Dictionary of Oblate Values  vol.: 1  let.: D


Because human existence is lived in an atmosphere of ambiguity, we are compelled to deal with discernment. The principle of action, the making of choices or what we call liberty is confused and tangled within us. It follows that, in its spontaneous expressions, human activity is generally disrupted by passions, envy, fear, the grasping for power, security and other inclinations which have an impact on the authenticity and the quality of one's ethics.

We must note here that the atmosphere of ambiguity in which human activity takes place only becomes understandable in the critical light of one's conscience judging itself. Daily conduct is often the victim of disguised activity in which the true, less glorious motives are dressed in motives of respectability, moral principles, indeed, noble ideals. The spectators are generally less dupes than the the actors who present themselves thus, but that is another story.

The Pharisees are a good example of what has been said above. They clean the exterior of the cup, are careful about external conduct, follow the rules, but their lives are false and do not bear fruit because they operate in an atmosphere of ambiguity which is tolerated and which develops into a lie.

Jesus gave a good definition of discernment when he said: "The truth shall set you free" [1]. His relationship to the Pharisees, he who "could tell what a man had in him" [2], consisted in offering them the truth; it was an unsurpassable pedagogy of discernment.

All spiritual authors have dealt with discernment of spirits. Saint Ignatius in his Exercises has presented the lion's share on this. "It can be said that discernment is the real goal of the Spiritual Exercises and the great contribution Ignatius made to Christian spirituality: It is a question of coming to a choice of an authentic response to the Word of God in every individual concrete life situation". [3]

Father de Mazenod never developed a theory of discernment, but he was always conscious of the ambiguity of human actions. He attempted to navigate these troubled waters while always keeping his course fixed on truth with regard to himself and the various situations in which he was involved. We will now attempt to follow him.

The Founder's discernment with regard to himself.

Discernment is the road which threads a path through the multiplicity of internal divisions to lead to reconciliation with oneself and to inner peace.

Like everyone else, the Founder experienced in his relationship within himself certain tensions, dissatisfactions and inner disorders. The Founder's retreat notes especially take into account the enormous gap he felt between the spiritual ideal that he set for himself and the wretched interior condition in which he found himself as a result of the constant agitation imposed upon him by his missionary life. In this regard, it seems to me that the retreat he made at Bonneveine in the summer of 1816 represents an authentic experience of discernment in which the elements that were previously in tension found their resolution in harmony. In my opinion, it could provide us with a basic scheme through which we can get a reading of his discernment and interior reconciliation. It is worth our while to quote extensively from these notes: "I notice first that in the midst of my extreme distress - for I am seeing myself as I really am, namely, absolutely deprived of any virtue [...] I note, not without surprise, that I am not bothered by all that. I have a great trust in God's goodness [...] and I have a kind of hopeful assurance, that he will grant me the grace to improve, for one thing is sure, I am not worth much right now. [...] But I cannot cast off the mental attitude [...] that, as my desire is to win the glory of God and the salvation of souls he ransomed with his blood [...] that this good Master will not grant me some consideration [...] Is all this an illusion? Rashness? I have no idea. I am writing what comes to my mind [...]." [4]

This seems to have been an new experience for Father de Mazenod, hence the final remark. The novelty is "that in the midst of my extreme distress [...] I am not bothered by all that". Previous to this, the awareness of his sins aroused remorse in him and drove him away from God. Now, the uncompromising clarity of who he is propels him towards the goodness of God. Moreover, if his missionary activity is a source of internal distraction, it does not separate him from God because it is a question of "the salvation of souls he ransomed with his blood".

It seems to me that the experience is made up of three elements: a clear, uncompromising view of himself, faith in the mercy of God, and mission. Indeed, this is not a case of three parallel elements juxtaposed, but of three points in the same movement. The discovery of his "wretchedness" (clear, uncompromising view of himself, self-knowledge) propels him towards the mercy of God, wherein lies the experience of reconciliation; mission expresses its fruitfulness and gratitude. Let us examine the three elements.


Father de Mazenod really sees himself as he is. In 1813, he wrote: "There is always some self-seeking in everything I do" [5]. "[...] It is because I am wholly carnal, human, imperfect" [6]. Such expressions are not lacking. More interesting still is how the Founder goes about getting to know himself. Obviously, he uses the examination of conscience. He makes extensive use of it during his retreats - and he does it in writing - but on a daily basis as well: "twice a day; but three times would be better [...]" [7]. He prepares himself for confession. In this same quote, he rebukes himself for not having examined himself with enough care: "The fault I am pinpointing here is that of not examining myself with enough care". He wants to go beyond appearances in his in-depth examination of his attitudes to discover what is not immediately obvious. In his retreat of May 1837, he twice comes back on the necessity "to probe myself and descend into my interior" [8]. "So it means descending into one's interior to purify it of every imperfection and remove all that could constitute an obstacle to the working of the Holy Spirit" [9]. The way he establishes a relationship between descent to his interior world, purification and the Holy Spirit is very interesting. As long as one remains on the level of conduct, ambiguity remains. Action must, therefore, leave behind the realm of the purely moral in order to submit oneself to the Holy Spirit.

