In his first retreat reflection Bp. Varghese begins by sharing that he “accepted (this assignment) as a penance for making the proposal that the General Curia invite a CM bishop to speak at the General Assembly.”
But anyone reading these reflections will quickly realize why he was chosen to speak at not only our Assembly but those of three other Religious Congregations in India.
D I S C E R N M E N T – First Conference
My dear confreres,
It was a pleasant surprise for me when the Superior General asked me to preach a one-day retreat to you, the members of this 2016 General Assembly. Although unsure if I am the right person, I accepted it as a penance for making the proposal that the General Curia invite a CM bishop to speak at the General Assembly. I was motivated to make such a proposal for several reasons: first, it is my conviction that a Vincentian who serves as a Bishop would be able to speak authentically of the Vincentian Charism as well as the mind of the Church. Secondly, as a Vincentian the bishop confrere who is invited, could speak frankly since he is not immersed in discussions on the selection of a new superior general and council. Most important of all, I am happy to have the great grace to meet many of my confreres from all over the world, whom I miss a great deal since my Episcopal appointment to Ethiopia in 2013.
I humbly acknowledge that by the Grace of God, I was privileged to guide the General and Provincial chapters of three Religious Congregations in India. The conferences I gave and the topics discussed were much appreciated as helpful for focusing them to their task. Encouraged by this positive stroke, I have chosen the topic “Discernment of the will of God in the personal and community level” for reflection, because of my conviction that the primary task of an Assembly is to discern the will of God for the Congregation. I understand that my duty here is not to presenting you with new theological constructs, but to enable you to reflect, pray, and to prepare yourself to fulfill the purpose of this Assembly. So, I humbly offer you some practical and simple thoughts for reflection, prayer, and deliberation. In this first talk, I present some general principles of discernment and in the second talk that follows some practical points and contemporary issues of relevance will be dealt with.
Discernment is a practice that Jesus lived quite intensely. Discerning the will of God and fulfilling it was food for Jesus (Jn. 4:34). He was convinced that he was anointed by the Holy Spirit and commissioned by his heavenly Father (Lk. 4:18-21). Jesus conversed with the Father before any important actions or functions so often that the disciples, seeing him praying, asked him to teach them to pray (Lk. 11:1). He was convinced that he should always do what his Father wanted and not what he desired. He glorified God on earth by fulfilling the work the Father gave him to do (Jn. 17:4). Yet, it was not easy for Jesus to discern and fulfill the will of the Father. He spent hours in prayer to find what the Father wanted from him (Lk. 6:12). And it was with much pain and agony that he accepted the Father’s will in the garden of Gethsemane (Lk 22:41-44). His Father meant everything to Jesus. His life was a struggle to follow the will of His Father. Jesus did not get his will done on earth. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Jn 26: 39) Only with intense prayer and great agony was he able to do what the Father wanted him to do. (Refer, Philippians 2:6-8; Hebrews 5: 7-8).
For St. Paul, discerning God’s will was also very important. He exhorted the faithful of Ephesus to “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” (Eph. 5: 10); and again, “Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Eph. 5:17). In his letter to Colossians, Paul spoke of the help that Christ gave him in making right decisions: “The peace that Christ gives is to guide you in the decisions you make; for it is to this peace that God has called you together into one body.” (Col. 3:15).
For St. Vincent, discerning the will of God was a theme very dear to his heart as he sought to imitate Christ. The same theme was presented by Vincent in his own vernacular of the time, using terms such as ‘seeking the will of God’, ‘dependence on the providence of God’, ‘seeking the kingdom of God before everything’, and ‘fidelity to God’. St. Vincent once exhorted the missionaries in this way: “Let us abandon ourselves to the providence of God and be on our guard against anticipating it.” On another occasion he said to them, “Perfection does not consist in ecstasies but in doing the will of God.” If for both Christ our Divine Savior and our holy founder St. Vincent, discerning and fulfilling the will of God was so important a duty, should it not be the central theme on which this 2016 General Assembly should be concerned with while dealing with such weighty matters for the future of the Congregation of the Mission?
What is discernment?
From its Greek and Latin roots, the verb ‘discern’ means to sift, to separate, to distinguish, as we separate rice from grains or from foreign matter. Though it may be used in a variety of ways today, in spirituality it has a specific meaning and may be defined as “a sifting of one’s inner experiences to discover their orientation and hence recognize their origin.”
