I caught myself reflecting the other day on the actions of others and how they influence us. Oftentimes we get irritated with others or we become excited with another’s actions with which we disagree. Many times our emotions catch wind and we respond with all the usual force of emotion. A piece of wisdom that I have always kept with me through these times is that we cannot control others but we can control how we respond to their choices, whether good or bad. This wisdom is especially important for parents. It also connects to what Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 7:29-35, that as Christians we must realize that the present world is passing and God has given us an intellect and an ability to discern.
“I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:1-2).
Discernment is a key function for Christians but is often forgotten. As it says in the Catechism, we are not a people of the book or blind legalism but a people of the living word of God (CCC 108). This realization requires discernment, dispassion, and formation of one’s conscience.
Discernment is something that is often lacking in our spiritual practices. It takes time and a heart to hear God’s voice. It requires time given to God in silence. Our culture is so noisy, even in a visual sense. Contemplation is different from meditation in that meditation is the practice of silent communication with God, expressing oneself. Contemplation is the practice of an opening, of a deep desire for God’s presence; this process is less action on the part of the individual contemplating and more an action of God working within one’s heart. What is amazing is that no two experiences are quite the same and there can be dryness at times, but this element is key it trains our ability to see situations from a different perspective. However, other times there can be great consolation from God in our silence; these moments prove that God’s grace is alive in our hearts as we reach out to others. In order to discern, one must be comfortable with God and spend time in silence processing our experiences in light of God’s presence so that we might focus ourselves and our lives on him.
St. John of the Cross also spoke frequently of the virtues of ‘detachment,’ the ability to detach ourselves from desires that do not lead toward God. We are certainly emotional creatures but we also have been given rational thought; therefore, it is imprudent to respond to others with raw emotion. The middle road of moderation is critical. If one is trying to be truly 'detached' from an object of obsession a person should simply eat less sweets, not forsake sweets all together. It is quite possible to be attached in the negative sense, attached to the privation of a good in which pride becomes prevalent. Reflection here is paramount. Keeping the end in mind and asking the question “how does this serve God?” is always a good strategy.
Speaking less, and speaking with intention, are important qualities. Speaking from our base passions and quick anger is an example of how one’s tongue can be a source of hellfire for others as well as for oneself. After all we are not mere animals fulfilling base desires, rather we have been given the gift of intellect and ought to use it.
“The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna” (James 3:6).
This quote isn’t meant to suggest that those who speak too much will go to Hell. The conclusion is rather that there is a temptation to host conversation and to impress others, a concept with which I think we can all relate. Many of us know the temptation to share things not meant to be shared, even to say things that are untrue, in the name of self-inflation. If we are discerning what God wants from our lives, and we are detached from the pleasures of others’ esteem, we will then be focused upon the end goal: unity with God. Speaking less, and with more intention and purpose, is a small price for further unity with Our Father. Think upon the examples of Mary & Joseph; they certainly aren't known for their many words but more so their significant actions.
Conscience is the small voice, the heart of hearts, the interior tabernacle in which we converse with the Holy Spirit. This place is where we think candidly and consider actions of which we are ashamed and even those of which we are secretly proud. St. Therese of Avila described this interior space as a castle to which our interior selves retreat in order to reflect. The way in which those castles are built, the way in which we are able to reflect, depends in large part what we feed our minds and souls. Certainly Jesus, by way of the Holy Spirit, is present in every person’s conscience, though it is particularly easy to ignore this, especially when one is accustomed to vice or addiction. It is important to note here that vice is a sickness or an imbalance in desire, as St. Thomas Aquinas might say, which is an accurate way of describing addiction. It is important to note here, when using the word illness, every ounce of mercy & compassion ought to be used upon those who suffer addiction that they may find balance again. Addiction can take many forms & can be very difficult to eradicate. Often times, our addictions are never fully eradicated but prove to be a continual cross to bear for Christ. Being aware of our illnesses is important in applying the sacraments to our daily lives, living in the sanctifying grace God intended from the beginning. There too is an important realization, all are sick with sin; Jesus comes with the sweet balm of the sacraments as merciful medicine. There is a certain humility realized in noting that not only do we personally have faults, but that others equally have many faults. There is an opportunity here that Jesus gives us in applying mercy just as he had.
Never-the-less In order to form the conscience well, one must read good books and Sacred Scripture often. A good place to begin is the Gospels & the Psalms. In reading the Gospels we become more intimately aware of Jesus’s presence in our lives. By praying & singing the psalms we spiritually unite ourselves in song to Christians around the world and throughout time. Jesus will convict us in our heart of hearts, show us & call us to the way of the true & good, but also give us consolation in mercy.
Ultimately, as Catholics, we ought to make our lives one of action and not words. In this age we have become so accustomed to words mixed with inaction. Be that jewel that does without speaking; be the ray of light that shines in a world of bluster. With discernment, detachment, and a good conscience this will avail you the ability to take in the world objectively, decide what is needed, and act with peace & grace.
"In the solitude and silence of the wilderness..., for their labor in the contest, God gives his athletes the reward they desire: a peace that the world does not know and joy in the Holy Spirit."
Husband & father of four, graduate from Quincy University and currently a grad student at Franciscan University. Director of Faith Formation & Youth Ministry for All Saints Parish since January 2012.