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Traditions of Spiritual Discernment - Michael-Paul Gallagher

Is the old Christian tradition on spiritual discernment relevant to New Religious Movements in Europe? A Jesuit scholar answers this question in a speech at an international conference in London.


Although I find myself on a panel entitled “Reactions from the Churches”, and although I am a member of the staff of the Pontificial Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers (since merged with the Pontificial Council for Culture) in the Vatican, this presentation will not try to summarize Roman Catholic responses to the New Religious Movements. This has already been done on a document such as the 1986 statement in “Sects or New Religious Movements” prepared by four bodies within the Vatican1 and then discussions of the Special Consistory of Cardinals held in 19912, and in such academic studies as a long article by John Saliba published last year, entitled “Vatican Response to the New Religious Movements”3.

Of course the Catholic Church continues to be intensely concerned about this whole field, and there have been many local initiatives and reflections. However, for my contribution here, I propose a more restricted topic and one that, though often mentioned as relevant in this field, is seldom expanded on – the theme of discernment and its applications.

By way of introduction, the relevance today of this ancient skill is quite simply because of a central crisis of contemporary culture in the area of the spiritual. Our focus is Europe and more particularly the new situation emerging from the demise of communist systems and from developments within the European Community. This background does not need sketching in any detail. Suffice it to say that, for different reasons the two continuing blocs of Europe, now divided more in terms of economics and culture, find themselves in situations of spiritual vulnerability.

In the West, what is meant by post-modernist culture involves a renewed interest in non-materialist searching by many people. In the post-communist countries a parallel but different pattern of religious exploration is taking place. In brief, there is a double religious vulnerability in the previously divided Europe: for different reasons due to different situations, this continent’s inheritance of Christian belonging finds itself facing new pressures and challenges.

My central thesis here is that unless discernment is known and practiced, the danger is that people, within a period of such spiritual-cultural confusion, can fall into accepting short-term answers to deep human hungers. Indeed, these short-term securities can prove humanly destructive in the long-term – and we have tragic evidence of that in recent episodes.

Discernment – a first description


What exactly is discernment? I want to comment on it first in theory and then in practice, making some reference to the Christian scriptures and also to the Ignatian tradition of spirituality.

In medieval philosophy the virtue of prudence involves the exercise of discretio, which is not quite “discretion” in modern English, but rather a capacity to examine situations in order to reach a good decision. In this line, discernment is a spiritual development of discretio4. It involves a process of making choices in the light of faith, which pays special attention to what are called the movements of the Spirit within a person’s experience and within the signs of the times.

In more modern language, discernment specializes in unmasking illusion and in offering skills for a deeper wisdom in decision-making.

Even in that sentence, one has the essentially double nature of discernment: first one needs to recognize and remove obstacles to making a genuine choice, in order then to move towards a positive seeking of the good, ultimately of God’s will.

A scissors movement


In this way it is a practical skill of sifting the genuine from the deceptive in spiritual experiences. It offers long-tested criteria for judging how a person or community can truly claim to be guided by God’s Spirit. In tune with many of the sensitivities of today, it values interiority but also insists on examining the direction of inner experiences, seeking to recognize roots in terms of fruits, origins of desires and choices in terms of existential orientations and conversions.

To use a metaphor, discernment involves a scissors movement, a convergence of lights, from above and from below: in the Christian understanding, it seeks to unite the Revelation of God in Christ with the here-and-now options of one’s life and history5. At its core it brings to bear the revelation of God with the actualities of human situations and decisions.

In short, discernment is an ancient practice of reading the signs of the Spirit in human experience, of seeking the call of God in one’s human freedom and decisions. This method of weighing of experience offers, I want to argue, precisely the practical or prudential wisdom that many people need in today’s Europe, both negatively in order to see through the deceptions on offer in the spiritual supermarket, and positively in order to undertake a potentially more fruitful journey towards religious faith.

The Christian Scriptures on Discernment


From the point of view of the Christian Scriptures, let me briefly offer a few pieces of essential scaffolding concerning spiritual discernment, in other words some references, definitions, and general perspectives on its nature and process.

The phrase “discernment of spirits” is used in two rather different contexts in the New Testament. St Paul, writing to the Corinthians about diversity of gifts, use the word diakrisis and refers to a special charism not given to everyone (1 Cor. 12.10), but at at the service of the community. In St John’s first letter the term is dokimasia and it seems rather a gift for everyone (1 Jn 4.1) in order to recognize those spirits that can be trusted as coming from God.

