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Discernment of Ministries: Fad, Fetish or New Panacea? by Rita Anne Houlihan, from 'Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View', National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972

Discernment of Ministries: Fad, Fetish or New Panacea?

by Rita Anne Houlihan,

from Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View, National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972, pp. 97-109

HOULIHAN, S. Rita Anne RC. PhD in theology, University of San Francisco; summer faculty member. Full-time renewal work from Cenacle Retreat House, Mt. Kisco, N.Y.

As I have spoken with groups of men and women religious in different sections of the country in the past year, a question has repeatedly nudged itself into my awareness: Is there a new panacea on the horizon? A few years ago that dubious distinction seemed to be given to ministry in the inner city, then to the study of theology, a little later psychology and the behavioral sciences were in the running. But now that rush to the inner city has trickled down to the devoted remnant who seem to have a genuine vocation to this so-needed ministry, and theology and the behavioral sciences have failed to yield all the answers to the ambiguities of religious life and the living church in a time of cultural upheaval, is discernment going to become the current cure-all?

Discernment is not a fad, though some seem to be approaching it as a fad. In the long, varied but amazingly consistent spiritual tradition of the Judeo-Christian religious, discernment has been a constant. We need only remember, “How can we recognize an oracle which the Lord has spoken?” (Dt 18:21-22; also Jer 28:8-9; Dt 13:23) and John’s words, “Do not trust every spirit, but put the spirits to the test to see if they belong to God” (Jn 4:1). It is not surprising to find through the Old and New Testaments references to God’s faithful ones practising discernment and indicating norms for it, although the expression “discernment of spirits” appears only in the epistles. What is most interesting is the testimony to the tradition of discernment found in many places in the intertestamental literature, most notably in the Qumram document, The Manual of Discipline. (1)

In the literature on discernment in recent years, much has been written about Ignatian discernment to the discomfort of some whose religious institute does not have Ignatian spirituality as part of its heritage. It is important to note that Ignatius of Loyola would be the last to claim a corner on the discernment market. His contribution to the vast body of experience in discernment is that of articulator rather than initiator. Ignatius had absorbed the long tradition before him, was graced in prayer, gifted in analyzing his own religious experience and had the rare ability of expressing mystical experiences in pedestrian terms for the guidance of those less gifted. He was a spiritual genius; this is one case where the term genius is appropriate!

Among his greatest gifts was his facility for guiding those less graced than he in the spiritual life. This guidance was one of his overriding concerns, a concern dating from his own earliest spiritual experience. For our purpose it is sufficient to remember that when we read or hear “Ignatian discernment” this refers to a distillation of the whole and constant tradition of discernment in the living Church, a tradition which has been digested, synthesized and reexpressed in workable terms for those who have not grown yet to the fullness of the mystical life.

In this article I will not attempt a comprehensive development of personal and communal discernment. A number of sound papers on this subject have been published in the past two years, as indicated in the bibliography. Nor will I attempt specific suggestions on the type of ministry to choose. The focus instead is on discernment itself and the pre-requisites that are so easy to forget when one is more concerned about ministry than about religious life. I hope to point out some of the preconditions necessary for any valid discernment and the principles or elements on which true discernment is based. To do this I will respond to the following questions: What are we speaking of when we talk about discernment? What are we trying to discern? What is the identity of the spirits we are discerning? What is the difference between personal and communal discernment? Where does discernment fit in the choice of ministries by an individual? by a community?

What is Discernment?

