The more years pass in my ongoing, bumbling attempt at Christianity, I realize that for me discernment means the adoption of my best guesses at God's perspective on things.
The iconic moment in this movement came when one of my professors helped me to know how to discern whether or not to present myself as a candidate for Holy Orders. I went back and forth on this question when I was in the formation program, mostly because I didn't know how to discern it. I didn't join the Order with the idea of becoming a priest; I only knew that I wanted to be a Franciscan. The discernment experience from the religious call didn't seem to apply to discerning the clerical call, and I was kind of at a loss.
Did I feel called to be a priest? Did I desire it? My professor turned my perspective around for me: 'The question isn't whether or not you feel called to be a priest, or whether you want it, but in what way is the priesthood of Jesus Christ trying to take shape in your life.'
It's not about what I want or how I feel--though the presence of attraction and giftedness on the natural level is an important confirmation--but about reading the signs of what God is up to in one's life.
The other night one of our guys asked me if I thought he was ready to be ordained deacon. I said no, and he was a little shocked. What human being is ready to approach the altar as servant of the sacred mysteries? Who of us even deserves the privilege of serving another human being? But I explained my point: the 'am I ready?' question is the wrong approach. The real question is to look at the graces and circumstances of life up to this point, and ask if the next step seems like where God is directing one's life. So, I said to this brother, has God not given you the graces you needed to survive many years of religious formation and theological education? Do you feel the desire to preach and serve that he has put into your heart?
It's important for me to continue to apply this model to myself in these days. I have a lot of doubts about my capacity to fulfill my obedience of obtaining the doctorate. Can I finally unlearn certain bad study habits I fell into as a child? Is my vocation mature enough to be able to spend so much time alone with just the great doctors and my dictionaries? Can I live my religious life well enough here in a formation house, and still be able to give good example to the brothers in formation on a number of levels?
Such questions are important in the sense that they come up in the process of discernment, but I need to keep in mind that they are not the heart of discernment for me. My discernment question is simply this: has God not been pointing me in the direction of this project in many ways and for a long time? When I was a teenager, did He not first begin to call me to Himself through an intoxicating mix of mathematics and Platonic mysticism, inspiring a sort of wonder that I sometimes perceive again as I read the medievals now? Did God not give me the desire to complete the STL degree back when I was in my diaconate year, arranging many other things to make sure it got done? Did God not give me the inspiration, when I was a parish priest, to spend the occasional day off in the library of St. Joseph's Seminary reading Bonaventure's commentary on the Sentences? Who does that?
Again, I think that is the sort of thing that discernment means for me; the attempt to adopt God's perspective and to make our best guess at where God is pointing us. Like all good spiritual practice, it relieves us of the tyranny of ourselves and our feelings.