The Art of Discernment

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Theology teaches us that the word 'spirit' refers to two different types of motivating powers. The spirit of an individual refers to the internal inclination to good or evil, and it manifests itself with such regularity that it must be considered a personal trait. But it is also possible for an individual to come under the influence of a spirit that is extrinsic to the personality - whether from God or the devil. Hence it is the function of 'discernment of spirits' to judge whether a given act or repetition of acts is influenced by the Holy Spirit, the diabolical spirit, or the human spirit.

Discernment of spirits: Acquired & infused discernment

There are two types of discernment of spirits (DS): acquired and infused. Acquired DS is complementary to ordinary spiritual direction and can be cultivated by all who use the proper means. Infused DS is a charismatic gift, which is granted by God to some individuals only.

Acquired DS is absolutely necessary for a spiritual director or a prayer group leader, and for a disciple too, since it helps him/her to determine the spirits that are leading a person away from God, and on the other hand the action of the Holy Spirit leading one towards God.

The various means by which one can acquire the art of DS are:

1. Prayer

This is the most important means, to ask for the grace. Jesus said, "Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks, receives..." (Mt.7:7-11).
"If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith..." (James 1:5)
We must remember that the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit received in the sacrament of Confirmation (taken from Isaiah's list of messianic gifts) include gifts that have to do with discernment: "The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord" (Isa.11:2). ['Fear' here means 'piety, or reverence, awe, wonder' and not servile or craven fear]. We must ask God to renew these gifts within us. As St.Paul advised the young bishop, Timothy, we too must "rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of hands" (2Tm.1:6).

Many of Paul's prayers in his Letters show his concern for a right discernment. We would do well to pray them as our own prayers of petition (changing them into first person):

"I pray that (my) love may grow richer and richer, with knowledge and all discernment, so that (I) can recognise and approve what is the best, and be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to (Your) glory and praise" (Phil.1:9ff).
"I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give (me) a spirit of wisdom and of revelation to come to know him, so that with the eyes of (my) heart enlightened, (I) may know what is the hope to which he has called (me), what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe!" (Eph.1:17-19).
"God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, fill (me) with the knowledge of your will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May (I) be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to (You) who have qualified (me) to share in the inheritance of the saints, in the realm of light" (Col.1:9ff).
"I bow my knees before you Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of your glory, You may grant me a mighty inner strengthening through your Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in my heart through faith; that being rooted and grounded in love, I may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, in order that I may be filled with all the fullness of God!" (Eph.3:16-21).
So too, some of the Psalms are concerned about discernment:

"O Lord, make me to know your ways,
Teach me your paths!
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
For You are the God of my salvation,
For You I wait all the day long!

The Lord is good and upright,
therefore he instructs
sinners in the way.
He leads the humble
in what is right,
and teaches them his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant.

The friendship of the Lord
is for those who revere him,
and he makes known to them
his covenant...

May integrity and uprightness sustain me,
for I wait for You, O God!" (Ps.25).

2. Study

Disciples should become familiar with the general principles of spiritual theology contained in the Bible, the masters of the spiritual life, and the lives of the saints. One should have a sympathetic understanding of a variety of 'schools' of spirituality: Carmelite, Ignatian, Franciscan, etc.

3. Personal Experience

While it is true that each person has unique traits and characteristics, there is also a common pattern possessed by all, and unless one understands oneself, it will be very difficult to understand others. If leaders themselves have not attained some degree of virtue and self-mastery, it is not likely that they will be able to understand the condition of those they seek to guide.

Types of spirits

As we have seen, spirits come under three broad heads: the Holy Spirit, the diabolical spirit, and the human spirit. God's Spirit always inclines us to the good, working either directly or through secondary causes. The devil always inclines us to evil, working by its own power or through the allurement of the things of the world. The human spirit may be inclined to evil or to good, depending on whether the individual follows right reason or selfish desires.

Due to the basic indifference of many natural inclinations, it is evident that they may be used for good and for evil, and while grace does not destroy nature but perfects and supernaturalizes it, the devil utilizes human weakness and the effects of original sin to further his evil aims. Moreover, it may happen that, in one and the same action, various spirits are intermingled. Even when the Holy Spirit predominates in a given action, it does not follow that the preceding or succeeding movements are supernatural.

