A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 23 : The Discerning of Spirits

Docility to the Holy Ghost, which we spoke of in the preceding chapter, requires, as we said, interior silence, habitual recollection, and the spirit of detachment in order to hear His inspirations, which at first are similar to a secret instinct that increasingly manifests its divine origin if we are faithful to it. This docility also requires that the inspirations of the Holy Ghost be discerned from those which might lead us astray, from those of two other spirits or inspirations, which may at first appear good, but which lead to death. The discerning of spirits is, consequently, a subject we should consider.

By the discerning of spirits may be understood one of the gratiae gratis datae, mentioned by St. Paul,(1) by which the saints occasionally discern at once whether, for example, a person is speaking or acting through the spirit of true charity or only simulating this virtue. But by the discerning of spirits may also be meant a wise discretion proceeding from infused prudence with the cooperation of acquired prudence and the higher help of the gift of counsel and of the graces of state granted to the spiritual director who is faithful to his duties. It is with this second meaning that we shall discuss the discerning of spirits.

This question was treated by St. Anthony the hermit, patriarch of monks; (2) by St. Bernard in his thirty-third Sermon; by Cardinal Bona,(3) by St. Ignatius,(4) by Scaramelli, (5) and many other writers who draw their inspiration from those who preceded them.

By spirit is meant the tendency to judge, will, or act in one way or another; thus we speak of the spirit of contradiction, dispute, and so on. But in spirituality especially, we distinguish three spirits: the spirit of God; the purely natural spirit, proceeding from our fallen nature, which also has its impulses, fortitude, lyricism, its momentary enthusiasms, which may create illusion; lastly, the spirit of the devil to whose interest it is to hide himself and disguise himself as an angel of light. For this reason St. John says in his First Epistle: "Dearly beloved, believe not every spirit; but try the spirits if they be of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world." (6)

Generally one of three spirits is dominant in every soul: in the perverse, the devil; in the tepid, the natural spirit; in those who are beginning to give themselves seriously to the interior life, the Spirit of God habitually dominates, but there are many interferences of the natural spirit and of the spirit of evil. Consequently no one should ever be judged by one or two isolated acts, but by his whole life. Even in the perfect, God permits certain imperfections, at times more apparent than real, to keep them in humility and to give them frequent opportunity to practice the contrary virtues. There are persons advanced in the ways of God, who are, as the result of an illness (for example, a progressive infection of the blood), inclined to exceptional irritability. They are like people badly dressed, because their illness increases, as it were tenfold, the painful impression produced by contradictions, and sometimes the latter are incessant. There may be great merit in this struggle, and great patience in seeming impatience.

It is, therefore, most important to discern clearly what spirit moves us, what is God's action in us and what is our own, according to the words of St. John in the prologue of his Gospel: "But as many as received Him, He gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in His name, who are born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." (7) To be "born of God," is our great title of nobility, and we may say of it more than of any other: Noblesse oblige.

The great principle of the discerning of spirits was given to us by our Lord Himself in the Gospel when He said: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. By their fruits you shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and the evil tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forth good fruit." (8)

Those, in fact, who are animated by an evil intention cannot long hide it. It does not delay, says St. Thomas,(9) in manifesting itself in different ways: first of all, in things that must be accomplished instantly without time to deliberate and to conceal its intent; then in tribulations, as we read in Ecclesiasticus: "There is a friend for his own occasion, and he will not abide in the day of thy trouble." (10) Likewise, men show their character when they cannot obtain what they wish or when they have already obtained it; thus when a man attains power, he shows what he is.

The tree is known by its fruit: that is, if our fundamental will is good, it yields good fruit. If we hear the word of God that we may put it into practice, people are not long in seeing it; if, on the contrary, we hear it and content ourselves with saying, "Lord, Lord," without doing the will of God, how can we expect good fruit? In the light of this principle, "The tree is judged by its fruit," we can judge what spirit moves us. We must see the results of its influence and compare them with what the Gospel tells us about the principal Christian virtues: humility and mortification or abnegation on the one hand, and, on the other, the three theological virtues of faith, hope, love of God and of souls in God.


In consequence of original sin, nature is the enemy of mortification and humiliations; it seeks self while increasingly disregarding in practice the value of the three theological virtues. In the life of piety as elsewhere, nature pursues pleasure, and it falls into spiritual gluttony, which is the seeking after self and, therefore, the contrary of the spirit of faith and of love of God.

