One of the transformational moments in my spiritual journey was the realization that in order to grow in faith and my relationship with God, I would have to learn to live with tension and uncertainty. Accepting and living with tension and ideas that contradict on the surface is intrinsic to the Christian Tradition. We need look no further than the fact that our Canon of Scripture contains four Gospels that diverge (at least from a surface-level reading) in detail, emphasis, and chronology, yet we affirm that each of them is inspired and true.
Pope Francis — perhaps as a result of his Jesuit formation and his trust in the Holy Spirit — clearly welcomes this tension and thrive in it. After he became pope, the “spontaneity of spirit” in his approach was a shock to those of us who were unaccustomed to this type of approach. Some of us have hung on for dear life trying to figure out how he ticks, others have made up their minds that he has little to say to them, and others are just plain confused by him. But it’s not too late to begin to figure him out.
Nearly a decade into his papacy, he is offering us a “Catechesis on Discernment” series of Wednesday General Audiences. But three weeks in, it’s clear he’s talking about more than decision-making. What he’s offering might be described as a spiritual guide for navigating the Christian life in relationship with God, self, and neighbor. Today’s Catechesis was on the role of developing “familiarity with and confidence in God” through prayer. This is the key to discerning what God is asking of us.
Prayer is an indispensable aid for spiritual discernment, especially when it involves the affective dimension, enabling us to address God with simplicity and familiarity, as one would speak to a friend. It is knowing how to go beyond thoughts, to enter into intimacy with the Lord, with an affectionate spontaneity. The secret of the lives of the saints is familiarity and confidence with God, which grows in them and makes it ever easier to recognize what is pleasing to Him. True prayer is familiarity with and confidence in God. It is not reciting prayers like a parrot, blah, blah, blah, no. True prayer is this spontaneity and affection for the Lord. This familiarity overcomes fear or doubt that His will is not for our good, a temptation that sometimes runs through our thoughts and makes our heart restless and uncertain, or even bitter.
Discernment does not claim absolute certainty, it is not a chemically pure method, it does not claim absolute certainty, because it is about life, and life is not always logical, it has many aspects that cannot be enclosed in one category of thought. We would like to know precisely what should be done, yet even when it happens, we do not always act accordingly. How many times have we, too, had the experience described by the apostle Paul, who says: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want” (Rom. 7:19). We are not just reason, we are not machines, it is not enough to be given instructions to carry them out: the obstacles, like the supports, to deciding for the Lord are primarily affective, from the heart.