January Ministry Theme: Discernment

By Jerry Lusa,
Sunday Services Committee

We don’t often use the word discernment in everyday conversation. It reminds me of the word recondite, which we also don’t use much. Recondite is one of those abstruse, little known words, but it is also very special because it just happens to mean “abstruse” and “little known.” Yep, recondite is self-referencing; a little known word that means little known. I picture a dog named Recondite chasing its own tail.

This brings me to another way that the word discernment reminds me of recondite, which is that discernment is also self-referential. Discernment is about finding the essence of things, which is what we do when we look for meaning in a word. To understand discernment, we have to discern its meaning. Look at the dog spin!

The dictionary defines discernment as going past the mere perception of something and making detailed judgments about that thing. It is the ability to judge well, to grasp and comprehend what is obscure. When I hear the word obscure I start thinking about recondite again. I’d better stop before the dog gets too dizzy!

Discernment is about making judgments, but not petty judgments. It’s not just judging, it’s judging well, like appreciating the harmony in a choral performance. And it’s not judging the ordinary; it’s judging the obscure, like detecting the faintest hint of vanilla in the “nose” of a cheap merlot. It’s starting to sound like discernment is a snob. But discernment shows up in almost every imaginable context. We discern other people’s emotional state when we are mindful of them, as when a parent comforts an upset child. We discern the ineffable when we meditate, what is left when no thoughts remain.

For me, discernment has two flavors, inner and outer, which we experience in very different ways. We use what I’m calling outer discernment when we look for truths about the world. Disciplines like science, math, logic and reason, even history and psychology are built upon myriad discernments between truths and falsehoods. The various categories of fallacies to which we humans are so susceptible are all failures to make these outer discernments properly. The scientific method and much of math and logic are tools for discerning truthful knowledge.

It took centuries of scientific discernment for us to know that a rainbow is the result of Rayleigh scattering and also that we perceive rainbows through the visual cortexes in our brains. This outer kind of discernment that gave us our recorded knowledge has served us well and we need to continue doing it. I wouldn’t want to ride in an airplane that was engineered by emotion or spirituality. And those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.

What I’m calling inner discernment is essential to how we experience life to our fullest. It’s about expanding and refining how we feel toward the world, each other and ourselves. It’s not some-thing we need to prove and there’s no reason to try. We can work to discern the subtleties of exotic and fine foods, and our meals are more pleasurable for it. We can train our ears to the complexities of music and discern depths of beauty that were not there be-fore. Inner discernment can enrich our relations with others; for example, we can discern our own foibles and, to mangle a phrase, “by exposing, end them.”

I mentioned discernment in meditation earlier, which may seem a stretch at first because meditation involves the absence of thinking, a mental si-lence. But consider that “grasp” and “comprehend” need not be cognitive. We can grasp emotionally and we can comprehend spiritually. In the emotional or spiritual sense, meditation is discernment of the world surrounding us, and also of ourselves apart from our egos. Being apart from our egos is what makes meditation such a unique and significant experience.

A child sees a rainbow without the slightest discernment. For adults, though, it takes this inner discernment to get past the science of Rayleigh scat-tering and visual cortexes to discern the joy that we have in us for rainbows. In much the same way that we let go of our egos when we meditate, we let go of outer discernment when we enjoy the emotive and spiritual experiences of being human.

I like to save the best for last, and for me this is the best part of discernment – when it comes in the form of an epiphany. It might come as awe from discerning some new knowledge, or from gaining knowledge from discerning a new experience. Either way the feeling is deeply spiritual. I’m feeling a little epiphany right now!

Quotations On Discernment

Her great merit is finding out mine; there is nothing so amiable as discernment.

Lord Byron

We should not fret for what is past, nor should we be anxious about the future; men of discernment deal only with the present moment.


“Let discernment be your trustee, and mis-takes your teacher.”

T.F. Hodge

“[Eomer:]’How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’

‘As he ever has judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yes-teryear…It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of The Rings

“One of the first things we learn from our teachers is discernment: the ability to tell truth from fiction, to know when we have lost our center and how to find it again. Discernment is also one of the last things we learn, when we feel our paths diverge and we must separate from our mentors in order to stay true to ourselves.”

Anne Hill, The Baby and the Bathwater

 “The first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging.”

Molly Ivans

Through discernment, we recognize the good and find peace in the decisions we make, progressing ourselves to the future that awaits us.

Christina Schneider

“The kinds of nets we know how to weave determine the kinds of nets we cast. These nets, in turn, determine the kinds of fish we catch..”

Elliot Eisner, Cognition and Curriculum