Quote from the Rule of St. Benedict
“[The abbot] must show forethought and consideration in his orders, and whether the task he assigns concerns God or the world, he should be discerning and tempered, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, who said: ‘If I drive my flocks too hard, they will all die in a single day’ (Gen 33:13). Therefore, drawing on this and other examples of discretion, the mother of virtues, he must arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from.”
- Rule of St. Benedict 64.17-19
Teach us holy discretion, St. Benedict, that we may always know what to avoid and what to pursue in order to run in the way of God's commands, our hearts expanding with the inexpressible delight of love. Amen.
But not every right action can be prescribed beforehand in a list. We must be able to decide what to do in the here-and-now. This is not always easy, for as St. Benedict says, “there are ways that are deemed right by human beings whose end plunges all the way to the depth of hell” (chap. 7, v. 21, from Prov. 16:25). The virtue of discretion (also called prudence) is the ability to determine correctly what to do in a situation, so as to follow the way that leads to life.
Sometimes we err in judging an action because we do not examine it deeply enough. We stay at the surface rather than look into our hearts, to see whether what we are doing is truly virtuous. For example, perhaps I become impatient with a fellow monk who repeatedly does wrong. I tell myself this impatience is a sign that I am zealous for what is good and right. But in truth my impatience is bitter and not constructive, as I could see if I looked more honestly and deeply. Thus, my impatience is really a case of the bad zeal of bitterness, against which St. Benedict warns (see chap. 72, v. 1). Discretion entails the ability to look more deeply at our actions, in order to see whether they are truly virtuous.
Discretion also relies on help from others. This is very important to appreciate, lest we think we can always figure out on our own the right path to follow. To be sure, each of us in the end must make his own decisions, but others help us arrive at the right decisions. Thus, a spiritual director, feedback from a true friend, the words of Scripture, or the writings of a spiritual master – these can help us discern what truly leads to life with God and what does not. In the monastic life, the teachings or the orders of a superior, which the monk receives in obedience, can help the monk to know the way of God in which he should walk.
Of course, to discern God’s will and to walk in it requires the help of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we ought to ask for the Spirit’s help. In the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, God says: “Stand by the earliest roads, ask the pathways of old, ‘Which is the way to good?’ and walk it; thus you will find rest for yourselves” (Jer 6:16). May the Holy Spirit give us the discretion to know the way that is good, so that we may walk in it and find rest.