- ‘Inner experiences’ include thoughts, beliefs, and judgments (of the mind), feelings and sentiments (on the level of emotions) and desires and inspirations (on the level of the will.) These three levels are in constant interaction. They lead to the formation and development of attitudes, values, and habits of thinking and acting.
- ‘Orientation’ is a key word in discernment. Our inner experiences tend to influence the direction we take, and choices we make. They orient us towards that which is good or bad. To discover the orientation requires a certain awareness and understanding of these inner experiences.
- ‘Origin’: In classical terminology, good and evil spirits are constantly acting upon us to lead us to good and evil respectively. From our final choice – for good or for evil – we can recognize what spirit was moving us. Hence, discernment is often called ‘discernment of spirits’. These spirits need not always be personified. We have good and evil spirits within us, such as desires to love and serve, to be honest pure and just, or on the contrary, tendencies to dominate and cheat, and the roots of the ‘capital sins’. There are also good and evil spirits around us, in our world: people who are examples of commitment, service, forgiveness and holiness; organizations and movements working for unity, dialogue, justice and peace. These are opposed by counter spirits such as consumerism, racism, corruption, terrorism, and fundamentalism. These spirits in us and around us can exert strong influence on us, whether we know it consciously or not. In discernment more emphasis is given to orientation than to the origin of spirits. What is more important is to know the path we take before arriving at the final choice, which may be good or evil (or less good).
Seeking God’s will
Discernment is often described as seeking and finding God’s will through the process of sifting inner experiences to discover their orientation. Now what do we mean by God’s will? It may be understood in several ways:
- First, it is accomplished through God’s overall plan for humankind and the world as stated in Ephesians1: 10 “The plan which God will complete when the time is right, is to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head.”
- Secondly, this would be in a general way, what God wants us to do, such as doing good and avoiding evil, observing the commandments, to live in love and build a better world.
- Thirdly, it would be to know what in a concrete situation God wants of me, what is pleasing to him here and now! The first two are relatively simple, as they call for discernment as we have been taught over the years. This third way is needed when we are faced with searching for an answer to some of the practical questions of daily life.
It may be good to keep in mind another distinction regarding God’s will: between what God wants and what God permits. God wants us to be happy and free, loving and other oriented. God does not want us to sin or to suffer, to be cruel or selfish, but he permits or allows it because he has given us the wonderful gift of freedom, which we sometimes misuse. When we talk of God’s will in both these areas, we should be clear what we mean.
PRE-CONDITIONS FOR DISCERNMENT
Certain dispositions (also called ‘attitudes’) are needed for one to discern properly. The more these are present, the better one can exercise discernment well. They include the following:
- A commitment to look for God’s will in the details of life. God does speak to us through small and big events and incidents. An attentiveness as to listen to God’s voice in every persons, things and events in our life makes us sharp in discerning. Even good Christians may find this bothersome, believing that God’s commandments and Church teachings alone are sufficient guidelines to lead a good life.
- Faith in a God who is loving, self revealing, and concerned about us and our world. What kind of image of God do we have is an important question here. If we have distorted images of God (such as one who punishes and condemns), it can interfere with good discernment. A child having a loving trust in his father would be confident enough to consult his father on every details of his life. Such child like trust and confidence is needed for a person who wants to discern the will of God.
- A relationship with God that we call prayer. We saw that Jesus was able to discern the will of his Father through his intimate relationship with the Father. This does not mean praying many hours each day, but keeping personally in touch with God on a regular basis, giving God a privileged place in our life. Specifically, this includes a desire to grow in one’s personal relationship with Jesus, allowing for an intimacy with Christ that leads us to interiorize more and more his mind and heart.
- An awareness of our inner movements – thoughts, feelings and desires – which play an important part in our choices and decisions. Through constant practice, we can develop a facility of being in touch with our inner selves. Self awareness of both our strengths and limitations are also required. Neither overconfidence nor self despise is helpful in discernment.
- An awareness of social reality, world and context in which we live and make our choices. This implies not merely about having information, but understanding to some degree the forces operating in society that influence us and shape our lives and worldview.
- Growth in inner freedom from fears and anxieties, prejudice, false beliefs, attachment to persons and things, resentments and unhealed wounds of the past, to name just a few! No one can ever be completely free of the many influences in our world. Yet, we have to ensure that none of these factors control or strongly influence our decision-making.
