Gleanings from Orthodox Christian Authors and the Holy Fathers

discernment

19 Entries

A recent example of the kind that I promised you will show the force of that description proclaimed of old by the blessed Anthony and by the other fathers. Think of what you recently saw happening before your very eyes. Remember the old man Hero who was cast down from the heights to the lowest depths because of a diabolical illusion.

I remember how he remained fifty years in this desert, keeping to the rigors of abstinence with a severity that was outstanding, loving the secrecy of the solitary life with a fervor marvelously greater than that of any one else dwelling here. After such toil how and why could he have been fooled by the deceiver? How could he have gone down into so great a ruin that all of us here in the desert were stricken with pain and grief? Surely the reason for it was that he had too little of the virtue of discernment and that he preferred to be guided by his own ideas rather than to bow to the advice and conferences of his brethren and to the rules laid down by our predecessors.

He practiced fasting so rigorously and so relentlessly, he was so given to the loneliness and secrecy of his cell, that even the special respect due to the Easter day could not persuade him to join the brethren in their meal. He was the only one who could not come together with all his brethren assembled in church for the feast, and the reason for this was that by taking the tiniest share of the vegetables he might give the impression of having relaxed from what he had chosen to do.

This presumptuousness led to his being fooled. He showed the utmost veneration for the angel of Satan, welcoming him as if he were actually an angel of light. Yielding totally to his bondage he threw himself headlong into a well, whose depths no eye could penetrate. He did so trusting completely in the assurance of the angel who had guaranteed that on account of the merit of his virtues and of his works he could never come to any harm. To experience his undoubted freedom from danger the deluded man threw himself in the darkness of night into this well. He would know at first hand the great merit of his own virtue when he emerged unscathed. He was pulled out half-dead by his brothers, who had to struggle very hard at it. He would die two days later. Worse, he was to cling firmly to his illusion, and the very experience of dying could not persuade him that he had been the sport of devilish skill. Those who pitied him his leaving had the greatest difficulty in obtaining the agreement of abbot Paphnutius that for the sake of the merit won by his very hard work and by the many years endured by him in the desert he should not be classed among the suicides and hence, be deemed unworthy of the remembrance and prayers offered for the dead. St John Cassian, “Conferences,” (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 64-65



A small fire often destroys a whole forest; so too a small flaw spoils all our labor. St. John Climacus, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent," (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), Step26: On Discernment of Thoughts, Passions and Virtue

After God, let us have our conscience as our mentor and rule in all things, so that we may know which way the wind is blowing and set our sails accordingly. St. John Climacus, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent," (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), Step26: On Discernment of Thoughts, Passions and Virtue

An old man was asked, 'How can I find God?' He said, 'In fasting, in watching, in labors, in devotion, and, above all, in discernment. I tell you, many have injured their bodies without discernment and have gone away from us having achieved nothing. Our mouths smell bad through fasting, we know the Scriptures by heart, we recite all the Psalms of David, but we have not that which God seeks: charity and humility.' The Desert Fathers

An old man was asked, 'How can I find God?' He said, 'In fasting, in watching, in labors, in devotion, and, above all, in discernment. I tell you, many have injured their bodies without discernment and have gone away from us having achieved nothing. Our mouths smell bad through fasting, we know the scriptures by heart, we recite all the Psalms of David, but we have not that which God seeks; charity and humility. Apophthegmata Patrum

As galloping horses race one another, so a good community excites mutual fervor. St. John Climacus, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent," (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), Step26: On Discernment of Thoughts, Passions and Virtue

Discernment in beginners is true knowledge of themselves; in intermediate souls, it is a spiritual sense that faultlessly distinguishes what is truly good from what is of nature and opposed to it; and in the perfect, it is the knowledge which they have within by Divine illumination, and which can enlighten with its lamp what is dark in others. Or perhaps, generally speaking, discernment is, and is recognized as, the certain understanding of the Divine will on all occasions, in every place and in all matters; and it is only found in those who are pure in heart, and in body and in mouth. St. John Climacus, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent," (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), Step26: On Discernment of Thoughts, Passions and Virtue

Discernment is undefiled conscience and purity of feeling. St. John Climacus, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent," (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), Step26: On Discernment of Thoughts, Passions and Virtue

I remember the years when I was still a boy in that section of the Thebaid where the blessed Anthony used to live. Some older men came to visit him and to talk to him about perfection. Their talk lasted from the evening hours until dawn and the problem we are now discussing took up the greatest part of the night.

