January 24, 2020

St. John of the Ladder lists the Spiritual Gift of Discernment near the top of all Spiritual Gifts

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 possess 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 assured 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.
-Ladder of Divine Ascent: Step 26

Being able to distinguish right from wrong is an immensely powerful gift, and one that seems obvious at first glance, but life is seldom easy, clean or obvious. In life, we encounter many moments where we cast judgement without knowing the full picture. The most common example of this is a man is caught stealing from a poor baker. We then learn that this individual hated himself for his theft but did it to feed his starving family. Learning the context changes our judgement of the person committing the sin.

This element of judgement is not something only lay people fall into. Priests fall as well. Fr. Andreas Konanos related a story of a time he visited a parish and saw a young girl wearing very tight and provocative clothing. He was aghast that she would dress that way and come to Church. When the parish priest saw the scandal in Fr. Andreas’ eyes, he admonished him saying, “You will not find a more pure and pious girl than that child. She is purer than the angels. Did you know that she has to sneak out of her house to come here to Church to pray? Did you know that her mother forces her to dress that way? No, you only judged her appearance and thought you knew her character.”

This is one aspect of discernment. Looking at the big picture and the hidden details. The other aspect that we need to look at is the problem of our thoughts themselves. We do not know where they come from. . . When we always  assume the thoughts are our own we cause devastation in our lives and the lives of others.

How do I mean? I mean that we cast judgement on people and craft narratives of motivations, spite, and inhumanity in others without ever talking to the individual we condemn in our thoughts. But did those condemnations come from within? . . .or, if we understand the spiritual warfare around us, from without?

Before you say, Fr. Dimitri, that’s crazy! allow me to ask if this has ever happened to you. Have you ever been in a heated argument and a thought comes to you? Without even a pause, you utter or shout that thought at the person with whom you are engaged, and immediately say, “I should NOT have said that!” and also think, “I wish I could take that back. I did not mean that!”

That was a moment that the evil one slipped in because you did not have discernment in that moment, and instead of questioning the thought and rejecting it, you regurgitated it immediately. This affliction is called “spiritual vomit of the mouth.”

Next, ask yourself this, why is it that every time someone looks over a high place, the first impulse that someone receives is “jump?” Are we all suicidal? Why do the thoughts of self harm come to us?

One need only look to the Gospels of Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39 in the casting of the Legion of Demons out of the demoniac into a herd of swine to understand the goal of demonkind and our enemy. They seek our absolute destruction and we see this in the way they immediately compelled the pigs to dive into the sea and kill themselves. This is what they would do to us if we allow it.

These thoughts are controlled and recognized through discernment. This can only be accomplished through humility. St. Paisios states “If you want to tune in to God so He listens to you when you pray, turn the knob to humility, for on this frequency God always operates, and humbly ask for his mercy.” This analogy is continued by St. Porphyrios in his work Wounded by Love in which he compares our minds to radio antennae. We have the ability to tune into the divine, but that cannot happen if our thoughts are selfishly positioned towards self-righteousness and dominion over others. When we see our brothers and sisters as our loved ones, when we make excuses for them as Christ does for us, our thoughts become less toxic.

That is not to say that we do not have worldly enemies who also think negatively of us, but let us look to the advice of Elder Thaddeus:

Your thoughts are burdened because you are influenced by the thoughts of your fellow men. Pray to the Lord that He might take this burden from you. These are the thoughts of others which differ from yours. They have their plan, and their plan is to attack you with their thoughts. Instead of letting go, you have allowed yourself to become part of their plan, so of course you suffer. Had you ignored the attack, you would have kept your peace. They could have thought or said anything at all about you, yet you would have remained calm and at peace. Soon all their anger would have died down, like a deflated balloon, because of the pure and peaceful thoughts that would have come from you. If you are like that, calm and full of love, if all you think are good and kind thoughts, they will stop warring against you in their thoughts and will not threaten you anymore. But if you demand an eye for an eye, that is war. Where there is war there can be no peace. How can there be peace on a battlefield, when everyone is looking over their shoulders and anticipating a surprise attack from the enemy? – Elder Thaddeus
Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: the Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

Let us question our thoughts and motivations. Let us look to our lord who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103.8). Let us acquire discernment of our thoughts to connect with Him, recognize the wiles and tricks of the enemy, and choose the paths that lead us to brotherly love with our brothers/sisters and salvation.

I remain your servant in Christ,

Fr. Dimitri Tobias