Jesus was preeminently the man of the Spirit, led by the Spirit. This is attested to throughout the gospels. He was “made Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness, by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rm 1:4). Discernment is the dynamic process of choosing the values of Jesus who was the Christ and of living by the Spirit of Christ. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are Sons of God” (Rm 8:14; Jn 3: 5). This decisive and consistent living involves a whole series of choices in the here and now. It is complicated by many things, not the least by the cacaphony of our own warring desires, impulses and false defenses, i.e. by what Paul described as the law of the body’s members in conflict with the law of his mind (Rm 7:23). Discernment of spirits has to do with the sorting out of these inner impulses, affects, feelings so that we can respond with some degree of freedom to the Spirit of God as He makes Himself known to us through the details of our day-to-day living, through the demands and challenges of the persons, events and circumstances of our life. This is well described by Edward Malatesta, SJ in his introduction to Discernment of Spirits:

...by discernment of spirits is meant the process by which we examine in the light of faith and in the connaturality of love, the nature of the spiritual states we experience in ourselves and in others. The purpose of such examination is to decide, as far as possible, which of the movements we experience lead to the Lord and to a more perfect service of him and our brothers, and which deflect us from this goal (2).

When we speak of discernment of spirits then, we are speaking of prayerful, honest efforts at getting in touch with our own inner experiences, our feelings and affects which propel us toward acting as our best self or acting in ways which falsify us, which enhance our freedom or destroy it by making us less than the persons we are and can be. In ordinary conversation we speak of being limited by hangups. Contemporary psychologists discuss compulsive and inhibitory patterns of behavior. Classical spiritual writers call them inordinate attachments and capital sins.

In pointing out the value of prayerful solitude, Louis Bouyer trenchantly affirms “the obscure forces within.”

The man who does not know how to be alone does not know (and secretly does not wish to know) the conflicts there are in the depths of his heart...It is not only the depths of our own soul, unknown to us that we discover, but the obscure powers that are as it were lurking there, whose slaves we must inevitably remain so long as we are not aware of them. (3)

There is a certain point beyond which we cannot grow spiritually, or any other way, unless we are willing to enter prayerfully into an exercise of honesty and authenticity. Who am I when I am most myself? Which are my levels of motivation? Which hangups am I driven by, manipulated by? Am I able to respond to life and the God of life in a developing freedom? What sinfulness is still alive in me, coloring and clouding my judgment, keeping me from acting with the freedom and discretion of a full human person? Here we are not speaking of morbid introspection, but rather of a healthy self-observation, a growing habit of reflectivity done prayerfully, peacefully in the light of the Spirit of goodness and love.

In all this what is not important is the external source of the “obscure powers,” the spirits. In fact it can be dangerous, at the least unproductive, to try to analyze the external source of the spirits within me operating in and through the dynamic of my own psychology. What we are working toward here is getting in contact with the stream of consciousness within where God touches us uniquely and individually, our core faith experience. This is the area where real freedom exists.

For this we must be conscious of “two spontaneities, one good and for God, another evil and not for God” which well up “in the consciousness and experience of each of us,” as George Aschenbrenner, SJ has pointed out. He goes on to say:

For one eager to love God with his or her whole being the challenge is not simply to let the spontaneous happen, but rather to be able to sift out these various spontaneous urges and give full existential ratification to those spontaneous feelings that are from and for God. We do this by allowing the truly Spirited-spontaneity to happen in our daily lives. But we must learn the feel of this true Spirited-spontaneity. ...In discernment the prime concern is how the Lord is affecting and moving us (often quite spontaneously) deep in our own affective consciousness...How we are experiencing the “drawing of the Father” (Jn 6:44) in our own existential consciousness and how our sinful nature is quietly tempting us and luring us away from our Father in subtle dispositions of our consciousness. .. (4)

This is the concern of discernment. I have to know the spirits moving within me, the values which determine my living (not those I give lip service to), before I can have any assurance that I am being led by the Spirit, that in this particular situation I am a follower of Jesus who was the great responder to the Spirit.

Discernment has to do with the choice between two goods. It is to be used in areas of major decision. But it is not merely wise and prudent decision-making. It is the effort made by the individual or the group to get in touch with their ongoing religious experience and to make their present option consistent with their core faith experience. In discernment we strive to achieve inner freedom in order to catch where the Lord is leading. This leading will be part of the continuous thread, the ongoing stream of one’s lifetime faith experience, even though there might be unexpected turns and twists which may seem at times like reversals. It is possible to arrive at this inner freedom though frequently we may only have sufficient freedom to make a God-directed choice during a very limited period of decision-making.

