In his homily for the opening of the Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis presented three verbs that “characterize the Synod.” These three verbs are encounter, listen and discern. In a general sense, to “discern” means to” perceive or recognize (something). distinguish (someone or something) with difficulty by sight or with the other senses.” However, Pope Francis is a Jesuit, and spoken by a Jesuit, the verb “discern” has a much deeper meaning.

I began this series of articles with a deeper look at a possible reason for the longer time of formation for cloistered nuns, as set forth in Cor orans. This study led us to seeing the place that discernment has in religious formation. Then we found that discernment is not just for contemplative nuns but is meant to be part of the spiritual life of every Christian, and now we see that it is an essential element in the deepening life of the Church. Starting inside the cloister, we find that we have come to the discussion floor of a Church-wide Synod.

In his homily, Pope Francis said that “The Synod is a process of spiritual discernment, of ecclesial discernment, that unfolds in adoration, in prayer and in dialogue with the word of God. Today’s second reading tells us that God’s word is ‘living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ (Heb 4:12). That word summons us to discernment and it brings light to that process. It guides the Synod, preventing it from becoming a Church convention, a study group or a political gathering, a parliament, but rather a grace-filled event, a process of healing guided by the Spirit.”

Pope Francis truly believes that God is an active participant in the Synod’s deliberations. We assume that God gives His grace to His Church and to its members, but Francis says that this is a process “guided by the Spirit.” What does he mean?

In the tradition of Christian spirituality, discernment involves distinguishing the thoughts that come from God from those thoughts that have some other source. We began our study on a passage from St. Teresa of Avila’s Fourth Dwelling Places in the “Interior Castle.” Very often when we think of God’s intervening in people’s lives, we think of visions and locutions, of extraordinary phenomena in the spiritual life, but there is no mention of such things in the Fourth Dwelling Places. Teresa will certainly discuss such matters, but they will come later in her treatise. In the section we discussed, she is talking about discerning God’s grace in the normal, good thoughts of ordinary believers, and this is surprising when we stop to consider it, for we rarely think of God being personally active in such thoughts. Yet, Fr. Dominic Hoffman wrote that “Graces can often be quite ordinary things, like a bit of common sense.”[1]

If something so ordinary “as a bit of common sense” can be a grace from God, then we can expect to find such graces present at an ecclesial event like a Synod. But graces are not some impersonal actions that occur like ocean tides. They are personal gifts, and their presence means that a person is taking part in the event. If God is giving His graces during a discussion, then God is sitting at the discussion table. He is not above the discussion, an outsider looking in. He is present to our reflections. and He is taking part in our exchanges.

This is not so incredible as it seems. In the Acts of the Apostles, we can follow the discussion at the first ecumenical council, the Council of Jerusalem.[2] The statements made by the participants are quite straight-forward. There is no indication of any extraordinary prophecies or visions or locutions given to anyone present. There was nothing beyond the reasonable debate of faith-filled believers. Yet the final statement of the council Fathers begins, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”[3] They were aware that the Holy Spirit was present and active in their discussions.

How does this work out? Perhaps an example will help. In 1982, Pope John Paul II was scheduled to go to Great Britain, an event that ranked as a diplomatic breakthrough after several centuries of religious and political conflict. The plans for his visit were pulled to a sudden halt when war broke out between Great Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The thought of the Head of the Catholic Church visiting a Protestant country that was at war with Catholic Argentina was politically too explosive to be considered– until someone had the idea of the Pope visiting both countries and urging peace and reconciliation to both sides of the conflict.

Once the suggestion was made, adding Argentina to the Pope’s travel plans seems like an obvious solution to the diplomatic stalemate, but the idea was not obvious until someone actually suggested it. Was this an example of Fr. Hoffman’s “grace as simple as a bit of common sense”? It seems likely, for the suggestion has the simplicity and wisdom that are the marks of the Holy Spirit: respect for all those involved, an openness which drew together those who had been divided, a peacefulness which eased the previous tensions. Such signs indicate that something more than natural human prudence is at work, and it is such signs that we are looking for in the thoughts that pass through our minds. As we saw in our first article, “Lessons From the 49ers.,” one of the main differences between “consolations” and “spiritual delights” is the sense of “expansion.,” of a relaxation from tenseness which we cannot give ourselves. Such are the thoughts and ideas that we are looking for in our discernment.

