Perhaps the most difficult part of contemporary living is the relation between the innumerable tasks and choices we have and the quality of one’s serenity, especially when discerning. Are we capable of discernment? Contemporary living permits our grasp of all most anything. The error is not just one of judgement, for prudence can be acquired. Our error today is intellectual, for we misplace our emphasis as if all were an object of grasping. The art of living well; the art of choosing well requires that we firmly know the difference between an object and a relation. Being human is relational. Acquiring the skills to navigate the art of choosing well requires time. This will always be in short supply if we fail to discipline both ourselves and priorities. Actual discernment requires courage, fortitude, patience, strategy and a host of other personal qualities. All rest on Erik Erikson’s unique understanding of identity development. I’ve always been surprised to recognize so much undeclared theology residing throughout the humanities, psychology as a discipline is no different.
The West places emphasis on the primacy of freedom. Is freedom an unqualified good? Always? How should freedom as a rubric be disciplined?
Insisting on the freedom to choose is an admirable principle but it is not always the best or only strategy. The ontology of the human, the ethics of happiness cannot be divorced from a Christian anthropology. Neither is the moral understanding of ‘the good.’ It is there where we find an encounter that informs us how to proceed in discerning how to discipline freedom for happiness.
Can only the West provide happiness because it places the primacy of freedom as a final good? If marriage in the West is any guide, we are sadly mistaken. Insisting that ‘freedom’, ‘the body’, or ‘choice’ as a final good is disastrous. What is required is an ‘end’ that helps inform how to choose and why? That end is acquired virtue.
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit (understanding, wisdom, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, fear of the Lord), the Theological Virtues (faith, hope, love) and the Four Cardinal Virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) not only help discipline freedom for happiness, they are demonstrated happiness. This alone reveals how far we have strayed from our Tradition since the Enlightenment. For only a ‘catholic’ understanding of beauty can unify what we fragment.
For the ancients Greeks (whom the Church Fathers perfected), beauty was informed from Platonic idealism and Aristotelian realism wherein the conflicting interests of both the body and soul converge. Modern experience of beauty is a distinct perversion of our Christian heritage from the ancients. For modernists, beauty is an ungovernable rapture divested of any ethical or moral import. It is from Freud, Darwin and the modernist fathers who espouse an unnecessary conflict from the false premise of unreconciled needs and desires. No wonder the West is lost in developing the personal attributes for discernment, we’ve misplaced our heritage. Why prefer only materialist conceptions? The fathers of the ‘blackmail of transcendence’ have torn asunder what God continually unites. A theology a grace absolves this intrinsic conflict.
The act of ‘discerning’ cannot be separated from the development of virtue. This is the sad, difficult truth of Catholic living. Sad, because in the end we must admit that the current neo-liberal model of secular humanism sets the human person up for failure. If freedom becomes the only qualified good, isolation not communion becomes the beneficiary.