Essential Elements for Valid Discernment

From the above it seems almost redundant to specify that valid discernment requires prayer and spiritual direction. The person or persons making the discernment need to be praying persons. They need, at least from time to time, another who is also a pray-er with whom to check out their perception of their inner experience.

A Praying Person: one who is seriously concerned about her developing life of prayer, who is working at living a prayerful life and a deeply reflective life.

The point of insertion of discernment is after prayer and after the habit of prayer is established in one’s life—after there is at least at times during one’s day an occupation of the mind and heart with the Lord. In habitual prayer (here I am referring to the person who tries to find the Lord in prayer regularly: I am not positing one who has been raised necessarily to a certain level or stage of prayer) there is a gradual, imperceptible growing like the Lord, an interiorizing of His values, a sensitivity to Him and His ways (Gal 3:27; 4:19; Phil 1:21). To speak of discernment without this essential quality in the individual and in the group which is discerning is like speaking of a tree blossoming when the vital sap is not flowing. Indeed without Him we can do nothing (Jn 15:5). To attempt discernment without habitual prayer is to treat discernment as a fad, a quick, superficial remedy. Under such circumstance it can never be more than that. In speaking of the process of communal discernment, one experienced director wrote, “I would make it painfully clear to all involved that the discernment is only as good as the personal purification and liberty of each involved. This requires an authentic and no-nonsense prayer.”

A Deeply Reflective Person: such a person is trying to get in touch with her own religious experience, her experience of God. She is learning to understand her present experience in the continuity of her core faith experience, her ongoing experience of God active in her life. Thus her spiritual awareness couples her more immediate experience of God with her past experience. Everything is seen then as part of an ongoing stream, as God’s leading her in a continuity toward greater integration, greater interior freedom—the indifference, surrender, abandonment so prized by the classical spiritual leaders.

A Director. Since the prayerful effort of getting in touch with one’s religious experience and sorting out one’s inner affects is an area where we can easily deceive ourselves, consultation with a director at least from time to time is one of the necessary elements in valid discernment. Here we are speaking of a checking out with one who is experienced and knowledgeable about the subtleties of the experience. Sometimes it is not easy to find such a man or woman. Frequently our own reluctance to share ourself on such a deep level keeps us from this necessary and helpful experience. Opening oneself to another in this way is a test of humility and it costs, yet this is no esoteric experience. It is a simple sharing of inner experience with one who is “the friend of my soul.”

The work of the director is a work of collaboration characterized by prayerfulness, respect and delicacy, A director does not replace the Holy Spirit. Rather a director helps the person sort out her inner experience and confirms the leading of the Spirit. The director helps in the discernment. He or she does not make the discernment, though the director has his own discernment to make concerning the guidance he gives.

The consistent tradition of all great world religious has emphasized the need for those who are serious about their spiritual lives to avail themselves of a leader, a guru, one who has been there before. Such a teacher can help us avoid the pitfalls and the wasting of time and energy in non-productive efforts toward growth in the Lord.

Personal and Communal Discernment

These terms refer to the process of discernment when used by an individual or a group. Communal discernment does not refer simply to a group of prayerful persons gathered together to reach a decision of major import. Rather it is a process which to be successful requires persons for whom discernment has become a characteristic in the living of their personal lives. It also requires a structure, a process though there may be variation as to which structure is used.

The most helpful suggestion I can make for those who are serious about personal and communal discernment is to refer them to the booklets of Futrell, Sheeran and Toner, and to the article of Aschenbrenner listed in the bibliography. The other entries are all good, but these three are essential for adequate development of the topic. For those who seek more of the historical perspective, I suggest Discernment of Spirits, the translation of the normative study of discernment in Christian tradition published in the third volume of Dictionnaire de Spiritualité. With these readings there must be some training and experience in personal and communal discernment. Such learning experiences are provided at a number of centers around the country. “Discernment Workshop,” as these experiences are usually called, does not quite express the combination of input, prayer, experience and direction which they provide.

