Q: Dear Father Edward, how can I receive the gift of discernment? I have prayed and continue to do so, but I am not sure what comes from the Lord versus what is coming from me. Is there anything else that I should be doing?
A: Like Solomon who requested the gift of wisdom, you are asking for a good thing. Discernment is the ability to recognize what the Lord wants us to do. It can be a difficult process. One reason is because God often speaks in “a tiny whispering sound” (1 Kings 19:11-12). We might prefer that he speak loud and clear, but God in his wisdom often uses a soft voice. He makes us strain to hear him — and that helps keep us humble and attentive.
Another complication with discernment is that it involves spirits that act upon us. Spirits can come from various sources. They can come from us (our passions, our interests, our prejudices). They can come from the world, as when fame or fortune holds an unhealthy allure. Some spirits come from God or through his angels; these are the spirits we want to follow. There are also spirits that come from the devil. These are the dangerous ones that lead us into making bad choices. The devil often likes to deceive us by disguising evil inspirations as good ones. He might, for instance, tempt us to cheat on taxes (an evil) because it will help us pay off our credit card debts (a good). Or he might inspire us to think we are above temptation, so that we (foolishly) put ourselves in the near occasion of serious sin. Or he might play on our pride, convincing us that we know better than the Church about a moral issue.
How does someone sort through all of this? There are several ideas that can help. The first is: God always inspires us to do good. He never inspires us to do something evil. He won’t inspire a married couple to use contraception as a means of family planning, for instance. Nor will he inspire someone to deliberately skip Mass on Sunday. God will inspire us to be more charitable, more prayerful, more sacrificial for the good of others. He might even allow us to feel sadness for past sins that are already forgiven, with the idea that such an emotion might prompt us to a deeper sense of gratitude for his mercy. The devil, in contrast, might stir sadness in us in order to push us into despair and scrupulosity.
Another idea that can help us is that discernment requires action. That is, we need to do something, to take steps forward. Here, I’ll assume that you are asking for discernment regarding a specific course of action, that you want to know what you should do. You are already doing the best first step: You are praying. That’s an excellent start. Prayer well done puts us in tune with the Holy Spirit. It helps us to listen to his voice, which can be subtle.
Next, do some research. Ask yourself if a course of action you are considering is objectively good or at least morally neutral. If a course of action would violate Church teaching, then it is obviously not a genuine inspiration from God (as in the above-mentioned case of a couple using contraception). If the course of action involves a complicated moral issue (for instance, withdrawing a feeding tube from a terminally ill family member), you should seek the advice of someone trained in Catholic moral theology or bioethics. This could be a solid priest, a good confessor or spiritual director, or a theologian or bioethicist who is faithful to Church teaching.
If your situation involves a prudential decision (for example, whether to accept a new job and move your family across the country), then you could try weighing the pros and cons of each option. Take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side write “Pros.” Then list the arguments in favor of a course of action. On other of the sheet write “Cons.” Then list the arguments against that course of action. Give a numerical weight to each pro and con, from 1 to 10. “Separation from extended family” might rate a 10. “Having to leave a nice climate” might rate only a 3. At the end, add up the pro and con sides. If the pro side wins, go on to the next logical step. “OK, Lord, I think that maybe I should take this path. If you don’t want me to do it, please let me know your will somehow.” Then start making preliminary steps in that direction. Good decisions bring us peace and serenity. If we decide one way, and then find ourselves agitated or uneasy, then maybe we should stop, regroup, pray more intensely, and consider another option. If a decision will affect other people, we should dialogue with them if possible and get their input. Anything that builds unity among people will help to clear the path for the Holy Spirit to work his wonders.
Yours in Christ, Fr Edward McIlmail LC