In our first article, Lessons From the 49ers, we took a deeper look at the formation period for Carmelite nuns as presented in St. Teresa’s masterpiece, The Interior Castle. We saw that she puts the formation of her nuns as the place of spiritual growth between that of good, faithful, devout Catholics, and that of those who have given their will to God. In this middle stage of the spiritual life, she begins to teach discernment in prayer, the ability to distinguish between what is spiritually good and what is spiritually best.

Teresa’s aim is to bring her daughters to the perfection of love. “God is love,”[1] and God’s will is perfect love. God cannot will anything that is not perfect love, and for those who want to love perfectly, the shortest way is to learn to love with God’s love. We know where we can find this love, for “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[2] As Christians, we received this love at Baptism, and it is increased through the sacraments and prayer. We have this perfect love, but we need to learn how to love with it, just as a child with a gift for music needs to learn how to sing or play an instrument in order to express that gift perfectly. As God’s lovers, we need to learn how to be guided by the Holy Spirit, the teacher of love.

So that is what Teresa sets out to do in the Fourth Dwelling Places of her Interior Castle. She teaches those who want to learn how to recognize the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the interior movements of their prayer so that they can cooperate with the graces God gives and so unite their wills with God. She knows that she is writing for people who reject what is evil, who want what is from God. Like Teresa herself, who struggled with her own weakness and disordered tendencies, these disciples in love are weak and frequently fall short of their high ideals. Often, they can say with St. Paul, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”[3] Still, they want to love perfectly, however often they may fail to do so. They want what is good and they want what is better, and that is what Teresa teaches: how to recognize: what is good in prayer and what is best, to distinguish what is naturally good and what is supernaturally best.

But here we find ourselves on familiar ground. Teresa is not the first person to call God’s lovers to learn what is good and what is best. That was said long ago in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind so that you may recognize what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing, and perfect.” [4] Discernment is not something esoteric reserved for cloistered nuns. It is something that belongs to every Christian, something that is meant to be practiced in everyday life by all who want to love with God’s love. It is something for everyone.

This expands our discussion far beyond the confines of the cloister wall. Discernment is certainly needed in contemplative communities, but it is needed just as truly in every family, in every business. It is needed wherever God’s love is needed. The horizons of our discussion reach wherever God’s graces go.

This puts our whole discussion in a different perspective, but it doesn’t change our approach. I used the experience of the 49ers to illustrate one aspect of discernment, and though that may seem to be a novel approach, we shall find that it belongs to a long spiritual tradition. The Gold Rush doesn’t seem to have much in common with cloistered nuns or devout Christians, but gold is gold, and the need to differentiate it has existed since it was first mined millennia ago. As soon as gold coins were minted, forgers made fake ones, and it became necessary to discern between real gold coins and forgeries.

This practical form of discernment was used more than a thousand years before Teresa was born by a monk in the south of France to explain spiritual discernment. He wrote: “We should… examine all the thoughts that emerge in our hearts; first tracing their origins and causes and their authors, so that, in accordance with the status of whoever is suggesting them, we may be able to consider how we should approach them. Then we shall become… approved money-changers. The very high skill and training of such persons exists for the sake of determining whether something is of gold of the purest sort… or whether it has been less purified by fire. It also exists for the sake of not being deceived by a common brass denarius if it is being passed off as a precious coin under the guise of shining gold; this is assured by a very careful examination. These people not only shrewdly recognize coins displaying the heads of usurpers but also discern with a still finer skill those which are stamped with the image of the true king but are counterfeits. Finally, they submit them to careful weighing in case they are lighter than they should be. All of these things we ourselves have to carry out in a spiritual manner…”[5] The monk who wrote this was St. John Cassian. and the means for spiritually assaying our thoughts “like approved money-changers” he calls “discretion.”

What is “discretion? In modern English it has several meanings: “the right to choose what should be done in a particular situation, the quality of being careful about what you do and say so that people will not be embarrassed or offended.”[6] The word itself is derived from the Latin verb discernere, to separate, to distinguish or discern[7]. Discretion is the original word for “discernment,” which seems to have appeared first in the 17th century, perhaps in the writings of the Jesuit J.B. Scaramelli.[8]

So discretion and discernment are basically the same thing: the ability to separate, to distinguish one thing from another. But what does that mean in the spiritual life?

Perhaps an example will help. Psalm 73 is a meditation on the fate of the wicked. The psalmist, thinking out loud, says to himself:

Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure of heart.
But as for me, how close my feet came to stumbling,
my steps almost slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no struggles,
their bodies are healthy and strong.
From the toils of mankind they are free,
They are not stricken like men.
Therefore they wear pride like a necklace,
they clothe themselves with violence…
Such are the wicked.
Always at ease, they increase in wealth.
Surely it is in vain that I have kept my heart pure,
that I have washed my hands in innocence.
I am stricken all the day long,
rebuked every morning.
If I said, ‘I will declare such things,’
I would have betrayed the ranks of Your people.
When I tried to understand these things
it was laborious to me
until I entered the sanctuary of God:
then I discerned their destiny.

The psalmist is wrestling interiorly with a difficult problem. In Psalm 32 he had learned, “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.”[9]

Yet when in Psalm 72 the psalmist looks at the world around him, he sees a very different picture: the wicked, the arrogant, the violent, are prosperous and at ease, while he who has tried faithfully to live in accord with God’s law is beset with trouble and suffering. The more he struggles with this problem, the bitterer his dilemma becomes. He feels that his efforts to live righteously have been in vain, his trust in God, an illusion. He is on the point of abandoning the whole project when he suddenly realizes what he is about to do: if he acts like that, he would be breaking the Covenant God had made with His people.

This is the essence of discernment. If I say such things, if I act like that, behave in that way, I am denying what I claim to believe, I am acting against the God whom I say that I love. I am breaking God’s Covenant relationship with me, breaking communion with God and with His people. This is a deep act of faith, for it takes faith to recognize this relationship of love between God and myself, between God and His people. It is also a very practical act of faith, for it recognizes that love exists, not in abstract concepts, but in this actual situation.

Love is not present in a test tube or on a whiteboard, but only in real situations, between real people. It only exists in action, and when I realize that I have to make a choice about how to love in this situation, then I realize the need for discernment. I am faced with a choice in this situation, the choice of what action to take. I want to act with love.

In our next installment, we will explore the question, “How do I learn to recognize what action is the best act of love?”


[1] 1 Jn 4: 8, 16

[2] Rom 5: 5

[3] Rom 7: 19

[4] Rom 12: 2

[5] St. John Cassian, “The Conferences,” First Conference, XX, 1-2, p. 59. All quotations from the “Conferences” of Cassian are taken from the edition translated and annotated by Boniface Ramsey, O.P., Ancient Christian Writers, No. 57, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, 1997

[6] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/discretion

[7] Cf. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, New World Dictionaries / Simon & Schuster, New York, 1983, p. 522

[8] Cf. “Discernment of Spirits,” translation of the article “Discernement des Esprits” in the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité by Sr. Innocentia Richards, PhD, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn. 1970, “The Modern Period” by Joseph Pegon, S.J., p. 95

[9] Ps 32: 10

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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