From The Way, Supplement 64; London 1989
Discretion is a very rare bird upon the Earth. (Bernard of Clairvaux)
In the Christian tradition, diakresis, discernment, has always been highly esteemed. It has been seen not as merely part of the natural virtue of prudence but as one of the direct gifts of the Holy Spirit, both the way into and the fruit of life in Christ. In the first thousand or more years of Christian living, discernment (also called discretion) was discussed with complete unanimity, not because each writer repeated what his predecessors said without further thought but because the practice of Christian life continued to make abundantly clear the nature and purpose of discernment. It would be possible to summarize and examine what each writer has said in chronological order but because of the agreement between them perhaps a more fruitful approach would be to take the main points about discernment upon which there is notable agreement and illustrate this from selected sources over a span of 1,500 years. I use for illustration the experience of the first Christian monks in fourth-century Egypt, and the reflection upon that way of life by John Cassian and John Climacus, some texts from the central Middle Ages, and some material from the fourteenth century in the West, to cover as wide a span as possible.
First, what is “discernment” in the Christian tradition? John Climacus calls it “a solid understanding of the will of God,” (The ladder of divine ascent), while for Cassian it is “the mother of virtues, as well as their guide and regulator.” (Conferences) These are somewhat pedestrian descriptions, perhaps, and in them discretion is seen as a quality that orders and arranges the more vivid and dramatic virtues rather than doing anything in itself. Bernard of Clairvaux gives discernment the same quality when he comments on the passage in the Song of Songs, “Set love in order within me,” (Canticles 2:5). No-one could accuse Bernard of being lacking in zeal; he was enthusiastic, particularly with regard to asceticism, to such a point that he could be classed with the fools for Christ, those who follow with a single eye the wisdom of Christ so that it is vividly seen as “folly to this world,” (1 Corinthians 4:10). But he was as aware as the desert fathers of the need for this calm and sensible faculty as a point of control for zeal; he calls it “the moderator of love,” and adds “discretion. . . is not so much a virtue as a moderator and a guide of the virtues, a director of the affections, a teacher of right living.” Gregory the Great called discretion a nose, “by which we discern good and evil odors,” and he adds, “He has a small nose who is not able to keep the measure of discernment.” The image is of a wine-taster sniffing the bouquet of a wine or even of a dog raising its muzzle to sniff out the day before it goes beyond the doorstep. Such a faculty is not in itself the vision of God; it is that which finds the direction to it. So the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, following Richard of Saint Victor, says it is Joseph, the beloved son of Jacob and Rachel, the forerunner of the Benjamin of contemplation: “and he comes! Joseph is born late in time, but his father loves him most of all for without discretion goodness can neither be attained nor maintained.”
Since discernment is valued so highly, how urgent is it for a Christian to have this faculty? Bernard of Clairvaux says it is “utterly necessary,” but this is an assertion within the context of a way of life very specifically directed to prayer: “the more eager the zeal, the more vigorous the spirit, the more generous the love, so also the greater the need for more vigilant knowledge to restrain the zeal, to temper the spirit, to moderate the love.” Elsewhere he calls discernment rara avis, a rare and elusive quality of perception. John Climacus goes so far as to say that discernment, which he links with “dispassion,” is not essential to salvation: “Not everyone can attain to dispassion but all can be saved and reconciled to God.” Discernment is needed within the whole body of the church, but is not a possession or a skill attained by individuals, and sensitive elite but open to everyone, some of whom will be discerning, others not; it is not the equivalent of the enlightened state of the philosopher but a gift of God within the economy of salvation for all. The basic and essential question for each is, “How can I be saved?” and discernment is only to this end, a part of the way to the answer. Gregory the Great suggests that it is even possible to have too much discernment:
there are some who. . . oftentimes exercise themselves more than is necessary in certain enquiries, and are mistaken through over much nicety, whence this is also added, ‘or with a great and crooked nose’; for a great and crooked nose is an immoderate nicety of discernment when it has grown up beyond what is fitting and does itself confuse the righteousness of its actions! (Pastoral Charge)
Discernment is not to be confused either with curiosity or with a crippling insistence on getting it right in every way before acting.
It is clear from each instance quoted that this God-given light upon conduct has always been valued very highly in Christian life, though never out of context. But granted that discernment is desirable, the next question is how can this quality of life be attained and exercised? How do we know if we have it? It is often said that it is always possible to tell by negative results, when discernment turns out in its effects to lead away from the direct path of charity, that fundamental precept and promise that we “shall love the Lord,” and our “neighbor as ourselves,” (Matthew 22:37-39). This is surely a rather defeatist way of learning, though in this looking-glass world of Christian life it is so often the only way; as the Cloud-author says, “I have never yet known a sinner come to a perfect knowledge of himself and his basic temperament without having been taught it in the school of God by the exercise of many temptations and frequent stumbling and risings.” Because humankind is fallen, it is impossible to become discerning easily and naturally by love and concern. Certainly the early writers connect discernment with love, and John Climacus admits that great love can give someone a particularly sensitive insight into another, but as everyone knows, love is not enough. There is a distorting lens in the eye of the soul which sends the most loving discernment awry. Have the early writers anything more to say about rectifying this squint than simply pointing to its dangerous effects? Discernment is above all about inner motive and begins with oneself and here they would say that the first step towards learning true self-knowledge is to be aware that it is lacking, and so the first virtue needed both in order and in priority is humility. John Climacus says, “The sea is the source of the fountain, and humility is the source of discernment,” and in the desert tradition this is a constant theme. This is not a cringing and rather abstract idea in the desert literature but part of the way out from the illusions of a self-centered world towards an understanding of the reality of humankind before the creator, of sinners before the savior. It is learned with consistency and great practical application , and the most important sign of the reality of this humility in all the desert literature is never for one moment to judge others.
A brother in Scetis committed a fault and a council was called to which Abba Moses was invited. . . He took a leaking jug filled with water and carried it with him. . . he said, “My sins run out behind me and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
This is a refusal to exercise the judgment which condemns others, that killing self-assertion that was the cause and result of the fall and which continues to damage relationships with God and with others. This itch to condemn by our judgment can be transfigured into discernment which sees only the mercy and goodness of God in others. The way to allow this “right judgment in all things” to be formed is through humility of heart which in practice involves a consistent refusal to exercise that self-assertion which forms hostile and negative judgments against the neighbor.