Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
February 14, 2000
Looking before you leap
People across Alberta were surprised earlier this month by New Democratic leader Pam Barrett's decision to step down after what she called a near-death experience. Barrett has been a feisty combatant in political debates in a province where political debate is often timid. Her presence in that debate - irrespective of the validity of the stands she has taken - will be missed.
Likewise, Barrett has the right to quit her job, although that right is tempered by the responsibility she has accepted from her party and her constituents to be their spokesperson. If she's going to forsake that responsibility, she should have a good reason for doing so.
Barrett's explanation was somewhat murky: "I need a new path. I need to do something and I can't tell you what it is and I cannot explain the spiritual connection."
After some initial hesitancy, the media did raise questions about this "spiritual experience." What she saw as a near-death experience was likely a panic attack, a leading dentist told The Edmonton Journal.
Still, we need to ask the broader question of whether having a presumed spiritual experience is sufficient reason for making a precipitous change in the course of one's life. There is a tendency in secular society, and in the media in particular, to assume that religious experience is purely private and not subject to outside analysis.
Our Catholic tradition holds that spiritual discernment can always be assisted by trained mature spiritual guides. We are somewhat skeptical of overnight conversions and skeptical of those who say their action is motivated by a spiritual "reason" which they cannot put into words. Even Paul, blinded on the road to Damascus, could give a clear and lucid explanation of why he so drastically changed his life.
Traditional authors spoke of discernment in terms of the cardinal virtue of prudence - the ability to judge God's will in matters that are not covered by basic religious and moral norms for living.
To discern rightly, one first needs to accept that God has a plan for each person's life which ought to be sought and accepted with a spirit of humility. That plan may include radical changes at various points, but any radical change ought to be made respecting one's own talents, weaknesses, responsibilities and longstanding interests. The advice and insights of one's family and friends can be helpful. So can the advice of a competent spiritual advisor.
Prudent decisions about the direction of one's life ought not to be made under duress or during a period of emotional high or low. They should be the result of due reflection, not rushed. Prudence also respects standard moral norms - if one commits adultery because of a "spiritual experience," one can be certain that this experience did not come from God.
A religious person always tries to discern God's will through prayer, especially includes meditation on God's word revealed in Scripture.
Consideration of some of these criteria could well have aided media and other commentary on Barrett's decision to resign. Although she regarded her experience as ineffable and beyond public questioning, "spiritual" should not be taken to mean irrational or purely private. To view it in those terms is to remove religion from the public square - something powerful economic forces would very much like to see happen.
God can certainly speak in the silence of our hearts. But if he does, we should be able to describe the experience to others. Often too, our hearts are the place where whims arise that are less than sacred. Spiritual discernment is the sometimes-tricky process of separating the one from the other.
Prudence is a virtue often ignored today as we pay high tribute to the spontaneous jump into the unknown. But when we make our own life decisions, we should avoid precipitous leaps in favour of a calm, measured process of discernment. That is the truly spiritual way to move forward.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.