At the first difficulties or aridities, the spirit of nature stands still, quits the interior life. Often, under the pretext of the apostolate; it takes satisfaction in its natural activity, in which the soul becomes increasingly exterior; it confounds charity with philanthropy. Let contradiction, let trial arise, nature complains of the cross, grows irritated, and becomes discouraged. Its first fervor was only a passing enthusiasm; it is indifferent to the glory of God, to His reign, and to the salvation of souls; it is the negation of the zeal or ardor of charity. The spirit of nature is summed up in one word: egoism.

After seeking and failing to find pleasure in the interior life, it declares that one must prudently avoid all exaggeration in austerity, prayer, all mysticism; and from this point of view, a person is already a mystic who daily reads a chapter of The Imitation with recollection. It declares that one must follow the common way, by which it means the common way of tepidity or mediocrity, an unstable mean between good and evil, but closer to evil than to good. It seeks rather frequently to make this mediocrity pass for moderation, for the happy mean of virtue. In reality, the happy medium is also a summit above contrary vices, whereas mediocrity seeks to remain halfway between this summit and the depths, the inconveniences of which it would like to avoid without any true love of virtue.

The spirit of nature is depicted by St. Paul as follows: "The sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of the Spirit of God. For it is foolishness to him, and he cannot understand, because it is spiritually examined." (11) The egoist judges everything from his individual point of view and not from God's. Gradually the spirit of faith, confidence, love of God and souls disappears in him; he relies on himself, weakness itself. At times, however, the gravity of his own ill enlightens him and reminds him of the Savior's words: "Without Me you can do nothing."


The devil first lifts us up by inspiring us with pride, subsequently to cast us down into trouble, discouragement, and even despair. To recognize his influence, we must consider it in relation to mortification, humility, and the three theological virtues.

The devil does not necessarily, as nature does, disincline us to mortification; on the contrary, he urges certain souls toward an exaggerated, very visible, exterior mortification, especially in centers where it is held in honor. Such a course of action keeps pride alive and ruins health. But the devil does not incline a soul to the interior mortification of the imagination, heart, self-will, and personal judgment, although he sometimes simulates it in us by inspiring us with scruples about trifles and great liberality on dangerous or serious matters. He gives us a great opinion of ourselves, leads us to prefer ourselves to others, to boast of ourselves, unwittingly to pray like the Pharisee.

This spiritual pride is often accompanied by a false humility which makes us speak ill of ourselves on certain points in order to hinder others from speaking ill about us on another point, and in order to give the impression that we are humble. Or indeed it makes us confound humility with timidity, which is rather the fear of re­buffs and scorn.

Instead of nourishing faith by the consideration of the teaching of the Gospel, the spirit of evil draws the attention of certain souls to what is most extraordinary and marvelous, of a nature to make us esteemed, or again to what is foreign to our vocation. He inspires a missionary with the thought of becoming a Carthusian, a Carthusian with that of going to evangelize the infidel. Or, on the contrary, he leads others to minimize the supernatural, to modernize faith by the reading, for example, of liberal, Protestant works.

His way of exciting hope is to give rise to presumption, to lead us to wish to be saints immediately without traversing the indispensable stages and the way of abnegation. He even inspires us with a certain impatience with ourselves and with vexation instead of contrition.

Far from causing our charity to grow, he cultivates self-love in us and, according to temperaments and circumstances, makes charity deviate either in the direction of a humanitarian sentimentalism of extreme indulgence, or toward liberalism under the guise of generosity, or, on the contrary, toward a bitter zeal, which chides others indiscriminately instead of correcting itself. He shows us the mote in our neighbor's eye, when there is a beam in our own.

Instead of giving peace, this spirit engenders dissensions, hatreds. People no longer dare to talk to us; we would not put up with contradiction. An encumbering personalism can thus lead a man to see only himself and unconsciously to place himself on a pedestal.

Should we commit a very evident sin, which we cannot conceal, we fall into confusion, vexation, discouragement; and the devil, who veiled the danger from us before the sin, now exaggerates the difficulties of turning back to God and seeks to lead us to spiritual desolation. He fashions souls to his own image; he rose through pride and he fell in despair.

Great care must therefore be exercised if we have lively sensible devotion and come forth from prayer with increased self-love, preferring ourselves to others, failing in simplicity with our superiors and director. The lack of humility and obedience is a certain indication that it is not God who guides us.


