Words Theologians Play With

“Discernment” and “life” are two words whose meanings I have changed recently. Of course, I received no one’s permission to do this, nor for a number of others I have irresponsibly left out of my theological vocabulary. I just thought I would replace them with English.

Curiously, I feel more comfortable reviewing my sins. One feels badly, to be sure (did I just acknowledge being bad?) – but feeling good when you are feeling bad is a challenge. Another word, for instance, is “accompanying.” Didn’t that used to be a sin?

Of course, even senior clerics, for instance popes, are obliged most of the time to be moderate and relaxed. We have made too much of sin in the past. Part of the challenge was to sprinkle new words over Christianity that wouldn’t sound so harsh and judgmental.

The discernment of God has long been a puzzle. I do not know precisely when this word began to be used, or when it first applied to a vocation. It wasn’t a philosophical tool; it didn’t require some sort of poking.

Did you mean that you could discern the opinions of God, if you set your mind to it, or have another special relationship with the Divine?

More sensible – or at least slightly so – is to analyze the person in your (temporary) carcass. The best one can do is to unravel a bit of the puzzle, to discover why it behaves so perversely. May I say it is “infinitely” more complicated even than a creature, even than a soul. It will keep you busy.

An exercise would be to read some good novels – the classier kind. The young have mostly been deprived of imaginative literature in the schools today; are unfamiliar with it, and in need of time to catch up. Further exercise might be to read a play, or a short story: something to break up the echoes in their heads.

It’s something that can be done with God.

For it doesn’t require Him to preach, or perform. He isn’t preaching. He needn’t do anything at all, while he “accompanies” us. (He is there for you, not you for the preacher.) Or say what you want: lather deeply into the bishop blather. Rather than “go with God,” let him be taken along.

Your itinerary needn’t change under the circumstances. The only difference you have to make is to include God in your thoughts. You may forget; so then you must remember again. That’s the only discipline you need or must recall.

Be assured that God is watching. We understand that he always is, though, at first, we take this on faith. This means trying to imagine that God is there. It doesn’t follow that He will do anything, or come up with a response to our plans (of reading and thinking). He is, for a time, “experimentally” there; or if you will, inexcusably.

Should there be something to discern, when looking to or beyond God, I should think it will be finally much like death. The angel will tell us that it is time – and we glimpse some gift, in transposition. That, anyway, is how I “image” this; one is suddenly very far away. One has abandoned the bodies, one no longer needs them.


And at every stage, from “birth” to all the other necessary stages, God has not “accompanied” anyone. He has controlled, led, conducted, delivered, redeemed. It will not do to argue or dispute.

As we have seen, in our own generation, popes and other Christians (whether they are to be martyred or not) usually receive the message quietly. For some, no doubt, it comes as a relief; with a reflection of unfinished business; or after a long, full, busy life. I cannot guess what is going through the mind of another person, though I’m very sure it was not what he was thinking.

The “antechamber,” or perhaps entrance into what we call “immortal life,” is already unknown to our companions. They had the Egyptian, and Tibetan, “Books of the Dead.” Perhaps these were once animated straw, but now they are quite useless. They belonged to an ancient people and society that have left no traces. We don’t have instructions for death in our culture, only a few old tracts, and the (recently) impoverished liturgy.

All old societies, including those who left marks on the soil, become trackless, then fade. No human child, or any long-lived animal, will remember the physical traces he first laid down. The mind retrieves a million impressions (or perhaps it was just a thousand). None quite repeat.

By the same measure, the facility or faculty for art raises, endowed by God, the meaning of our extraordinary landscape within time, and yet also disintegrates and collapses into it. No art will last however, and no communication can be complete, or perfect, here in this world (“romantics” to the contrary).

The truth is that we cannot cross the barrier between the world and what lies beyond it, not even for a glimpse. The truth is that, as a human, one cannot “communicate” with God on any terms that we understand. There is a profound inequality.

In this age of “technology,” we imagine that feats of speed and power can alter the relations between things that are, and things that are not, on the same level. But however fanciful the effort, the two simply do not touch.

And there is confusion in the pretense. Since ancient times things have taken on authority, merely by adding a few syllables here and there, and maybe a simple decoration; or rhyme, or leaving something off. But we entangle our souls in such a game as cannot save us.

Mary “accompanied” Jesus. Though it is incomplete, the climax of this most beautiful of stories binds Our Savior to His Mother’s love. But we “discern” that only by making the scene intelligible, and get or don’t get the simplicity.


*Image: Martinengo Pieta by Giovanni Bellini, 1505 [Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy]

You may also enjoy:

Francis X. Maier’s Voodoo and Its Enchantments

George J. Marlin’s The Anti-Church of Antonio Gramsci

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.