However, to discern a thought or idea we must first be aware of that thought and being aware of our thoughts can be as challenging as catching one leaf in an autumn blizzard. As a German poem expresses it,

Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No person can know them, no hunter can shoot them
and so it’ll always be: Thoughts are free![4]

If thoughts are so volatile, how can one discern them? St. Teresa struggled with this dilemma, and she was certainly not the first person to do so. “The memory remains free, but it seems to be joined with the imagination. And since it sees itself alone, the war it wages is something to behold — how it strives to disturb everything. As for me, I find the memory tiresome and abhorrent; and I often beseech the Lord that He take it away during these periods if it is going to bother me so much.”[5] “Perhaps it’s only my intellect that’s like this, and others’ intellects are not. I am speaking about myself, for sometimes I want to die in that I cannot cure this wandering of the intellect.”[6]

Where do these wandering, interfering thoughts come from? Teresa speaks here of the memory, and it is said that everything that we have experienced in our life is stored in our memory. Whether this is true or not, it is certainly true that thoughts and images will come to our mind that we have forgotten or that we don’t remember at all, and it can be very difficult to get rid of them. How can we possibly discern which of our thoughts are from God when we have so many of them streaming through our mind?

We are using the practices of the 49ers as metaphors for discernment, and I think that the practice of panning for gold is a good illustration for dealing with an exuberant memory and imagination. What does panning for gold involve? “In panning for gold from streams, the pan is first filled halfway or so with gravel, soil, and rocks from places where the current is slower (such as downstream of boulders or on the inner side of bends in the stream). The pan is then immersed in the water, and the mixture is thoroughly wetted and stirred. Lumps of clay are broken up, and large stones are picked out. The pan, still under water, is then given a combination shaking and gyratory motion. This allows the heavy particles to settle and brings the lighter material to the surface. At intervals the pan is tilted, and the light surface material is washed off. This process is continued until only heavy ‘black sands’ (such as ilmenite, magnetite, and pyrite) and gold remain. The material is dried and the gold removed (perhaps after using a magnet to remove some of the black sand). Panning is slow, backbreaking work, but in experienced hands there is little or no loss of gold.”[7]

How can this apply to discerning thoughts, especially thoughts that “fly by like nocturnal shadows”? Teresa, who struggled with flying thoughts for several years, tells us how she learned to handle them: “I have been very afflicted at times in the midst of this turmoil of mind. A little more than four years ago I came to understand through experience that the mind (or imagination, to put it more clearly) is not the intellect. I asked a learned man and he told me that this was so; which brought me no small consolation. For since the intellect is one of the soul’s faculties, it was an arduous thing for me that it should be so restless at times. Ordinarily the mind flies about quickly, for only God can hold it fast…”[8]

Thoughts can fill our mind as they flow out from our imagination and our memory. Teresa compares these whirling thoughts to a madman, and she teaches us how to tame them: “I look at this madman and leave it alone to see what it does; and — glory to God — it surprisingly enough never turns to evil but to indifferent things: to whether there is anything to do here or there or over yonder.”[9] Teresa doesn’t try to control her thoughts. Instead, she steps back out of their reach and lets her thoughts whirl around at arm’s length, like a miner gently swirling the mixture in his pan and watching as the soil is broken up and runs out with the water. Teresa learned to have a detached awareness of her own thoughts, and in this way, she was no longer troubled by them. Even more, she found that with this awareness she was able to pick out the thoughts which needed to be tested, just as the miner picks out the heavier material in his quest for gold. This detached, attentive awareness, which is sometimes called mindfulness, is the essential basis for Teresian prayer. Just as Teresa learned to look at her own thoughts, she learned to look at Our Lord: “I’m not asking you now that you think about Him or that you draw out a lot of concepts or make long and subtle reflections with your intellect. I’m not asking you to do anything more than look at Him. For who can keep you from turning the eyes of your soul toward this Lord, even if you do so just for a moment if you can’t do more?”[10]

This detached awareness is also an invaluable way to deal with the confusion of present-day communications. If I can watch my own thoughts with a peaceful detachment, then I will be able to do the same with the cacophony and chaotic emotions swirling around in many discussions. Pope Francis advised the participants of the Synod on Synodality of the need for discernment. We can see here how necessary it is to practice this detached awareness of their own thoughts and of those of others in order to recognize those thoughts which come from God.

In our next article we will look more closely at this process of panning for spiritual gold.


[1] The Life Within: the Prayer of Union, by Fr. Dominic Hoffman, O.P. Sheed & Ward, New York, 1966, p. 53

[2] Acts of the Apostles, ch. 15

[3] Acts 15: 28

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_Gedanken_sind_frei

[5] “Life” 17, 5

[6] “Way of Perf.” 31, 8

[7] https://www.britannica.com/technology/panning

[8] “Int. Cast.” IV, 1, 8

[9] “Life” 30, 16

[10] “Way” 26, 3

Image: Adobe Stock. By By Greg Pickens.

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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