The signs of the spirit of God are contrary to those of the spirit of nature and of the devil. The spirit of God inclines us to exterior mortification, in which it differs from the spirit of nature, but to an exterior mortification regulated by discretion and obedience, which will not attract attention to us or ruin our health. Moreover, it makes us understand that exterior mortification is of little value if not accompanied by that of the heart, of self-will, and of personal judgment; in this respect, the spirit of God differs from the spirit of the devil.

The spirit of God inspires true humility, which forbids us to prefer ourselves to others, does not fear scorn, is silent about divine favors received, does not deny them if they exist, but refers all their glory to God. It leads us to nourish our faith with what is most simple and profound in the Gospel, while remaining faithful to tradition and fleeing novelties. It shows us our Lord in superiors, and hereby develops our spirit of faith. It quickens hope and preserves us from presumption. It makes us ardently desire the living waters of prayer, reminding us that we must reach them by degrees and by the way of humility, renunciation, and the cross. It gives a holy indifference in regard to human success.

The spirit of God augments the fervor of charity, gives zeal for the glory of God, forgetfulness of self. It leads us to think first of God and to leave the care of our interests to Him. It stirs up the love of our neighbor in us, showing therein the great sign of the love of God. It hinders us from judging rashly, from taking scandal without motive; it inspires meek and patient zeal which edifies by prayer and example instead of irritating by untimely admonitions. The spirit of God gives patience in trial, love of the cross, and love of enemies. It gives peace with ourselves and with others, and even quite often interior joy. Then, if we should happen to fall, it speaks to us of mercy. According to St. Paul, "The fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity," (12) which are united to obedience and humility.

If it is a question of one act in particular, this is a sign that God is visiting our soul when no natural cause has brought the profound consolation with which it suddenly feels itself filled. God alone penetrates thus into the innermost depths of the soul. However, we must distinguish carefully from this first moment of happiness those which follow it, although the soul still feels the grace received, for in the second moment it often happens that of ourselves we form certain thoughts which are no longer inspired by God and into which error may slip.

Rarely does the Holy Ghost make revelations; they are an extraordinary grace that it would be presumptuous to desire, but frequently the interior Guest gives His inspirations to fervent souls make them taste certain words of the Gospel. Then, under the divine inspiration, the faithful soul should go forward like the artist who follows his genius and who, without thinking of the rules of art, observes them in a superior and spontaneous manner. Then are harmonized humility and zeal, fortitude and meekness, the simplicity of the dove and the prudence of the serpent. Thus the Holy Spirit leads faithful souls to the harbor of eternity.(13)



1. Cf. I Cor. 12:10.

2. Cf. PG, XXVI, 894 f.; St Athanasius, Life of St. Anthony. Ct. Dictionnaire de spiritualite, "Antoine," by Bardy. It is generally recognized that St. Anthony described the rules for the discerning of spirits with a precision which equals that of St. Ignatius.

3. De discretione spirituum, chap. 6.

4. The Spiritual Exercises, 4th week.

5. Discernimento de' spiriti.

6. Cf. I John 4: 1.

7. John 1:12 f.

8. Matt. 7:15-18. St. Thomas in his Commentary on St. Matthew (loc. cit.) says that the ravening wolves that present themselves in the clothing of sheep are heretics, and next bad prelates.

9. Commentary on St. Matthew, chap. 7.

10. Ecclus. 6:8.

11. Cf. I Cor. 2:14.

12. Gal. 5:22 f.

13. We give here only general principles for the discerning of spirits. True, we should not disdain empirical rules and evidences which make possible, as we shall see farther on, the characterization of states. But, as Father R. Regamey, O.P., says in a recent article, "Reflexions sur la theologie spirituelle" (La Vie spirituelle, December, 1938, suppl. pp. [151] ff.): "We shall act only very slightly on the life of grace as a physician on physical life by the direct influence of well-determined processes, corresponding to one of the states that we think we have recognized. Our procedures will be little different. Their worth will be in proportion as they cause souls to practice the sole means, which is the effective love of God above all else and of neighbor as oneself. . . . To detail ways of acting which seem particular to each state is often to provoke illusions, if one understands these indications as rules and not as simple counsels which cause one to reflect and which render prudence more docile. In any case, it is stopping at what is accidental" (ibid., p. [161]).