Conversatio Divina

Part 2 of 17

Discernment: Where Prayer and Action Meet

Thomas H. Green

Fifty-two years ago, I left my home country to spend my life (as it turned out) as a Jesuit missionary in the Philippines. But despite the fact I am strongly rooted here, my young years in the United States still help to define who I am today.

One memory and influence from those early years concerns the great religious music of African Americans. As a youth, I loved the way they melded faith, experience, and humor in their religious songs. A favorite for me (even now) is the hymn that begins, “Heaven, heaven. Everybody’s talking about it, but nobody’s going there!”

The point, of course, is that talk is cheap. For Jesus, the one who says, “Lord, Lord!” is not saved—but rather the one “who does the will of my Father.” This provides us with a very good metaphor for the art of discernment. In our day, religious people speak constantly of discerning God’s will. But how many of them are actually discerning? This issue of Conversations should help to highlight the challenge and importance of Christian discernment today. My task in this introductory article is to clarify the basic notions, rooted in the New Testament, concerning the what, who, and how of authentic discernment.

01.  What Is Discernment?

I define discernment as discovering in prayer how God wishes us to act. Thus, it is a practical art and not a piece of speculative theology. Moreover, it presupposes a person (or a community) of prayer. Only those who pray genuinely can discern because only they have learned how to listen to the Lord. Also, discernment is (as the title of this article suggests) the essential link between our prayer relationship with the Lord and our life of loving service to His people.

02.  The Scriptural Basis of Discernment

It is important to keep in mind, as Paul and the other New Testament writers often stress, that all sound doctrine must be rooted in Scripture. As St. Vincent of Lerins beautifully expressed it, there is development but not distortion; the adult person is the same person as the baby even though his or her limbs and other organs have developed considerably. I am now 6 feet 1 inch tall, but I am still the same person my mother held comfortably in her arms back in 1932. So, too, Vincent teaches us, there must be development of our faith over the centuries, but it must always be, in essence, the same faith that the apostles proclaimed in the book of Acts.

In the area of discernment, what is that essential biblical faith? Surprisingly, we hardly find the term “discernment” in the Old Testament. And yet in the New Testament it is given great importance, especially in the letters of St. Paul (e.g., Galatians 5) and the first Epistle of John. Why the difference? I believe it is because Jesus gives us a whole new understanding of our place in the plan of God. This is beautifully expressed in John 15:15, where Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants but friends.” I think he is really contrasting the two covenants here: the Old Testament shows a servant relationship to God. Servants do not have to discern; they simply obey the master’s instructions. But now, in the New Covenant, we are called to be co-responsible friends, partners in the work of redemption. Friends need to use their heads, ask questions, and weigh options. They need to discern!

03.  Who Can Discern?

We must be aware that the New Testament call to discern is addressed to every Christian. Some charismatic communities see discernment as the task and charism only of the leaders. While it was the vision of the Qumran community [in the first century], as expressed in the Dead Sea Scrolls, this is not the message of Paul, John, and Jesus. Their call to be mature friends is addressed to every follower of Christ. Leaders, of course, should discern how the Lord wishes them to act. But their followers also need to be mature, personally responsible members of the body of Christ. They must discern for themselves God’s call to them: for example, in deciding to marry, in raising a family, in choosing an appropriate work or mission.

We must acknowledge, though, that not many professed Christians are truly discerning people. It is important to ask why this is so. First, we should note there are certain prerequisites for being able to discern: a desire to do God’s will, an openness to do what God wishes, and a knowledge of how God speaks. The third requirement, knowledge of how God speaks, can be helped by appropriate reading (for example, this issue of Conversations) and good instruction. I have been teaching a course on Discernment and Spiritual Direction for more than thirty years. My goal is to help my students, many of whom will be pastors or leaders in various Church communities (both Catholic and Protestant) understand and value the dynamics of discernment.

The first prerequisite, a desire to do God’s will, can perhaps be assumed to be true of readers of this journal. I hope you are reading this article because you desire to do God’s will. But the second, openness to what God wants, is the truly challenging one. Many religious people are convinced that “since God is intelligent, he must agree with me!” They would never put it quite that bluntly, but they spend their lives trying to persuade God to do what they want. That is why many “religious” people spend their time maligning (and even killing) those who see things differently. Anyone who does not agree with me, they think, must be a tool of the devil. Their God is, as St. Augustine would have put it, the size of their own minds.

Why is this attitude so common? I think it is because we are afraid that if we are truly open to him, God might ask what we do not want to give. We are afraid that God might ask us to do something we find repugnant. So we choose to give something which will not take us out of our comfort zone. Both St. John of the Cross and St. Ignatius Loyola (the latter in the very first paragraph of his classic Spiritual Exercises) say that our whole spiritual struggle is “to be free of disordered attachments, in order that we may be truly free to find and follow the will of God.” The paradigmatic example, I would say, is Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here he clearly has desires and preferences, but at the end of his painful dialogue with the Father, he says beautifully and simply, “However, Father, not my will but yours be done.” This is the openness to God that God desires. If we have Jesus’ attitude, then genuine discernment is truly possible.

