No One Discerns Alone

To be a young, serious Catholic is to spend a lot of time hearing about discernment and a fair amount of time practicing it. We are encouraged to think about priesthood or religious life (far too little encouragement is given to married life as something discerned rather than defaulted to) and, should we feel a call to something, we must discern within that call. This order or that order, religious or diocesan priest, etc. We ask others to pray for us, perhaps secure the assistance of a spiritual director, but we tend to think we make our own decisions. The truth is, no discernment is done only by the individual.

Wedding @ ND

Several vocations together

Let me provide some examples. If I enter the seminary, believing I am called to the priesthood, the final act of discernment does not belong to me alone. My vocation director, formation faculty, and finally bishop are all involved. If any one has firmly discerned that I am not called to the priesthood I am not getting ordained, my own convictions notwithstanding. Likewise, marriage takes the discernment of at least two individuals (and hopefully their families). She and he must both discern the same marriage or it will not happen.

It is all too easy in today’s individualistic, self-obsessed culture to see discernment as a singular activity that one must do for oneself. While in a sense it is true that no one else can discern for me, the inverse is equally true. Every vocation is a vocation to community and requires discernment by all who form this community. A man and a woman discern together their calling to marriage but the community does not end with them. Each is, after a fashion, entering into the other’s family and there is discernment there as well. What kind of horror would it be to marry someone and set them in opposition to their own family? (This presumes that there is not already opposition.)


St. Ignatius of Loyala

Discernment is greater than the individual because a vocation is greater. I discern God’s calling not simply because it is better for me, but because it is better for my community. I enter then into their discernment for me and contribute my discernment for them, each appropriate according to our knowledge and authority (the nice church lady who, upon meeting a seminarian, is quick to inform him that he;d make a great priest is unhelpful. Either he is aware she has no knowledge to make that statement and disregards it or he accepts it—incorrectly—as confirming his vocation). In his great letter on obedience St. Ignatius of Loyola says “they who are wise judge it to be true prudence not to rely on their own judgement even in other affairs of life, and especially when personal interests are at stake, in which men as a rule, because of their lack of self-control, are not good judges.” We ought not to simply rely on other’s advice, but actually let them, when appropriate, make true decisions for us. St. Ignatius here is speaking about specifically religious superiors, but it is equally true when applicable outside of the religious life.

The question of the authority of family must here be addressed, specifically as regards marriage. It is not the authority of a superior; parents, once their child has grown (at whatever point that is culturally, legally, etc.) no longer have veto power in their life. They cannot forbid their son or daughter from marrying. But our culture has gone too far. We have developed the trope of love conquers all, that once we’ve fallen in love there is nothing that should stand in our way (I remember one person utterly flabbergasted that religious belief could ever trump ‘love’). Thus we consider our parents opinions to be of little value once we’re in love. Yet who knows us better, and when are “personal interests” at stake more than here? There are thousands of stories of parents realizing that their child’s love is actually fine for them after initial opposition and almost no stories about the child realizing that their parents are, in fact, right. We need to learn, again, to “follow the judgement of another . . . rather than our own in matters concerning ourselves” (St. Ignatius). When a relationship collapses it is not hard to find an elder who warned us of the very origin of its collapse some time before.

This isn’t, of course, an absolute precedence. Sometimes parents and others are very biased and interested in only their own good. This is why, barring a singular obedience owed, one ought to listen to several voices. But one should listen. Discernment can be done better by those who are disinterested (or distantly interested). They want your good and are able to see farther than your desires. We must learn to trust them. My vocation can always be decided by another: a bishop can choose not to ordain, a superior can send away, a woman can refuse her hand.

This lack of control ought not be frightening or even concerning. For whenever the power is out of our hands we ought to place our trust in God who is the foundation of any true discernment. I may not know what another will discern for my future, but I know that God shall work it out for my good, whatever the outcome, whether I or they discern rightly or not.

Justin Burgard is interested in discerning well and helping others discern well. His theological interests lie particularly in the area of love, marriage, and the priesthood.


An Eye on Dating

I hold what seems a fairly unique conception of how dating ought to be done. It is not counter-intuitive (people may often even think it is what they do), but it is counter-cultural: one should never be dating someone they don’t think they will marry.

The original version of this statement involved “could” instead of “will,” but that word is the gateway to utilitarian dating, dating for its own sake. “Yeah, I could marry her (but don’t intend to).” The “will” is also born out of an inversion of sorts as to why we date. Culturally, we date to find a reason to marry; my view is that you date to find out if there is a reason not to marry. A dating relationship is entered because the other is already someone worth marrying.

This distinction between “could” and “will” — or perhaps “should” — is the distinction between the courting movement and my conception of dating. The focus of courting tends to be on “discovery” rather than discernment. Courting is more wisely focused on marriage than contemporary dating, but it still has this embracing of uncertainty, at least in practice. This is made clear by the fact that courting is viewed as a long-term process. One takes years to court “properly.”

