Tuesday, May 15, 2007

On the Work of Spiritual Discernment

My Plutotian wife, for reasons unfathomable to me, frequents the blogs of a group of students at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. (Here's the one I think is her favorite, with links to the others.) Anyway, in the spirit of keeping tabs on what the avatar of my Jungian anima is up to (must...not...let...the...dreams... return), I browsed around them for a while. This time of year, it's a cauldron of anxiety, especially among any seniors who are not yet "placed." One of them talks about how nice it would be to just get a letter from God, with full and clear instructions.

I can empathize. Not only do I remember the stress about placement during that senior year of seminary, but I have, many times before and since, wished that faithful discipleship were more like faithful military service: You put in your requests and then wait for your orders. When they come, you salute and execute to the best of your ability. No need to second guess or continually beg for clarity.

Knowing and doing the will of God--I'm talking about His specific will here; there's certainly enough about His general will that is amply evident--is, in God's own wisdom, a more complicated affair. On the face of it, it seems that God has missed an opportunity to foster efficiency in the Church's prosecution of her mission. There are apparently willing troops who are ready to charge into the fray if they only knew what fray to charge into, and when, and how; witness the Seabury seminarians. What could God possibly be thinking by making it so difficult?

In recently talking over a particular discernment task that my favorite Plutotian and I have been engaged in, the constitutional differences between us were highlighted along these lines.

The Earthling (well, she thinks I'm actually from one of the other planets...that starts with a 'U'): "Discernment begins with desire. God's will is incarnate in the nexus of concrete practical considerations and mystical nudges, like pieces of a puzzle fitting together."

The Plutotian (who, to her good fortune, is awfully cute): "I only want to hear about the mystical and spiritual. If we pay attention to the concrete and practical, we risk missing out on where the Spirit is blowing."

You can see how we're made for each other!

Anyway...here's a stab at why God made it difficult: It's all about ascesis. That's a wonderful word that denotes the concrete process--the technique, even--of becoming holy, of growing gradually into the image of Christ, of having the imago dei that was warped in the Fall restored to its proper shape and function, and then turbo-charged to make it even better than it would have been if Sin had never entered the picture.

The work of discernment is one of the tools at God's disposal by which He can bring our holiness to perfection. It's like professional basketball players who study ballet in the off-season. Do they expect to have a second career at the Bolshoi? Not hardly. They wouldn't even want such a thing. But they do hope that the discipline of ballet will have the ancillary effect of turning them into better basketball players. Christians are all saints-in-training. Holiness is our goal. We want to be able to stand up straight in the presence of God and look Him in the eye without being pulverized, and that can only happen when every wisp of Sin is removed. As it turns out, the very disciplines that foster faithful spiritual discernment also contribute to our overall general sanctification.

So, yes, God could make it easy and send us our orders by overnight courier--or, for the technologically savvy, by a PDF file attached to an email from Heaven.org. But that would deprive Him of one important tool that He can use in bringing to completion the work of our salvation. In order to give God everything He needs to save my soul, I'm willing to do the hard and terrifying and even painful work of spiritual discernment. I will not always get it right. But even that is ultimately OK, because I still get the salutary benefit of going through the exercise.

Stay tuned.


Mousie's Mommy said...

Wow! What a prelude! The postlude is a bummer but I'll stay tuned for the interlude.

Mary Clara said...

Good thoughts, which make sense to Earthy folk.

Based on her distinct preference for the mystical and the spiritual, I suspect that your anima-bearer may be a Neptunian rather than a Plutotian!

Fr. Marcus Brown said...

Here is something that is more concrete in the discerning process I might imagine!

“OPEN QUESTIONS concerning the Anglican Communion?”

Is there a “truly orthodox Anglican” Province in the Worldwide Anglican Communion?
Which Province DOES NOT ALLOW the following; teachings, services or ordinations?
A) DOES NOT ALLOW the teaching of liberal Revisionist Theology.
B) DOES NOT ALLOW the marriage, or even service, for same sex couples.
C) DOES NOT ALLOW the ordination of homosexual persons.
D) DOES NOT ALLOW the ordination of women to ANY rank of ecclesiastical office.
E) DOES NOT ALLOW politics or finance to prevail in policy or doctrine.
AND. . .
Is there a Province in the Worldwide Anglican Communion that includes the following:
A) TEACHES that the Holy Scriptures are the inspired Word of God.
B) TEACHES that the way to God, the Father, is only through the Lord Jesus Christ.
C) TEACHES and embraces the Great Commission and is evangelical in its approach.
D) TEACHES that the gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit are for today’s Church.
E) TEACHES and equips the church for body ministry of all believers.
F) TEACHES and holds apostolic doctrine concerning the sacraments.

As the scriptures state: “Give an answer to the faith that lies within you.”
So I would like an answer from someone in your communion with “Faith!”

Sincerely in the Faith of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles,

Fr. Marcus L. Brown