04.  How Do We Discern?

The various articles in this issue of Conversations treat different aspects of the how of discernment. It might be helpful, though, in this introductory article, to give some basic guidelines of St. Ignatius Loyola, who remains the great authority on discernment. These guidelines are found in the Spiritual Exercises, this being the first retreat guide in the Church’s history. He presented his guidelines here because he saw a retreat as an ideal time for discovering God’s personal call to the retreatant. He says, in his introductory “Annotations,” that the director should be careful not to interfere (e.g., by giving strong advice), since in retreat the Lord is speaking directly to the heart of the retreatant. The director’s role is to be a “co-discerner,” an interpreter (more experienced than the retreatant) of the various movements and inspirations in the heart of the retreatant.

What basic guidelines does Ignatius give us? First of all, he makes clear that it is the feelings, not the ideas, that we discern. I love to illustrate this with the following fictional but realistic example. Suppose a young Catholic woman comes to me and asks, “Father, is the cloistered Carmelite life a good vocation?”

I can reply, “Yes, it is highly blessed by the Church and has produced many saints, like Teresa of Avila.” But note we are focusing on the idea, the general value, of Carmelite life. I must, therefore, continue, “But why do you ask me?”

And suppose she answers, “Father, I have had a boyfriend for five years. Last month we had a big fight, and now our relationship has ended. I feel I can no longer trust any man. And the Carmelite cloister seems to me the safest place for me so no other man can ruin my life. Moreover, Father, I cannot think of anything that would hurt my ex-boyfriend more than my joining the Carmelites!”

Now we are focusing on her feelings, and I think you would agree she is not in a good state of soul to make a life-commitment. Why not? The second basic guideline is that there are two essential feelings we have to evaluate: what Ignatius calls “desolation” and “consolation.” Desolation is disturbance, restlessness, depression, or anger. It can take various forms, but the common element is a lack of peace in the Lord. And Ignatius tells us that desolation is never God’s voice. God always speaks in peace. It is this peace in the Lord that Ignatius calls consolation.

While Ignatius gives various guidelines for handling desolation, let us focus here on this basic principle: Never make or change a decision in desolation unless, as I like to put it, you want the devil to be your spiritual director! Thus we can advise our troubled young woman, “Because of your feelings, the Carmelite inspiration now is clearly not from God. He may indeed be calling you, but wait until your heart is at peace. If you still feel called to Carmel then, come back to me, and we can discern whether the Lord is calling you.”

This implies that consolation (peace and joy in the Lord) should be the “feeling” indication that God is speaking. Unfortunately, though, consolation, while much more pleasant to experience, is much trickier and is more difficult to discern. Why is that so? Because the devil is a liar and has no scruples about imitating God’s voice. Since God is truth and would never imitate the devil, desolation is clearly not his voice. But since the devil is a master liar, if he cannot ensnare us by desolation, he will try to use false consolation to deceive devout prayers.

I have been thirty-seven years in San Jose Seminary, preparing young seminarians for a life of ministry within priestly celibacy. The problem comes when a devout young woman, truly good and pious, leads a seminarian, as they fall in love, to a much deeper prayer life! Is this relationship really from God? It could well be since the seminarian is not yet ordained or committed to celibacy. So how do we tell whether this “consolation” is God’s call to leave the seminary and marry or the devil’s guile to derail a genuine vocation? Ignatius says we must examine the whole course of the experience: beginning, middle, and end. The articles in this issue will develop these criteria more fully. Let me just note some brief guidelines.

The beginning question is asked when I experience the consolation. Am I in the right place at the right time for the right reason? For example, if I neglect my family responsibilities in order to participate in a Church prayer group, then the beginning is not good. The question associated with the middle addresses what is happening within me during the consolation experience. Do I, for example, find myself judging others, canonizing myself, or feeling superior to my spouse? If so, since these thoughts contradict the fruits of the good Spirit in Galatians 5, the middle is not good. And the end? What does the consolation lead me to do or say? If, for example, it leads me to separate myself from legitimate authority or to be a source of division in the community, then the end is not good.

05.  Step by Step and Not Infallible

If, however, the beginning, middle, and end of the consolation all seem good—and in important matters, we should test this seeming goodness with a good spiritual director—then we can trust that the inspiration is from God and act accordingly. Note, however, that we only discern the next step. By this I mean that God reveals his will to us step by step. He knows the whole script, but we, like the early Church in Acts, discover it gradually. This is because we live by faith and not by clear vision, as Hebrews 11 stresses. God calls us to trust him in the living faith, the fides viva [living faith] that was so important to Martin Luther.

Moreover, we do not discern infallibly. That is, the ultimate test of our discernment is the fruit of living it out in action. But as long as we have done our best to discern, we can be at peace. If the decision does not work out well by our standards, we can say—in a striking Filipino phrase—bahala na. That is, the outcome is now the Lord’s responsibility.

This, as I see it, is the essence of the art of Christian discernment. How different the world would be if more of us were not just talking about it, but truly practicing it, as individuals and as a Church community. Then we might have to rewrite the great African-American spiritual: “Heaven, heaven. We have moved beyond talking about it, and now many of us are going there—with discerning hearts!”


Fr. Thomas Green is an internationally acclaimed spiritual writer and director, known to the world through books published in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Korean, and Indonesian. He serves as spiritual director of San Jose Seminary in Manila and is professor of philosophy and pastoral theology at the Ateneo de Manila University.