As I approached the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery (Trappist) with my petition and desire to be one of them, several professed members told me that our class of applicants would have to go through a period of discernment so that the community could see and hear our resolve also so that we would be able to know in our hearts if our motives were sustainable. I had been somewhat familiar with the concept of discernment before this, but had never had occasion to apply it to my own self.
One of my Lectio Divina meditations ended up with me thinking about discernment. My core is Philippians 2:5 for each Lectio Divina prayer (since 1962). In my meditation (inching toward contemplation), I was helped by the power of Christ sitting next to me on a park bench in the dead of Winter. Being the dead of Winter, I was cold and did not want to linger onto what Christ was saying. This “dead of Winter,” I noticed was not Winter at all, although I could feel the uncomfortable sting of the cold on my body. It was more like a voice telling me not to listen to Christ and to seek the warmth and comfort of a nice, warm living room with a roaring fire and toasty warm sheepskin slippers to keep my tootsies warm. This existential tug at my thoughts is always a good sign that I am doing the right thing by struggling to keep my focus on what Christ is trying to show me and tell me. In this case, he was explain to me about discernment. Here is what I can remember from this encounter.
DISCERNMENT: The Refiners Fire
One of my favorite television shows is Forged in Fire, the hour-long television show about four blacksmiths who must craft iconic weapons from whatever the producers choose. Judges then determine which smithy is the winner. Blacksmiths must use fire to heat and treat the iron to make it the shape they want and to make it hard enough to withstand two or three tests.
Discernment is like that show. The Scriptures, Malachi 3, speaks of discernment to prepare the coming of the Lord in these words: 3 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.[a] 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Not only do smithies have to know the metal they are forging, they must use a refiners fire to shape the metal into another form. Discernment is a lot like that. You are the metal. God uses fire to share you into something. The difference in this case is, you must be willing to be shaped into what God wants you to be. Discernment is a test of your metal to determine if you are capable and have the capacity to transform yourself.
A person might not be capable of being a Lay Cistercian because of the strict observances they endure, while living in the midst of chaos (the World). They may be capable of being a Dominican or Franciscan lay person. This in no way implies one of better than another, but I can say one is different from another, one is more appropriate for me than some other form of spiritual practice. Christ is the center and each of us must discern how we have in us the mind of that Christ Jesus and what that means. For me, I have been tried in the anvil of Cistercian Spirituality as a Lay person and have both been chosen by the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery (Trappist) and have promised to keep the Cistercian Way as best I understand it, until such time I die and receive the reward for my labors.
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT DISCERNMENT When I use the word “discernment” it is important for you to know my assumptions. These are the unspoken or hidden meanings I use whenver I use the word. You will have a different set of assumptions. Knowing our assumptions provides for less confusion and more enlightenment.
ASSUMPTION ONE: Discernment is a voluntary period of time you use to see if you are able to meet the requirements of whatever set of values you wish to use as the center of your life.
ASSUMPTION TWO: Discernment exists in two phases: one phase has you living the set of practices to see if you have the resolve to meet set requirements; the second phase is one where you make a choice to use these practices to help you move from self to God.
ASSUMPTION THREE: If you find, for example, the Lay Cistercian requirements and lifestyle not to your liking, for any reason, there is no failure in backing off from its approach and trying something (or even nothing) else.
ASSUMPTION FOUR: My purpose for discernment is to try or practice how to move from self to God using silence, solitude, work, prayer and community.
ASSUMPTION FIVE: It takes humility an obedience to God’s will to maintain your discernment without it deteriorating into being all about you and what you need from Christ. If you know what I am talking about, you know about the meaning of dying to self and allowing Christ to rise in your heart.
CAUTION: If I truly have in me the mind of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5), what is important is how contemplation or any other spiritual methodology allows me to sit next to Christ on a park bench in the dead of Winter and wait for the Lord to stop by. Read the Scriptures to get a flavor for community discernment of what is from God and what is not.
1 Corinthians 1 Salutation
1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord[a] and ours:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.4 I give thanks to my[b] God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6 just as the testimony of[c] Christ has been strengthened among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.Divisions in the Church10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[d] by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.[e] 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God[f] that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. Christ the Power and Wisdom of God.18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters:[g] not many of you were wise by human standards,[h] not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one[i] might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in[j] the Lord.”
