Discovering God’s will is not an isolated activity that we are called to do as an individualistic quest for perfection. In his Conferences, the great spiritual writer John Cassian illustrates that the wisdom of the Desert Fathers was to rely on the counsel of elders in order to guide their discernment. In several examples, Cassian shows how monks who failed to reveal their thoughts to the wisdom of those who had gone before would often fall in dramatic and tragic ways.
He also explained that the devil tries to prevent us from such a disclosure. In a variety of ways, the devil tries to convince us to separate ourselves from the wisdom of the Body of Christ. Instead of being a living member of the community, he seeks to isolate us in prisons of egocentricity and self-absorption. Of course, this does not mean that we give full disclosure to anybody and everybody we have contact within the Church. Cassian also explains that we must seek elders who demonstrate an authentic holiness and a genuine call to help souls with discernment.
That being said, we should view the idea of elders in its broadest sense. To begin with, there is the ancient and collective wisdom that is found most concretely in the Magisterium of the Church. Although Cassian does not highlight the importance of the teaching authority of the Church, St. Ignatius of Loyola makes it an integral aspect of discernment. Instead of viewing the authority of the Church as a kind of imposition upon our individual liberty, we must have the attitude that the Church is our elder who is central to discernment. There are no saints who did not have this attitude.
In addition, we should look to find men and women within our local community that show the marks of wisdom and holiness. Such people are not simply those who have studied theology or who have a lot of formal training, but rather they are gentle souls who are skilled in listening. Furthermore, we must be patient in trying to discover such people. In this regards, we must see over time to what extent we are compatible with them. Gently walking with others is a general rule of building good relationships; learning to not rush but to let things develop with time.
The idea is not so much that we need to identify and cling to particular elders, but rather that discernment always takes place within a community (even if you are a hermit in the deserts of Egypt). We must surround ourselves with good people who have the benefit of experience and the interior harmony which comes with virtuous living. In this way, we must learn to rely on them to help us walk daily with the Lord.