The Augustinian tradition of discernment

If Ignatian discernment is a pearl of great price in the life of the Church, it remains no less true that our Assumptionist tradition can find a source in our own heritage. It is not a question of replacing one with the other — Ignatius by Augustine — but to benefit from the light offered by the bishop of Hippo who himself had to exercise the art of discernment to find his way and respond to his calling. 

- Noverim me, noverim te; Let me know myself and know you (Soliloquies II,1; Confessions X,I,1)

 

Augustine wandered for a long time before finding personal stability. The Confessions recounts with great clarity the journey he took to gain this stability. Several times Augustine says that it became for him a « tremendous question ». He understood that his heart was riddled by opposing movements which had him leaning at times toward what is good and at others toward what is evil. His participation in a correct decision was complicated by this conflict that finds its origin in the human heart.

Augustinian discernment is based on self-knowledge and knowledge of God. You can’t have one without the other. In order for discernment to take place, one must be reborn into an authentic relationship with God; one must have a heart directed to Him. The absence of God also means ignorance of self. 

- The struggle between two wills

« So these two wills within me, one old, one new, one the servant of the flesh, the other of the spirit, were in conflict and between them they tore my soul apart ». The « self » is torn by virtue of sin. Man’s struggle takes place with God’s help and the grace of the Spirit in order that he might rediscover the path of true freedom. There is a process of conversion that helps man to climb out of the pit and rediscover the true path of freedom. « Then little by little, O Lord, with a most mild and merciful hand you touched and calmed my heart ».

For discernment, time is needed. Not only does it help a man to take into account his time boundedness and not to remain at the stage of infancy where one thinks that all is possible right away without mediation; but it also makes of us partners in the work of God within us. Therefore it is very important to take time into account and to make of it an ally in the discernment process. We must know how to make a decision when the time is ripe and not push off indefinitely the moment to take this step.

 

- Forming the conscience.

In order to discern, one needs to learn how to see clearly and this requires that one has a good knowledge of self. It also means learning how to see oneself as he truly is, without fear or favour, but without exaggerating one’s faults either. « But you, O Lord, turned me back upon myself. You took me from behind my own back, where I had placed myself because I did not wish to look upon myself. You stood me face to face with myself so that I might see how foul I was, how deformed and defiled, how covered with stains and sores. I looked, and I was filled with horror, but there was no place for me to flee to, away from myself (…) You placed me in front of myself and thrust me before my own eyes, so that I might find out my own iniquity and hate it »

Image by Jeremy Perkins

We are called not to flee from seeing ourselves face to face. The goal of such an undertaking is accepting oneself as he is, without fear or favour, to be sure, but without despair. All of this contributes to building up his inner integrity. Augustine deepened his self-discovery and, at the same time, he also discovered God.

- The personal and ecclesial calling

« The subject of this discernment process is each individual and it must be repeated that no one can replace the personal conscience of each. » For Augustine, one had to listen to the Teacher within, Christ, but this didn’t mean the end of ecclesial mediations. Discernment is personal, but God also uses human beings to make their voice heard. Jean-Louis Chrétien has summarized this well: « The call is direct since it reaches me myself in an irreplaceable way, but it is not immediate, since it always reaches me by and in the world, through things that happen and through the words of other men. The transmission of the Word of God is itself dependent on the word of man; God speaks only in giving the Word, in making men speak and not by imposing silence on them. »

Augustine, while he fully acknowledges the voice within, argues for an authentic community discernment. God speaks but he makes his voice heard by all. « Moreover, the Augustinian tradition will always remain extremely critical, for fundamental theological reasons, with regard to a system of immediacy where God would speak directly to the soul in pure interiority. (…) Even if the call leads us back to our spiritual inner lives, it is in the world that it is audible to sinful man. There is too Christian thinking that would give priority to an inner voice over against the choir of God’s witnesses: this would substitute a private and solitary “revelation” to the fundamental Revelation of the Church. To announce Jesus Christ, there must be the voice, the voice of one crying in the desert”, the voice of John the Baptist. The summons calls for our voice to be transmitted to others and thus to be understood (…) » Little by little, « the voices fall away, as the Word grows »; community discernment is completed and the consensus is established in the Church.

• Decide and choose

At the right time, one has to decide. The choice that must be taken can only be done freely, but also in trust and hope. No one is ever totally sure of making a good choice, but without making a decision, and thus undermining responsibility, one sidesteps the human condition. For, not to choose is already a choice.

But once a decision is made, it has to be lived out and one needs to know how to stay on the path. « To decide does not mean to commit oneself or to bind oneself: as firm as a decision may be, it does not create an obligation; there must also be, in addition, an intentional act whereby I commit myself to do what I have decided. » In the Christian arena, the act whereby I commit myself is called a vow, vows, or marriage. The long journey undertaken in discernment should be able to bring one to the point of making a decision. Choosing is necessary. We all know people who never make it to this point, to make up their mind. Then we must help them look elsewhere than religious life. The art of direction calls for a subtle balance to be maintained so that freedom be safeguarded, but also so that such freedom be exercised. If one cannot make a choice, is there authentic freedom? Indecision kills freedom. Once the decision is made to move on to religious vows, one must then help the person to prepare himself to pronounce them. Commitment becomes possible.

Letter of the Superior General father Benoit GRIERE n° 8