Monday Morning with Merton: Discerning Discretion

“Laziness and cowardice are two of the greatest enemies of the spiritual life.  And they are most dangerous of all when they mask as “discretion.”  This illusion would not be so fatal if discretion itself were not one of the most important virtues of a spiritual man….

Discretion tells us what God wants of us and what He does not want of us.  In telling us this, it shows us our obligation to correspond with the inspirations of grace and to obey all the other indications of God’s will….

Discretion warns us against wasted effort:  but for the coward all effort is wasted….

Laziness flies from all risk.  Discretion flies from useless risk:  but urges us on to take the risks that faith and the grace of God demand of us.” 

[Thomas Merton:  Thoughts in Solitude, Chapter V, pgs. 22-23] 


13 thoughts on “Monday Morning with Merton: Discerning Discretion

  1. Man, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe only an idiot would comment on this one.

    Hmm.. I’ll start the ball rolling anyway, lol.

    Is he speaking specifically in regards to infused prayer?

  2. In terms of discretion telling us what God wants us to do and not to do, and in terms of corresponding with the indications of God’s will, we need the Holy Spirit to be operating within us. This grows to a greater and greater degree with the practice of contemplative prayer, and yes, with the gift of infused contemplation. When a person has reached the Transforming Union, all impulses are so immediately directed to God that there is virtually no possibility of not doing God’s will. But in the meantime we struggle with decisions hourly, daily, and with major life changes, don’t we.

    I think it’s so true that laziness and cowardice can creep into all of our decisions if we are not in tune with the Holy Spirit. Do I go to the abortion rally, or do I stay home and write what I promised to write? When and how do I evangelize at the office, or is it totally inappropriate at all times? Am I called to the mission fields or do I just want a bit of adventure? Do I get into debates with hard-headed people or is that a useless risk and a waste of time and creating disunity? Do I take in that homeless person or would it be too big a disruption/danger to the family? Do I, do I, do I? I don’t see how any of these kinds of decisions, and so many more, could all be taken from a rational point of view. We need the Holy Spirit to be continually operating within us, and this absolutely requires contemplative prayer, so that discretion will be one of the fruits. My rational mind has failed me time and time again.

  3. Ah, thank you –the examples helped. I’d have to say, then, that I’ve often thought of my own laziness and cowardice as mere confusion. You’re right — without the Holy Spirit’s involvement, we’re on that road that is paved with good intentions, not necessarily the road to hell, but to general fruitlessness. That serves the anti-Light’s purpose almost as well as opting to act with false energy and malice instead of with genuine zeal for God(‘s) and with God-determined hope. I’ll have to watch for that in myself. A small example: I’d wanted to go to the Pro-Life rally in my state this past January..I even arranged for a ride up with people I don’t know from another town. I wanted to go not so much for adding to visible witness and praying with my feet, but moreso to network openly — to stand up and be counted, to expand it beyond Mary’s door into Martha’s where it could do more good from within others’ good, united; but then I saw something that caused me to think quite surely that a Pandora’s box sort of person would also be there, so I cancelled the ride. I might’ve rather just gone on listening to the Holy Spirit. Maybe I only irrationally confounded myself and God.

    (((Thank you)))

  4. I’m very glad you explained all this, Gabrielle.
    I think I understand now but I was as baffled as C first time round! – sometimes we do need to take risks in order to do God’s will, and the discretion that comes to us through the guidance of the Holy Spirit is what results in our taking the risk for God’s sake, as opposed to opting for the lazy way out and doing nothing/ avoiding all risk, which is, in a nutshell, cowardice.

    And yet as Merton say too there are times when discretion is the shining virtue that dictates we stay quiet or removed or distant.

    Now to take it all on board….thanks, Gabrielle, for Merton’s Monday!

  5. “And yet as Merton says too there are times when discretion is the shining virtue that dictates we stay quiet or removed or distant.” Indeed, Ann– there’s a very important distinction made, too.

  6. Ann, yes, we have to be very much in tune with the Holy Spirit to differentiate cowardice/laziness from true and needful discretion – as Merton says, they are often “masking” as discretion…

    C, confusion is very real too, and I would say in my own experience probably just as much, if not more, than laziness and I hope cowardice…

  7. I remember meeting a man whom I know to be holy a few years ago when I was at a stage in life and not sure whether to proceed down a certain road or not – I was feeling very perplexed indeed.