Apart from these two basic texts, several other expressions of St Paul use the Johannine word dokimazein, as for instance in Romans where he speaks of countering the suerounding culture with the ability to “test” what is God’s will, what is the “perfect thing to do” (Rom. 12.2). Obviously one should also mention the various promises of the Paraclete in the last discourse of John’s gospel where Jesus describes one of the functions as showing what is wrong and what is right (Jn. 16.8).

What is striking in these and other texts of the New Testament is an underlying assumption of a context of potential deception, and hence the discernment in question is a double operation – a matter of seeing through illusion and of making a godly choice in the teeth of temptations to be taken in by falsity. Positively, it is a matter of experiencing the call of God within one’s human freedom.

From several texts in the Pauline corpus, it is also clear that discernment in its full sense is not for beginners in the spiritual life. It presumes that a person has undergone conversion and is therefore able to “deepen their perception in order to recognize what is best” (Phil 1.9). It is a skill for those who were once “in darkness” but are now “light in the Lord” and hence able both to see “empty arguments” for what they are, and discover what the Lord wants” (Eph. 5.6-9).

In short, discernment presupposes a “spiritual person” who is “able to judge the value of everything”. And Paul contrasts this level of maturity with those who are still “sensual ... infants ... fed with milk” (1 Cor. 2.16-3.2). Using exactly the same metaphor the author of Hebrews offers yet another summary of discernment: “solid food is for the mature, those with minds formed through practice to distinguish between good and bad” (Heb. 5.14).

Ignatius of Loyola


Skipping a millenium and a half from the period of the New Testament, I want to look at the contribution of St Ignatius of Loyola as a key figure in the development of spiritual discernment as both a theory and even more so a skill or practical discipline. This does not imply that the centuries were barren in terms of developments: earlier some reference was made to medieval thinking on discretio. The jump in time is due simply to lack of time here, and to the seemingly more crucial relevance of Ignatius of Loyola6.

Indeed it is significant that he belongs to the age of early modernity, when a new sense of the individual was appearing and hence a new capacity for a spiritual hermeneutics of self-experience – as we might say in today’s terminology. In his Spiritual Exercises Loyola offers new foundations and a major breakthrough in this long tradition of discernment, and one that is universally recognized as still central for spirituality. Here I want to summarize only those aspects of the Ignatian understanding that are relevant to the New Religious Movements problematic today.

In this respect a crucial and simple insight is developed from St Paul’s remark that Satan can be “disguised as an angel of light” (2. Cor. 11:14). Ignatius sees consolation as coming from God, marked by an increase of love, and as leading to potentially good decisions, and desolation as coming from the bad spirit, marked by disturbance and restlessness, and leading to “continual deceptions”7. A golden rule is never to change a commitment when in desolation, because “in time of desolation ... we can never find the way to a right decision”8

But as regards consolation, things are a little more complicated than might at first appear: consolation is not infallible. It can be deceptive, like the “disguised angel of light”9

In terms of initial disposition for discernment, a person must be inwardly free. In terms of the state within which a decision is made, a person must be in consolation. But both freedom and consolation are vulnerable. They can seem to be genuine, but may not be so in reality.

Short-term good, long-term destructiveness


With this as a hinge, Ignatius pays much more sophisticated attention to the process of one’s spiritual movements. Pay attention not only to the moods of consolation but to their overall orientation. Use the test of time and ask where all this is leading you. Examine “the beginning and middle and end of the course of thoughts” and experiences10. If all the fruits are good and lasting, this offers the best available confirmation that the roots are in God.

If at some stage, an element of the less good creeps in, beware. In Ignatius’ words, this process of subtle deception will show itself in disquiet, “destroying the peace, tranquillity, and quiet” which marked the initial experience11.

In the light of the New Religious Movements we could give the following as typical examples of such signals of danger after early euphoria: some closing of the heart, some opting for rigidity, some inclination not to listen to the advice of friends, an impulsiveness, a separation from previous roots (for instance in family or church), a fundamentalism, an inability to dialogue, indeed, an inability to discern.

The loss of a capacity for genuine discernment is one of the most characteristic and dangerous by-products of some of the New Religious Movements in practice. Often it goes hand in hand with a shrinking of the field of communication to those in the inner circle.

Once again a famous metaphor of Ignatius seems relevant: at one stage he compares the process of spiritual deception to a false lover who wants his strategies kept secret, but once unmasked through speaking freely with “a spiritual person who understands”, the danger can disappear12.

From his own early and rather innocent adventures in spirituality, Ignatius knew that a spiritual journey can be fraught with deceptions. He was acutely aware of how temptations in this field usually come under the appearance of good.