Clearly, everything depends upon and is centered on God and not our own will. When someone comes to me to talk about how they don’t like this or that about Lay Cistercian spirituality, I think of what Paul says and re-direct them to reflect on what God wants of them. The big caveat of discernment is trying to separate your will from God’s will. It takes time to see the different. For me, I used the crucible of the Lay Cistercians to sllow the refining fire of Christ to burn away my dependence upon my will.
MY TWO TYPES OF DISCERNMENT
Specific— I have undergone discernment several times recently. One time was when I took the whole series of instruction with the intention of being Anglican (St. Peter’s in Tallahassee). At the time I was angry at the Church for keeping me from being Laicized (two states of membership– clergy and laity). Like any person who let his emotions dictate his behavior, I played the blame game. I actually was in discernment for the complete series of instructions to be an Anglican (over one year). The people there were just wonderful to be. If it was just up to the people and their goodness, I would be an Anglican (or Baptism, or Methodist) today. Being in discernment, I was tried by fire on the anvil of time. More and more, I would think about Christ and less and less about what I should do. For me, the choice was clear after about a year of discernment. Despite being denied membership in the Church Universal for sixteen years, I pressed onward one more time, this time successfully. I petitioned the Magisterium of the Church and was granted Laicization by Pope Benedict XVI. Shortly afterward I applied for discernment with the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery (Trappist).
Lay Cistercian Discernment
Every two years, the Lay Cistercians at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery (Trappist) admit novices for a two year period of official discernment. Before that time, we were encouraged to attend monthly meetings at the Monastery, conducted by Professed Lay Cistercians on some externals of the commitment expected. These four or five sessions were followed by mixing up one Gather Day with other Lay Cistercians to get a flavor of what we do each month at our meetings. In March, we had a Lay Cistercian retreat with just the prospective novices. The stress was on contemplation and prayer (both in public and in private) to begin to seek God through doing Cistercian practices and receiving charisms (humility, obedience, hospitality, trying to live the Rule of St. Benedict as one who does not live in the Monastery. In May, we were received as Lay Cistercian novices (two years) of seeing if we could not only know God but love God with all our minds, our hearts and all our strength then love our neighbor as ourselves. I use the word specific, even though it was a year and a half for the informal discernment then two years for the formal discernment focused on the Cistercian Way.
Lifetime — This type of discernment incorporates the specific type but actually lasts the rest of whatever time we have left. This is what I promised when I made my lifetime profession of Faith as a Professed Lay Cistercian. Discernment for me means Lectio Divina each day (more than once, if I am a good boy), Eucharist daily, Rosary daily, Reading Chapter 4 of the Rule of St. Benedict every day in the hopes that one day I may become what I read, Reciting the Liturgy of the Hours (Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline) each day. I didn’t start off with these practices but they grew into what they are now, gradually and almost imperceptably . That took over three years of being faithful to the Cistercian practices and attending the montly Gathering Day at the Monastery.
THE GENESIS CONUNDRUM
Whenever I read Chapter 4 of St. Benedict’s Rule, even as a professed Lay Cistercian, I am trust back into the discernment mode to make a choice of God’s will or my will. Struggling in the World is never easy, it was not easy for Adam and Eve either, but that is our human condition in which we find ourselves. Genesis is an eloquent commentary on the human condition. Read Chapters 2 and 3 right now. There are four different traditions written here, all coming from different periods of time. http://www.usccb.org/bible/genesis/1/
I love the Book of Genesis and the layers of depth just keep coming and coming up in my Lectio Divina, In my understanding, Genesis seeks to answer the most fundamental questions we human face:
Discernment must take into account all of these assumptions underlying Genesis, all the caveats, and look at reality with Faith informed by reason. Christ is the not only the answer to our discernment, he also helps us focus on the questions we must ask to walk through the minefield of false prophets and theologies.
What is discernment?
Whenever you discern the spiritual practices of a way of spirituality, you must seek God in these ways to approach God (Dominican, Ignatian, Franciscan, Cistercian, Benedictine, Augustinian) realizing that Christ is the center of your bulls-eye target and these practices are only tools to help you reach out to God. Practices are not as important as the practice to move from self to God.
CHARACTERISTICS OF DISCERNMENT
Here are some of the things I have discovered about discernment, I might add, after the fact.