Sunday, January 14, 2007

Discernment: One of the Most Important Gifts of the Holy Spirit!

What should I do?
Discernment needed.

(Second Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on January 14, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Corinthians 12: 4-11; John 2: 1-11.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of the Year 2007]

It looks like the right thing to do.

It sounds like the right thing to do.

It seems like the right thing to do.

It even “feels” like the right thing to do.

So—is it the right thing to do?

Many people in the modern world—even many Catholics—would be quick to say, “Yes!” But the correct answer is actually, “Maybe”.

Because something can look and sound and seem and feel like the right thing to do and still be wrong!

This is one of the problems we all face in making important decisions in our lives. But, fortunately, our loving and merciful God understands our human condition. In fact, he understands it far better than we do.

Which is one reason why he has sent us the Holy Spirit—the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity!

The Spirit is given to us for many reasons—not the least of which is to bring us the grace of forgiveness and salvation through Baptism. But he’s also there to help us discern the perfect will of God in our daily lives; he’s there to help us discern the right course of action in particular circumstances.

St. Paul reminds us of this in today’s second reading—this text from 1 Corinthians 12. There he mentions a number of gifts of the Spirit, one of which is the “discernment of spirits”.

That’s a gift, my brothers and sisters, that we should all pray for constantly—at least once a day!—because we all make lots of decisions each and every day (some of them very important ones!).

Every decision, you see, begins with a thought. Discernment helps us to identify where that thought has come from: from God, from our own weak human nature, or from Satan (those, ultimately, are the 3 possibilities).

Once we arrive at a moral certitude about where a particular thought has come from, we will know whether or not we should act on it.

So, obviously, discernment is crucial! In order to discover—and carry out—God’s will in our lives, we must discern properly.

But that’s easier said than done! As I indicated at the beginning of my homily, we might have the thought to do something that looks good and sounds good and seems good and feels good.

But that doesn’t mean it is good!

After someone cuts you off on Route 95, for example, you might have the thought to run that individual off the road! In the heat of the moment, that might “seem” and “feel” like the right thing to do!

But, of course, it isn’t.

Discernment makes that clear to us. So we need to pray for the gift.

And then we need to follow good, practical, spiritual advice, so that we can put the gift into practice.

Like the kind of advice I found on-line a couple of weeks ago, in an article by Maurice Blumberg. The article was entitled, appropriately enough, “Discerning God’s Will in Our Decision Making.” In it, Blumberg outlines several questions that we should ask ourselves whenever we’re faced with very important decisions.

The questions come from Fr. Michael Scanlan, the retired president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Here are a few of them:

The very first question Fr. Scanlan says we should ask ourselves when we’re facing an important decision in life and considering a certain course of action is this: Does it—does this course of action—conform to God’s law as revealed through Scripture, tradition and the teaching of the Church? If it doesn’t, then we definitely shouldn’t do it.

So if you’re trying to decide whether you should sleep with someone to whom you’re not married; if you’re a teenager and you’re trying to decide whether you should go to a drinking party with your friends next Friday night; if you’re trying to decide whether you should cheat on your income tax this year; or if you’re trying to decide whether you should run a bad driver off the road on Route 95, you don’t have to go any further than this question for your discernment!

The answer in all 4 cases is No—you should not! You should not sleep with that person; you should not go to that party; you should not cheat Uncle Sam and the IRS; and you should not run that rotten driver off the road (even though the guy should probably have his driver’s license revoked immediately!).

This makes a lot of decisions really easy to make, does it not? If the action in question does not conform to God’s law as revealed through Scripture, tradition and the teaching of the Church, then we shouldn’t do it. Period!

That’s proper discernment.

Another question Fr. Scanlan says we should ask ourselves is this: Does the action in question foster personal conversion and growth in holiness? If you’re presently a senior in high school, for example, and are trying to decide which college to attend next year, this would be a very important question for you to consider: Which college will help me to develop the most in the moral and spiritual dimensions of my life, in addition to giving me the skills that I need to succeed in my chosen profession?

And then there’s always what I would call the “fruit issue”. This isn’t directly mentioned in Blumberg’s article, but it’s definitely implied. When we’re considering a certain course of action, we need to think of what the fruit of that action will be. As Jesus told us, “Every good tree produces good fruit, while every bad tree produces bad fruit.” In the context of this homily, you can legitimately substitute “action” for “tree” in that passage: “Every good action produces good fruit, while every bad action produces bad fruit.”

Speaking of Jesus, in today’s Gospel story our Lord decides to perform a miracle in order to save a young couple from humiliation at their wedding. Obviously Jesus discerned that this was the proper course of action; he discerned that this was the right thing to do.

First, a little historical background. In first century Palestine, a wedding celebration was not a one-day event as it is for people in our country today. The actual ceremony took place late one evening, after a big feast, but then for 7 days the newly-married couple received visitors into their home. They wore crowns and dressed in their wedding robes. It was during this period that “the wine ran out” on this particular bride and groom.

Scripture scholar William Barclay says the following about the importance of wine at these celebrations: “It was not that people were drunken, but in the East wine was an essential. Drunkenness was in fact a great disgrace, and they actually drank their wine in a mixture composed of two parts of wine to three parts of water. At any time the failure of provisions would have been a problem, for hospitality in the East is a sacred duty; but for the provisions to fail at a wedding would be a terrible humiliation for the bride and bridegroom.” (Daily Bible Study Series, Commentary on John, vol. 1, page 97)

Jesus, of course, could have made the decision not to get personally involved in this situation, since, as he told Mary, his “hour” had not yet come.

But, as we all know, he did decide to act!

And we can see at least part of the reason why, if we look at the situation in light of the criteria for good discernment that I mentioned a few minutes ago.

First of all, was making wine contrary to God’s law?

Answer: No! There is no moral law against making—or drinking—wine (if there were, a lot of us would be in big trouble, wouldn’t we?). There is a moral law against drunkenness, but that’s different.

So there’s nothing ostensibly wrong about supplying wine for a wedding—even if you do it in a miraculous way!

Secondly, did the action of changing water into wine foster personal conversion and growth in holiness? The answer, believe it or not, is yes—at least for the apostles (and maybe for the stewards and the couple as well). We know it affected the apostles in a positive way because of the last line of the story: “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.”

That, in and of itself, more than fulfills the “good fruit” requirement: the disciples began to believe! They began to put their faith in Jesus and in his word. But there were other bits of good fruit that were also produced by this miracle, not the least of which was that the newlyweds were preserved from disgrace by being able to show proper hospitality to their wedding guests.

Clearly Jesus’ discernment in this situation was perfect—absolutely perfect! That, of course, really shouldn’t surprise us because Jesus was God, and as such he was perfectly united in his divinity to the Holy Spirit.

Today we ask Jesus to send that same Holy Spirit, once again, into our hearts—so that our ability to discern God’s will in our lives might improve.

And let’s try to remember to make that same request tomorrow, and the next day, and every day thereafter—because discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit that we will always need!