They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” – Mark 9:33-37
Here, we have another classic example of Jesus’ disciples screwing up. I love them for that. In my struggle to figure out how I can better receive Christ, the knowledge that these great saints also constantly screwed up keeps me from spiritual perfectionism, and instead lets me focus on growth. In this particular case, the disciples failed to discern that concern for the welfare of others needed to trump their own ambition.
In my circles of Catholic emerging adults, we talk a lot about discernment, and there is an ever-growing area within practical Catholic spirituality about how to practice discerning well. We discern marriage or religious vocation; we discern where to begin a job search; we discern whether even to begin that job search or go on for more education. We discern our roles within changing friendships. It’s so common that among my friends, discernment is even tossed around as a joke, such as when we “discern” whether we should order another pizza for the game watch party.
However, what struck me in this Gospel passage is the fact that the disciples clearly had to practice something else before moving on to discernment. The prerequisite to discernment must be a well-formed conscience. The disciples had no idea what they should have been talking about along the road, but they were ashamed when Jesus asked what their conversation was – they knew, deep down, that who was the greatest among them certainly wasn’t a question worth their consideration. Was that gut feeling present when the conversation started?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church §1779 explains the need for introspective vigilance, and quotes the advice of St. Augustine:
It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination, or introspection:
“Return to your conscience, question it… Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness.” (Saint Augustine)
If we are truly going to discern as often as we profess about matters great and small, we need to attend to this interiority. Prayerful discernment, or choosing between good things, is hard enough. It becomes much harder if you can’t see what is not of God and can’t rule that out immediately.
Today is the memorial of Teresa of Avila, a great contemplative. She certainly believed that when you don’t distract yourself with things that aren’t worth filling your mind, that’s when you can hear God. In Teresa’s meditation on the Song of Songs, she warns her religious sisters against “false peace” with oneself - a “peace” that anesthetizes and atrophies the soul. She took the time to identify nine kinds of false peace, which can stymie our growth into the disciples that God created us to be and which Christ calls us to be. We are each like the disciples in this Gospel: imperfect, but called by Christ to recognize when we could have done better. When we recognize the wrong questions, we can begin to discern which are the right ones.
The disciples didn’t remain at peace with their pride, and grew into some of the greatest servants of others. For myself, I pray that I can stay away from the false peace that would make me complacent with the children and adults whom I serve as a parish director of religious education. Lord, help me to receive You in them.
Laura Berlage serves as Director of Religious Education for Incarnate Word Parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.