- Fraternal love: One who discerns has to be other-oriented or altruistic rather than self-oriented, with a forgiving, compassionate, and non-judgmental heart. A person with judgmental attitude will find it difficult both to discern and to accept the will of God mediated through another human being.
- One who develops the courage to take risks. Fear may prevent us from considering alternatives which cost us and blind us to see where God may be actually calling us.
For you, my dear brothers in the Little Company, I add these special dispositions of which I know you are all aware and trying to live and model for the confreres in your provinces:
- Along with our Vincentian virtues of simplicity, mortification, meekness, and zeal for souls, I believe one needs a certain degree of that other Vincentian virtue, namely humility: I discern with a humble spirit, because I don’t always know clearly the path to take. This would reflect a lived dependence on God, an openness to his Holy Spirit, a good degree of self-acceptance and a readiness to listen and learn from others. If a situation seems crystal clear, there may be no need for discernment.
- Vincentian identity: As Vincentians, we know there are other pre-requisites, such as love for the charism, spirit, and mission of the Congregation. We should have an awareness of our Vincentian identity and a conviction that we are discerning as Vincentians.
Since the requirements for a discerning person seem demanding, we may often settle for shortcuts, such as tossing a coin to decide the matter; depending on a more experienced person or a person in authority, (such as a superior) to tell us what to do; or falling back to rely on tradition, law, custom, or even our likes and dislikes to make our choice. Discernment is a way of life for those who are not satisfied with just doing good and avoiding evil, but who desire to search for what is pleasing to God, and to do the most loving thing in every aspect of one’s life.
Inner experiences are privileged ways through which God reveals his will, and help us to understand and accept what he wants us to do or be. But God also reveals himself in an equally privileged way through outer reality – the world in which we live, and its socio-economic, political, cultural and religious context in which we make our choices and decisions. This may also be seen as reading ‘the signs of the times’ a term used by Saint John XXIII which later became popular in the Church. What is God saying and revealing through the events and happenings in our world today? How the current issues of human rights, justice solidarity, poverty etc. influence us? What is our stand towards them? It is by answering to these and similar fundamental questions that we have to discern the will of God through the outer realities. If we give importance to our inner experiences alone and ignore God’s revelation in social reality, our discernment will be partial and distorted. Like the discernment of the inner reality, discerning the outer reality is equally challenging. Some prerequisites for doing this well include,
- An awareness of social reality and understanding of the various forces operating in society, including a familiarity with the basics of social analysis and exposure to the reality of poverty and injustice. This awareness should be coupled with a knowledge of the Social Doctrine of the Church. These realities will provide us with an adequate framework to view and analyze social reality and formulate adequate responses.
- An evangelical approach: This would mean looking at reality as Jesus did from the perspective of the poor and downtrodden. Ultimately, it enables us to embrace the evangelical approach of seeing Christ in the suffering faces of the poor.
- From this will then come an evangelical option. We take sides with the poor, defend and promote their cause, and become committed to working for justice and peace.
In religious communities, members and groups are called to make a collective discernment on important matters affecting the Congregation and its members. In such cases discernment may be understood as a prayerful search in common to discover where God is calling us as a group. This is the function of this General Assembly. Along with this, there are also certain prerequisites for group discernment as well, such as dispositions on personal and group levels, and these will influence the process itself.
- On the personal level: as previously noted:
- Awareness of our inner movements – thoughts, feelings, desires.
- Awareness of social reality, the context – economic, socio-political, cultural, religious.
- Inner freedom from fears, attachments, prejudices, and resentments. This would include readiness to be challenged, an openness to change my opinion or inclination, and an absence of any desire to win and triumph.
- On the group level:
- Mutual respect: This entails respect for each one in the group, including a respect for each one’s liberty to hold and express his opinion, and trust in and acceptance of each one in the group. This inclusive attitude helps all to be attentive to one another and learn from the ideas of the other person with an understanding that God can speak even through the mouth of the little ones.
- Openness to search for the truth, not alone, but along and together with others. Each member should be ready to search and accept truth wherever and whenever it is found.
- Non-judgmental attitude, not attributing unworthy motives to others. All should understand that every member of the group is called by God and mandated by the community. And each one is looking for the good of the community and for the glory of God. A pharisaic judgmental attitude of “Can anything good come from Nazareth” (Jn 1: 46), will be counterproductive in group discernment.
