by Fr. Gregory Jensen
This is the second installment of Fr. Gregory’s series of five reflections on the Priesthood.
I argued in my last post that the priest is set aside not for liturgical service but the works of governing, teaching and counseling. All of these are work of prudence or, to use slightly different language, fruits of the gift of discernment. So what is discernment and what does it have to do with the priesthood?
St John Cassian describes discernment as the “eye and the lamp of the body” stresses its foundational role in the spiritual life.
“This eye sees through all the thoughts and actions of a man, examining and illuminating everything which we must do. And if it is not sound in a man, that is, if it is not fortified by good judgment and by well-founded knowledge, if it is deluded by error and by presumption, this makes for darkness in our entire body” (St John Cassian, “Conferences,” New York: Paulist Press, 1985, pp. 61-63).
The saint distinguishes four different types or modes of discernment, “material” which helps us decide if our thoughts or actions are made of “true gold or spurious.” Second there is the ability to “reject as fake and counterfeit. . . those thoughts which have the deceptive appearance of piety.” Third, “we must be able to detect and to abhor those which impose a viciously heretical stamp on the precious gold of Scripture.” Fourth and finally, we must have the ability to “drive away thoughts” and courses of action that fall short of the standards of the saints.
For Cassian, discernment
“is no minor virtue, nor one which can be seized anywhere merely by human effort.”
It is rather “a very great boon of divine grace.” The saint’s words to monastics are equally, if not more applicable to the priest.
…if a monk does not do his utmost to acquire it and if he does not have a clear knowledge of the spirits rising up against him he will surely stray like someone in a dark night amid gruesome shadows and not only will he stumble into dangerous pits and down steep slopes but he will often fall even in the level, straightforward places.
If a monk without discernment risks stumbling, how much more does a priest without discernment risk not only his own salvation but the salvation of those entrusted to his care? To fulfill his primary function to govern, teach and counsel, the priest must cultivate the virtue of prudence.
Josef Pieper argues that just as a “work of art is true and real by its correspondence with the pattern of its prototype in the mind of the artist” so too
“the free activity of man is good by its correspondence with the pattern of prudence” (The Four Cardinal Virtues).
Unfortunately, among most clergy (in almost all traditions) the work of prudent governing is among the least valued. And yet as Zizioulas (Eucharist, Bishop, Church,pp. 208-217) argues it is precisely for his prudence that, that is his ability to govern, teach and counsel, that a man is ordained and, in the absent of the bishop, is charged with celebrating the Eucharist and the other liturgical services of the Church.
While a solid grasp of Holy Tradition is essential for the priest, I would argue that this is secondary to the primary work of the priest. A priest without discernment, without the ability to govern, teach and counsel wisely and prudently within the concrete circumstance of daily life, is not only of no use to the Church and the parish, he is a source of potential harm. Yes, theology is essential to his ministry, but without discretion it is simply one more ideology competing to impose itself on the human family.
In my next post, I will return to Zizioulas’ very helpful study to fill out what it means for the priest to be a man of discernment. After that I will, in my last post, offer some suggests for the Church’s own discernment of who does, and more importantly does not, have a vocation to the priesthood.
Until then, and as always, your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome they are actively sought.