Discerning vs Doing
All three readings from this week echo a theme about the way of God, the will of God. The first reading (Ezekiel 18:25-28) contrasts the ways of God with the ways of man. This is echoed throughout Scripture: “Your ways are not my ways” (Isaiah 55:8).
In the second reading, we hear St. Paul saying that “…He [Jesus] obeyed the will of God even unto death, death on a cross” (Philippians 2:1-11). We also hear this motif in the Gospel. We hear about two sons, one that obeys and one that doesn’t. One that says he’ll be at the vineyard and doesn’t show up, and one who says he won’t show up but actually does (Matthew 21:28-32).
Obedience is True Freedom
This word ‘obedience‘ is key in our Christian faith. Today, when we hear the word obedience, we tend to think of someone who has mortgaged his or her freedom for somebody else’s. We tend to believe an obedient person is not a free person, and that could be the case, not always but it could. If we obey men and women, we could eventually lose our freedom — we could! We see it throughout human history.
But in the case of God, to follow His will, to obey His will, is always liberating; it is always a freeing action that spurs us on to more freedom. It is a source of joy in our life, to follow His will. That is what we pray every week: THY will be done. We can also see this in our hearts, that the way of God is not always the way of men. We see the need to discern, to think, to pray about what is the will of God as opposed to my will. Conscience comes into the picture, this holy space where God speaks to us, to me.
But How to Discern Between Two Goods?
Two or three years before ordination, still in the seminary, I was discerning exactly this question. I found myself disappointed, disenchanted, and struggling. Is it truly the will of God that I become a priest? Or is it maybe mine? Is it a whim, is it just MY thing? How do I know this is God’s will?
I Skyped with a friend of mine who lives and works in Rome and shared with him about my spiritual struggle. He invited me to come visit him in Rome. I was on the fence. You find the money for the airfare and I’ll take care of lodging and meals, he offered. (Wellllll, when you put it that way…) I knew that in that trip God would reveal something of the path He wanted me to take.
I flew to Rome and met my friend at the airport. “Where will be staying?”
Don’t worry about that.
We took a cab to downtown Rome and made our way to the Basilica of St. Peter. We started walking through the Swiss Guard posts. Eventually, we arrived at the place where the Pope Francis stays, Santa Marta. They assigned me a room on the fifth floor. I didn’t know, but the Pope usually stays on the second floor. So, for four days, I was quite literally above the pope! Every day I would make my way down the stairs, hoping to get a glimpse of the second floor and maybe bump into…someone. The Swiss guard, hearing my footsteps would invite be to keep making my way down and not stop to “tie my shoes” on the second floor.
All during this trip, in the back of my mind I always had the lingering question: what is the will of God? How will He speak to me? It is easy to discern the will of God between something good and something bad, something good and something evil. Our conscience is clear about that.
But how do you discern the will of God between something good and something better?
Something better and the best?
How, I asked myself, do I discern between two goods: the good of the priesthood and the good of married life? In the back of my mind this loomed.
The Man in White
One day we were at a public event on December 11, the eve of the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Rome, on that same trip. I was exhausted. I told my friend I was heading back to the hotel. I began to pray my rosary on the way back.
When I got to Santa Marta, this little voice said, “You’re tired. Why don’t you finish the last couple mysteries of the rosary in bed?” Yes, I’ll do that.
Then another voice said, “It’s the eve of the feast of Our Lady! Why don’t you just finish it in the chapel?” Reluctantly, I made my way to the chapel.
Opened the door…
Beautiful small chapel…
Dark, very dark…
Only thing lit was the tabernacle and the sanctuary lamp…
Except for a white figure sitting in the second pew.
Of course, I finished my rosary. I started another rosary. I finished that rosary, and I started Night Prayer. All the while, I see the Pope praying in the second pew. Eventually the Pope stood up and started walking toward the entrance. He saw me and changed direction and began making his way toward me. Of course, I didn’t want to distract the Pope. So, my gaze focused on the dim of the light of the Tabernacle, completely “unaware” of the white figure approaching me from the side. When it was too late, I had to turn and do my surprised face, Oh, Your Holiness! I hadn’t seen you here!… dressed in white, in this completely empty chapel.
