Monday, March 24, 2014

Discernment: The Healing of Thoughts and Intentions

  The Lord sees our thoughts and the intentions of our hearts.

  The Lord knows the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. Without a doubt, every one of them is known to him, while we know only those which he lets us read by the grace of discernment. The spirit of man does not know all that is in man, nor all of the thoughts which he has, willingly or unwillingly. Man does not always perceive his thoughts as they really are. Having clouded vision, he does not discern them clearly with his mind’s eye.

  Often under the guise of devotion a suggestion occurs to our mind—coming from our own thoughts or from another person or from the tempter—and in God’s eyes we do not deserve any reward for our virtue. For there are certain imitations of true virtues as also of vices which play tricks with the heart and bedazzle the mind’s vision. As a result, the appearance of goodness often seems to be in something which is evil, and equally the appearance of evil seems to be in something good. This is part of our wretchedness and ignorance, causing us anguish and anxiety.

  It has been written: There are paths which seem to man to be right, but which in the end lead him to hell. To avoid this peril, Saint John gives us these words of advice: Test the spirits to see if they are from God. Now no one can test the spirits to see if they are from God unless God has given him discernment of spirits to enable him to investigate spiritual thoughts, inclinations and intentions with honest and true judgement. Discernment is the mother of all the virtues; everyone needs it either to guide the lives of others or to direct and reform his own life.

  In the sphere of action, a right thought is one ruled by the will of God, and intentions are holy when directed single-mindedly toward him. In a word, we could see clearly through any action of ours, or into our entire lives, if we had a simple eye. A simple eye is an eye, and it is simple. This means that we see by right thinking what is to be done, and by our good intention we carry it out with simple honesty, because deceitful action is wrong. Right thinking does not permit mistakes; a good intention rules out pretence. This then is true discernment, a combination of right thinking and good intention.

  Therefore, we must do all our actions in the light of discernment as if in God and in his presence.

From Treatise 6 by Baldwin of Canterbury (1125-1190)

            The above reading is the same one appointed for today (using a slightly more modern translation) in Fr. Wright’s marvelous Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church (amazingly  still apparently available from Cokesbury, even though it is hardly the sort of “groovy” fare currently being promoted by the Powers that Be—buy it while you can). It repays careful study.
            Baldwin is discussing the question of how we discern. In this portion of the sermon, he treats the subject of thoughts and intentions as crucial elements of how we discern. He makes the point that God sees the total picture of our thinking and our intentions, even though we cannot. This is one of the consequences of being finite (being a creature rather than the Creator), as well as being sinful (broken, ill, alienated from God, prone to choose death rather than life). Because of this, discernment is often very difficult and requires much attention to communion with God in its deepest sense.
            No matter how many classes we take, consciousness-raising sessions we attend, or courses of therapy we undergo, our tendency is to skew things towards self-deception. The source of this can be within, from another, or from evil active in the world. No matter its origin, it is a fundamental problem for human beings. To overcome this requires cooperating with the Holy Spirit's work in us to develop a deep dwelling in the Mind of Christ. Only with Christ as our Head (as St. Paul tells us) may our mind’s eye be restored to its intended simplicity. When “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” then our discernment becomes that of Christ—and our vision is made whole.
            Participation in the Eucharist, prayer, fasting, forgiveness, study of Scripture, spiritual direction, corporal works of mercy, sacramental healing and confession, as well as pastoral counsel are all parts of this process. All of these things contribute to spiritual healing—what the Eastern Orthodox tradition speaks of as the healing of the nous, the “eye of the heart and soul,” the “mind of the heart.” Only when the nous is healed, enlightened, made whole may our vision be clear. It is this healing that Baldwin is speaking about.
            As a parish priest I see a great deal of struggle over this matter in the lives of those I serve. Because we live in a primarily materialist, consumerist, and psychological age in the West, the kind of healing Baldwin speaks of is very remote to many in the Church. Our deeply secularized sensibilities constantly work against us! We want discernment about how to live our lives, how to face challenges, how to proceed in major choices, but we insist on viewing events and our inner life through something that amounts to welder’s glass.
            What Baldwin speaks of is a kind of course of therapy in the Church’s medicine for healing the nous, so that our union with God—a union of wills—may proceed and we may advance in discernment.
            Such discernment means right thinking as well as good intentions. Good intentions often are related to our moral condition—the operation of the Seven Deadly Sins in our life, for instance. Right or clear thinking is usually connected to the healing of our hearts (in the full sense of that term). And this patient, careful healing is exactly what many find unacceptable.
            Like our forbearers who resorted to magic (a practice that is on the rise today), we tend to want quick, easy solutions to our problems: such solutions involving pharmacology, technology, and ideology (all those –ology endings should tell us something). While these tools may provide some help, they cannot take the place of true spiritual healing and the re-ordering of our hearts.
            Such a process is daunting when viewed from the outset; but once it is internalized and received as a gift of Love from God, our acquisition of the Mind of Christ changes our perspective from one of fear to one of desire for increased communion. The struggle continues, as it always will in this life assaulted by temptation and evil; but the struggle grows easier as we learn to love and be loved fully. It is this sort of “right thinking” which leads to the wholeness and integration that makes authentic discernment possible.
            One of the central characteristics of Lent is growth in humility—being grounded in reality. That reality must involve our own “inner geography,” as well as knowledge of God. It is just this sort of exploration that makes the Lenten journey a season of joy, healing, and refreshment by authentic repentance. All of our Lenten disciplines are there to encourage and deepen our hunger for just this renewal of our will to live in the eternal and life-giving Mind of Christ. This is one of the reasons that Lent should be taken seriously, deeply, and with an understanding that repentance is always the beginning of faith, both at the start of the journey and at each new stage.
            May this Lent be such a season of exploration and renewal, rather than merely a season of superficial grimness or a rebellion against the learning and potential God offers each of us!


  1. Thank you. Just what I needed today.

  2. I was very thankful for this reading today, as well. It helps clarify how important our thinking as Christians really is. Glad it was a blessing for you, as well.