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The art of spiritual discernment

In the history of Christian spirituality the discerning of spirits [or spiritual discernment] has always been considered the absolutely essential necessary gift for knowing God’s will. Anthony, the father of monasticism, speaks of it in this way: What it is which mainly leads to God… is discretion [discrimination, discretion = discernment]… termed in the Gospel the eye and lamp of the body (cf. Mt 6:22-23) because as it discerns all the thoughts and actions of men, it examines and sees clearly all things which should be done”(Cassian, Conferences ii, 2). And the Desert Fathers proclaim that “Discretion is the mother of all virtues, as well as their guardian and regulator” (ibid., ii, 4), and therefore dedicate to it search and meditation, to the point of making it the principal subject of their teaching for their disciples. The texts of the great tradition on this subject are well known: Origen, Anthony and the Desert Fathers, Evagrius, John Climacus; in the west Cassian, later Ignatius of Loyola and in the past century Karl Rahner. Building on this basis can we today humbly provide a few paths to follow for those who want to exercise themselves in this essential art of Christian life in the Spirit? Can we delineate some criteria to guide spiritual discernment?

Natale Fanin “Holy Spirit"

First of all discernment is a gift of God’s spirit which unites with our spirit and as such should be desired and invoked by Christians. It is the Holy Spirit who plays a crucial role throughout the process of discernment, and those who want to take this road must prepare everything within them so that the Spirit may act with his power. For every Christian, the epiclesis or invocation of the Spirit is the introduction to every prayer and action in the awareness that an entreaty to the Spirit is always heard by God, as Jesus assured us: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:13).

Of course the capacity for discernment, for decision, is an endowment of every person who comes into the world: it is the human discernment that proceeds from reason and from the intellect. However, spiritual discernment, “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh” (cf. Jn 1:13), is an operation whose protagonist is the Spirit. In Baptism Christians receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and this conscious receiving enables them to know what comes from God, what in human terms might seem foolish or scandalous, but in the light of the Spirit appears as God’s wisdom and power (cf. i Cor 1:22-25). Paul says: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him, God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God…. We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (i Cor 2:9-10,12).

In this way the Holy Spirit who comes down into the hearts of believers enables them to call God “Abba” (cf. Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6 and to have the noùs, the mind, the thinking of Christ (cf. i Cor 2:16). Thanks to his “anointing” (i Jn 2:20:27) – which the Latin tradition has defined as unctio magistra – we are able to discern God’s will, what pleases him, his plan for us, and to know his freely-given love which is never merited but only accepted.

The epiclesis and the consequent descent of the Holy Spirit bring us, as the first fruit, to the discernment of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. In his humanity Jesus told us of the invisible God (cf. Jn 1:18): he is the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15; cf. ii Cor 4:4), of the God whom no one has ever seen or can see (cf. i Tim 6:16), but in order to recognize him it is necessary to accept the operation by which God raises the veil in which he is mantled and permits us to discern in his frail, mortal flesh the Son of God, the eternal Word of God. Our eyes, in fact, might themselves remain veiled, a veil might remain over our hearts, even if we hear the word of God contained in the Scriptures (cf. ii Cor 3:12-17) and Jesus might be for us that sign of contradiction set for the fall and rising of many (cf. Lk 2:34). It is especially, the little, the least of people, who are able in this way to discern Jesus as the Son of God, as Jesus himself exclaimed with joy and wonder: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will!” (Mt 11:25-26; Lk 10:21).

If these are the theological bases and the significance of discernment, how should this art be exercised in practice? If, in fact, spiritual discernment is a gift of the Spirit who works within us, every person has in him- or herself human faculties which must collaborate with him. The Holy Spirit acts through our intellectual qualities, hence these qualities should be recognized with docility and set in action so that the believer may be enabled to receive this gift.

This is why it is necessary first of all to practise seeing, listening and thinking. Attention and vigilance are the virtues which enable us to enter into a relationship of knowledge with reality, events and individuals. Knowing how to see, listen and think comprises a single operation fundamental to our human quality and our maturity. All this is situated at the level of psychological activity; but in the believer, in the light of faith and under the hegemony of Christ’s thinking, this operation is more than psychological: there is a synergy between the Holy Spirit and the human faculties. When we enter into a relationship with the various realities, we have an experience of them, we start a process of knowledge and with our intelligence we interpret and recognize their meaning.

For a believer, however, this human activity necessarily takes place within a clear awareness: the hegemony, the primacy of God’s word. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105), the psalmist prays, a light to my mind, to my thinking and my meditation. The primacy and the centrality of God’s word in the believer’s life are today a certainty shared by all Jesus’ disciples. If Creation came about through the Word (cf. Gen 1; Jn 1:1-2), if through it God revealed himself to the point of being the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ among us (cf. Jn 1:14), it is the Word himself, the inseparable companion of the Spirit (cf. Basil of Caesarea, The Holy Spirit, 16), who must preside over discernment too.

Arnold Böcklin, “Villa at the Sea” (detail, 1865)

Thanks to listening to the word of God the Christian has access to faith (cf. Rom 10:17), in the Word he finds his daily good on the way towards the Kingdom, and finds true life (cf. Jn 1:4), which conquers evil and death. Those who are committed to practising spiritual discernment must become assiduous listeners to the Word, servants of the Word whose ears the Lord opens every morning so that they may listen as disciples (cf. Is 50:4); they must practise remaining, standing firm and with trust in the Word who is Christ. To do this it is necessary to be aware of the active and living presence of the Word of God contained in the Holy Scriptures and hence to seek it in them, reading them assiduously, meditating on them and cherishing them in one’s heart, so that it germinates and bears fruit.

Thanks to the exercise of the intellectual faculties and listening to the Word, one can acquire a certain ability, a feeling, a “spiritual sense”. This is born above all from listening to the conscience, to the depths of the heart, and becomes acceptance of an inspiration, of an inner movement, of a “nose” which can recognize the Lord’s presence and the inner manifestation of his will. We attain this goal by “nourishing within us the same sentiments that were in Jesus Christ” (cf. Phil 2:5), until we have in us “the mind of Christ” ( i Cor 2:16) itself. Thus we come to be in tune with the Lord, we share with him his approach and way of feeling and in this way grow to the stature of Christ (cf. Eph 4:13). This is the spiritual sensitivity trained by practice to discern good from evil (cf. Heb 5:14); this is the supraconsciousness (epígnosis) which makes it possible to discern easily what is good and pleasing to God (cf. Rom 12:2; Phil 1:9-10).

In this way the decision can flow forth, its judgement according to the Spirit, until it becomes a “decision taken with him”, since it was evaluated and emerged thanks to his inspiring power. It is a decision which always seems a choice, an amen to the inspiration of the Lord and a convinced rejection of evil, of the devil, in order to do God’s will. Indeed, it is not enough to say: “Lord, Lord!”, it is not enough to know his word: it is necessary to carry it out, doing the will of the Father who is in heaven (cf. Mt 7:21; Lk 6:46). This is a life decision, a commitment of the whole person: the choice is an experience that needs to exercise itself in renouncing. Moreover the renunciation and active decision aim for a single, simple goal: to love a little more, to love a little better. Pope Francis clearly recalled this on 2 March 2017 at his meeting with the parish priests of Rome: “In the present moment, we discern how to concretize love in the good that is possible as measured by the good of the other” because “The discernment of real, concrete love is possible in the present moment as it works for the good of someone most dramatically in need, and this makes faith active, creative, and effective”. 

Enzo Bianchi




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 11, 2019