The end of Chapter 24 of the Carmelite Rule reads: ‘Use discernment, however, the guide of the virtues.’ Instead of ‘discernment’ some translations use the term ‘common sense’. Common sense here is too narrow a translation that does not reflect the comprehensive meaning of ‘discernere’ or ‘discretio’.
With these words, Albert of Jerusalem concludes his Rule for the hermits on Mount Carmel. In the last sentence, he stresses the importance of discernment. From the context, it is clear that this does not refer to distinguishing between different spirits in the sense of the monks’ age-old struggle against demons. Instead, what is meant here is establishing the right balance. This is mentioned as early as Chapter 15. Correcting one another is meant to help avoid excesses and to attain moderation. A similar thought is expressed in Chapter 21, the chapter on silence, which also states: ‘Make a balance then, each of you, to weigh his words in ...’. What matters is the right balance, the right ratio between silence and talking, a moderate use of words.
This interpretation of discernment which we encounter in the Rule, that is, the equation of discernment with discovering the proper balance, is mainly derived from Johannes Cassian’s Collationes. Coll. II. 2 says:
Discretion, which passing by excess on either side, teaches a monk always to walk along the royal road, and does not suffer him to be puffed up on the right hand of virtue, i.e., from excess of zeal to transgress the bound of due moderation in foolish presumption, nor allows him to be enamoured of slackness and turn aside to the vices on the left hand, i.e., under pretext of controlling the body, to grow slack with the opposite spirit of lukewarmness.
Here, Cassian refers to the Aristotelian model of the mesotes, which places each of the virtues in the middle between two misled forms of itself, i.e., the virtue of courage right between callousness and daring and thrift right between miserliness and extravagance, etc.
In Collationes II. 4, Cassian writes,
In discretion lies wisdom, herein lies intelligence and understanding without which our inward house cannot be built, nor can spiritual riches be gathered together. ... No virtue can possibly be perfectly acquired or continue without the grace of discretion. ... For discretion is the mother of all virtues, as well as their guardian and regulator.
Finding the right balance requires prudence. Thus, in the Middle Ages discernment was increasingly identified with the virtues of prudence and temperance. Benedict of Nursia writes in Chapter 64 of his rules about the abbot,
In administering correction he should act prudently and not go to excess, lest in seeking too eagerly to scrape off the rust he break the vessel. Let him keep his own frailty ever before his eyes and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken. ... In his commands let him be prudent and considerate; and whether the work which he enjoins concerns God or the world, let him be discreet and moderate, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob, who said, ‘If I cause my flocks to be overdriven, they will all die in one day.’ Taking this, then, and other examples of discretion, the mother of virtues, let him so temper all things that the strong may have something to strive after, and the weak may not fall back in dismay.
The Rule of Albert of Jerusalem is an integral part of this monastic-ascetic tradition and is meant to teach the brothers how to strike the right balance in their actions in all aspects of their lives, from devotional practices to human relationships.
Still, this does not mean (and in this respect continual striving for the right balance might involve a certain risk) that mediocrity should reign supreme and that life should have no peaks and valleys, no joy, grief, or sorrow. To the contrary: This would mean cutting oneself off from this earthly life. Having experiences is an important part of life, as is having feelings and allowing inner stirrings and passion to exist. These things are, as the old monks said, crucial for the excitement and dynamism of spiritual life. However, this, too, always involves the question of where the right balance is, the question as to where something has come from and where it is guiding us to and whether this goal corresponds with what I want and with what God wants for me.
Repeatedly, the records of the mystics of Carmel reveal that experiences are indeed important. Ecstasy and extraordinary experiences are accepted as well, whenever they are granted by God. However, they need to be integrated into the everyday striving for and seeking of the right balance in the organization of our lives with regard to our relationship towards ourselves, others, and God. Even these early authoresses and authors warned of the dangers of becoming being addicted to experience, although, in their age, this warning referred to the spiritual rather than to worldly experiences. Yet, even in this respect, what some of the devout craved for were experiences as extraordinary and exotic as possible. Moreover, in order to achieve this, they frequently underwent cruel tortures and exercises. Faith and piety, however, do not become worthwhile through the exotic character of experiences, let alone through the degree of cruelty of the austerity they impose. Instead, they are rather revealed in the organization and management of everyday life – a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ.
The prudent choice of the right balance, the revelation of one’s experience in everyday life: these are the fundamental virtues which the Carmelite Rule has formulated and which have continued to unfold and be repeatedly interpreted throughout the history of Carmel in keeping with the times. In view of our contemporary situation this prudent kind of practicing discernment is needed in our time more than ever.
Michael Plattig, O.Carm., is a member of the German Province of the Order and is currently director of the Institutum Carmelitanum in Rome. This Reflection was prepared for the 2013 General Chapter.