Learning to Discern Well

“Virtue loves discernment and can never be excessive—neither too little nor too much.”
(Document 57, Journal of the Last Days of Saint Vincent, 5 June 1660, CCD, 13a:196.)

“…in the final analysis, virtue is not found in extremes, but in prudence.…”
Letter 881, To Etienne Blatiron, In Genoa, 26 October 1646, CCD, 3:101-02.

As the global community faces uncertainty and fear surrounding the COVID crisis, we are invited into a period of ongoing discernment individually and collectively about what to do and how to live in the midst of this current and unprecedented situation. Discernment might be thought of as both the art of making wise decisions about particular matters, as well as developing the habit of learning and growing in wisdom through our daily challenges and experiences.

A focus on discernment is especially suited to the current season of Lent, practiced by Catholics and in many other Christian traditions during these 40 days leading to the celebration of Easter. What wisdom might this time-tested annual spiritual practice hold for us now as we seek to discern well?

While we find little in Vincent de Paul’s writings specifically concerning the practices of Lent, he clearly invited his followers to consider what they might do in order to use this season well. For many Catholics in the northern hemisphere, the Lenten season is a sort of spiritual “spring training” during which we re-assess where we are on our journey and re-focus ourselves on what is most important.

For some, using the Lenten season well, therefore, means committing to positive action consistently over this 40-day period, hoping to build or deepen habits that reflect important values or goals. Others find it helpful to use the Lenten season to focus on refraining from habits that may be unwittingly pulling them away from what is most important—because sometimes we are swayed into navigating the stresses of life in ways that are ultimately harmful and do not reflect the best of who we are.

Vincent’s unswerving focus on moving from espoused values to lived virtues offers a timeless challenge particularly relevant for this season of Lent, as well as during this time of public crisis. Virtues, as Vincent understood them, are values that are embodied or put into practice consistently through our actions and in concrete ways. He believed that virtues are “acquired only by repeated acts,” and are not realized all at once but only “gradually, gently, and patiently” over time (1933, To Pierre de Beaumont, CCD, 5:443). Vincent tended not to rush making decisions, but waited for the best path to be revealed through careful attention to prayer and to the realities of life.

Certain situations in our lives offer us compelling opportunities to practice the art of discernment. We are living in such a situation now.

The Lenten season invites us to exercise these discernment muscles as a regular and ongoing practice in our lives, such that making wise decisions becomes more our habit. Vincent’s wisdom invites us to focus on putting our values into practice, and to pay careful attention to what is being revealed through our daily life, our experiences and relationships.

As we move through this season and the challenges before us, we also can look forward to the promise of springtime. May this season bless us with a deepened wisdom and a stronger connection to one another, as well as with hope for the abundance of new life on its way in the near future.

Reflection by:  Mark Laboe, Associate Vice President, Mission and Ministry