Desire and Discernment: A Letter to Myself

Dear Faith,

In your latest letter, you asked a never-ending question in our spiritual journey, “How do I know what I desire is also what God wants me to do?” I know that you are seeking the will of God and are struggling about how to make a good discernment. I would like to share with you some wisdom that I borrow from the spiritual masters who were concerned with your question.

I am glad that you desire to do what God wants you to do, since an authentic desire is the beginning of a good discernment. If we consider discernment as a process which includes the interpretation of our spiritual experience, then the centre of discernment is desire because it is the power of attraction which begins our experience. Desire is powerful, for it can be the energy which moves us towards God and to do the will of God; at the same time, it can also enslave us when it is directed to anything other than God. In discernment, the power of desire and the purification of desire meet.

Dear Faith, in this letter I would like to show you that the authentic desire for God is the beginning and end of discernment. Discernment leads to the purification of our immediate desires in harmony to our ultimate desire for God, which in turn facilitates the process of discernment. Thus, the secret of making a good discernment lies in the authenticity of our desires, or to a broader extent, the authenticity of our Christian life.

What is an authentic desire? The dictionary of Christian Spirituality defines desire as a “longing or yearning for, or being attached to or drawn toward, something beyond the self.” For Christians, it is in the desire for God himself that our specific desires find their meanings. In the case of desire, discernment consists in a testing of the immediate desire against the most fundamental and authentic of all our desires — the Desire for God. Discernment requires us therefore a deep understanding of the Desire for God. We shall become what the Lord described as skilled changers of currency who are familiar with the “standard gold”, therefore have greatest knowledge to tell the difference between the purest gold and those spurious coins (Cassian, 54).

All the masters discuss the Desire for God, but I only want to select three representatives, Gregory of Nyssa (early Orthodox), Bernard of Clairvaux (medieval Catholic), and Richard Baxter (post-Reformation Protestant) to show you how our traditions understand the Desire for God. For Gregory, the Desire for God is to be called a friend of God by the virtues of the lives we live (Gregory, 135). The encounter with God requires one “in all things to be pure in soul and body, washed stainless of every spot in both parts, in order to appear pure to the One” (Gregory, 92). The Desire for God never ends, always creating a longing to see more (Gregory, 116).

Comparing with Gregory, Bernard uses more intimate imagery—kiss— to describe this Desire. This joyful, intimate, and passionate Desire is just like the Bride desires and loves her Bridegroom. “What can be more joyous than this marvellous union? What more to be desired than love … the contract of a holy and spiritual marriage” (Bernard, 271). The Desire for God is a loving response to God’s initiation, for “God has gone before you and sought you before you sought him” (Bernard, 275). The Desire for God goes through a dynamic process, which Bernard explains with three kisses: the kiss of feet, the kiss of hand, and the kiss of mouth. The kiss of feet represents repentance and forgiveness of sins as expressed through tears, shame, and grief (Bernard, 222). The kiss of hand, grace, fruits of worthy repentance, and works of holiness (Bernard, 223). The kiss of mouth, intimacy and union with Jesus, being “made one with him through his kindness” (Bernard, 223). In agreement with Gregory, Bernard also believes that the Desire does not end at “the happy discovery of what is desired”, but extends the desire (Bernard, 274).

Baxter describes the Desire for God as the saint’s everlasting Rest, which is the end and perfection of motion, the most happy estate of a Christian (Baxter, 29). The Rest involves a perfect freedom from all evils, the highest perfection in body and soul, and the nearest enjoyment of God (Baxter, 39-40). Agreeing with Bernard, Baxter states the Desire is caused by God’s love. It is a free gift which is purchased by “the precious blood of Christ.” The soul can experience the joys that are immediately from God himself in the Desire (74).

Dear Faith, have you noticed some similarities in these masters’ understandings, even though they use different imagery? They all point out that the Desire is a relational union with God, being a friend, a lover, or simply resting with God. They all emphasize that the purification of body and soul is the precondition of experience this Desire. Does this remind you of Cassian? The aim of our life is the kingdom of God, and our objective is the purity of heart which rises to the high point of love (Cassian, 41). For Gregory, the Desire is predominantly an intellectual encounter with God, while Bernard and Baxter mention more affective aspects. Please keep both in mind, Faith, since we not only use our brain in discernment, but also trust our feelings. It seems for Gregory and Bernard, the Desire always creates a deeper longing and desire. Desire never ends. An authentic desire must be the energy which leads us to the union with God.

Now, let us move to discernment. As mentioned before, as a process, discernment contains a testing of the immediate desire against our ultimate Desire for God in which the Spirit yearns for God within us. If the meeting of our immediate desires and the Sprit-given Desire for God brings harmony, this indicates that our immediate desires are moved by the Spirit. Otherwise, it indicates a “spirit” at variance with the Holy Spirit. Discerning desires is discerning the spirits.

Faith, please forgive me that I will emphasize again the importance of discernment before we talk about how to discern. “No virtue can come to full term or endure without the grace of discernment…For discernment is the mother, the guardian, and the guide of all the virtues.” (Cassian, 64) Without discernment, we are susceptible to the temptations of the evil spirit (Cassian, 55). The blessed Antony spoke that it is “the lack of discernment [that] prevented them from reaching the end.” (Cassian, 62) Remember, Faith, discernment which the Scripture is described as the eye and the lamp of the body, is a gift from God (Cassian, 60). Pray that God may grant you this gift.