And that is precisely the Achilles heel of many New Religious Movements – that they offer short-term good which in time reveals itself as long-term destructiveness. In this light I want to present first an example of someone in a situation akin to being a candidate for one of the New Religious Movements, and thus suggest ways in which discernment can be applied in practice.

A case history


Some months ago an Italian student, let us call him Cosimo, aged 21, spoke to me about his personal situation.

Some weeks before, he suffered a sudden breakup of a relationship with a girlfriend – a decision forced on them by her family. He is a first-year student of mathematics, who had previously started studying engineering and abandoned it. Now he told me that he wanted to drop mathematics and take up philosophy or theology with the idea of becoming a monk. He explained that while trying to study mathematics, he experienced intense desire for meditation and prayer, and that surely this was a genuine sign from God to be followed.

Most of us would share the doubts I immediately sensed over this decision to change studies yet again and over the ultimate genuineness of the desire for prayer. I say “ultimate” because in the immediate moment it could well be a good inclination; it is within the whole context that it becomes more questionable. Even to raise that question is to begin a process of discernment, because at its simplest discernment, as I said earlier, is a skill of recognizing roots in terms of fruits.

The problem was not only to identify the weak points in his decisional logic but more delicately how to communicate this to him in a way that would not alienate. I drew fairly directly in the rules for discernment found in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, and in particular on his advice, already mentioned, to examine carefully the beginning, middle, and end of a process of decision-making.

A potential for self-deception


In Cosimo’s case, the middle seemed genuine enough but the beginning and end were shadowed with serious doubts. By the middle I mean the actual desire for a fuller prayer life, and even the envisaging of a religious vocation. Normally this in itself is good, generous, and in harmony with the gospel. But it would be too innocent to take it in itself and not to hear the pressures of non-normality that make this desire suspect: indeed that is the dangerous innocence of many of those attracted to the New Religious Movements.

But let us return to the more obvious signals of disorder   in what Ignatius might call the beginning and the end. Clearly this whole movement in Cosimo’s life has roots in the desolation of the breakup with his girlfriend. As regards the end, there is the questionable impulsiveness of wanting to drop his present studies (in fact changing for a second time within a year). Is he so sure of his spiritual longings? Could not even the desire to pray be a form of escape from academic duties?

Gradually, as one sifts his experience, one realizes the potential for self-deception of a blind kind. By “blind” I mean that on his own Cosimo is inlikely to raise these questions of face these doubts. Using the Ignatian advice about times of desolation   never to change a decision previously made with the strength of consolation – one sees the probable seeds of unwisdom in Cosimo’s plan to abandon mathematics and to opt for a religious journey in this way and at this time.

Spiritual hungers


I have described this individual case because it can serve as a parable of the dubious attractions of the New Religious Movements in modern European culture – unless skills of discernment are learned and communicated.

Parallel to the breakup in the background for Cosimo, there is the sense of fragmentation of culture surrounding many a young person now. We speak of a fatherless society or a death of memory – with the result that many are left without roots. Spiritual hungers become more dangerous when the person lacks anchors in community, memory, tradition, supports of family or religion. Frequently there is also a disenchantment with so-called normal life and its commitments – with things like mathematics.

Add to this the fact that many people live in states of unrecognized desolation, even in prisons of cultural desolation. Against this background it can be dangerous when they follow an intense but somewhat impulsive desire for spiritual commitment, something that in itself seems good.

In such situations, therefore, practical discernment skills are crucial in order to unmask potential self-deceptions.

Criteria for Christian Choices


Standing back from the example given, what are some of the criteria of a good and Christian decision in the light of discernment?

From St Paul one may select three essential points: the outcome should build up the community of the church (cf. 1 Cor 14:4); at its core there should be a recognition of Jesus as Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3); genuine fruits will be marked by love, joy, peace and other such genuine qualities of the spirit and of everyday living (cf. Gal. 5:22)13.

There are other criteria to culled from St Paul, such as the capacity to endure persecution or to live in harmony with the Cross of Christ, but these three seem highly relevant in the contemporary situation.

The danger of some New Religious Movements is to be sectarian and separatist, and hence break with the larger Church, to move away from the fullness of faith in Christ as Lord into some distorted view, and in the long term to narrow into a ghetto of righteousness that can lack essentials of compassion and peace.

