When Discrimination is a Good Thing
One of the fundamental gifts of the Spirit that the desert fathers sought to inculcate was called diakresis which is often translated simply and narrowly as discretion. But in our day, the word “discreet” often is associated with the idea of being secretive or unobtrusive. Yet, in the Christian tradition it has always be highly esteemed as essential to the spiritual life. It meant to divide and weigh rightly. Therefore, properly understood, to have the gift of diakresis was to be discerning and discriminating; it was to have right judgment of all things and it was often termed the third eye of the soul. So important was it in their thought, that the desert fathers saw it both as the way into and the fruit of life in Christ.
Thus, over the first thousand or more years of Christianity this gift was consistently spoken of because it was seen as absolutely essential for the right practice of Christian life. It was often described as the mother of all virtues because it not only led to a clear understanding of the will of God, but it was also the guide and regulator of all the virtues. A sharp instrument, it tightly examined the motives that one had in following Christ and was ruthless in uncovering illusion. For this reason it was to be focused on one’s own life and response to the Gospel and applied only gently and with love towards others. It’s application was practical in nature, both when directed toward self and others, and yet it was never seen as absolute or infallible given our capacity for sin. It was never equated with judgment of others, but always tempered by humility of heart and the realization that the lens of the eye of soul can be distorted. Furthermore, such humility was needed because the desert fathers understood that the self-knowledge that diakresis produced was an awareness of what was lacking in regards to virtue; that is, the vision that diakresis provided was itself humbling.
In our generation, beyond the tyranny of relativism that afflicts our culture and an irreligious anthropocentricism that has all but removed God and revealed truth from moral and ethical decision making, the sense of the need to foster discrimination and to pray for the gift has all but disappeared. We have become all but slaves to public opinion and our lives and senses are awash with things that are contrary to the will of God. The means through which we deceive ourselves and are deceived are legion. It is for this reason that resourcement, a return to the sources of our faith which includes the writings of the fathers, is so important. They provide us with clear guidelines and criteria by which the gift of discrimination can be fostered. These are: the proper formation of conscience, the revealed will and truth of God found in the scriptures, the accumulated wisdom of the Church and its teachings, the guidance and direction of a spiritual father, constant prayer and openness to the Holy Spirit.
Our sins can create within us a moral obtuseness, a desensitizing of the consciousness of God and His will, and so lead to the gradual deformation of our conscience. Without the gift of discrimination the self-deception can become so great that what is good seems evil and what is evil appears to be good. The loss is immeasurable; for at such a moment, repentance itself becomes an impossibility. As St. Gregory of Nyssa stated: “Every passion bears within it the seed of death since it dulls the spirit of discernment.” The fathers of the Philokalia provide us with that constant reminder and warning that for effective discrimination/discernment to take place, the heart must be kept in a purified state through vigilance and asceticism.
In future posts, I hope to examine more closely the thought of the two most prominent writers on diakresis, Evagrius and John Cassian and how this gift was understood, gained and used among the desert fathers and might be applied to our own spiritual lives.