It's a question we all have. Namely, this
thing about "discernment." What does that actually mean? How do we
There are things to discern in our lives.
There are situations to discern. There are job offers to discern. There
are questions about where we should live. There are relationships. There
are friends and potential friends. There are antagonists, competitors.
There are religions.
And then, of course, there is mysticism: claims of miracles, apparitions, weeping statues, the
occult, and the like. How do we tell which may be real and which are
artifacts or deception?
As we have said
before, a feeling of ease and peace is often a good marker, for
sure. That seems obvious. So does the flow of a movement toward
something without the electricity of too much frenzy -- the feeling of
moving toward a zone of comfort.
Is this then a simple set of guideposts?
But there are helpful tips. As
a newspaper recently pointed out: "Discernment, or to use the full
expression 'discernment of spirits,' is the attentive interpretation of
what St. Ignatius called the 'motions of the soul.' These interior
movements consist of thoughts, emotions, inclinations, desires,
repulsions and attractions. Discernment of spirits involves learning
to be sensitive to these movements, reflecting on them, and
understanding where they come from and where they lead us."
St. Ignatius identified the two sources of such
movements the “good" and the “bad” spirits.
"The interior movements initiated by these
spirits are called 'consolations' or 'desolations,'" notes the article.
"In his Spiritual
Exercises, St. Ignatius sets forth fourteen rules for
discerning how and under what circumstances consolations and desolations
arise in our souls and these are called the 'Rules for the Discernment
In those rules we learn how the saint taught
that both a good spirit and a bad one can send consolation or
desolation! It would be great if it were easy to tell a spirit by the
immediate effect. It is not. But there are some basic patterns, asserts
a website devoted to Ignatian spirituality.
"For instance, as you
would anticipate, the good spirit usually brings love, joy,
peace, and the like; the evil spirit characteristically brings
confusion, doubt, disgust, and the like," it says. "Another pattern: when you are
leading a seriously sinful life, a good spirit will visit you with
desolation to turn you around; an evil spirit will keep you content so
that you will keep sinning. Another clear pattern is the opposite of
this: when you are seriously serving God, the spirits change roles. The
evil spirit clouds your day with desolation to lead you away from God,
while the good spirit fills your day with trust and love of God. And
a final, easily grasped pattern: a spirit that works in light and
openness is good, while a spirit cloaked in secrecy and deception is
"Some basic practices are also easy to
figure out. When you have made a good decision to serve God better and
after awhile go into desolation, you should not change the decision;
it’s hardly a good spirit moving you. When you are feeling down, you
would do well to pray a little more and increase the help you give to
others. When, without warning or any preparatory activity, you are
consoled with the love of God above all things, you can trust that it is
a good spirit (particularly if it comes with tears). But when you are
thinking or praying and grow consoled or disconsolate—well, test those
movements. They could come from either spirit, as we have seen."
We are constantly sent interesting cases for
"For your discernment," wrote a viewer from
New York. "I have been researching my family tree (Irish, Scottish and English,
mostly) for several decades, following the lead of my late mother
who left many unanswered questions. Some people seemed to be
stubbornly hidden from the records. Recently, although I and one
other relative had had some recent successes, we were mostly looking
at dead ends.
Then about two months ago, I began to pray for my dead relatives at
Mass. I was moved by my great-great uncle who died in 1871 at the
age of 17. I had recently discovered that information. At Mass I
prayed for him one day, particularly at Communion. I began praying
for all of them, by name, over the weeks.
"Then a strange thing
happened: Paths that had seemed blocked began to open up.
Information began to pour in, from computer searches, mostly, or visits
and phone calls to research institutions. It must sound as if
that's natural, but it was different. I had been conducting similar
searches for these relatives for years, to no avail. Suddenly, I was
choosing the right tools, using the right websites, the right phone
calls were being made and answered by people who were helpful, which was
not always the case. I was making the
right decisions on how to proceed, and how to spend my meager
financial resources to access records. The result was major success
in discovering who came before me. I have added four surnames to the
family, representing a whole generation further back than I had ever
gone. I know from which counties my ancestors hailed, at what
churches many of them received their sacraments, where they lived,
at what they worked and how they died. Just two weeks ago I ate
lunch in a little diner at the same street address
occupied by my great-great-grandparents during the Civil War. Different
building, same address. Until recently I didn't even know in which
city they lived. My mother's notes described my g-g grandfather as
'elusive.' No more.
Some would say this was all a coincidence, and I was just seeing the
results of our efforts. It doesn't feel that way.
I repeat, this vast flood of information all began when I started to
pray for their souls at mass. Never to them, but for them.
Now I have many new names on my prayer list."
That sounds properly discerned.
But it's tricky business -- discerning the
possibility of spiritual influence -- or interference. If such events
lead us into obsession or trying to communicate with spirits -- draw us
in -- we would discern that as potentially dangerous.
Noted another viewer (as far as discerning
the occult), "I read a passage about the lies of alternative
healing, by Sister Emmanuelle (a French nun in Medjugorje), who had been heavily involved in the
herself and talked about the healings being false. She said that if your knee was
bothering you and you went to an acupuncturist or other healer, you might get
relief in your knee but you find later that your marriage is starting to fall
apart or you've become depressed."
We'll not enter into a debate on alternative
medicine here. The point: another avenue of discernment is that by the
fruits you will know it or them (the lasting fruits).
So many cases!
And a variety.
"I live about an hour from Gettysburg in Howard County, Maryland,"
Timothy Charles Gehringer after we ran an article on this historic
place. "Although I
don't go there often, I can attest to the spiritual unrest there, one of
the reasons I don't go as often.
"My wife and I were driving to West
Virginia a few years ago and drove past the Antietam battlefield.
"At the time we didn't know where we were but
after we drove through we looked at each other and said did you feel that?
It was hard to describe the feeling that came over us, one of sorrow,
awareness, awe but blended in a way I have never felt since. We still talk
about the sudden and intense feeling we experienced.
"We took our children to Gettysburg about ten years ago for a history lesson
and it turned out to be right before July Fourth, so it was during the dates
when the battle was actually fought. We were standing on top of Little
Round Top looking down at Devil's Den and started to talk to these two
bicyclists. They said the previous day that they were biking through
Devil's Den and it was a blistering hot July day when they hit this one
area where it got very cold. The went back and forth through it to see if
it was real and it was. Suddenly they said they saw a line of what they
thought were re-enactors marching through the field and stopped and
watched, they start pedaling away and decided to look back because
something didn't seem right and the two gentlemen said the soldiers
"We went back a couple weeks ago because of the 140th
anniversary and did the complete tour, although this time I brought along
some relics and holy oil just in case. This time it was a pleasant and
Good spirits -- angels, perhaps -- had
replaced unsettled ones.