    I just asked him outright ; How do I know I’m doing the right thing, the thing that’s right for me and God’s will at the same time?
    I had already explained to him that I pray to the Holy Spirit every day.
    He thought for a moment or two and this was the answer he gave – and one I treasure still:
    If you pray to the Holy Spirit every day, you can’t go far wrong.

  8. As a sometimes lazy coward who is about to step out in faith towards a risky proposition, I truly appreciate the sound advice Merton provides. I don’t feel like I fly from all risk and I don’t feel inclined to take useless risks so maybe I’ve learned a bit about discretion over the years.

    Becoming united to God’s will is certainly an aspiration of mine. Continuing on this learning path will bring me closer and the words of Merton are guideposts along the way.

  9. Greetings all….. I like what Terry said, about appreciating the “sound advice” that Merton offers….and especially in this particular area, dealing with “enemies of the spiritual life”….a few days ago, the comment I posted had something to do with “being honest with God, and with ones own self”, and not letting the walls build up around one’s heart & mind. It is the weaker, cowardly side of human nature to make excuses for oneself…to put on the “mask” of pretending that it’s something else altogether. How can we ever be naked before God, spiritually speaking, if we play these “games” with God (consciously or unconsciously)? Being TRUTHFUL & honest allows us to be willing vessels, open to His direction. I like that Merton makes reference to “God asking/wanting something” of us. And also that he reminds us of the RISK that the Christian walk involves. We need to remember what the dangers and enemies are, so that we can be “armed” & prepared to fight the good fight. Merton understood how Satan can use our own human weaknesses to make us so much less effective furthering the Kingdom….but, God can use our weaknesses too, to humble us, to remind us of our incredible NEED of His sustaining grace. Scripture gives us so many necessary truths….such as those found in Ephesians 6:10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

    Ann said that it was helpful to be reminded that with prayer, her paths & decisions would be directed by God…. (His grace is sufficient)….years ago, I remember wondering what it could mean, to actually “pray without ceasing”….or, to “pray at all times”. I am only just BEGINNING to grasp this concept; at the same time that the understanding is gradually sinking in, I am also DESIRING it, more and more (coincidence?). 🙂 Paul was “getting it”, when he wrote these verses: Ephesians 6:18 With all prayer and petition, pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints,

    Thessalonians 5:17 …pray without ceasing;

    Philippians 4:6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

    So then, how do I process the last statement, that you quoted from Merton: “Laziness flies from all risk. Discretion flies from useless risk: but urges us on to TAKE THE RISKS that faith and the grace of God demand of us.” How can it be that FAITH and GRACE place us in a place of RISK? When I think of that truth, then his entire (quoted) thought comes “full circle” for me….all the more reason to appreciate the NEED for a genuine sense of “discretion”. Because of the risk. Because of the faith. Because of the grace. Because of my desire to be on the path that He wants me to be on today.

    Gabrielle, you have (once again) gotten those “spiritual breezes” blowing, and I am gulping deep breaths of strong, clean, fresh, life-giving air.

  10. Kristin, you write, “How can it be that FAITH and GRACE place us in a place of RISK?” I think here of “from those whom have been given much, much will be demanded…” Faith is infused; it is a gift. Grace is given, and we are told it even requires a grace to receive grace… Much will be demanded from those who have received faith and grace, and yes, a big part of what is demanded will require risk-taking – physical, financial, emotional, spiritual. Our Christian faith is counter-cultural, and we must live it out as counter-cultural people…

    Terry, I think I’ve often encountered difficulty in discerning what was a “useless” risk; when I think of so many of the lives of the saints, how they persevered in what everyone else told them was useless, sometimes I’m afraid to judge something as a “useless” risk. On the other hand, by nature I am not a risk-taker, not at all. So I think I have a lot of work to do in this area.

  11. Hi Br. Freddie! I didn’t know you were a Merton fan. It’s great to have you drop in! I must go and see where you are now; back in Italy safe and sound? I do hope all is well.

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