Sometime in the early 1990’s a man, an art historian, paid a visit to a Jesuit house in Dublin. Over the fireplace was hanging a painting which caught his attention. It was a painting of “The Taking of Christ” by Carravagio. It was presumed by all to be a copy if they ever considered it at all. This man knew that the original of this painting was considered to be one of the lost masterpieces of European Art.
He wondered if this could actually be the missing original, though this was a most unlikely place to find it.
After three years research it was proven to be the original and the provenance had been pieced together.
I tell this story as an example of discernment. This same painting had been offered to another National Gallery at some point along the way and they had rejected it in favour of other paintings.
So, what are the qualities of discernment? I’ll guess that they include, knowledge, experience, intuition, and a goal though it may be vague.
It also includes rejecting the many things that are diversions along the way.
I would also say that discernment is a life style or an element of a life style that means always being on the lookout for the thing you seek.
I think most people have developed discernment in some aspect of their lives. It may be about music, literature, food, shopping, or indeed anything. I consider myself to have some discernment about how I create a home. The goals are to have it functional, interesting, a warm inviting atmosphere for all, and easy to maintain. These goals developed over time and opportunities to contribute to these goals often come in surprising ways and places. It’s like having a programme running in the background that gets triggered by anything that is likely to further the goal.
I suggest you find some area in your life where you have developed some discernment and get to know that feeling. Just transfer that feeling and method to the spiritual search.
The art historian in our story was not actively looking to find a lost masterpiece, but had the discernment and knowledge to recognise it when a possibility presented itself. Bart Marshall might call this “leaving yourself open to Grace”.
In turning the notion of discernment to the spiritual search, the first thing is to have some idea of the goal. In this case the goal is to come to a recognition of your true nature. As Richard Rose pointed out, you cannot know in advance what this goal is but you can recognise the things that are not it and you can back away from them, or minimise them in your life.
A large element of the search is in identifying these false goals. This is where discernment is useful. With experience you become better able to recognise the distractions earlier and learn how to minimise them.
Another aspect of the spiritual search is that while there are general guidelines that apply to all, it is at the same time a specific search, specific to you. Only you can find your true nature. This is where intuition comes in.
Intuition is what I would call the feeling our art historian had when he saw the painting. A possibility arises. It’s just a feeling that then needs to be nurtured or investigated or just left sitting until it reveals itself further. I find intuitions to be very specific and personal. For instance, two thoughts might come into your head at the same time and you do not at first see the connection between them but in not dismissing them they may reveal a insight you had not suspected.
The thing I find about intuitions is to leave them open and to also take them seriously. Have the attitude of “What is the world trying to show me here”?
Finally, I’d say discernment is a lifestyle of having a particular goal, using every circumstance as a possibility to further that goal and constantly having a background programme running that is open to new possibilities arising. This is all an inside job, while you live an ordinary life in the world.