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Asia Pacific Augistinian Conference

Jean-François Petit aa: The Art of Discernment

This article was written in French by Jean-François Petit aa for the magazine, “Itinéraires augustiniens," of the Augustinians of the Assumption. It was later translated into English for APAC by the North American Assumptionist Province. Reproduced with permission.  

Fr Jean-Francois Petit aa

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Two further articles by Jean-François Petit aa are also available on this website:
Thomas Merton and Augustine and
Community Life.

Discernment is a disposition of the spirit to separate, to judge, and in particular to distinguish between what is true and false. Concerning its etymology, it means to sort by separating. Lacking discernment, “thus does a senseless people run to ruin” (Ho 4:14). And also an individual. For Saint Paul, if discernment is a charism that some possess to an eminent degree (cf. Co 12:10), every Christian has it to some degree and should exercise it (Co 14:29). “Think before you do anything—hold onto what is good and avoid every form of evil” (1 Th 5:21). It is not only a question of being able to discern right from wrong, but also to interpret the will of God (Rm 12:2), his passing in the life of his people, and concerning this, Scripture deplores most often the lack of discernment in humans. “Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the face of the earth and the sky. How is it you do not know how to interpret these times?” (Lk 12:56)

When spiritual traditions give discernment a privileged place, they are following a solid school. Some of them went very far to put into place rules, criteria, or at least principles, to exercise discernment that was well done. We find nothing of the sort in Saint Augustine who didn’t posit rules, mark out a road, or set up a code of the road. If he didn’t organize a theory for discernment, he nevertheless practiced it by implementing all of his psychological finesse, and he didn’t mince his advice when someone asked for it while leaving each person to his/her own counsel; this was a question of respect for the internal master. We have concrete cases where we can see him exercising discernment, or acknowledging that in a certain circumstance he is lacking in discernment. Moreover his works are filled with sufficient indications so that we can find certain themes. This article will try to put order among these sparse elements.  

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