Daring to let ourselves be carried – Carlos Rafael Cabarrús, S. J.

Discerning is not easy. We have all in one way or another experienced two very typical extremes in this regard: there are those who do their utmost to complicate the meaning of discernment —making it into something only for the already initiated— or those who readily baptize almost any reflection or discussion with the name «discernment». Both stances have done much damage. Discerning is difficult. The difficulty consists in establishing not only an appropriate methodology but also the necessary conditions. One key condition is being in contact with real poverty and struggling against it. Being involved in the struggle of poor people becomes a «condition of possibility» as well as a «criterion of verification» of Christian discernment. Discernment is born of taking a position alongside the Jesus who is poor and humiliated today (the requirement) and leads to defending his cause (the verification). Only in those conditions and with those fruits can there be true discernment.[1] 

Discerning involves entering into the mystery of the will of God. There is nothing more alien to discernment than being certain about one’s own judgment. In principle, we discern in order to seek the will of a God who is mystery, a God whose ways are not our ways, and this is obviously something that must be felt. Discerning is not seeing clearly but being docile enough to be led by the impulses of God, along ways that we often do not understand. 

Discerning also presupposes certain human qualities: it presupposes a human subiecto.[2] Discernment will be difficult for persons who do not have an understanding and merciful heart, for those who cannot forgive, for those who are incapable of loving and being loved. Such persons will have great difficulty in placing themselves in a discerning frame of mind, for discernment is also a fruit of human maturity. At the same time, however, discernment requires some profoundly Christian attitudes. In Ignatian-style discernment, the choice is not between the good and the bad; rather, it is deciding what is «better» (the concrete magis). The criteria are those presented in the «Two Standards»[3]; the goal is the «third way of being humble». 

This essay consists of three basic sections: the methodology of discernment, the daily examen, and a postscript. 

The first part is concerned more with the methodology of discernment than the theory of discernment. It begins by explaining how discerning involves real «daring», but a kind of daring that has had four centuries of being translated into practice, starting from Ignatius Loyola and from the Gospels themselves. This section begins by speaking of the origin and development of discernment; then follows a crucial study of two spiritual «times» (Ignatius calls them «weeks»), for each of which there is a special process for discernment of spirits. We stress the importance of identifying the «time» in which a person is and the «direction» in which the person is moving. Immediately after that we offer a comparative study of the action of the Evil Spirit (ES), which will throw light on the ways in which the ES can be detected and defeated. This involves explaining another key element for discernment: understanding what «desolation» is, knowing how to struggle against it, and making the best of the moment of consolation. Because of its effects, consolation is pragmatic: it is a gift for collaborating with the labors of God’s reign.[4] We conclude this first part by saying something about the «confirmation» of discernment, that is, the need for the discernment to be ratified in history and in one’s own life. 

The second part of the essay proposes a concrete way of making the daily examen from a pedagogical perspective. This way of making the examen helps us to understand discernment as the fruit of the confrontation between «spirits»; it also helps us to distinguish between consolation and desolation, and thus grow in fidelity to the God who is always greater. We begin this second part with the practical difficulties of the examen, placing emphasis on what the examination of conscience is not, in order to explain what it should be and what its objectives are. We end, as we said, by explaining what the practice of the examen reveals to us about discernment itself, and also by indicating a crucial requirement: the discovery of what we will call the «maxim». 

The third and final part of the essay contains a postscript, in which we show that our attitude of daring, as risky as it may appear, can arise only out of our own weakness and from the impulse of God.

[1] Cf. GC 33, No. 41.

[2] This term subiecto (translated to subject) is used by Ignatius Loyola to indicate a person who is physically and psychologically healthy.

[3] The meditation on the «Two Standards» (the standard of Jesus and that of the Enemy) presents two contradictory strategies for evangelization. The meditation, placed by Ignatius at the heart of his book of Spiritual Exercises, is his version of the alternatives that the synoptics present as crucial for Jesus in his temptations.

[4] Cf. 2 Cor 1,3-7, which inspired Ignatius.

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