- Simplicity in sharing what one thinks and feels. This is a Vincentian virtue of absolute necessity for good group discernment. It is connected to truthfulness. In our talks and actions we should be simple and truthful. Our thoughts, words and actions should match. Duplicity always hinders discerning the will of God.
- Listening to others attentively and empathy, especially to what is said and not said. All may not have the same eloquence or clarity in expression. But the community should be able to listen even to such persons as to understand what is being communicated. In an international community the effort of the members in this regard should be more as to understand the meanings of expressions and terminologies.
- As regards the process:
- Belief that process of discernment we go through is valid and worth doing thus avoiding negative attitudes or actions.
- Trusting that God through his Spirit will lead us as a group. If it is the work of God the Holy Spirit cannot fail us, neither can we defeat God’s plan.
- Giving sufficient time to discuss and deliberate without undue hurry or rigid deadlines. Some ideas may need sufficient time to get mature. Some decisions may need more time than other ones.
- Working toward arriving at a common vision or goal shared and accepted by all the members of the group. Concretely, this could lead to more effective service towards those in need offered in the spirit of the Gospel, the value of life lived in community, or mission according to the religious (Vincentian) charism.
Some helpful distinctions:
Some authors also speak of distinctions to be made and while not specifically speaking of discernment, which would help us in making the right decisions.
- In his book “Call to Love”, Anthony de Mello distinguishes between ‘world’ feelings and ‘soul’ feelings. Examples of former are what we feel when we are praised or appreciated, when we win, succeed or come first, when we exercise power over others. Examples of ‘soul’ feelings are when we appreciate natural beauty, enjoy a good friendship, a book or a prayer, do something to stimulate our creative powers, such as music, art, or cooking. Both types of feelings are positive and good, but there are important differences in quality and orientation. ‘World’ feelings are more superficial; they give a thrill and excitement which makes us desire them all the more; they lead us to the ego more easily. ‘Soul’ feelings are deeper, more lasting and genuine, and give nourishment to the true self. An awareness of this distinction will enable us to cultivate the right feelings, and to avoid running after those which could deceive.
- In a short article on “Seeking happiness” Ronald Rolheiser says that some key questions we often ask ourselves are: Am I really happy? Do people like me? Is my life meaningful? Rohlheiser says that these are valid questions, but the wrong ones. For, happiness, love, meaning do not come to us when we go in search for them; they come to us as a by-product when we try to forget ourselves for others. So the authentic questions to ask ourselves are: Am I trying to bring happiness into the lives of others? Am I going out of myself in love? Am I helping others towards having a meaning in their life? When we go in this direction, the first set of questions will find their answers.
- In Appendix to his book “Certain as the Dawn”; Peter van Breemen distinguishes two basic approaches to Christian life: the moralistic approach and the faith approach. In the first, the most important issue is my love for God and for my neighbor, such as what I do and how I love. In the second approach, it is God’s love for me as I am and for my neighbor; namely, how I am loved, from which flows my doing and loving. This is stated briefly but so truly in the first letter of John, “We love because God first loved us”. (1 Jn. 4: 19)
According to our basic approach, we will understand all other realities such as God, sin, prayer, Eucharist, Confession, the Cross, and other aspects of Christian life in different ways. In the moralistic approach, it is finally my love for God that makes me holy; the emphasis is on me-serving-God. In the faith approach, it is ultimately God’s love for me that makes me holy; the emphasis is on God-whom-I-serve. We do not have to choose between these approaches: faith and works have to go together – each call for the other. The important question for a discerning person is: where do I place the emphasis? It makes a world of difference when we base our lives on the faith approach.
 C.M. Conference, November 29, 1656.
 C.M. Conference February 21, 1659.
 C.M. Conference November 29, 1656.
 March 16, 1664-ET: II, 499.
 October 17, 1655 – XI, 317.
 To show how important discerning the will of God is to St. Vincent, Andre Dodin C.M. in his book, “Vincent de Paul and Charity : A Contemporary Portrait of His Life and Apostolic Spirit” New City Press – New York, 1992, pp 91-99, gives 32 quotes from Vincent on the theme.
 For the following presentation, I am indebted a great deal to the book, “Discernment – A way of Life” by Rex A. Pai, S.J., Vaigarai Publications T.N., India- 2001.
Second retreat conference