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Discernment as Responsible Love

Article by Rose Mary Dougherty, October 2019 eNews

How can I be sure that I am doing God’s will? How do I know that what I discern is really what God wants and not just what I want? How can I be certain that I’ll make the right decision?

These are the questions most frequently asked by good people who want to engage in prayerful decision-making. Each time I deal with these questions in myself or in another, I am encouraged to re-examine my understanding of discernment and its implications for my life.

I have come to realize that often we speak of wanting to discern God’s will in a particular situation when what we are really seeking is a process that will insure a successful outcome. Sometimes that hope for success is related to God; at other times it is subtly related to some self- image.

There is no human process that can protect us from mistakes and failures. As long as we are human and dealing with other human beings, we will be subject to uncertainty and ambiguity in our motives. We can, however, open ourselves to God in the uncertainty, in the ambiguity, and allow the compulsion for rightness to be transformed into an openness for responsible love.

Responsible love is a decision. It is the fruit of a deep desire for God. And that desire is ignited by the spark of God’s desire for us. Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century mystic, speaks of this desire this way: “Love makes God long for us. And in that manner of longing and waiting, God wants us to do the same.”

When we can remain in the flame of that desire, all lesser desires are consumed in it. Attachments are more easily recognized. We are freed for authentic choices, which are congruent with our desire, choices that often dislodge us from our comfort and satisfaction. The heart expands to embrace our brothers and sisters and to love them with a detached compassion that is willing for whatever we sense God invites us to do or to be on behalf of the other. The stance for responsible love requires an attentive heart, a heart open to God’s revelation in all of life. Love quickens desire. And desire purifies and readies the heart for responsible love. Yet desire needs illumination in order to clearly see the objects of choice. In seeking reality, we are faced with our myopia and our inability to judge accurately even that which we do see. We recognize our need to turn to others who can enlarge our vision and elucidate the facts.

There is always the danger of obsession with facts, wanting to be sure that we have all of the relevant data before we choose. In fact, we will probably never know all there is to be known of any given circumstance. And the truth often transcends the obvious. There comes the time when we are invited to be in simple faith, testing the inner leading against our desire for God and our openness to God, trusting God to transform the ambiguity of our hearts with the fire of love, and to be with us in and through the uncertainty. We have done what we can. Our task is to live in to the decision—seeking, when available, the support of others who share our desire for God and holding the fruits of the decision in the scrutinizing light of God’s love to determine authenticity.

Discernment does not end with a particular decision; rather, discernment is a habitual attitude that undergirds all our living. It is a way of being present to God that fine-tunes the heart to that God-desire in us. Gradually, our seeing becomes God’s seeing, our loving becomes God’s loving. Finally, with Saint Augustine, we can dare to “love God and do what we will.” Fidelity to our desire will give birth to responsible love.

This article is taken from the recent collection of Rose Mary’s newsletter articles, Trusting Love: An Undefended Heart, published by Shalem Institute in August 2019 and available through Shalem’s web store.

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