A reflection by Sr. Anne Marie Walsh, SOLT:
DISCERNMENT IN THE MODERN AGE
One of the banes of modern life is the plethora of bad books, bad both in the sense of poorly written and bad in the sense of poisonous content. It's an observation that can be applied to movies, music, TV, and other forms of human expression as well. This is not meant to be a moral judgment so much as a reflection on what constitutes healthy food for the soul. We have great concern for the health of our bodies and our environment. And we feed them and protect them accordingly. At the same time, we seem to have much less conscious concern for what goes into our minds, our souls, our spirits. We simply consume whatever is offered, no longer recognizing the difference between junk food and delicacy, nutrients and toxins.
Entertainment of a rather mindless variety seems to be the common fare these days. It is big business to translate the written form into visual form thus making things more sensual, gripping and exciting. Books are made into movies, and articles are covered with images that engage the senses and the emotions in ways that are particularly potent. We are attracted to manipulated, computer-generated scenes, enchanted by special effects, and seduced by music that diverts us away from a close examination of content. We find ourselves being moved in certain directions without the benefit of an engaged intellect. In fact, our intelligence is often purposely bypassed.
This can be very dangerous. It's a lot like seeing a glass of cold, refreshing water, after coming in on a hot, dusty day. The reaction is almost overwhelming, immediate, physiological and emotional. We would, without thinking, take the water and drink it. But if someone told us that despite it's inviting appearance, the water actually had e-coli in it, we would not approach it, much less drink it, no matter how thirsty we were, knowing it would be hazardous to our health.
This is very much like what happens when we indiscriminately read or watch whatever is the latest rage, whether it be fictional stories, movies, TV shows, that mock God, believers, our faith, or current book marketings of pornography (now particularly targeting women's readership). So many times people say: "it's not so bad. It's just a little sex, or just a little violence, or just a little language."
It doesn't matter whether the poison is hidden in small amounts. A little poison will kill you just as dead over time. When our emotions, our passions, our senses, apart from our intellects, make our decisions for us, we are capable of drinking to the dregs whatever contaminant is presented to us. And today, very deadly poisons abound. Our culture prizes acceptance, tolerance and open-mindedness. It has been noted though that the danger comes when people become so open-minded their brains fall out. Curiosity can be a grave temptation. Being "well-informed" another hook. Pope Benedict mentioned that knowledge for it's own sake only leads to sadness, and sometimes to much worse things.
This is not a new problem. The young St. Teresa of Avila had an attraction to the romance/adventure novels of her time, until she realized that the illusions, vanity and worldliness they sowed in her were a great obstacle to her life in general and to her relationship with God in particular. They did not help her live in reality and especially in the reality of her dignity as a woman, a beloved daughter of God with a great destiny, a great part to play in the life of the Church and the world.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, Founder of the Jesuits, also had this problem before his conversion. He is famous for realizing how the books he read affected the movements of his soul, for better or worse. While recovering from a serious battle injury, he began to recognize that the worldly books he was fond of, and which also fed his vanity, gave him a feeling of excitement which quickly passed and left him feeling discontented and restless. On the other hand, when he read books on the lives of the saints and their great deeds, he found himself inspired and filled with a desire to follow their example. These feelings did not change. From this simple observation St. Ignatius developed his principles for discernment, which are now indispensable teachings for anyone serious about the spiritual life.
We of course need discernment in many areas of our lives. And because we live in a complicated age, it is good to look for some general direction. One place to find this is back at the very beginning. God gave some very simple directions for life in the Garden, and repeated them again after the fall, through Moses. He told Adam and Eve that they could eat from the Tree of Life and the other trees in the Garden, but not of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Later, He reiterated this directive again to the Israelites in Exodus. "Choose life that you may live."
In all honesty, when our question becomes: "Is what I am about to say or see or do, life-giving to me and those around me" we are able to frame issues in a new light. This is not the only question we sometimes need to ask. But it is a very good place to start and finish. Is this life-giving or is this poison to me, to my relationships, to my own dignity or someone else's dignity? It is a question that can be used with many of the choices we should make today with more deliberation than we do. And it is a question that avoids the dissembling of moral relativism. Something is either life-giving to all involved, or it is not. If it brings death of any kind in it's wake, it is to be avoided.
God's commandments and the Church's counsels are not meant to cramp our style or dampen our fun. They are simply meant to protect us. God knows what is good, what is healthy for us. And He also knows what will make us sick. Technology and the creative powers of mankind in many different fields have the potential to serve life or to bring death, both physical and spiritual death, depending on how they are used. If we truly want to live and live well, live the abundant life Jesus promises us, then we have to stop starving our own souls and eat more plentifully from the Tree of Life.
Sr. Anne Marie