"There was a most searching inquiry into which of the virtues and which observance could always preserve a monk from the snares and deceptions of the devil and could lead him with firm tread on a sure path to the summit of perfection. Each one offered an opinion in accordance with the understanding he had of the matter. Some declared that by means of zealous fasting and the keeping of vigils the mind would be enlarged and would produce purity of heart and body so as to enable one to come all the more easily into union with God. Others posited detachment from everything in order that the mind, shorn of everything, freed from all the snares which were holding it back, would come more speedily to God. Others thought that what was necessary was to get completely away, to have the solitude and secrecy of the desert where a man, living there always, could converse more intimately with God and where union could be achieved more directly. Some opted for the practice of charity, that is to say, the works of hospitality, since it was to people of this kind that the Lord in the gospel promised especially that he would give the kingdom of heaven. 'Come, you blessed ones of my father, come and possess the kingdom which has been ready for you since the beginning of the world. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,' and so on (Matthew 25: 34-35).

"Thus it was that the different virtues were said to give a more certain access to God. And most of the night was spent in this inquiry.

"Finally, the blessed Anthony spoke. 'All the things that you have spoken about are necessary and helpful to those thirsting for God and longing to reach him. But the countless disasters and experiences of many people do not permit that any one of these virtues should be said to be the prime influence for good. For very often we have seen people who have been most zealous in their fasts and vigils, who have lived wondrously solitary lives, who have endured such total privation of everything that they would not allow themselves to hold on to even a day's food or even a single coin of the lowest value, who have hastened to do all that is required in charity - and who have suddenly fallen prey to illusion with the result that not only could they not give a fitting end to the work they had undertaken but they brought to an abominable conclusion that high zeal of theirs and that praiseworthy mode of life. Hence if we probe the exact reason for their delusion and fall we will be able to recognize what it is that, above all else, leads us to God. The virtuous activities, of which you were talking, flourished among them. But the lack of discernment prevented them from reaching the end. No other cause can be found for their downfall. Lacking the training provided by older men they could in no way acquire this virtue of discernment which, avoiding extremes, teaches the monk to walk always on the royal road. It keeps him from veering to the right, that is, it keeps him from going with stupid presumption and excessive fervor beyond the boundary of reasonable restraint. It keeps him from going to the left to carelessness and sin, to sluggishness of spirit, and all this on the pretext of actually keeping the body under control.' St John Cassian, "Conferences," (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 61-63, (a conversation between Abba Moses and John Cassian)



It is discernment which in Scripture is described as they eye and the lamp of the body. This is what the Saviour says, 'our eye is the light of your body, and if your eye is sound then there is light in your whole body. But if your eye is diseased then your entire body will be in darkness' (Matthew 6:22-23). This eye sees through all the thoughts and actions of a man, examining and illuminating everything which we must do. And if it is not sound in a man, that is, if it is not fortified by good judgment and by well-founded knowledge, if it is deluded by error and by presumption, this makes for darkness in our entire body. The clear thrust of the mind as well as everything we do will be shadowed and we shall be wrapped in the blindness of sin and the blackness of passion. 'If the light within you is darkness,' says the Saviour, 'what a darkness that will be' (Matthew 6:23). For let no one doubt that our thoughts and our works, which originate from the deliberative processes of discernment, will be caught up in the shadows of sin if ever the good judgment of our heart goes astray or is taken over by the night of ignorance." St John Cassian, "Conferences," (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 61-63, (a conversation between Abba Moses and John Cassian)

So, then, the four kinds of discernment to which I have been referring will be necessary to us. First, as to material, is it true gold or spurious? Second, we must reject as fake and counterfeit coinage those thoughts which have the deceptive appearance of piety. They bear a false and not the genuine image of the king. Then we must be able to detect and to abhor those which impose a viciously heretical stamp on the precious gold of Scripture. This is not the effigy of the true king but of a tyrant. Finally, we must drive away thoughts which are like underweight coins, dangerous and inadequate, thoughts which have lost weight and value because of the rust of vanity, thoughts which do not measure up to the standard of the ancients. St. John Cassian, The Conferences

