by Charles LaFond
It is not easy having such a shy God. Always lurking in cliff-faces and in pillars of fire or smoke, God can seem so silent. And yet, the saints remind us that some can hear just fine. In fact some would rather not hear quite so much nor quite so often. Do you hear God sometimes? Do you trust your gut in prayer? Joan of Ark was an expert at discretion and discernment. She was a worrier but also a diplomat, girl and saint. She is my chosen patron saint. She fights and she is quiet as she burns alive.
One Christian practice with which I am slowly and needfully becoming acquainted is the practice of discretion. Now by using that word I do not mean the “discretion” that most modern ears hear when they hear that word. Today, in modern speech, discretion has taken on a different tone than it did in the dark, middle and late middle ages. When modern people hear the word “discretion,” they think of keeping secrets, but that is only a recent use of the word. Words, language, change over time and this word is nothing like its original, gorgeous word-self was in the 1400’s and 1500’s with chin up and eyes wide with wonder.
It would be easy if discretion were simply a matter of holding private what people tell you and indeed that is a part of the word ‘discretion” but the word, in the context of the spiritual life, is a much bigger word than that.
In the middle ages, when the Latin word “descretio” was coined for use in the context of the spiritual life, it meant two things. It meant both “discretion” and “discernment.” And together, these two words held, in tension, the spiritual practice of “descretio.”
Discernment is a popular word in churchy places and it means something like “how we make choices in our guts, while listening closely to what God may be saying about God’s longings for our good life and for the choice we are making.” God has longings for us and for our lives – discernment is the ancient spiritual practice of listening for those longings. So “discernment” is the spiritual practice of hearing God’s gentle voice and then speaking our “yes” to that voice as best we can. For example, Mary discerned that she should give birth to a child, Jesus, when doing so was dangerous. Mary heard God speak (rather dramatically through an Archangel) and said “yes” to what she heard, even though everyone else would have suggested that she save her own life from the stoning her family would be obliged to accomplish in those days, and under those church laws.
Discretion, on the other hand, is the sister spiritual practice of discernment and it is the spiritual discipline of listening to God for when we should hear a “no” from life and from God’s whispers. This is a much bigger discipline than simply not telling a secret. To what does my gut seem to say “no!”
Discretion is hearing God saying “Sweet one, I know you are right, and you know you are right, and they know you are right (which is why “they” are so angry.) You need to remain quiet. Let them manipulate you – it’s not very harmful if you can see it happening. You need to withhold this truth in your heart – between you and me. Trust me, I have you. Now is not the time to fight.” A good example from Scripture is the story of the woman caught in adultery who is brought to Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees are trying to compel Jesus to break the Law or stone a woman to death. The story is complex and has more to do with temple law from Jeremiah, but that story I will tell next week in the Daily Sip. For now, all we need to know is that Jesus does not answer his accusers because they are manipulating him, and he knows it. So, He simply writes in the sand (see John 8 below).
There are times when speaking to ecclesial injustice and manipulation would be easy, and sometimes even gratifying, but is not what God seems to be encouraging. God sometimes encourages us to become very quiet; reminding us gently that we are not God. There is one, but we are not it.
What I notice about the life and death of Joan of Arc is that when she is being manipulated by the church in order to gratify their goals and finally, their psycho-sexual inclinations, God tells her to be silent. She fights with God in her prison cell and at one point she even leaps nearly to her death to escape from a seven story tower, but she is recaptured by church officials who continue to torture and beat her, and in that time of “recovery” (they want her alive to enjoy her burning alive at the stake) she prays and hears a very clear call from God to be silent and let the accusations and torture proceed. She argues with God, saying she is innocent, that she was fighting for the church and that the church should not now burn her alive. God says that she should be quiet and let the trial unfold to its grizzly end.
To our modern ears, we say “Get a lawyer and fight.” But first, she was up against too much power with too many egos. And second, she heard a clear call from God to become quiet. Jesus did the same thing in his trials.
I think that can happen to us too. I think God can sometimes whisper a “yes!” to us, but at other times whispers a “no!” to us in the form of a call to silence. And we westerners, buttressed by our “rights” would be tempted to say “I will do what I want and what is right!” when in fact, God knows the outcomes and God may be whispering “no” for a reason we cannot see.
When Jesus is tempted in the desert, He says “no” three times to Satan. If he had said “yes” he would have been rich, powerful and famous. But he heard “no” and spoke it in Biblical verse.
What I am learning in life (and slowly) is that there are times, when I am threatened or manipulated, to get quiet and let God do the fighting in God’s time and in God’s way. It requires a humility I am also having to learn. Also slowly. But becoming like Jesus is what this is all about. And to stand firm, but silent, in the face of injustice, believing that God is working, takes courage and is in no way personally gratifying. So we breathe deeply. And we write in the sand. And God does the rest. In the end, it turned out ok for Jesus (well, in the end) and it will for us too if we have the courage to let God be God.
At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” John 8: 2-11 (NIV)