Discernment and Ministry

From time to time the modern religious hears that her foundress would not recognize her own congregation today, much less join it. At the same time she is challenged to reexpress the charism of her foundress in contemporary times and culture. It becomes increasingly difficult for the jet-age religious to identify with a woman however holy, (almost impossible if the foundress is a he), who lived in the fifteenth or sixteenth or nineteenth century in vastly different situations from her experiences. Or, are they so vastly different? Here, of course, she is hampered often by the poorly written, dated accounts of the life and spirit of her foundress.

We have need for well written, vital lives of our saints. The human person has a psychological need for models, those whom we can know, whose spirit we can catch. We religious have a need to know and compassionate with our own religious forebears. The trick is to grasp the living situations of our foundress and first sisters, to be nourished in our living by their experiences, so we can capture and revivify their charism in our lives to our world.

If we can do this, I think many of our questions about contemporary ministry will shrink to workable size. I believe our foundresses would indeed join us today if they sensed our efforts to be women of faith in our time as they were in their time, to respond as fully to God and the needs of His people in our day and our world as they tried to do in their day and their world. They were women with purity of heart, singleness of purpose, as well as many human weaknesses and fallibilities. They were women rooted in certain values, and these were central in their lives. They lived out of them. They were rooted yet flexible, steadfast yet expendable. They were true responders to the Spirit. It is in this perspective that we must discern all questions related to the choice of ministries.

What is my response in faith? How do I know that I am being led by God and not by my own inner desires, needs, defensiveness? As I grow in faith and love, these inner movements become more subtle. But if I am trying to grow in the awareness of my two spontaneities, if I am concomitantly growing in a life of prayer, I will also be growing in integrity, i.e. singleness of purpose, purity of heart, and in integration as a person and as a religious woman.

The long road to freedom is a road of ever deepening self-discovery. This is the truth that enables us to continue to live on in His light, according to His teachings. This truth will indeed set us free (Jn 8:31). The result of this kind of living is a liberated, loving human person, a vital person, one who is gentle, kind, amazingly sensitive to others. The ultimate norm is always charity. Is this description very different from Paul’s fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness and chastity” (Gal 5:33)?


1. S. Innocentia Richards (trans), Discernment of Spirits. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1970, p. 27.

2. Ibid., p.9.

3. Louis Bouyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers. New York and Rome: Desclee, 1964, p. 313.

4. George A. Aschenbrenner, SJ, “Consciousness Examen,” Review for Religious. Vol. 31, No. 1, 1972, p. 14.


Aschenbrenner, George A., SJ, “Consciousness Examen,” Review for Religious. Vol. 31, No. 1, 1972, 14-21.

Bouyer, Louis, The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, New York and Rome: Desclee, 1964.

Clarke, Thomas E., SJ, “The Ignatian Exercises: Contemplation and Discernment,” Review for Religious. Vol. 31. No. 1, 1972, 62-69.

Futrell, John Carroll, SJ, Ignatian Discernment. Studies in the Spirituality of the Jesuits. St. Louis: St. Louis University, 1970, 47-88.

__________. Making an Apostolic Community of Love. St. Louis: St. Louis University, 1970.

Richards, S. Innocentia (trans) Discernment of Spirits. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1970.

Sheeran, Michael, SJ., Discernment of Political Problems. Jersey City, N.J.: T.A.Burke, SJ, 144 Grand St., 07302.

Sheets, John R. SJ, "Profile of the Spirit: a Theology of Discernment of Spirits," Review for Religious. Vol. 30, No. 36, 1971, 363-376.

Toner, Jules J. A Method for Communal Discernment of God’s Will. Studies in the Spirituality of the Jesuits. St. Louis: St. Louis University, 1971.

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