Discerning God

When my Dad was diagnosed with cancer I was given all sorts of assurances and reasons for hope by his oncologist. I prayed a lot. But still, I saw my Dad slipping, and I despaired. And then it happened: someone told me the truth, and it was a man whom I always needed to have tell me the truth, namely my Fr. confessor, Fr. Tom Edwards. “Gary, the thing about miracles is, is that they are miraculous, and as such, occur very infrequently. You need to keep praying for your father, you need to believe that God can heal him, but you also must prepare yourself that your father will probably die.” The grace of discernment, required for the Christian life, eludes many of us. We seek to know what God would want us to do in a certain situation, or how we should think, but always end befuddled about how to proceed. For most situations in life the choices we make are between competing goods. Sometimes among what the Stoics and then later Christians would call adiaphora, or indifferent things.

But the type of discernment I have in mind is not a chocolate-or-vanilla matter. Instead it is when we are faced with life-altering situations, or the situations that leave us crying “O that Thou would rend the Heavens and come down!” We often travel a path we believe God would want us on, and then when things turn out horribly otherwise than what we had thought, it shakes our faith. Or we have before us a decision of real moment, one which will alter our life for years to come. We suddenly don’t discern the presence of God. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of blessed memory speaks about the absence of God in his wonderful Learning to Pray. He says that the presence of God in the existential present is so overwhelming that the default position, a sort of divine neglect, is what we actually experience. Now, of course Metropolitan Anthony is not denying God’s omnipresence, for he would have prayed the Troparia of Pentecost several times a day, that He is “everywhere present and fills all things.” What he is talking about is how God comes to us at certain times in our life with such overwhelming force, such power, that we are left like the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who started his memoriam with the word “Feu (fire)”. To read this single page that Pascal drew up the night of his conversion, and then kept sown into his jacket so that he would always have it with him, is a testimony to what the confrontation with God is.

But when we think that these confrontations, these visitations, are normal, and thus should provide us a constant source of strength and guidance, we can tip over into the enthusiastic, into a life that bends its efforts into living a life with these as normal. It is a version of what is called the Stoic fallacy, wherein we think that a state obtained once can be obtained all the time. We have all heard stories about someone who comes upon an accident and finds the mishap’s victim pinned under a car. The passerby then beyond expectations moves or picks up the car, freeing the trapped soul. This naturally could not be done at any other time. This is the same with morals and virtues. Situations occur that call for courage we had no idea we possessed, or we find ourselves with a moral determination that withstands incredible temptations, even in a desperate situation. Yet this is not the norm of life, for the norm of life is pretty, well, mundane. Boring even.

We see this in the life of the prophet Elijah in I Kings 18-19. Following the spectacular appearance of God’s presence and power on Mt. Caramel, where Elijah demonstrated so well his ecumenical bona fides, entering into dialogue with the prophets of Baal, after which he had them all killed (take care whom you debate), the prophet sunk into a horrible funk. The Israelites sure liked the fire and spectacular holocaust of the prophets offering, and they were quite quick to kill all those prophets of Baal, but they seemed completely uninterested in really following the Lord. To top that off, Jezebel was a bit miffed with Elijah for offing all her prophets. So what does Elijah do? He runs. He runs, in fact, on the strength of the food of angels, for forty days till he gets to Mt. Sinai. When God comes to him and asks him “Elijah, why are you here?” the prophet didn’t respond with “Lord, that was a great show you put on up there on top of Caramel, thanks for letting me see it.” No, instead he complains that Israel has killed all the prophets of God, torn down all His altars, and that only he, Elijah, was left. He protests his zeal. Doubtless seeing fire fall from the sky would make anyone zealous, but this was not enough, and now Elijah asserts that he is ready to die (of course, had he stayed in Samaria, Jezebel would have accommodated him). Then something wonderful occurs. There is an earthquake, a fire storm, and a whirlwind. All pass by Elijah, but God was not in any of them. Where was God? In the small quiet voice. The Lord then tells Elijah that there is a remnant left to him who have not worshiped Baal. Interestingly, this is the first place where the word remnant is used of the godly. Its previous uses had been of the remnant left in Canaan of the Amorites or other defeated peoples. But now it is used of those who seek to keep God’s covenant. In other words, in the midst of apostasy, there are still a few, even if but a few, who do not go along with the crowds, who remain faithful to God. Further, it doesn’t matter so much about the spectacular, for this is not how God normally comes to us: not in earthquakes or firestorms or whirlwinds, but in small, quiet voices.