“Holy Father, my name is Jorge Campos. I’m a seminarian from Mexico studying in the Archdiocese of San Antonio. I am very excited to say that, God willing, I will be ordained a deacon next year. So, I would like to ask for your prayers.”
“But I’d also like to ask two favors of you.”
“Sí, ¿Qué quieres?”
“I’d like to take a picture with you, and I’d love to assist at your Daily Mass, for the feast of Our Lady tomorrow.” He told me to show up the next morning for Mass.
You know what impressed me the most? I had an image of the Pope Francis from the media, the pictures, the videos. I had perceived him as a naturally joyful man, one of these happy-go-lucky personalities that are born with a natural inclination toward joy, maybe even naively so.
The first thing that impressed me about the Pope when I saw him was his face, with no smile or grin to be seen, drawn, exhausted, tired. I realized that for this man, this disciple of the Son of God, joy was a choice, joy was the way that he chose to live by, over any other attitude he could possibly take. Far from a naive approach to life… joy for him was a choice. He turned to me and said,
“Pray for me.”
“Holy Father, I pray for you every day. Thank you for everything you say, and thank you for everything you do!”
What he said was really a punch to the gut for me in my discernment … He chuckled and said,
“And may God forgive me for all the things I don’t do.”
That stayed with me for that trip and throughout my ministry, indeed my vocation.
Our vocation as Christians is not about feeling that we’re good people, knowing that we’re good. It is about DOING. Yes, it is about discerning, but discernment leads action: DOING the will of the Father. It is about seeing what God is asking of you and ACTING.
If we don’t act according to our conscience, next time our conscience speaks, it will be much quieter, and it will get quieter still until there is a time when we have a calloused conscience that speaks so quietly that we can barely hear it.
Doing Good is a Habit
God is speaking to us constantly. If we listen to our conscience, to do good becomes easier, it becomes a way of life, like the virtue of joy for the Pope. Seems to me that when it comes to our conscience, when it comes to us discerning the will of God in our lives, it is very easy for us to define ourselves by the evil we DON’T do:
I’m not a bad person.
I don’t kill.
I don’t rob.
I’m not a bully.
I’m a good person.
But we could be lying to ourselves, believing that because we don’t do really bad things, that makes us good. The will of God is for us to DO good in our lives, not just for us to NOT do the bad.
I discovered this in the words of Francis: In what place can I do more good? How can I act to build up the Kingdom of Christ Jesus in my life?
What IS Your Conscience, Anyway?
That is the story of our discernment. What is God calling you to do in your specific circumstances? In your workplace, in your school, in your life of retirement? How are you fleshing out the Gospel of Christ Jesus with joy and compassion toward your neighbor? The way of God and the way of man are not the same all the time, and we need to discern what His way is and to respond in obedience, in joy, in freedom to the will of the Father. But it starts with discerning in conscience. Listen to what the Church says regarding conscience:
In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience, always summoning him to live good and avoid evil. The voice of conscience, when necessary, speaks to his heart: do this, don’t do that. Condemn this. For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man. According it to will he be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner, conscience reveals the law which is fulfilled by love of God and of neighbor. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1776)
It is a great responsibility for us to form our conscience, because what it seems to say may not always be good. Perhaps my discernment of pursuing the married life was out of self-comfort, maybe laziness, maybe even fear. Maybe my position would have been that of the first son…yes, I’ll do everything! I’ll be there! But later, I could have been giving into laziness and comfort. To encounter our conscience is to encounter the will of the Father in our lives. He speaks to us. We have the moral responsibility to form our conscience in prayer, in consultation with others who have a spiritual life as well, and in study of the Church’s teachings.
Let us ask Mary to show us how to listen to our conscience with sincerity, how to discover the will of God in my circumstances, how to form our conscience, but let us also ask her for the courage and strength to act, to obey the will of the heavenly Father.
P.S. I couldn’t resist taking a picture in the chapel. I hope you’ll say a prayer for our Holy Father and his ministry as you see it.
This post is also available in: Spanish