Traditions of Spiritual Discernment

as Relevant To NRMs In Europe

Michael-Paul Gallagher, S.J

Michael-Paul Gallagher offers a Christian perspective of the 'practical skill of sifting genuine from deceptive in spiritual experiences'. Although his message is specifically designed as a response to NRMs, it is also useful for an ISKCON audience for the insight and counsel it offers on the subject of spiritual discernment.

Although I find myself on a panel entitled 'Reactions from the Churches', and although I am a member of the staff of the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers in the Vatican, this presentation will not try to summarise Roman Catholic responses to the NRMs. This has already been done in such documents as the 1986 statement on Sects or New Religious Movements prepared by four bodies within the Vatican [i] , in the discussions of the Special Consistory of Cardinals held in 1991 [ii] and in such academic studies as the article published by John Saliba last year, entitled Vatican Response to the New Religious Movements. [iii] 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 of this ancient skill is quite simply because a central crisis in contemporary culture today lies in the area of the spiritual. Our primary 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, 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 various 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 practised, the danger is that in such a period of spiritual-cultural confusion, people can fall into accepting short-term answers to deep human needs. 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 'discretion' - not in its modern English definition, but rather a capacity to examine situations in order to reach a good decision. In this line, discernment is a spiritual development of 'discretion'. [iv] It involves a process of making choices in the light of faith, which pays special attention to 'the movement of the Spirit within a person's experience and within the signs of the times'. In more contemporary language, discernment specialises in unmasking illusion and in offering skills for a deeper wisdom in decision-making. Even in this definition, one sees the essentially double nature of discernment: one needs to recognise and remove obstacles to making a genuine choice, in order to then move towards a positive seeking of what is ultimately God's will. In this way it is a practical skill for sifting genuine from 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 today's sensitivities, it values interiority but also insists on examining the direction of inner experiences, seeking to recognise 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 history. [v] 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 would argue, precisely the practical or prudential wisdom that many people need in today's Europe: negativity in order to see through the deceptions on offer in the spiritual supermarket, and positivity in order to undertake a potentially more fruitful journey towards mature 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, uses the word diakrisis and refers to a special charisma not given to everyone (1 Cor. 12.10) but at the service of the community. In St. John's first letter the term used is dokimasia, and appears to be a gift to everyone (1 Jn 4.1) in order to recognise those spirits that can be trusted as coming from God.

Apart from these two basic texts, several other expressions of St. Paul use the Joharmine word dokimazein, for instance in 'Romans' where he speaks of countering the prevailing 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 St. 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, often in the face of temptation to be taken in by falsity. Positively, it is a matter of experiencing the call of God within one's human freedom.

From several instances in the Pauline corpus, it is also clear that discernment in its full sense is not for beginners in spiritual life. It presumes that a person has undergone conversion and is therefore able to 'deepen their perception in order to recognise 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

Moving on a millennium and a half from the period of the New Testament, I want to pause on the contribution of St. Ignatius of Loyola as a key figure in the development of spiritual discernment as both a theory and more importantly, as a practical discipline. This does not imply that the preceding centuries were barren in terms of developments; the leap in time is due simply to lack of space here, and to the seemingly more crucial relevance of Ignatius of Loyola. [vi]

It is significant that Ignatius 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 the long tradition of discernment, and one that is universally recognised as still central for spirituality. Here I want to summarise only those aspects of the Ignatian understanding that are relevant to the modern NRM problem. In this respect a crucial and simple insight is developed from St. Paul's remark that Satan can go 'disguised as an angel of light' (2 Cor. 11:14). Ignatius sees consolation as coming from God, marked by an increase in love and leading to potentially good decisions, whereas desolation arises from the bad spirit, marked by disturbance and restlessness, and leading to 'continual deceptions'. [vii] 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'. [viii] With regard to 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'. [ix] 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.

With this as a hinge, Ignatius proposes a much more sophisticated attention to the process of one's spiritual movements. He urges one to pay attention not only to the moods of consolation but to their overall orientation. To use the test of time and note where everything is leading. Examine 'the beginning and middle and end of the course of thoughts and experiences'.[x] If all the fruits are good and lasting, this offers the best available confirmation that the roots are in God. But 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 experience.[xi] In the light of the NRMs, we could give as a typical example of such danger signals the period following early euphoria, where 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, are felt. The loss of a capacity for genuine discernment is one of the most characteristic and dangerous by-products of some of the NRMs 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; however, once unmasked through speaking freely with 'a spiritual person who understands', the danger can disappear.[xii]

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. This is precisely the Achilles heel of many NRMs - that they offer short-term good which in time reveals itself as long-term destructiveness. In the light of both scripture and the Ignatian tradition, what advice can be given? I would like to present first an theoretical example of a potential candidate for one of the NRMs, and thus suggest ways in which discernment can be applied in practice.

