Christians have always needed to decipher and discern the times in which they live. We are told by the Apostle Paul to “walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17). One of the goals of this new blogging effort is to underline the need for discernment in the Christian life. In order to explore this I would like to break down what it means to discern the times. This will be done by discussing the topic of discernment and the times separately.
You may be aware that discernment is something valued very highly by the Fathers of the Church. In Conferences with the Fathers St John Cassian relays the words of St. Moses the Black and St. Anthony the Great on discernment. The First Conference presents St. Moses giving basic guidelines for those seeking to pursue God and purity of heart. At the core of this pursuit is the need for the wisdom of discernment. Discernment is the “mother of moderation” exactly because it guides the spiritual life away from excess on one side and laxity on the other (58). In the Second Conference Cassian hears from St. Anthony the Great that “…the virtue of discernment which, avoiding extremes, teaches the monk to walk always on the royal road” (62). The royal road towards God is one in which discernment is constantly employed.
How do we avoid extremes and walk on the royal road? St. Moses compares the discerning of thoughts to the need that money changers had in discerning the money being given to them in payment. He breaks this down into four kinds of discernment. First, the need for scrutiny, the virtue of deciding truth. Second, the rejection of deceptive thoughts which have the “appearance of piety”. Thirdly, we must root out false interpretations that parade themselves with the aura of authority, specifically under the guise of the wisdom of the Fathers. And, finally, the need to “check the weight” of the thought. St. Moses means to thoroughly weigh the impact and reality of the thought. For example, “Is it filled with what is good for all? It is heavy with the fear of God?”
Do these four levels of discernment not also ring true for many challenges we face today? One of the challenges for us is that there are so many competing voices telling us about the “will of the Lord”. Our struggle for interpreting the times very often seems to be stuck between two extremes. On the one hand, things have never been better and we should be thankful for all of our liberties and freedoms. Because of this there should be no pessimism or reason for alarm.
On the other hand there is the view that everything is going to hell in a hand basket. The days are evil and so incredibly corrupt that we must consume ourselves in worry, rage, and consternation at the ways of the world.
What we need then is to discern what is going on around us. Many stand to profit from our lack of discernment. Corporations, governments, gurus, YouTubers, and many others hock their wares in the vast bazaar of information available through all of our screens. On one end things are sensationalized and incredibly high pitched and on the other side of things one is massaged and sensually lulled to sleep. You are led either to begin a revolt or to be completely satiated with numbing platitudes. Unfortunately within the Orthodox world and those who press alongside Her borders we have the full gambit. How do we begin to discern these various voices? How do we burn away the deficiencies and find what is precious, sometimes given to us in unpleasantness? How do we know when to ignore and even shut our ears to the hiss of the serpent? And, even more disconcerting, is the challenge of dissent and chaos promoted by those from within the Church.
I propose in the next few posts to propose ways in which we can grow in discernment, especially in these turbulent times. We seek the “royal road” that the Fathers point us toward. This royal road is the path to the development of an ecclesial mind or ethos, an essential part of our growth and maturity in Jesus Christ. The first step we will take in this direction will be a closer examination of the first St. Moses’s four ways of discernment. The virtue of scrutiny.