Discerning What is Good

In my last article I spoke about the ancient understanding of healing the soul by the application of opposites. You can read that article HERE. The technique of soul healing used by the Celtic monks was based on an understanding that human beings are blessed and marvelous creatures, which you can read more about HERE. The fact that human consciousness understands the world by creating categories and makes decisions by choosing between various options means that we need to develop a means by which we can distinguish between the good and the bad, the mediocre and the perfect. This skill is called discernment. At first glance the idea of discerning between contraries can seem rather dualistic, and if we aren’t careful it can be used that way. But, especially in the Celtic use of the idea, it is much more fluid and dynamic. It is really more about separation and unity than it is about duality. The goal of discernment is to overcome the duality and find balance in the space between extremes. The virtues are harmonious by their nature and can always be found in the middle way, the vices go off from there in all sorts of unhealthy directions.

Opposites always have something in common. Heat is the opposite of cold because they are both temperatures. Hot cannot be the contrary of wet anymore than cold can be the contrary of dry because hot and wet do not have enough in common to be true opposites. This necessary similarity between contraries can easily deceive us into thinking that our vices are actually virtues if we are not careful. Thus the ability to understand the principle of contraries is essential to true discernment. Columbanus describes discernment as a guide on the path of life. He notes that many people with good intentions are not able to live a holy life for the sole reason that they lack the ability to discern between good and evil. This error leads them off the straight and narrow road and into vice. He says,

Just as error overtakes those who have no path, so for those who live without discernment excess is near at hand, always contrary to the virtues, which lie between the extremes…The word discernment comes from distinguishing, therefore, since in us it distinguishes between good and evil, the mediocre and the perfect. For from the beginning good and evil have been divided like light and dark after evil began to exist through the Devil by the corruption of the good, but through God who first illumines then divides. Thus righteous Abel chose the good, but unrighteous Cain fell upon evil”

Whether or not you believe in a literal devil, the teaching that we require discernment in order to live a good life is essential. This discernment, Columbanus tells us, is found in the middle between extremes. Virtues are naturally in balance. If a virtue ever becomes out of balance, then it must be considered a vice. A vice corrupts a virtue by taking it out of its simplicity and off into extreme directions. Prudence can become avoidance if it is taken too far. Self restraint can become self abuse if it is not kept in a healthy balance. Fun and games can become irresponsibility if they go to extremes. Vices are virtues which have gone in the wrong direction and therefore, since they have their original source in virtue, they can often seem good to an undiscerning eye. Sometimes anger feels like justice and in the moment it can be very hard to tell if you are being courageous in the face of injustice or if you are being angry and making things worse.

Maybe you’ve met someone who always has to be the best host and serve the best dinner and be loved by everyone. This vice of vainglory (living for the praise and recognition of others) is operating under the guise of the virtue of hospitality, but it is not true hospitality. Or perhaps you’ve talked to someone who justifies their avarice (greed for money) by saying that others don’t deserve what they have because they will become lazy if they get handouts – the vice of greed hiding behind the virtue of teaching others and helping them to grow. This is a pitfall we all stumble over and we are wise to be ever mindful that we do not get tricked by these demons disguising themselves as angels of light. This is why Pelagius advised,

“Let it be a task of your highest knowledge and understanding to distinguish between vices and virtues which, though always contrary to each other, yet are linked in some cases by such resemblance that they can scarcely be distinguished at all. For how many reckon pride as liberty, adopt flattery as humility, embrace malice instead of prudence and confer the name of innocence on foolishness, and, deceived by a misleading and most dangerous likeness, take pride in vices instead of virtues?”

One of the ways we can test our virtues to see if they are really vices is to share openly and honestly with another person what is in our heart. It is often in community that the truth of our condition comes to the surface. Many people who assumed themselves to be worthless discovered that they are valuable by opening up to a supportive community. Many people who thought they were perfect have learned that they have many vices which they did not see on their own when they start to live with others. A good friend will tell us when our humility is actually flattery or when our liberty is really pride.

John Cassian, who was the primary person that brought the teachings of the desert monks to the Celtic peoples, wrote a great deal about the importance of discernment in the pursuit of virtue. Cassian shared a teaching, which he got from St Anthony, in his book Institutes that gives some beautiful advice about how we can grow in virtue by learning from our community. The idea behind this teaching is that as we live in spiritual community (whether your community is in a monastery, a local church, or online) the wise spiritual seeker learns different virtues from different people and tests their virtues against the wisdom of those around them.

St Antony taught that when one is seeking to live a holy life in community they must not try to learn all the virtues from one single person. Each of us has a different flower of virtue which blossoms from our soul. He also taught that each of us is like a bee who is storing up spiritual honey in the honeycomb which is our heart. Therefore, we should learn from the bee who does not collect her nectar from only one flower but rather bounces around the orchard taking a little bit from each blossom and collecting a beautiful honeycomb full of sweetness and sustenance. Cassian quoted Anthony as saying,

The monk who, like a most prudent bee, is desirous of storing up spiritual honey must suck the flower of a particular virtue from those who possess it more intimately, and he must lay it up carefully in the vessel of his heart. He must not begrudge a person for what he has less of, but he must contemplate and eagerly gather up only the virtuousness that he possesses. For if we want to obtain all of them from a single individual, either examples will be hard to find or, indeed, there will be none that would be suitable for us to imitate.”

I love the image of a spiritual community as an orchard and I love the image of our virtues being beautiful and nourishing blossoms which others can learn from and be supported by. I also love the humility that comes with realising that not every virtue is perfected in every person. In this way we can forgive those who struggle with addiction while still learning from their ability to share and be generous. Or we can forgive someone for always wanting to be in the spotlight while also learning from their great ability to make others feel loved and appreciated. If we are only willing to learn from people who perfectly embody every virtue then we are likely to not be able to find any person to learn from at all. We may also start to assume that a person is perfect simply because we see one of their virtues flowering beautifully in the sunlight and be blindsided when we are confronted by the vices they have yet to overcome.

True discernment is about finding the middle way between extremes. It allows us to see when we are on the right path and when we are getting off track. The virtues are always found in a state of balance and peace, if they become fanatic or extreme then they quickly lose their truth and become vices instead. We are wise to have a spiritual community who we can be open and honest with to help us discern the quality of our virtues and from whom we can gather the sweetest nectar to store up in the honeycomb of our hearts. 

What spiritual flowers do you collect nectar from?

How do you store up honey in the recesses of your heart?


If you enjoyed this article, please share it with your friends or on social media. If you would like to explore the Celtic tradition of spiritual direction with its emphasis on original goodness and personal responsibility, then feel free to contact Justin to learn more at justin@newedenministry.com or if you are receiving this in an email, simply respond to the email.


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2 thoughts on “Discerning What is Good

  1. It’s so interesting that RIGHT WHEN I NEED SOMETHING, my “teacher” appears. This post touched on how a personal struggle can be looked at differently. So glad I read this. Thank you.

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