Perhaps the most unique part of my view is the approach to the ending of a relationship. Breaking up is today seen as a normal part of the process of finding a spouse, yet this it is a radically new element in the world of relationships.

The critical question here is “why do we break up?” That is, what things contribute to the end of a relationship? Under my conception, the only valid reason is that these two should not be married; the only reason they should not is that they have discerned there is a lack of the non-negotiables of marriage. What exactly constitutes these will vary person to person, but the core must always be that they have the same conception of marriage itself.

This is the only true compatibility, and certainly the most overlooked. We presume that if they “love each other” it’ll work itself out. But if their understanding of what they are entering into varies in any significant way they risk building on different foundations. For example, imagine a couple with differing views on the morality of contraception. The spouse who is okay with it must be willing to do without, as it is a one-way moral proposition (i.e. a change is immoral only for one party, in one direction). Eventually there will be strain, for one spouse will undergo a regular ‘hardship’ for an issue that has little personal moral weight. For them to ever have their way the other spouse must sacrifice their moral position. Compromise on the view of marriage is a compromise of morality, a never acceptable position.

When should a couple end their relationship? First and foremost, when they discern they are pursuing two different things, that they have distinct and exclusive understandings of marriage. (Less common reasons would include discovering a habit of abuse with insufficient reason to believe it can be corrected. A firm and irreconcilable aversion to the family should be sufficient reason as well, but our culture hates the idea of letting the state of our family dictate our ‘private’ lives.) Almost everything else we consider a reason to break up isn’t. They are, almost always, arguments of utility and egoism, that the other doesn’t “complete me.”

Here we come to an idea presented by Fr. Luigi Giussani, that the other is never enough. This discovery is one of life’s great provocations; it’s result usually is the discarding of the other in the search of another other. The Christian response must always be a turn to God while embracing the other as insufficient. A lack of fulfilment becomes a reason to love more, not a reason to “move on.”

Break-ups are hard, often because they are unnecessary. A dating relationship is properly one to marriage and its threshold is one far more open than commonly believed. What matters is narrow, precise, and of the greatest importance, but once it is clear almost nothing should stand in our way. The other is not enough, that is enough for love.

Justin Burgard is studying for his comprehensive exams and writing a thesis in between developing theories about how now we can live.

On a Deserted Island…

Palm Tree

Merrily marooned. Abandoned to isolation and yet glad. Is there any such person who would find joy in such desolation? Upon the cross, Jesus cried out that even God had forsaken him, yet he was hardly singing with glee. Human beings simply cannot enjoy complete isolation. Despite all the romance of the lone wolf, despite the needs of solitary respite from busy life, despite our individuality, we need the company of people. We need the dependence of the community. But more than that, we need to give and take within the community, we need to be a part of it. It is necessary for us to have relationships that touch our core.
Intimate relationships are objectively necessary to continue the species, but subjectively necessary to fulfill our being. Humans need art to be both intimate and grand. Humans need science to explain the wonders around us and to open the doors to even more wonders, to explore in concert with the past and the future. Humans need religion, truth, hope, justice, mercy, and love. We need to connect intimately, we need to connect to something beyond us. When we isolate ourselves, forbidding ourselves to bond with another, we not only damage ourselves, we damage our community, we damage humanity, we damage God.
Recognizing that we wish for intimacy we seek it out. Often if we have no map or blueprint (and even then) we seek it in the wrong way. If we use religion to connect via science, or law to connect via art, or many others what we end up doing is not connecting at all. Instead we promote misunderstanding and actively cause damage to the relationships we wish were intimate. Yet active damage is more easily healed, and as long as we pay attention we can notice by the fruits of our actions that something is wrong. If we put God and our relationships with Him first, and especially if we use the roadmap He promoted while on earth, then we can even more quickly find that intimacy that we need.
It is the adventure of seeking that is life. And even in the most careful or most enthusiastic searching we may find ourselves marooned on an island. Even, like Jesus, feeling that God Himself has abandoned us. But through faith, through hope, and through love of God, we may push through. Perhaps not merrily, but without despair.


Joshua Fahey is a Chestertonian who sees magic in many everyday things.

Wonderful the Tree

How wonderful it would be if I could be a tree

Sending my roots through earth, crushing rock

Seeking out a river or a celestial sea

And having time to pensively take stock

How wonderful the bark of trees, the branches, and the trunk

The strength and simplicity we want and lack

Virtuous the gifts of shade and leaves from this wooden monk

And through its solemn prayer to God, we turn back

Ever rising to the light does go the dryad’s dance

Bridging earth and heaven with joyous glee

Silent movement fluid in stolid solid stance

How wonderful it is to watch a tree





Joshua Fahey is a Chestertonian who likes poetry and trees and God. Not necessarily in that order. In fact, necessarily not in that order.