Those who have come to love the Lord are at first unceasingly and greatly disturbed by this thought, as if burning with divine fire. I speak of separation from their own, undertaken by the lovers of perfection so that they may live a life of hardship and simplicity. But great and praiseworthy as this is, yet it requires great discretion; for not every kind of exile, carried to extremes, is good. St John Climacus, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent", Step 3: On Exile or Pilgrimage (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978)

True wisdom is gazing at God. Gazing at God is silence of the thoughts. Stillness of mind is tranquillity which comes from discernment. St. Isaac the Syrian in the Sebastian Brock translation of Homily 64

We are going to talk about discernment, its goodness, its special excellence. We had reached it last night as the concluding point of our discussion, and I think I shall first establish its outstanding character by reference to the opinions of the fathers. When it is clear what our predecessors thought or said about it, I shall then cite the example of various people whose catastrophic downfall, in the past and in recent times, was due to the fact that they had paid it scant attention. Then, to the best of my ability, I shall deal with its use and benefit. Following on this, I shall study its goodness and value and we will consider how we may more effectively locate it and cultivate it.

"This is no minor virtue, nor one which can be seized anywhere merely by human effort. It is ours only as a gift from God and we read in the apostle that it is to be numbered among the most outstanding gifts of the Holy Spirit. 'To one the gift of preaching the word of wisdom is given by the spirit, to another is given a word of instruction by the same spirit, to another faith in the same spirit, to another the girt of healing through this one spirit' (I Corinthians 12:8-9). Further on is 'to another is given the discernment of spirits' (ibid. 10). And following on the full list of the spiritual gifts he adds that 'it is the one and same spirit which works all of these, giving them out to each one as he chooses' (ibid. 11).

"So you see, then, that the gift of discernment is neither earthly nor of little account, but is, rather, a very great boon of divine grace. And if a monk does not do his utmost to acquire it and if he does not have a clear knowledge of the spirits rising up against him he will surely stray like someone in a dark night amid gruesome shadows and not only will he stumble into dangerous pits and down steep slopes but he will often fall even in the level, straightforward places. St John Cassian, "Conferences," (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 61-63, (a conversation between Abba Moses and John Cassian)



It is very useful to spend time reading the word of God in solitude and to read the whole Bible with understanding. In return for this exercise alone, without the addition of any other virtuous deeds, the Lord grants man His mercy and fills him with the gift of understanding. When a man provides his soul with the word of God, then he is granted the understanding of what is good and what is evil. St. Seraphim of Sarov, in Modern Orthodox Saints, Vol. 5.

This [discernment] is no minor virtue, nor one which can be seized anywhere merely by human effort. It is ours only as a gift from God and we read in the apostle that it is to be numbered among the most outstanding gifts of the Holy Spirit. `To one the gift of preaching the word of wisdom is given by the Spirit, to another is given a word of instruction by the same Spirit, to another faith in the same Spirit, to another the gift of healing through this one Spirit' (1Cor. 12:8-9). Further on is `to another is given the discernment of spirits.' And following on the full list of the spiritual gifts he adds that `it is the one and same Spirit which works all of these, giving them out to each one as He chooses. St. John Cassian, The Conferences

Self-denial must be cultivated with discernment, otherwise we reach the point of suicide. Elder Amphilochios Makris - http://agrino.org/cyberdesert/makris.htm

This [discernment] is no minor virtue, nor one which can be seized anywhere merely by human effort. It is ours only as a gift from God and we read in the apostle that it is to be numbered among the most outstanding gifts of the Holy Spirit. `To one the gift of preaching the word of wisdom is given by the Spirit, to another is given a word of instruction by the same Spirit, to another faith in the same Spirit, to another the gift of healing through this one Spirit' (1Cor. 12:8-9). Further on is `to another is given the discernment of spirits.' And following on the full list of the spiritual gifts he adds that `it is the one and same Spirit which works all of these, giving them out to each one as He chooses. St. John Cassian, The Conferences

It is very useful to spend time reading the word of God in solitude and to read the whole Bible with understanding. In return for this exercise alone, without the addition of any other virtuous deeds, the Lord grants man His mercy and fills him with the gift of understanding. When a man provides his soul with the word of God, then he is granted the understanding of what is good and what is evil. St. Seraphim of Sarov, in Modern Orthodox Saints, Vol. 5.





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