Previously on the blog, I wrote a reflection on how the practice of NFP allows us to hone different virtues. Included in that list was prudence, which involves right judgment or discernment of what is the right thing to do. Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity. As Christians we also recognize three theological virtues faith, hope and charity (see: 1 Cor 13:13)
While the four cardinal virtues can be known, practiced, and acquired through the human action, the theological virtues come from and lead to the Triune God. They still require human action in order to be nourished and grow, but they are “the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being (CCC #1813).
For Christians, the discernment which accompanies prudence must necessarily be informed by the counsel of the Holy Spirit, one of the gifts which is strengthened in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Yet discernment is an often misunderstood and underdeveloped art in our modern world. Abundant distractions, a lack of silence in our daily lives, hyper focus on the future, and the myth of total autonomy all pervade our experience of the Western world today. Each of these is a hindrance to true discernment, but they can be recognized fairly easily and with some effort can be countered through our own good actions.
What is far more difficult and poisonous to our personal discernment are attitudes within the Christian community which distort discernment into a sort of divine mind-reading game, devised by a God who lays out a multitude of possible paths and expects us to pick the right one… or else. We tend to relegate discernment to an action taken only when faced with very big or impactful choices: like a fork in the road, where God is asking us to choose the one right path. Once we have chosen that, we can continue along the road relatively easily and without much thought until the next big decision comes along.
On the other hand, discerning the will of God can sometimes be seen as a constant stream of crippling choices. I've heard friends who have become so focused on doing the will of God “at all times,” that they worry even the slightest choice they will make will lead to a huge diversion from God's plan. They see it as a narrow road laid out specifically for them, which must be walked like a tightrope for their entire lives if they are to succeed in their journey towards heaven. Perhaps this is not an explicit belief of theirs, but it manifests when they are asked to make a decision, and find that it comes with crippling anxiety and scrupulosity.
We who use NFP are acutely tuned to the fact that the reality of discernment falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. It is not a one-time event associated only with capital-v Vocation questions. But neither is it something that must cripple us into thinking that every little decision must be scrutinized. There are a lot of wonderful books, guides and programs available which can teach us about discernment techniques. But so much of it can be pulled straight from the practice of NFP, which requires prudence, counsel, and a huge dollop of faith to keep us going.
So for our mutual benefit, I would like to present a few ways in which Natural Family Planning helps us understand and practice the Christian art of discernment.
Christina has been an NFP instructor in the Boston Cross Check Method since 2013. She is on a mission to change conversations about body literacy and NFP within the Catholic Church, through innovative lifelong body literacy programming and support... plus apparently this blog.