For private use
To have clear
direction in our lives is a process that is built upon a solid
spiritual life, our human qualities and the gifts that the Holy
Spirit has given to us. Acquiring this knowledge is a process of
serious prayer and the intelligent seeking of His designs – the way
through which each one of us ought to travel to encounter Christ and
grow in the perfection of love.
Christ is the
Way, and our Christian life is about following this Way in a
communitarian, as well as a personal, manner. Each one needs to
find the manner in which they are called to follow the steps of the
Lamb. In the first years of Christianity, those who united
themselves to the community were known as the “followers of the
Way.” The Didache, a catechesis of the first century for those who
were initiated in the faith, dedicated its first chapters to
instruction concerning two possible paths in the spiritual life:
the one of God; and the one of the devil that begins by appealing to
fleshly desires like honors, comforts, riches, pride – i.e. the
temptations of the desert.
life has as its goal to “fulfill in all things the will of God.”
This ought to be the only desire of our heart: to do the will of the
Father. This was the only desire of Christ: “My food is to do
the will of the One who sent me and to fulfill his work” (John
4:34). And again, “I have come down from Heaven not to do my
will, but the will of the one who sent me” (John 6:38).
This will entail
a great battle: the encounter between the two wills – ours and that
of God. Our greatest offering to God is to give Him our wills.
Like the Blessed Virgin, we must say, “Let it be done in me
according to Your Word” (Luke 1:38), and like Jesus, “Not my will
but yours be done” (Mt 26:39). This requires us to say “no” to what
we would have liked, to what is favored by us and pleases us, and
“yes” to what the Father has permitted in His eternal design for
us. Only in the will of God will we find perfection, peace,
fullness, joy and rest…“My yoke is easy and my burden light” (Matt
The purpose of
the Christian life is to be in communion with God and to grow each
day in this communion with His Heart and with His designs for us.
It is to be fully in His will – “your will be done on earth as it
is in Heaven.” Do we know what it is to have His will done in our
lives as it is done in Heaven? For this reason, the great work
is to discern the will of God in our lives.
of discernment is to be able to discover, with clarity and
conviction, the design of God for our lives, the direction that we
ought to take, and the means to reach the goal. As St. Paul said,
“That you may be filled with the knowledge of his will through all
spiritual wisdom and understanding to live in a manner worthy of the
Lord, so as to be fully pleasing, in every good work bearing fruit
and growing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:9-10).
The Lord has
revealed His will to us through Sacred Scriptures, Sacred Tradition
and the Magisterium of the Church. However, He desires that we come
to know how to apply it in our lives personally and in given
situations. In addition, He desires to reveal His personal plan to
us in each moment of our lives. For this, we should have the
necessary dispositions to listen to Him.
We need to make
some distinctions concerning the nature of discernment. The
discernment of spirits is an intimate knowledge that allows us
to distinguish and differentiate whether the inspirations or
impulses we experience come from the Spirit of God, from an evil
spirit or from our own human spirit. The human spirit is our
“I.” It is our imagination, the impulses of our intelligence and
will, and above all things, the inclinations of our appetite. It is
the old man from which we must strip ourselves (Eph. 4:22).
Discernment is a
gift that enables us to correctly identify the presence of God, His
plan, His will, and His actions in particular circumstances or when
we find ourselves faced with different directions or alternatives.
It is not about choosing between good and bad; rather, it concerns a
choice among a variety of alternatives of equal value. “‘Everything
is lawful for me,’ but not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor 6:12).
It allows us to
discover where our interior and exterior movements come from – God,
the flesh, or the devil. As St. Paul said, “Do not quench the
Spirit…Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind
of evil” (1 Thes 5:19-22). Sometimes we may be presented
with a situation in which part is from God and another part is not.
We must know how to distinguish between the weeds and the grass and
how to deal with both of them.
Discernment allows us to perceive the “calls,” “impulses,” or
“spirits” that are opposed to the movements of the Holy Spirit or
that can impede, weaken, distract, or frustrate them somehow. “Do
not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they
belong to God” (1 Jn 4:1).
