What Is Discernment?

Part 1 in a 3-part series on discernment: What Is Discernment?

Discerning, making decisions, figuring out what we are called to, and choosing between different directions in life can be a challenge. We invited Sister Mary McDevitt, IHM, a spiritual director and retreat guide, to provide an overview to what discernment is and some practical ways that we can engage in discernment.

What is “Discernment of Spirits”?

Why spirits in the plural? From many holy writings we can say that not every personal impulse and not every attraction is necessarily from God. For example, “I feel called to be on a beach in Hawaii.” The attraction may be something rather shallow that is from our own non-reflective spirit’s prompting.

For those of us who believe in a spirit world, some decisions may be the tempting of an evil spirit. This is tricky because evil never looks like evil, but instead looks like good. On the other hand, the inspiration may be truly from the Holy Spirit of God. So there are at least three kinds of spirits: holy, not-so-holy, and evil.

How do I figure out which spirit is prompting me?

Saints in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures and during the history of spirituality have searched to find, “What is the will of God for me?” or, “What is the dream of God for the part of the world that I inhabit?” (Think of the “dream of God” as Martin Luther King’s, “I have a dream”.) Let’s say the question is, “Should I go to graduate school or not?”

Here are two steps that might help me figure it out:

1) Self-Awareness

I must search my heart. I need to habitually analyze what I am thinking, and feeling, asking if this inspiration comes from God and and where is it leading? This takes time, habitual prayer, and profound honesty.

2) Awareness of my affective states

This means recognizing certain good feelings known as consolations. These feelings lead me closer to God. Other feelings identified as desolations are also states of affectivity which may indicate an increasing distance from God.

Some examples of discernment

1) C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis, while riding on the upper layer of a bus in England, felt he was touched by God. He described it like someone asking him to let go. He knew it was from God. When he surrendered to the good Spirit he wrote that it was as if he was a “man of snow” beginning to melt and what was rigid became flexible. (Read more about C.S. Lewis)

2) Angela of Foligno

Angela of Foligno experienced desolation and only dryness of spirit, feeling abandoned by God. She could not pray as usual and only felt absence. (Read more about Angela of Foligno)

3) Immaculée Ilibagiza

Immaculée Ilibagiza, having endured 3 months of hiding with 7 others in a crowded bathroom during the Rwandan genocide, wrote later in Left to Tell, “A wave of despair washed over me and I was overwhelmed by fear. I squeezed my eyes shut as tightly as I could to resist negative thoughts… I prayed as intensely as I ever have. The struggle between the evil whispers raged in my mind.” (Read more about Immaculée Ilibagiza)

Reflect on your own experience

Think about a situation in which you have a decision to make. Consider what consolations you experienced, and what desolations you experienced. Keep in mind that just because something is uncomfortable or difficult doesn’t mean that it is automatically desolation. We can feel consolation and profound peace, even in the most difficult situations. Correspondingly, just because something is easy and pleasurable doesn’t mean it is automatically consolation.

Write down, either here or for yourself, an experience of consolation and/or an experience of desolation. What did you do with the experience? What did you learn from it? (“I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer!)

Take time in prayer to thank God for this experience.

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For further reading, check out:

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Sister Mary McDevitt is a Sister, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) Sister from Monroe, Michigan. For many years, she worked in areas of spiritual formation within the IHM congregation and engaged in retreat work. Sister Mary taught history of spirituality and spiritual direction at a local seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan. There she assisted seminarians and lay men and women to complete their Master of Divinity degrees before they served as pastors, associates and staff in parishes. Sister Mary now ministers at Visitation North Spirituality Center in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

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