Discernment is impossible without humility. The masters believe that humility and true self-knowledge are the prerequisites of discernment. “True discernment is obtained only when one is really humble. The first evidence of this humility is when everything done or thought of is submitted to the scrutiny of our elders.” (Cassian, 67) Teresa also insists on the necessity of spiritual direction, to ask advice, to place oneself in the hands of others and to enter into the way of obedience (Teresa, 65). Humility instead of self-reliance, and growth of self-knowledge are important points for Teresa. “For in order to know ourselves, it helps a great deal to speak with someone who already knows the world for what it is.” (Teresa, 65) Faith, I think the point of obeying and listening to your director and wise friends is not seeking wisdom from them, but is learning to open your thoughts to God through trustworthy people. The pride of self-confidence and the danger of deception eliminate by placing ourselves in the hands of others. As Cassian says, “An evil thought sheds its danger when it is brought out into the open.” (Cassian, 68) Of course, we also need to exercise discernment in deciding who is trustworthy (Cassian, 71). I am praying that God will bestow you a trustworthy director with whom you can feel the presence of God.

Now we finally come to the practice of discerning desires/spirits. I would like to draw your attention to Cassian, Teresa, and John of the Cross, not because other masters do not give advice about controlling desires or avoiding temptations, but these three masters particularly deal with the deceptions in discernment. I also want to give you some insights from different traditions and male/female perspectives.

For Cassian, discernment begins with mediation of Scripture, that is, “the memory of the Lord’s cross”, with which we shall manage to destroy “the liars of wild beasts within us and the hiding places of the venomous serpents.” (Cassian, 58) He reminds us three sources of our thoughts/desires: God, the devil, and ourselves. The voice of God is always quiet and gentile, but firmly lead us to inner peace, joy, and desire for God. The devil always attracts us to sin, deceitfully presents himself as an angel of light. It makes us feel unworthy of God and run away from God, and leads to despair in the long run. Then discernment involves being attentive to the thoughts/desires that surface in our hearts and scrutinizing the source of our thoughts/desires. “Right from the beginning we will scrutinize their origins, their causes, their originators, deciding our necessary reaction to them in the light of who it is that suggests them.” (Cassian, 54).

More explicitly than Cassian and John, Teresa emphasizes a strong foundation of prayer in discernment. She trusts that good desires are given by God. In trying to pray, we are responding to God who “desires intensely that we love him and seek his company.” (Teresa, 49) As in Bernard, Desire meets desire. Teresa insists that our love and desire must “reach the point of overwhelming reason.” (Teresa, 62) She cherishes good desire as the energy which moves us towards God. For Teresa, the chief discernment criteria is that authentic desires are known by their subject—to love God and to love our neighbours (Teresa, 100, 181). We know that we are doing God’s will if we love both God and our neighbours intensely, generously and completely. Teresa notices that as we come closer to God, desire causes sufferings; the distance between what we desire and where we are causes anguish (Teresa, 108). Suffering is even desired if it helps the will of God to be accomplished (Teresa, 183). Faith, I know that probably you would not have mystical experiences in discernment, but I still think you can benefit from the principles of her teachings. When it comes to discerning mystical experiences, the attitude of humility and of indifference of spiritual consolation is of crucial important (Teresa, 59). Some mystical experiences, especially imagery visions, are easily interfered with by the devil. Teresa suggests that examining the later effects of the experiences tell us their origins (Teresa, 125). The authenticity of a mystical experience depends on whether it is in accordance with Scripture and furthers conformity to God’s will.

In contrast to Teresa, John’s treatment of desire is negative: all desires, no matter sensory, intellectual or spiritual are to be negated and purified. In agreement with Cassian and Teresa, John stresses that the soul needs to be greatly humbled and be detached from spiritual delights and consolations (John, 166). He lists many typical imperfections of beginners, among which I want you pay particular attention to pride and impatience. Pride expresses itself by “having a desire to speak of spiritual things in other’s presence” and to instruct rather than to be instructed (John, 164). Many beginners are impatient because they “want to become saints in a day” (John, 173). They measure God by themselves and not themselves by God (John, 177). The purification of passive night of the senses and spirits is needed in order to draw us closer to God, the union with the divine fire where the log burns “as beautiful as the fire itself.” (John, 205) For John, it seems that discernment relates to living an authentic spiritual life, rather than a process to make specific decisions.

Dear Faith, let me summarize for you lest you are overwhelmed by these teachings. You see that Cassian, Teresa, and John all emphasize the importance of humility and of placing yourself under others’ instruction. Humility is the prerequisite and the fruit of discernment. All of them exhort us to scrutinize the origins, directions, and intentions of desires by observing their later effects. When disordered desires are discerned, the purification begins. Cassian gives practice advice about how to discern our thoughts. Teresa cherishes good desires and provides us the chief discernment criteria—to love God and others. John seems to ignore the idea of discernment as a process of making particular decisions. His discernment is to discern the authenticity of our spiritual life. Faith, may I also suggest that in giving up the idea of “discernment”, you may attain the goal of discernment: the purification of disordered desires, the purity of heart, therefore the Desire of God — union with God? Discernment is not a technique but it is part of the way of cross. When you recognize which spirit is leading you by your growing familiarity with the Desire for God and purification of disordered immediate desires, you will simply know what do you in pleasing God. “Blessed the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

May the Lord grant you a discerning heart which desires to praise, revere, and serve Him!



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