I‘ve been thinking about the topic of discernment again lately (longtime readers know that this is a big area of fascination for me). How do I know what God wants me to do in this or that situation? If I have a bunch of good options in front of me, which one do I choose? This is the sort of thing I ponder when I’m loading the dishwasher.
Of all the stacks of books I’ve read on this subject, one vignette keeps coming to mind: the famous story of St. Francis of Assisi receiving the message from God in the church at San Damiano.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that this story contains the key to discernment.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the life of St. Francis, he was the son of a wealthy merchant in 12th-Century Assisi, Italy. After living a life full of worldly pleasures, he walked away from it all to pursue holiness. One day he was praying in the dilapidated church of San Damiano, and he heard the voice of God say:
Francis, rebuild my church, which, as you see, is falling down.
So Francis went to collect stones for this church. He gathered them wherever he could find them, even begged for them. For a while after that, he dedicated himself to the simple task of hauling stones.
Every time I come across that part of the story, I always feel like shouting, “No, Francis, you misunderstood! God meant capital-C Church!”
Francis lived in a time when the Church at large wasn’t in great shape. In his part of the world especially, corruption and apathy were big problems. And, as we now know, Francis did end up turning it around through his preaching and his radical simplicity. He was arguably the greatest reformer the Church has ever seen. Far be it from me to question the discernment of a saint, but…ya know…it really does seem like God meant Church, not church, in his message at San Damiano. It seems like Francis misunderstood.
Let’s contrast the way he responded to that message to the way someone like me would heed the same call:
Francis: [Gets up, walks out of the church, and gets to work gathering stones.]
Jen: “‘Rebuild my church’? What church? This one? Or did you mean my home parish church? And what did you mean by ‘rebuild’ — are we talking a symbolic spiritual renewal or physical renovation? If the latter, exterior or interior? Or both? Or, wait…did you mean capital-C Church?!”
Basically, I would have analyzed it, thought about it, talked about it, and done whatever the 12th Century version of blogging about it was. And I would have taken no action until I felt like I had perfect clarity on it — which means I probably never would have done anything at all.
Contrasting my way of discernment with St. Francis‘, it becomes clear that mine is all about control: I feel like it rests entirely on me to get it right. The weight of the world is on my shoulders alone. I act like God is powerless to work things out without me interpreting his call with 100% accuracy. Yet again, my mentality is, “IT’S ALL UP TO ME!!!”
But St. Francis got it right, even if he did misunderstand that message. He understood that the secret to discernment (and, really, the secret to pretty much everything) is humility. He knew that it’s better to get a message wrong and proceed in humility than to get it right and proceed as if it’s all up to you.
I’ve had some big discernment issues come up lately, mostly regarding the next steps for the book now that it’s almost ready to send off. There are a few different directions I could try to go, some of which will close off other options if I pursue them. None of the options are perfect, but none are terrible. They all have drastically different pros and cons. I’ve been saying a lot of hand-wringing prayers, feeling frustrated that I don’t have perfect clarity about which path to choose.
But now, the more I look to St. Francis’ example, the more I see that knowing the mind of God perfectly isn’t necessary for good discernment (not to mention the fact that it isn’t even possible). As long as I am not blocking out God’s voice through intentional disobedience or sin, as long as I am sincerely seeking his will, that’s what matters. Even if I misunderstand some message in prayer and end up taking the “wrong” path, the Lord will work it out, as long as I stay close to him. I pray that I might follow in the footsteps of St. Francis in my discernment with this situation as well as any others. After all, through his humility, God indeed lead him to rebuild the Church…after he rebuilt the church.