For instance, purely natural movements may introduce themselves, consciously or unconsciously, and cause the action to lose some of its purity. Thus, God's Spirit may be inspiring me to fast regularly, but my spirit may subsequently cause me to fast only nominally (so that I don't get the spiritual fruit of fasting), or the devil may influence me to overdo or extend my fast over several days (so I ultimately ruin my health)!

The Divine Spirit

The following are some general signs:

  1. Truth: Jesus himself called the Holy Spirit the "Spirit of Truth", and he praised Nathaniel as "a man without guile". Hence, a person who is devoted to the truth, even when he/she must pay the price for it ("speaking the truth in love" - Eph.4:15), and who habitually tries to be an honest and transparent person, is someone moved by the Spirit.
  2. Docility: Persons moved by the Holy Spirit accept with true peace the advice and counsel of those with authority over them. They manifest sentiments of humility and self-effacement.
  3. Discretion: The Holy Spirit makes the person discreet, prudent, and thoughtful in all his/her actions. There is nothing of precipitation, frivolity, exaggeration or impetuosity; all is well balanced and edifying.
  4. Peace: The person experiences a profound and stable serenity in the depths of his/her spirit.
  5. Purity of intention: The person sincerely seeks only that God's will be done and that God be glorified in all that he/she does, without human interest or motivation out of self-love.
  6. Patience in suffering: No matter whether or not such suffering is justly received, the person bears it with equanimity.
  7. Simplicity: Together with veracity and sincerity, this is never lacking in those who are truly motivated by the Spirit. Any duplicity, arrogance, hypocrisy, or vanity must be attributed rather to the devil.
  8. Freedom of spirit: First of all, there is no attachment to any created thing, even to the gifts received from God. Second, all is accepted from the hands of God with gratitude and humility, whether it be a question of consolation or trial. (The opposite would be true in the case of those with a rigid and unyielding will, who are controlled be self-love).

The human spirit

There is a constant struggle between grace, and the human spirit wounded by sin and thus inclined to self-love. The human spirit is always inclined to its own satisfactions; it is a friend of pleasure and an enemy of suffering of any kind. It readily inclines to anything that is compatible with its own temperament, its personal tastes and caprices, or the satisfaction of self-love. It will not hear of humiliations, penance and renunciation, but seeks success, honours, applause and pastimes.

The diabolical spirit

Normally, diabolical influence on the individual is restricted to simple temptation; sometimes however, the devil may concentrate his power on an individual by means of diabolical obsession or even possession. (Detailed study of this is beyond our scope here). The various signs are:

  1. Spirit of falsity: The devil is the father of lies, but he cleverly conceals his deceit by half-truths and pseudo-mystical phenomena, by hypocrisy, simulation and duplicity. Also, if a person maintains opinions that are manifestly against revealed truth, the infallible teaching of the Church, or proven theology, or philosophy, or science, it must be concluded that he/she is deluded by the devil or is the victim of excessive imagination or faulty reasoning.
  2. Morbid curiosity: This is characteristic of those who eagerly seek out the esoteric aspects of mystical phenomena or have a fascination for the occult or preternatural.
  3. Confusion, anxiety, and deep depression: Also, despair, lack of confidence, and discouragement - a chronic characteristic that alternates with presumption, vain security, and unfounded optimism.
  4. Obstinacy: Seen in disobedience and hardness of heart.
  5. Constant indiscretion and a restless spirit: Those who constantly go to extremes (in penitential exercises/apostolic activities), or neglect their primary obligations to do some other personally chosen work.
  6. Spirit of pride and vanity: Very anxious to publicize their gifts of grace and mystical experiences.
  7. Uncontrolled passions and strong inclination to sensuality: Also, excessive attachment to sensible consolations, particularly in prayer.

To conclude, because of such a complexity of human motivation, Scripture advises us to 'test everything', so that we can 'hold fast to what is good, and abstain from all evil' (1Thess.5:19-21). Those who 'live by the Spirit' must learn to 'also walk by the Spirit' (Gal 5:25). One cannot forget that it is always possible to "start with the Spirit but end with the flesh"(Gal.3:3). Hence, we constantly need the gift of discernment of spirits to be not only "Spirit-filled" but also "Spirit-led".

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