In a somewhat enigmatic letter [10] (because we do not know its context), he acknowledges that one always sees things more clearly in regard to others. Then, he speaks of thoughts that one is reluctant to acknowledge and that tend to organize themselves to the point of forming a judgment upon which one acts. He seems to be alluding to spontaneous thoughts which are only a reflection of our self-centredness and which bring disaster in their wake if, without discernment, we permit them to be transformed into action. The Founder speaks of thoughts "which I would permit to become manifest" [11]. These spontaneous expressions give a strong impression of revealing a conscience acutely aware of the vagaries of our subjectivity.

During his retreat at Bonneveine, the Founder went to preach in Mazagues where he told the people "that one must approach God by the contemplation of his kindnesses". This is a message he wished to apply to himself, allowing himself to be touched by "all the things God in his goodness has done for us..." [12]. In his retreat in preparation for his episcopal ordination, he tied in admirably well the contemplation of his wretchedness (clear, uncompromising view of himself) with God's mercy: "My good God! If you had not accustomed me to the traits of your infinite mercy, if already you had not inspired in my heart a gentle trust, there would be every reason to draw back with horror. But no, you are my Father [...] Everything you have done for me in the course of my life is too present to my memory [...] not to count on your infinite goodness[...]" [13]. It is fitting to emphasize the phrase "to count on". To count on God, to count on his Word, to find one's security in him. To count on God means to no longer rely upon oneself.

At the conclusion of his meditation on the ritual of ordination, he wrote: "How can I have got to the end of these lines [...] The Lord will have pity on me [...] I turn to him with the utmost confidence, for his is my help [...] I hope of his infinite goodness that having sown by an impulse of his mercy this seed in my soul, having thus begun the work he will deign to see it through to the end" [14].


During his retreat at Bonneveine, Eugene wrote: "God in his goodness knows that I need this trust to act; this it would seem is why he gives it to me" [15]. He quotes as well from his retreat at Amiens, before his ordination to the priesthood, in which he ties his awareness of personal sin in with his missionary response. His ministry is seen as a means of redeeming himself, "the means of discounting a little my great sins" [16]. On a deeper level, he discovers that if until the present he could consider himself "a private person, bound to yearn for his own salvation", from now on, "If I am not fervent and holy, the works the Lord has confided to me will feel the effect. [17] The link between mission and holiness is established. In his retreat in preparation for episcopal ordination, the Founder brings to a close in this manner the consideration of his own poverty and God's goodness toward him: "[...] to throw myself with total abandon into your paternal bosom, fully resolved to do [...] everything you demand of me [...] Too happy to devote the few days left me to spend on earth to do your holy will [...]" [18]. In this way, mission becomes a manifestation of his love, a response to the Father who loves us.

The retreat of 1837, at the moment when he was actually to take charge of the See of Marseilles, is focused on the link between holiness and mission. Nonetheless, we rediscover our three elements: clear uncompromising view of himself, mercy and mission all caught up in the same movement. "To you alone it belongs to give strength to my soul; you alone can renew in my depths the sacred fire of your love which must first enkindle fire in my heart, and then pour itself out by my ministry in the souls whom you want to confide to me" [19]. "I expect no less of your usual goodness, that mercy that my infidelities have never wearied and which inspires me even in this moment with so much trust. I shall without delay put out my hand to the work, for time is pressing" [20].

From this radical experience, which unites the elements of truth with regard to himself, the mercy of God and mission, there came reconciliation and interior peace. It was in this way that the Founder experienced the road to freedom.

In the Letter to the Philippians, Saint Paul wrote: "may [your love for each other] increase more and more and never stop improving your knowledge and deepening your perception so that you can always recognize what is best" [21]. A reconciled heart is capable of true knowledge and a feel for discerning what is best. What superb expressions in our context! Now, let us see how that applied in the case of the Founder, in the rich diversity of everyday situations.

[1] John 8:32.
[2] John 2:25.
[3] FUTRELL, J.C., "Le discernement spirituel", in Foi vivante, no. 341, p. 16
[4] In Oblate Writings I, vol. 15, no. 139, p. 130.
[5] Retreat notes, December 1813, in Oblate Writings I, vol. 15, no. 121, p. 58.
[6] Annual retreat at Bonneveine, July-August 1816, in Oblate Writings I, vol. 15, no. 139, p. 132.
[7] Ibidem, p. 135.
[8] In Oblate Writings I, vol. 15, no. 185, p. 237.
[9] Ibidem, p. 238.
[10] Letter to Father Marius Suzanne, May 9, 1827, in Oblate Writings I, vol. 7, no. 270, p. 133.
[11] Ibidem.
[12] In Oblate Writings I, vol. 15, no. 139, p. 132.
[13] In Oblate Writings I, vol. 15, no. 166, p. 201.
[14] Ibidem, p. 207.
[15] In Oblate Writings I, vol. 15, no. 139. p. 130.
[16] Ibidem.
[17] Ibidem, p. 132.
[18] In Oblate Writings I, vol. 15, no. 166, p. 201.
[19] In Oblate Writings I, vol. 15, no. 185, p. 237.
[20] Ibidem, p. 238.
[21] Philippians 1:9-10.

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