As well, the
gift of discernment is used often in areas that are not so obvious
and evident (1 Cor 2:9). The gift gives us a spiritual perception, a
capacity to penetrate through external appearances in order to
discover underlying origins and intentions.
gift allows us to discover where God is leading us on our spiritual
and apostolic paths. What does He want to do with our hearts and
Why do we
need to discern?
We need to
discern in order to know “if” and “how” our actions and decisions
direct us toward the goal of our lives in God and toward His will
for our state in life. For example, I need to know if I am growing
in my religious vocation, in my communion with God and others, and
in my community life. Or I need to know if I being a better wife,
mother, or member of a religious family, thus promoting the reign of
the Two Hearts.
We must discern
to know if we are fulfilling our mission given to us by the Lord. We
must discover what the Lord is doing in each situation and how it is
situated in the plan of redemption. We must know the purpose of each
given situation and how to understand it.
Finally, we need
to discern so we do not distract ourselves from primary goals and
priorities and give precedence to less important matters.
Discernment is inseparable from prayer; it is found only
through communication with God. Christian discernment allows us to
acquire the mind of God, who tells us, “my ways are not your ways”
(Is 55:8). It allows us to come to know the mind and the way of God
in particular situations.
It is also
inseparable from Scripture. Through Sacred Scripture we
acquire the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5), which allows us to see the
world, human realities, conflicts and remedies from the perspective
To have true
Christian discernment, we must understand and be faithful to the
Magisterium of the Church. We must ask ourselves, “What does
the Church teach about this?...How can I apply this teaching in my
discernment must also be based on basic common sense. In
other words, we do not need to discern everything – where to eat,
what to wear, etc. This would be to trivialize the gift.
It requires us
to use reason directed by faith. We must use our reason to
apply faith to the situations of our lives. To discern is not
simply to make a judgment based on human logic, but to seek the
logic of God in communion with human reason. According to St.
Thomas Aquinas, reason – which is also a gift - decides based
on known facts. However, the Spirit may lead us to act differently
for reasons known to God.
Within the scope
of reason and faith falls the relationship between discernment
and prudence. Prudence is a work of the intellect – illuminated
by our faith and assisted by grace – that directs us toward that
which is convenient and good to do. Prudence takes care of the
little things of our life and regulates:
thoughts so that they may not be outside of God.
intentions so as to distance us from all that may be contrary to
affections and sentiments so as to direct them to God.
exterior acts and the completion of our goals so as to order
them to our final end.
moral judgment of an action; it allows us to see if it is good
or bad. In this regard, discernment (versus prudence) judges
more the impulses we feel so as to determine their
Prudence is a
virtue, while discernment can be considered an attitude or a natural
quality or a supernatural gift.
the examination of reason we must also look at error, which
denies reason, but pretends to be exclusively from the Holy Spirit.
Error tends to over-spiritualization, leading one to want only to be
guided by inspirations, signs, visions, etc. However, the Lord
speaks in a regular manner through ordinary events of our lives. He
utilizes our reason and human judgment – but illuminates them with
faith and directs them to love. In fact, ordinary inspirations
are the preferred form of action of the Holy Spirit in those who
live united to Him. He is the “love of God poured into our hearts”
(cf. Rom 5:5); this means He acts by means of love more than through
images or ideas.
occasions, however, He will speak in an extraordinary manner. The
following are ways in which it could be presented:
A vision like
the one St. Peter had of the pure and impure animals (Acts
An idea or conviction that is formed subtly
in our thoughts and without natural reason. God spoke to
Abraham in this way (Gen 12:1-7; 13:14-17). As well, the Holy
Spirit spoke to Phillip, moving him to his encounter with the
Ethiopian (Acts 8:29-40).
