What is Discernment?

(This is Neil, Todd’s contributor, posting here.) I’ve been following some of the discussion regarding the Intentional Disciples blog with great interest, particularly the posts on discernment below. I am especially grateful for the response of the writers from the Intentional Disciples blog. Perhaps it might be valuable to quickly post something here on the basic question of discernment, lest “discernment” seem unnecessarily mysterious and perhaps even threatening. Todd certainly has more practical experience than me. But I would like to put up some notes on a recent book chapter by the Episcopal priest Mark McIntosh on John Bunyan (you can find a short review of the entire book by Lawrence Cunningham here). (I should also note that I remember using at least some of this as a comment on another blog somewhere.)

Perhaps, in a small way, this can help us continue to converse.

Fr. McIntosh writes about John Bunyan, “He dramatizes the journey into the truth of one’s being precisely as a pilgrimage into a more truthful response to God’s calling – a pilgrimage, that is, into a less fearful, less driven, less illusory, and more personal form of existence. Bunyan is adept at unmasking the artificial stopping points, the inauthentic concretions of selfhood that mesmerize and numb us. And he illustrates what we might call path-finding vocational skills.”

Bunyan uses allegory to recovery the unexpected dimensions of meaning in things. “Things that seem to be hid in words obscure, / Do but the Godly mind the more alure; / To study what those Sayings should contain, / That speak to us in such a Cloudy strain.” We have to be able to read our lives figurally to be able to see life in terms of a guiding calling and goal.

We also need to avoid illusion. This is personified in The Pilgrim’s Progress by Apollyon, who counsels Christian to give up his calling because – says the “foul fiend” – he will surely fail. Apollyon reminds Christian that he has been unfaithful in the past, “and when thou talkest of thy Journey, and of what thou has heard, and seen, thou art inwardly desirous of vainglory in all that thou sayest or doest.” Apollyon takes our scarred pasts and our inevitably flawed motivations and threatens to turn our self-doubt into despair.

Remember that our pilgrims also come to Vanity Fair, where everything is a commodity and can be purchased. They refuse to enter into “commerce” and are beaten, put on public display, and tried on false charges. Here Bunyan shows that we are threatened by any notion that our goals are fully attainable of the world’s terms, measurable by a worldly purse.

Christian also comes to Doubting Castle and its lord, Giant Despair. Our pilgrims are placed in a dungeon, and “In this place, Christian had double sorrow, because twas through his unadvised haste that they were brought into their distress.” And in this horrid dungeon, the Giant tries to coax Christian into taking his own life out of sheer hopelessness. One can be a prisoner to one’s own self, after all, and here Bunyan reminds us that we are lost if we travel alone. Christian’s companion, Hopeful, comforts him and reminds him of the wonders that he has seen.

We can speak of other episodes in Pilgrim’s Progress – the questions of the sisters in the Palace Beautiful help Christian understand his calling and its relationship to his family, presently left behind. And then the family at the Palace gathers Christian with them at their table, “furnished with fat things, and with Wine that was well refined; and all their talk at the Table was about the Lord of the Hill,” hinting at the importance of Eucharistic fellowship for discernment of one’s vocation.

But, back to reality. Before making decisions, you:

1. Ask whether you are able to read your past, one of Bunyan’s interpreters puts it, “as logos, as an elaborate allegory of intelligible statement.” Do you have the ability to become aware of the divine meaning implicit in your pilgrimage?

2. Ask whether your decision is motivated by the paralysis that comes from focusing only on self-doubts, by measuring your hope only by your shortcomings.

3. Ask whether your goals fits in all too well at the marketplace of Vanity Fair alongside the “Whores, Bauds, Wives, Husbands, Children, Masters, Servants, Lives, Blood, Bodies, Souls, Silver, Gold, Pearls, Precious Stones, and what not.”

4. Ask whether your decision might have come about through the instability of your own self and its vulnerability to unperceived motivations: have you listened to a Hopeful or simply sunk into solipsism?

5. Ask whether your decision has involved ecclesial and Eucharistic fellowship.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to What is Discernment?

  1. Rose says:

    I was hoping you would discuss McIntosh’s 5 phases of discernment, but oh well. It is interesting though to read the ideas here, especially since I just recently read Pilgrim’s Progress for a class I’m in.
    Thanks for the thoughts. I like your fifth question and the idea that discernment has a time and a place to be individualitic, but it also has a time and place to be in fellowship with other people.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Rose,

    Thanks for writing. I promise to get back to McIntosh eventually.


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