Christian ascetical tradition has adopted from two places in the NT (1 Cor 12.10; 1 Jn 4.1) the formulas "discernment of spirits, to discern spirits." in Jewish literature such formulas do not appear until the qumran period, when they are applied uniquely to the testing of candidates for the monastic community: "Each year their spirit and actions shall be examined to promote each candidate, should his formation and the perfection of his conduct warrant it, or, to demote him in view of his faults." (Manual of Discipline, 5, 24). This discernment supposes the principle that two spirits may possess man, the spirit of good and the spirit of evil; its purpose is the community's good order; its execution is by an "expert" invested with an official duty; its norm is conformity to a set of rules. There is no question yet of a spiritual experience as a source of one's own conduct. The spirit is not conceived as a power one invokes or with whom one communes, but as an asset from which one may profit.
Scripture. By the time of St. Paul and St. John, each Christian is invited to be guided personally: "… be reformed in the newness of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and the acceptable and the perfect will of God." (Rom 12.1, 2); "… proving what is well pleasing to God. and have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness …" (Eph 5.10, 11); "And this I pray: That your charity may more and more abound in knowledge and in all understanding: that you may approve the better things …" (Phil 1.9, 10). Paul is describing an interior experience of God's spirit, whose results are light, peace, charity, and acknowledgment of Jesus as the Lord. "But the fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity" (Gal5.22, 23). St. John adds that the experience of the Spirit has to be the same as the teaching received from the Apostles (1 Jn 2.24; 4.6). He insists upon the confidence that this experience gives for the day of judgment (ibid.,4.17, 18). John and Paul, then, appear less preoccupied with determining the symptoms of an evil spirit than with indicating the signs of a good spirit. Their purpose is primarily positive. Moreover, they apply to "the spirits" the Gospel recommendation for discerning true and false prophets: "By their fruits you shall know them" (Mk7.16). It is by the fruit a tree is judged, not conversely. in this way the Pharisaic attitude of judging the fruit by the tree is condemned, i.e., judging in the name of an external criterion established a priori: Since Jesus does not observe the Sabbath, His miracles could come only from the devil.
The Fathers. in the patristic period, the word διάκρις, in Latin discretio, is used to transmit this tradition from Paul and John. The key texts are the 2nd conference of cassian and the 26th step of the Scala Paradisi of john climacus. They become much more preoccupied with unmasking diabolical illusions than with discerning the divine Spirit. They also speak especially of the origin of motions or phenomena, not of their orientation. This leads to a recurring confusion between two questions that are quite distinct today: that of the "goodness" or "malice" of an interior movement, and that of its natural or preternatural origin.
The Scholastic Period. in the Middle Ages, St. thomas aquinas introduces an important distinction between simple discretio, which he rarely treats, and the charism of discretio spirituum, an extraordinary gift allowing a man who enjoys it to know future contingents or secrets of hearts (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 111.4). Simple discernment becomes, then, a potential part of the virtue of prudence. It intervenes when duty is not clearly indicated by the ordinary norms for acting. The Christian should then be guided by more elevated and more interior principles. By the virtue of prudence, grace grants him a habitual skill in judging, by which he discerns the divine will behind the common rules of Christian living. Thus, St. Thomas avoids using the word "discernment" and attributes to the "virtue of prudence" the task of perpetuating the constant teaching of spiritual authors (ibid. 2a2ae, 51.4).
Nevertheless, a number of authors, even Thomists, continue to utilize the classical term. The better known are Cardinal Bona (De discretione spirituum liber unus), and the Jesuit Scaramelli, whose Discernimento degli spiriti (1753) is well known through its numerous editions and translations. They are certainly subject to the influence of St. ignatius of loyola, whose Spiritual Exercises, without ever mentioning the virtue of prudence, attempts a forthright education with regard to spiritual discernment. in the normal development of Christian life there comes a stage when the Christian is no longer content to rule his conduct by laws and exterior norms that he has accepted without having interiorly assimilated and loved them. He becomes fully conscious then of two influences that are at war within him, mixed together like the weeds and wheat of the parable: the power of grace and the power of sin. He proposes to himself true cases of personal conscience. As St. Thomas said, he is above and beyond the communes regulas agendorum (the general norms of behavior). There is no longer any question of conforming to an objective and general law, but of deciding to follow a vocation, as John, alone of all the Apostles, decided to follow his Master to the foot of the cross. Didactic treatises do not invite the conscience itself to undertake this work of formation, but are preoccupied with giving spiritual directors a catalogue of signs that can be used by them to counsel others on the states of prayer, inspirations, and spiritual endeavors.
Ignatian Use. St. Ignatius of Loyola is one of those rare teachers who makes one enter into one's own conscience with a dynamic discernment, by means of a series of personal exercises. Basically, the alternating experience of states of consolation and desolation, normal to the spiritual life, teaches the Christian to stop opposing the difficulty, and to stop relaxing in the moments of euphoria. These fluctuations are only transitory situations, "creatures" to be utilized by the believer for God's glory. Behind them, the conscience experiences the unshakable certitude of faith and the unique peace it brings. Then "temptation under the appearance of good," the illusion of generosity, must be controlled by its relation to this certitude and peace. For example, in the development of an authentic missionary vocation, if the Christian is confronted with an alteration of his previous interior equilibrium, which "takes away from him his peace, tranquillity and repose and makes him fall from the spiritual sweetness and joy to which he had been accustomed," this is a clear symptom of the evil spirit's effort to lead him astray, imperceptibly, from his vocation or his spiritual endeavor. Only a man who has experienced that "peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding," and which ought to "keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4.7), can diagnose such a malady. Otherwise, one may as well describe colors to a blind man. Hence, St. Ignatius insists that the exercises that have to do with this discernment of illusion be not given to everyone. But there is no doubt that he invites the retreatant to an experience of discernment that a spiritual director could guide by counseling, without ever seeking to be a substitute for it.