A dream like
that of St. Joseph (Mt 1:20-24) or that of the Magi (Mt 2:12).
discernment always follows right order. In general, this
means that we will not make decisions outside the contexts or paths
the Lord has been using in our lives.
discernment relies on our conscience, which is a guide to
help us avoid making decisions outside the order, grace, and will of
God. For example, there is no need to discern whether or not
to have an abortion. Conscience already objectively makes this
choice clear for us.
discernment requires purity of heart and of intention – one
must be undividedly for God and His kingdom. “Only the pure of
heart will see God” (Mt 5:8). This is not separate from penance and
mortification. To the extent that we are poor in spirit, to the
extent that we are more abnegated, forgetful of self, willing and
docile, we will be capable of listening to the will of God.
must understand that we are a part of a greater plan and part of
the Mystical Body of Christ. Each one of us is a small part of
the entire work that God is doing in His Church. We have a limited
vision of all the divine realities to which He directs His Church.
We must discern inside the context of all that God is doing in His
As well, to
properly discern, we must use as criteria, both the teachings and
the experiences of the Church. The lives of the saints – other
men and women who have applied the teachings of the Church in their
lives – have been given to us as a legacy and an example to follow.
discernment is patient. It knows how to wait upon His
direction and not act when it is not clear. As St. Ignatius said,
“In times of storms do not make any moves.”
Speaks to Us
God speaks to us
using His Word, Tradition and the Magisterium.
He uses the Church. He uses prophetic gifts, which
should to be discerned and confirmed. He uses inspirations –
intuitive understandings that come from being in communion with the
Heart of God and His will. Sometimes, He will use signs of
confirmation; however, we should not always ask for these or
expect them. An excess of these may actually suppress our
responsibility to make a decision. As well, He uses
circumstances in which we can perceive the work of God; but
again, He does not always speak through these (1 Thes 2:18).
Finally, He uses our brothers and sisters. This can include
asking our spiritual director or close brethren to pray and help us
to discern; however, we must also avoid listening to everyone or
asking the counsel of many.
and arrogance constitute a great obstacle
in discernment. This is manifested in thoughts such as, “I know what
I want” or “no one needs to tell me” because I think that I always
listen to God. This pride leads to the false notion of
is formed when we give our own interpretation to the
Scriptures. This happens when we are not formed in the
Magisterium of the Church which is the only interpreter of Sacred
Scripture. It happens when we are not formed in the Catholic faith.
concupiscence – an inclination to sin and to not embrace the way
of the cross and the narrow path – is another obstacle to
discernment. It tends to seek what is easiest and less painful or
As well, tension
between the “desire for greatness” and the “small way of fidelity”
will hinder proper discernment.
Our desire for
independence often leads us to not submit our lives – with
all that this entails – to the sovereignty of God. As well,
strong attachment to our own desires and projects will not allow
us to see God’s will.
arises when our judgments are based on simply human judgment
or when we are hasty in the making of judgments.
impatience, manifested in a desire to have all things
immediately, will also always be an obstacle to proper discernment.
CRITERIA FOR DISCERNMENT
There are two
types of criteria for good discernment: objective or external
criteria and internal criteria.
or External Criteria
Fidelity to the doctrine of the faith:
The Word of God is the absolute and valid truth, “the same
yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). Therefore, all
inspiration which deviates from the faith does not come from the
Holy Spirit (Deut 13:1-4; Gal 1:8).
As well, St. John says, “This is
how you can know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges
Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, and every spirit that
does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God. This is the
spirit of the antichrist” (1 Jn 4:2-3).
Fidelity to one’s state in life:
One’s state in life is a call from God. No inspiration from the
Holy Spirit can be contrary to the responsibilities of our
state. What is a correct decision for one Christian may be
incorrect for another because they may have different vocations
or they may have distinct responsibilities within the same
Obedience to legitimate authority:
Promptness to obey legitimate authority is one of the surest
criteria to discern an authentic inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
“These charisms, whether they be the
more outstanding or the more simple and widely diffused, are to be
received with thanksgiving and consolation for they are perfectly
suited to and useful for the needs of the Church…judgment as to
their genuinity and proper use belongs to those who are appointed
leaders in the Church, to whose special competence it belongs, not
indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold
fast to that which is good” (Lumen Gentium, 12).