In this regard and with an eye to the New Age movement, a recent publication from the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers listed various questions as “tools for discernment”:

“Is this leading to compassion, gentleness and self-giving or to self-concern and even to pride? ... is this experience leading to stronger sense of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour or else is it causing a certain vagueness about God? With regard to prayer, is it rooted in a sense of reverence for God, and in a relationship with Christ, or is it content with ways of meditation that remain with a world of self-silence? ... Have these approaches any place for a personal Saviour, or do they tend to soft-pedal the reality of sin and evil?” 14

Practical wisdom and self-questioning


The main thesis of this paper has been that the practical wisdom and self-questioning at the heart of discernment can be of considerable relevance in ministry to those in danger from the more dubious New Religious Movements.

At the risk of repetition, I list the “lights” as follows:

1: “Good decisions can only come from the true self; bad decisions spring from the pressures and panics of the false self; therefore never make a decision when ‘down’”15.

2: Be aware that not every experience of peace or spiritual freedom is genuine: does it last? what fruits does it bear long-term? where is this leading?

3: Being afraid to explore such questions about self-deception with a friend or counsellor outside your immidiate circle is a sure sign of danger and potential deception.

It is clear that most of what has been argued here is of more relevance to those who might work with candidates for New Religious Movements than directly for those people themselves.

If some level of self-awareness and inner freedom is a precondition for spiritual discernment, then it is precisely that requirement that is often dangerously lacking in the potential members of many New Religious Movements.

If a further level of purification and conversion to the values of the gospel is a precondition for specifically Christian discernment, then even more so this plane remains beyond the horizon of many of the young attracted to the New Religious Movements. If they attained such a maturity, they would not be attracted to deceptive forms of religiousness.

Therefore discernment is a demanding skill often out of reach for these potential aspirants. My argument is that it is a vital world of wisdom for anyone who would try to minister or counsel in this area, and also that it can be translated fruitfully, at least in part, for these younger and more vulnerable people.


The text of this article was originally a speech delivered at the International Con­ference on New Religions and the New Europe, London, 25-28 March 1993.





(1) Entitled Sects or New Religious Movements: Pastoral Challenge, an English-language version was brought out by the Office of Publishing and Promotion Services, United States Catholic Conference, Washington.


(2) A summary of Cardinal Arinze’s address together with reports from different continents in the challenge of sects was published in Catholic International, Vol. 2, No. 13, 1-14 July 1991, pp. 605-618.


(3) Theological Studies, vol. 52, 1992, pp. 3-39.


(4) On this point see Pietro Schiavone, Il Discernimento Evangelico Oggi, CIS, Rome, 1988, pp. 76-77.


(5) Francesco Rossi de Gasepris, Ignace de la Potterie, et al., Il Discernimento Spiri­tuale del Cristiano Oggi, FIES, Rome, 1984, p. 81.


(6) For instance, the thought of St Thomas Aquinas on the moral virtue of prudence would be worth exploring further in this context. For him it was an individual skill, involving a practical decision about means to ends, and hence was deliberative rather than contemplative. See Thomas Gilby, “Prudence”, New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11, New York, 1967, p. 926.


(7) The paraphrase offered here draws on the “Rules for Discernment of Spirits”, §§ 313-336 of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, ed. and trans. Louis Puhl, Loyola University Press, Chicago, 1952. The quotation is from § 329.


(8) op. cit., § 318.


(9) This phrase from 2 Cor. 11:14 is adapted by Ignatius on § 332. I draw here on the commentary of Pietro Schiavone, Il Discernimento Evangelico Oggi, CIS, Rome, 1988, pp. 76-77.


(10) op. cit., § 333.


(11) op. cit., § 333.


(12) op. cit., § 326.


(13) See Jacques Guillet, “Discernment des Esprits”, in Dictionaire de Spiritualité, 1957, cols. 1240-1244.


(14) Cardinal Paul Poupard with Michael Paul Gallagher, What will give us Happiness?, Veritas, Dublin, 1992, pp. 96-97.


(15) Michael Paul Gallagher, Free to Believe: ten steps to faith, Darton Longman and Todd, London, 1987, p. 16.

Michael Paul Gallagher

was born in 1939 in Ireland. At the age of 22 he entered the Jesuit Order after studies in literature and language in Dublin and Caen (France). Later he did higher studies in literature and theology in the Universities of Oxford, John Hopkins, and Belfast. In 1967 he became lecturer in Modern English and American Literature at National University of Ireland. In 1990 he moved to Rome to work in the Vatican and to teach part time at the Gregorian University. Rev. Gallagher is the author of several books of spiritual theology, including Help my Unbelief, Strug­gles of Faith, Free to Believe, Where is your God?, and forthcoming Letters on Prayer (June 1994).