Miracles, even those in the Bible, happen rather infrequently. If you take note, they occur in set periods: The exodus, the conquest, around the lives of Elijah and Elisha, at the Nativity, in the ministry of Christ, and in the Acts of the Apostles. Thus, covering the vast bulk of the Bible’s narrative, some eighteen centuries (from the call of Abraham till the end of the Acts of the Apostles), miracles occurred rarely. I do not doubt they still occur. I have known of missionaries who have confronted the demonic and performed acts which only the local witch doctors had done, namely walking barefoot slowly across burning coals. And I am not counting out God’s providential healings of people, nor the noted instances of clairvoyance with monks. What I am saying is that we should not live our lives based on what happened on Mt. Carmel, thinking this is the norm. It is the norm, in the age to come, but for now, we need to recognize such visitations as the promises of grace that they are, and more importantly, seek to overcome the boredom of existence which leads us into thinking that this is what the normal spiritual life is.

Discerning God’s will, then, means being steeped in Holy Scripture, and in the lives of the Saints. We should also realize that while we often can make wrong, and even wicked decisions, decisions taken with the sincere hope to honor God should be done with boldness and not timidity, knowing you have done all you can do to achieve God’s will. Frequently, there are neither right nor wrong courses of action.

Pascal’s Memorial

The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology. Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight.

FIRE (feu).

GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known Thee, but I have known Thee.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know Thee, the one true God, and the one that Thou sent, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced and crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my confessor.
Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth.
May I not forget Thy words. Amen.

About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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6 Responses to Discerning God

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. Karen says:

    “The grace of discernment, required for the Christian life, alludes many of us.”

    My editorial eye spotted a wrong word in your first paragraph: I think you meant to say: ” . . . eludes many of us.”

    I love Met. Anthony Bloom’s little book on prayer! (You can delete–or edit–this after you see it.)

  3. Cyril says:

    Thanks so much Karen. You can edit anytime you wish! My vanity always sees me as the Bard when I sit at the keyboard.

  4. Athanasia says:

    This is a topic The Hubster and I have had many a discussion on…the right and wrong decision – if you make the right decision, then things will always go the right way….akin to being in God’s will. It has taken us many years to realize how much we misunderstood. One can make every right decision there is, and still something may go amiss. One can only do their best, be prayerful and careful, working to be faithful to God. And.that.is.it!

    I am grateful for the “high” moments, the few miraculous moments, in my life. They help when I doubt. I am more grateful for the “lowest” moments of my life because through reflection on them I see God did not abandon me, though I may have abandoned Him. That, more than anything, gives me hope.

    Thank you for your thoughts and musings my friend. They are a blessing once again.

  5. Cyril says:

    Athanasia, you are more than welcome. XB!

  6. marcusjosephus says:

    The Desert Fathers on Discernment:

    It was said concerning Abba Agathon that some monks came to find him,
    having heard tell of his great discernment. Wanting to see if he would
    lose his temper, they said to him, “Aren’t you that Agathon who is said
    to be a fornicator and a proud man?” “Yes, it is very true,” he
    answered. They resumed, “Aren’t you that Agathon who is always talking
    nonsense?” “I am.” Again they said, “Aren’t you Agathon the heretic?”
    But at that, he replied, “I am not a heretic.” So they asked him,
    “Tell us why you accepted everything we cast you, but repudiated
    this last insult.” He replied, “The first accusations I take to
    myself, for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from
    God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God.” At this saying
    they were astonished at his discernment and returned, edified.

    ——

    Someone asked Abba Agathon, “Which is better, bodily asceticism or
    interior vigilance?” The old man replied, “Man is like a tree, bodily
    asceticism is the foliage, interior vigilance the fruit. According to
    that which is written, ‘Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit
    shall be cut down and cast into the fire’ (Matt.3:10) it is clear that
    all our care should be directed towards the fruit, that is to say,
    guard of the spirit; but it needs the protection and the embellishment
    of the foliage, which is bodily asceticism.”

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