It is possible for authority to err;
but even then it is necessary that we obey. If the experience comes
from the Holy Spirit, He will manifest Himself and will make His
opponents accept it, as we have seen in numerous instances
throughout the history of the Church.
to make right judgments, it is also necessary to possess certain
interior elements. Saint Paul speaks of these when he says, “The
fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
gentleness, self-control…If we live in the Spirit, let us also
follow the Spirit. Let us not be conceited, provoking one another,
envious of one another” (Gal 5:22-26).
Let us examine some of the necessary interior fruits we should have
to make good discernment.
Jesus gave us an example of this.
After the great manifestations of His power, He asked them not to be
made public (Mt 8:4; Mk 8:30; Lk 5:14). As well, when they wanted
to make Him a king, He hid (Jn 6:15).
If we experience an impulse or desire
to appear, to be held as important, we must ask ourselves if this is
the impulse of the Spirit or our own.
Peace: In all
of Scripture, peace appears as the sign of the God’s presence.
The peace that is produced by the inspirations of the Holy
Spirit is a profound assuredness that we are in God and that God
is in us. It is a proof that our relations with God are in
order, and this order produces peace. “God is not a God of
disorder but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33). It is possible that
tensions and violence can arise in one’s effort to do the will
of God, but these are similar to the waves of the ocean that are
on the surface, while deep underneath there is calm. The reason
for this calm is the confidence that “all things work for good
for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”
Joy: This is
the emotion that is proper to one who is in possession of
something good, of something that fulfills him. There is
nothing as good as God (Lk 18:19), and for this reason, the
inspirations of the Holy Spirit, which are a “coming of God” to
us, give room to a profound joy. “Rejoice in the Lord
always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Phil 4:4). This
joy ought to reign even in the midst of sufferings: “They
went out with great joy for having been considered worthy to
suffer for the name of Jesus” (cf. Acts 5:41). Spirituality
without joy is reason for concern. There can be moments of
suffering and anguish in which joy is apparently lost, but these
are very short, and underneath there is always an unalterable
peace that moves the heart to confidence in God.
Love: This is
the principal criteria that measures whether or not inspirations
and gifts come from the Holy Spirit because, if they are
authentic, they will necessarily lead us to love. “The fruit
of the Spirit is love.” The Holy Spirit is “the love of
God poured into our hearts” (Rom 5:5), and therefore, His
inspirations enflame us with love – love of God and our
We conclude with the words of St.
Paul: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is
not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek
its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over
injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the
truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
endures all things” (1 Cor 13:4-7).
the Internal and External Elements
O’Connor, C.S.C. states, “However, all of these signs – objective
and external as well as internal – must concur at the same time in
order to confirm the genuineness of a work of God – even if, because
of the circumstances, one or the other may be more evident in a
particular moment. In the same manner, these signs are an important
verification for one another. A false joy can be discovered because
it does not bring peace; false peace will be lacking in humility,
love, and so forth.”
The criteria for
discernment can never be a norm of absolute certainty, although they
can be guides that give some assurance as to origin of the
inspirations – from God or from a bad spirit. If we are truly
trying to seek the will of God, this lack of complete security
should not unsettle us. Every human decision runs the risk of some
uncertainty. The Lord will take into His charge our realization of
His will even if we are not sure we are doing it.
In those cases
in which doubt persists, the safest norm to follow is to incline
ourselves to that which will contradict most our nature. According
to what St. Francis of Assisi says, we should pray, “Lord, grant
that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be
understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” The reason
for this is that the devil normally works by trying to take
advantage of our weaknesses.
of the Evil Spirit
reveals to us that “the works of the flesh are obvious:
immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds,
rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness,
dissensions, factions, orgies and the like” (Gal 5:19-21; Rom
These are the
fruits of the diabolical spirit in us, and if our inspirations lead
us to this, then we can be sure that they do not come from the
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