In Catholic theology one aspect of discernment is the use of reason and experience coupled with divine gifts to distinguish between true and false interior perception.
As Henri Martin P.S.S. puts it:
The charism of discernment is “a kind of supernatural instinct by which those who have it perceive intuitively the origin, either divine or not, of thoughts and inclinations submitted to them.” (J. de Guibert, Lecons, p. 306). It is to be distinguished from revelation of the secrets of hearts, properly so called, made directly by God. In such revelations, which is extremely rare, objective certitude is absolute. In the case of discernment the chances of error lie in the subjective interpretation and use of the supernatural light received. Lacking an infused charism, ordinarily “God will assist by special interior light a gift of discernment acquired by experience and prudence in the application of the traditional rules of discernment.”¹
On the need for seekers to be sincere, humble and rational in the discernment process, the scholar of mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, says:
Ecstasies, no less than visions and voices, must, they declare, be subjected to unsparing criticism before they are recognized as divine: whilst some are undoubtedly “of God,” others are no less clearly “of the devil.”²
Likewise, the Protestant William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, suggests that some lower forms of mysticism may have “proceeded from the demon.”³ The Lutheran Rudolf Otto also talks about different types of mysticism. See, for instance, “An Outline of Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy,” Chapter XVI – The ‘Cruder’ Phases.
In Protestant and Catholic Churches discernment is described as a gift and developed ability where a person learns to differentiate among
- divine spiritual influences
- evil spiritual influences
- one’s truest self.
But a problem arises in that many religious people claim to discern. And often different religious and New Age enthusiasts discern differently on the very same issue, citing the “Holy Spirit,” “Allah,” “Angels” or “Objective Truth” as their source of authority.
Discernment often seems to mean taking an alarmist, knee-jerk view of issues that one doesn’t understand, projecting bad habits and transferring the unsavory contents of the unconscious onto scapegoats. This can happen on an individual level or through a kind of institutionally reinforced hypocrisy, as we’ve seen time and again in the history of religions, cults and spiritual movements.
Indeed, unconscious anger, resentment and unresolved psychological complexes may color discernment. And it seems that psychological pain, immaturity and the potential influence of fantasy or evil influences can all be intertwined.
Another related meaning of the term discernment is to discover what God wants an individual to do in life, to find one’s calling, as it were. This relates to the first meaning of discernment because we can’t do the right thing in life if we’re following imaginary voices, fantasy desires or the promptings of an evil power.
Thomas H. Green S. J. notes that, within Catholicism, this second form of discernment of finding one’s calling was once premised on sheer authority. A spiritual director would simply tell a religious what to do. Today, however, the relationship between discernment and spiritual directors has evolved. Emphasis is now given on “co-discernment” and, in the larger sense, communal discernment. Authority figures only provide general guidelines, as plainly evident in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Ultimately it’s up to each individual to flesh out God’s will for his or her life.4
Father Edward Malatesta, S. J. definition of discernment combines the two previous aspects:
By the discernment of spirits is meant the process by which we examine, in the light of faith and in the connaturality of love, the nature of the spiritual states we experience in ourselves and in others. The purpose of such examination is to decide, as far as possible, which of the movements we experience lead us to the Lord and to a more perfect service of Him and our brothers, and which deflect us from this goal.5
Interestingly, some believe that a higher power or spiritual gift can override personal biases, enabling an imperfect person to make perfect discernments. This dynamic may, indeed, occur from time to time but for the most part it seems that the development of accurate discernment is a lifelong process.
And, quite possibly, we may continue to sharpen our powers of discernment in the afterlife.
¹ (ibidem). (Jacques Guillet, Gustave Bardy et. al. (trans.) Sister Innocentia Richards, Ph.D., Discernment of Spirits. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1970, p. 104.)
² Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, New York: New American Library, 1955, p. 361.
³ London: Penguin, 1985, p. 423.
4 Thomas H. Green S. J., Weeds Among the Wheat – Discernment: Where Prayer and Action Meet, Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1984, pp. 11-17).
5 Cited in Green, p. 41.
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