Monday, 28 October 2013

How to Discern: a Guide by St. Alphonsus de Liguori

If we are truly going to discern by focusing on the Lord, whether it be what our vocation is in life or whether or not we should go on that weekend trip, there are some practical measures we can take so that His will in our lives remains clear. Our friend the great Italian 18th century saint and moral theologian St. Alphonsus Liguori has a few pointers to help us. Comments by me, mostly from my own reflections, as my practical experience probably only accounts for a poor percentage of all this.

Remain pure of heart. 
Go to confession regularly and exam your conscience daily—essentially St. Alphonsus is reminding us that it is the "pure of heart that see God". This quite fitting because, naturally, only the pure of heart seek God. Confession and examination of conscience are essential for allowing God’s grace to make us "pure of heart". The more you know His ways, the more you understand what He wants from you.

• Grow in virtue.
Do spiritual reading, ask for spiritual direction, discuss God with others regularly, establish a regular prayer schedule and try to be as faithful to it as you can. If you can, find a community where you can strengthen each other and pray for each other. Ideally, this community should be like your second family, a place where you can feel belong. It's easier to grow in virtue that way.

Ask the Lord to call you to a particular state in life.
Just as Peter asked the Lord to command him to come out on the water, humbly ask God to call you to approach Him. As you fall in love with Love itself let Him fill your intellect, will and heart with the desire for a particular state in life. Do not expect your journey of vocation to be the same as your neighbour's. In all likelihood, it'll be unique and surprising. God knows you better than you do, and He will call you the way only you and He can comprehend (isn't He just the romantic!). So stop concentrating on the heights of the mountains or on the depth of the ocean. Who knows, you might hear Him speaking through a random burning bush.

• Do not put any obstacles in the way of grace.
Be open and ready to do the Lord’s will in all things—we ask the Lord daily to help us with our selfishness and concupiscence. Sins, especially ones that have become habits, are obstacles to grace. "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice" (Eph 4:31), "of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind" (1 Pet 2:1). Be humble. A full vessel cannot be filled without first be emptied. So be that empty vessel into which God can pour out His generous grace.

• Carefully avoid overindulgence.
In our present culture especially, be aware of overindulgence. It’s everywhere. Keep everything in moderation. Know your limits. Overindulgence can make things seem better than they really are, and it makes unnecessary things become deceptively necessary. It will deprive you of the freedom you need in order to follow the Lord. Remember, in medio stat virtus—virtue stands in the middle. With self-control, comes self-knowledge, and with good self-knowledge, comes proper discernment, and hopefully, the clarity of your vocation follows not far behind.

Go on retreat.
This not only benefits religious and priests (they are required by canon law to do so) but for any lay person as well. And, if your schedule does not permit it at least find some time to think reflectively. Meditate and contemplate. Go about your life a little more slowly, a little more considerately. Learn to see God in all things and to see all things in God. Establish your own cloister in your heart, a place of solitude into where you can retire every now and then.


But why do these sound like general instructions on how to become holy? Well yes, holiness is the ultimate calling for everyone, that's for sure. But the practical, day-to-day "how", this is the one that needs discernment, in order to effectively reach that final goal of holiness. Each facet of a diamond is different, and will reflect light differently. Holiness unites us to God without losing ourselves. Unlike the Buddhist idea of union in nirvana, we don't "disappear" in God, but rather, we learn to be one of the thousand facets of a sparkling diamond.


Image: "Philosopher in Meditation", Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632

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