How an Ancient Spiritual Practice Can Help Parents Model Good Decision-Making
Ever since I became a parent, I have been particularly invested in living a moral life. This is not to say morality was unimportant to me before, of course. But now I have a little human around who observes everything I do and say, and I genuinely want to guide him toward making decisions that are right for him and those around him. Therefore, the choices I make each day, for myself and for him, have decidedly profound implications.
Parenthood, which we can consider its own kind of ministry, makes living ethically a priority—a necessity, even. I have found that nurturing our spirituality helps us rise to this ongoing challenge. Also, through studying theology, I have found that the traditional Christian practice of lectio divina is useful in helping us learn and practice the art of discernment. In turn, discernment helps us learn to live according to certain virtues that most reasonable people, religious and otherwise, agree are important. This paves the way for parents to raise children who are impelled to live ethically, too.
When we talk about ethics, we are talking about morality—what is right and what is wrong. We know how to be good people when when we know how to make the right decisions. In his essay “What is Good and What is Right,” James F. Keenan further explains what it means to be “right” and what it means to be “good”:
“The distinction between goodness and rightness is a simple one. Goodness describes a person who acting out of love strives to live rightly. Rightness describes behavior that promotes value in the world. Goodness asks whether a person strives to answer the call of Jesus to love God and neighbor. Rightness asks whether certain actions actually make the world a better place.”
These definitions are helpful as we consider how we might determine how to act in certain situations, especially as parents. We hold a special kind of influence. Sometimes it is clear how to act in a way that will “actually make the world a better place,” but many time it is not. This leads us to consider the virtue of prudence, which is essentially our ability to use reason to make the right decisions.
Thomas Aquinas, the immensely influential theologian and saint, tell us that prudence is a “special virtue,” because prudence “helps all the [other] virtues, and works in all of them.” This is because we need the right reason to do something, so that we might have the will to actually act.
In the article “Conscience in the Light of the Catholic Moral Tradition,” Charles E. Curran tells us that for Aquinas, prudence “is obtained and perfected through practice in deliberation and action,” and that prudence “practices the art of discernment.” I find it helpful to think of discernment in this way—not as a mathematical formula, but as an art that requires lots of careful thinking and deliberate doing.
Many parents, however, including myself, find that it is difficult to be careful and deliberate because we are often so distracted by our children. But the writer Thomas Moore, a writer and former Catholic monk, argues that distraction can actually be a gift: “[The soul’s] progress is created more by loss than by gain. One forgets, and life enters. One doesn’t understand, and life increases . . . It has to come from a distracted mind, one that is not so excessively preoccupied with defending itself.”
The very distractions with which parents are well acquainted allow our spirit—our soul—to be ready to expand. When we are focused on our kids and their needs, we are less focused on ourselves. And this creates the kind of conditions within us that are necessary for meaningful discernment.
Before I discuss lectio divina—the ancient practice that can help us actually practice the art of discernment—I want to first mention how the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes might give us further clarity about what it means to live a moral life. In The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes: Biblical Studies and Ethics for Real Life, Jesuit priest Yiu Sing Lucas Chan argues that these texts serve as “a radical invitation to all who want to live out their Christian lives virtuously based on the teaching of scriptural texts.”
Simply put, we can draw upon the ancient wisdom in the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes to help us better understand how to live virtuous lives. If we give these texts some time and attention, we start to understand what Chan describes as the “meanings and contents of [the] virtues” embedded in them.
With a better understanding of Christian virtues in mind, we are that much better prepared for the practice of lectio divina. Still, while a familiarity with the foundational texts of the Christian faith may be helpful, it is not necessary. In her book The Wisdom Jesus, Episcopal priest and teacher Cynthia Bourgeault tells us that it “simply isn’t so” that “one must be a biblical scholar to have the authority to proceed” with lectio divina.
Bourgeault describes this practice as “a time-tested way of ‘chewing scripture’—feeding on it, absorbing it deeply into one’s being where, like all food, it provides nurturance and the energy for growth.” The kind of absorption described here allows us to integrate new and holy ways of knowing into our being, so that we can understand how to make the right decisions for ourselves and each other.
The actual practice of lectio divina begins with selecting a short passage from scripture. Then we follow these four steps: 1) lectio (reading), 2) meditatio (reflection), 3) oratio (prayer), and 4) contemplatio (contemplation). For the first step, Bourgeault recommends reading the chosen passage slowly, multiple times. This way, when you move on to the second step, you can actively meditate on a particular phrase or image that “trigger[s] an association from your own life.”
Next, we do our best to let a prayer arise in our hearts—we say to God whatever we feel inclined to say, for as long as it takes to say it. Finally, the fourth step invites us to sit in quiet, still, and restful contemplation, with no agenda other than being in the presence of God. We should give the whole process as much as time as we can, though I would argue twenty minutes would be a minimum, even if it only happens a few times a week.
Pope Benedict, in an official document he wrote called Verbum Domini, encourages us to add a fifth step to the process. He says that “the process of lectio divina is not concluded until it arrives at action (actio), which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity.” I do believe this additional step is crucial, if not inevitable. If we move through the original four steps, we will likely be impelled to act according to what we have experienced.
Through its focus on inner guidance—that is, guidance from God in the form of the Holy Spirit that dwells in each of us—lectio divina helps us discern how to live according to a morality that relentlessly calls for making this world more hospitable to humans, animals, and nature itself. The wisdom it gives us wills us to act in ways that make the Kingdom of Heaven a reality here on earth. Accordingly, we become the good people we aspire to be, and we model the moral life for our children so that they, too, aspire to goodness and learn by example the art of discernment.