the long history of our Christian tradition, discernment is thought to have two major components: attentiveness and discrimination.

Early on, if a person was said to be spiritual, it meant he or she was under the power of God’s Spirit. Even still, a spiritual person understood there were other spirits vying for his/her attention. Some of these are the spirits of the world: those aspects of our culture not aligned with God’s purpose. Others are spirits of the flesh, which include bodily addictions as well aspects of the personality (being self-centered, anxious, or hateful for example). And still other spirits come from the “evil one” as active forces intentionally working against God’s good. (Pay attention to today’s baptism where I will ask the parents and sponsors to renounce Satan, the world, and the self.)

If we are going to avoid a rush to discernment then one thing we must do is take time to be attentive, to look deep within our selves in order to sort out the various motivations for our thoughts and actions. As we pay attention to what is going on around us we need to understand what it going on within us. Our first impulse, a lingering sentiment, and sometimes even a nagging thought are not reflective of God’s desire; they are not always the fruit of God’s Spirit. A few years ago, Win Lewis got my attention when he said this: “More and more we are finding that the single most important characteristic required for a person to be a good priest is self-awareness” – being conscious of who you are and what makes you tick so that you do not act out unaware of how your inner world projects itself on the outer world.

The other component of discernment is discrimination. Developing the capacity to pay attention is important. It helps you to know be aware of all that is happing on the inside and the out. Discrimination is about sifting through and evaluating all that you have gathered through focused attention. We have many allies to help us with this work. We can turn to Scripture. We can seek out the advice of a trusted friend or mentor. We can engage the sensus fidelium – the collected sense of the faithful. We can immerse ourselves in the best writing of our current day as well as the works of saints and sages from the past. We can pray. Discrimination is not the same thing as problem solving or weighing the pros and cons. One writer says it is more like when a flower turns itself to face the sun. Don’t understand that image? Live with it for a while and see what emerges.

Peter must have learned something from the events we read about today because some time after the Resurrection and after the Ascension and after Pentecost, Peter finds himself in a costal city staying with a person named Simon the tanner. Its noon and Peter goes to prayer, but he is hungry. He falls into a trance and has a vision of (for lack of better words) a picnic coming down from heaven. God invites him to go ahead and eat, but Peter protests that the meal consists entirely of food Jews are commanded not to eat. God says in reply, “No one must call unclean what I call clean.” Peter awakes and the text says he is puzzled.

At that very moment, representatives of a Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius arrive at Simon’s house. Cornelius was a devout Gentile who wanted to honor God. Days before an angel instructed him to send for Peter. When his emissaries explain their mission, Peter agrees to meet with Cornelius. Once there the two men talk. Peter preaches the Gospel, but he is concerned that his message should only be shared with the children of Israel. Then an astounding thing happens. The Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius and his family just as it had fallen on Peter and the others at Pentecost. Now apostle knows what he must do. He baptizes all who are present into the Christian faith and life.

This time Peter does not rush to discernment. He lives with what puzzles him for several days. Only once all the elements have unfolded and come into focus does Peter speak and act. He has been both attentive and discriminating.

I have found that discernment is both a gift of God’s Spirit and a spiritual discipline I have developed over the course of my life. I am not perfect at it by any means, but do I sense I am better at it now then I was years ago. A part of my prayer life is devoted to reflecting on what is happening in my world and in my being: what am I seeing, what am I missing, what is all of it doing to me, how am I affecting what is happening? And as awareness sets in discrimination begins: what are my options, what is consistent with my sense of integrity, what will give me energy or joy or peace, what is God’s will? Shrines shouldn’t be built at the drop of a hat and when it comes to weighty matters discernment should not be rushed.