A case history

Several months ago a twenty-one year old Italian student - let us call him Cosimo - spoke to me about his personal situation. Some weeks before, he had suffered a sudden break-up 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 studied engineering and then abandoned it. He told me that he now 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 that he should follow. Most of us would share the doubts I immediately expressed about his decision to change studies yet again, 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, since at its simplest, discernment is the skill of recognising 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 cause alienation. I drew fairly directly on the rules for discernment found in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, and in particular on his advice to examine carefully the beginning, middle and end of the process of decision-making. In Cosimo's case, the middle seemed genuine enough but the beginning and end were shadowed by serious doubts. By the 'middle', I mean the actual desire for a fuller spiritual life and even the envisaging of a religious vocation. Normally this in itself is good, generous, 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 NRMs.

However, 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 its roots in the desolation of the break-up with his girlfriend. As regards the end, there is the questionable impulsiveness of wanting to drop his present studies (indeed changing for the 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 through his experiences, one realises the potential for blind self-deception. By 'blind' I mean that on his own, Cosimo is unlikely to raise these questions or 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.

I have described this individual case because it can serve as a parable of the dubious attractions of the NRMs in modern European culture unless these skills of discernment are learned and communicated. Parallel to the break-up in the background for Cosimo, there is the sense of fragmentation of culture surrounding many young people today. We speak of a fatherless society or a 'death of memory' - with the result that many individuals are left without roots. Spiritual desires become more dangerous when the person lacks an anchor in community, memory or tradition, and the support of family or religion. Frequently, there is also a disenchantment with so-called normal life and its commitments. Add to this the fact that many people live in states of unrecognised desolation, even in prisons of cultural desolation. Against this background it can be dangerous when they choose to 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 decisions 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 unfakeable qualities of spirit and of everyday living (cf. Gal. 5:22).[xiii] There are other criteria to be culled from St. Paul, such as the capacity to endure persecution or to live in tune with the Cross of Christ, but these three seem most relevant in the contemporary situation. The danger of some NRMs 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 a 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 of friendship 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 self-pedal the reality of sin and evil?[xiv]

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 NRMs. 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".'[xv]

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 immediate 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 NRMs than 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 NRMs. 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 NRMs. If they had 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 word of wisdom for anyone who would try to minister or counsel in this area, and also that it can be translated fruitfully, at least

[i] 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.

[ii] A summary of Cardinal Arinze's address, together with reports from different continents on the challenge of sects, was published in Catholic International, Vol. 2 No. 13, 1-14 July 1991, pp. 605-18.

[iii] Theological Studies, Vol. 52, 1992, pp 3-39.

[iv] On this point, see Pietro Schiavone, Il Discernimento Evanqelico Oggi, CIS, Rome, 1988, pp. 76-7.

[v] Francesco Rossi de Gasperis, Ignace de la Potterie, et al, Il Discernimento Spirituale del Cristiano Oggi, FIES, Rome, 1984, p. 81.

[vi] For instance, the thoughts 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 Gillby, 'Prudence', New Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol. II, New York, 1967, p. 26.

[vii] The paraphrase offered here draws on the 'Rules of Discernment of Spirits', pp. 313-36 of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, ed. and trans. Louis Puhl, Loyola University Press, Chicago, 1952. The quotation is from p. 329.

[viii] Op. cit. p. 318.

[ix] This phrase from 2 Cor. 11:14 is adapted by Ignatius in p. 332. I draw here on the commentary of Pietro Schiavone, Il Discernimento Evanqelico Oggi, CIS, Rome. 1988, pp. 76-7.

[x] Op. cit. p. 333.

[xi] Op. cit. p. 333.

[xii] Op. cit. p. 326.

[xiii] See Jacques Guillet, 'Discernment des Esprits', in Dictionnaire de Spritualite, 1957, cols. 1240-4.

[xiv] Cardinal Paul Poupard with Michael Paul Gallagher, What will give us Happiness?, Veritas, Dublin, 1992,