For some years now I have been more or less involved in the Charismatic Renewal, a movement that has a presence in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. As with any movement in any Church there are certain catch-phrases that one hears among "charismatics." One that has been on my mind recently is, "The Spirit moved me to...," or "I felt called to...," or again "God told me to..." The vast majority of the time the one(s) who utters this phrase will then go on to tell you some good thing that they feel called to do. There is, however, a certain danger here. The great saints and mystics of both East and West show us that it is possible to feel drawn to some great good at an inappropriate time, or one that is inappropriate for one's circumstances.
In his excellent work, The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov gives concrete examples of people - some of them saints - who felt called to a great good at an inappropriate time. He mentions a number of people who felt drawn to the life of solitude and, against the will of their monastic superiors, entered such a life. Some of them became completely duped by Satan and his wiles. Others literally lost their sanity for a number of years before returning once again to themselves. In my own life I know that there have been times when I've felt called to some good, but the time was either inappropriate or the specific good was not right for me and my circumstances. My family has had to suffer in the past because of decisions I've made for a good that was wrong for us.
The great saint of the Western tradition, Francis of Assisi, was known to be a very impulsive person. He would feel these great "movements of the Spirit" and jump in head first without fully discerning the will of God. Sometimes he made the right decisions, other times not so much. He learned from his mistakes, however, and as he grew in the spiritual life God tempered this impulsive aspect of his personality and he became much more discerning.
But how is it possible for something to be good, but not good for me, especially when it involves some sort of spiritual good? The pastor of my parish has a great homily he likes to give during the Great Fast (Lent). He speaks of our fasting practices as Eastern-Byzantine Catholics and mentions how we give up certain foods not because they are bad, but because we want to be able to focus our attention on a greater good. We acknowledge that the foods we give up are in themselves good, but by giving them up we free ourselves to focus on the greater spiritual good. He then goes on to give an example. Almost everyone will admit that chocolate cake is good... some will admit that it is VERY good. But for a diabetic chocolate cake, although good in and of itself, can be very harmful, even life-threatening. A severe diabetic can go into a diabetic coma simply by eating a piece of chocolate cake. So they "give up" eating chocolate cake for the greater good of one's health. The cake is good, but "not for me; not now."
I've found this "not for me; not now" to be a very handy phrase to remember when discerning the movements of my own heart. Yes, whatever presents itself to me may be a great good indeed, but is it appropriate to my situation, my circumstance, my greater vocation, etc., etc., etc. The advice that my spiritual father gave to me some years ago always rings in my head during these moments: "Calm down, Phillip." St. Ignatius Brianchaninov has this to say:
Has some good thought come to you? Stop! Whatever you do, do not rush to implement it or carry it out over hastily, without thinking. Have you felt some good impulse or inclination in your heart? Stop! Do not dare to be drawn by it. Check it with the Gospel. See whether your good thought and your heart's good impulse tally with the Lord's holy teaching.
By checking our good impulses against the Gospel we learn to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord and submit even our good impulses to His will. We risk falling into great pride and arrogance when we do not submit such impulses to God's Word.
I remember hearing a story about the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux. Apparently when they were first married they decided to sleep in separate rooms and not to engage in marital relations. They chose to live together "chastely" as brother and sister. Now celibacy is a good thing in and of itself. But married couples are not called to celibacy, and marital chastity is not the same as celibate chastity. After some time of living in this way St. Therese's parents began to experience a good deal of marital discord, to the point that they went to speak to their local priest about it. When he learned that they were not sharing the marital bed he promptly corrected them. From then on out they lived their marriage according to the Gospel teaching on marriage and marital chastity. In the end one of their children became one of the greatest saints of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century, another one of their children is on the path to canonization, and they themselves have been held up as role-models for married couples through their beatification! Although they felt a great impulse to the good of celibacy, celibacy was not good for them. They submitted their wills to the will of God shown forth in the Gospel's teachings on marriage and lived a much happier life because of it.
We who read the writings of the Fathers and great mystics of the East and West often feel drawn to the way of life that these men and women lived, especially since so many of us are beginners on the spiritual journey. St. Ignatius warns us that we need to read the writings of the Fathers and mystics with great caution. (Notice he doesn't tell us not to read their writings, but to read them with caution and discernment). We need to learn to adapt the teachings of the great spiritual masters to our condition, our times, our circumstances, our vocation, etc. The Fathers may speak of the glories of monastic life, but a married person is not a monk or nun. They may speak of the glories of external silence and solitude, but most lay people living in the world are not called to that amount of silence and solitude. I remember hearing a priest once recommend that all lay people should spend at least two hours a day in prayer! In my own life I personally have a hard time getting in my 20 minutes in the morning for my prayer rule before going about my daily obligations as a husband and father, let alone two whole hours.
What we need is discernment. Check your impulses against the commands and demands of the Gospel. Put on the mind of Christ and allow Him to form even your good and holy desires. More reward is given for submitting to God's will - He seeks the greater good for us, after all - than for following our own impulses and inclinations, even when such impulses are good. In all things may God bless us with this spirit of discernment. May heaven consume us.