Contemporary Developments. Building on the long history of the discernment of spirits in the Christian tradition contemporary discussions approach the topic through an assessment of inspirations, intuitions, impulses and affective states in general, combined with an examination of the sources of these experiences, and an appraisal of their congruity with the overall direction of a person's life. The process of discernment, with its focus on God's action in life and man's appropriate response to that action, allows an individual to become more aware of the elements involved in personal decision making. Discernment results in a better knowledge of the self and a better knowledge of the various influences which affect the self in its movement toward God. in addition to an ongoing appreciation of the importance of discernment in spirituality and spiritual direction, contemporary authors explore such topics as a foundational structure for Christian discernment, the relationship of interpretation and discernment, and the role of discernment in moral life.
Foundational Structure. Jon Sobrino has noted that the Gospels present Jesus in a state of constant conversion to the will of the Father, coupled with an equally constant process of discernment. For Jesus, in His human consciousness, discerning the will of God involved first clarifying for Himself who God really is. Ongoing conversion meant discerning the ever greater reality of God. Discernment of who the Father is served as a foundation upon which all of Jesus's particular discernments could be based. Jesus presented discernment as a radical choice between alternatives. People were to choose between God and mammon, life and death. They were to say "yes" to what God affirms in history and "no" to what God refutes as a world of sin. These choices flowed from preliminary or foundational discernments of who God is and who the people are in relation to God. For Sobrino, the discernment of Jesus draws attention to the importance of a foundational discernment regarding both God and self. Such foundational discernments develop over the course of a lifetime in which a person is actively seeking the ever greater God.
Interpretation and Judgment. Both in traditional and recent theology, discernment has been integrally connected with making judgments. in reference to the complex reality of discernment, S. Schneiders has spoken of three distinct but related types of judgment. The first is an evaluative judgment in which some determination is made as to the truth or falsity of a phenomenon, such as the perception of a call to change. Evaluation is followed by a second judgment, a hermeneutical one, which arrives at some interpretation of the phenomenon. Finally there is a practical judgment in which the appropriate response is formulated. Through interpretation deeper levels of meaning in a person's life are exposed. One's life story stands as a text which can yield new interpretations in the light of Scripture and a belief in God intimately tied to life. Discernment, as an exercise in interpretation, can uncover inadequate or foreclosed understandings of the self and God and lead to new images of both.
Contemporary psychology makes its contribution to the exercise of discernment by illuminating distortions of the self and God which have their roots in the vicissitudes of human development. Spiritual discernment in its honest interpretation of one's past, its deficiencies as well as its positive experiences, opens the way to a new interpretation of one's life as redeemed in Christ and opened to future grace.
Moral Decision-Making. Discernment is occasionally discussed in both contemporary Protestant and Roman Catholic moral theology where it assumes a prominent role in moral decision-making. The attention to discernment in moral theology is an instance of a movement that seeks to go beyond logic and deductive methodologies in understanding the complexities of moral life. It recognizes the role of imagination and creativity in the exercise of moral responsibility. For criteria in evaluating appropriate moral choices discernment makes use of the central symbols of the Christian tradition and basic affections or virtues of the Christian life, such as radical dependence on God and repentance. The moral agent is a self who responds to a God who is active in personal and social life. The symbols and stories of the Scriptures influence the moral imagination and give rise to a moral vision. With the aid of scriptural paradigms the person sees more clearly the action of God in personal history and the events of his time. The Biblical narratives (see narrative theology) and symbols provide normative guidance so that an appropriate moral response to God's activity may be taken.
Discernment engages the heart of a person where feelings, memories, and imaginings are found. The discerning moral agent seeks to follow a course of action which is in harmony with the affections and virtues supported by the scriptural narratives. An aesthetic judgment is made about the appropriateness of a particular action
in the light of affective convictions rooted in the gospel. Discernment based on both affective and symbolic criteria drawn from the Christian tradition operates within the framework of general moral principles.
Bibliography: The most complete bibliography is found in j. pegon, et al., Discernment of Spirits, tr. i. richards (Collegeville, Minn. 1970). j. j. toner, A Commentary on St. Ignatius' Rules for the Discernment of Spirits (St. Louis 1982). j. gustafson, Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, v. 1 Theology and Ethics (Chicago 1981). p. keane, Christian Ethics and Imagination: A Theological Inquiry (New York 1984). s. schneiders, "Spiritual Discernment in The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena," Horizons. Journal of the College Theology Society 9 (1982) 47–59. j. sobrino, "Following Jesus as Discernment," Concilium 119 (1978) 14–24. w. spohn, "The Reasoning Heart: An American Approach to Christian Discernment," Theological Studies 44 (1983) 30–52. Discernment of the Spirit and of Spirits, c. floristan and c. duquoc, eds. (New York 1979). e. e. larkin, Silent Presence, Discernment as Process and Problem (1981).