JUNE, 2002, LILIENFELD SEMINAR: SPIRITUAL ACCOMPANIMENT AND DISCERNMENT
MY BROTHERS, DO
NOT BELIEVE EVERY SPIRIT, BUT TEST THE SPIRITS IF THEY ARE OF GOD. (1
John 4:1). Spiritual accompaniment has always given prominent attention to the
whole issue of spirits; it can plausibly be affirmed, in fact, that discernment
in its multiple operations is the cornerstone of spiritual accompaniment.
Accordingly, a rather thorough familiarity with the topic of discernment of
spirits and of the virtue of discretion, its nature and methods, is a
fundamental requirement of a study of spiritual accompaniment. Some of the
outstanding spiritual writers, in fact, such as St. Bonaventure, in his work De
triplici via, and Walter Hilton, held that after having traversed the early
stages of the spiritual life, the person who possessed discretion has little
need of spiritual direction. Under various forms and in a wide variety of
contexts, the leaders of the Church and all fervent Christians, beginning in
the times of the apostolic Church, have felt the need to put into practice the
The words translated as
discernment- diakrisis and aisthesis and discern, diakrino and dokimadzo-
do not occur often in the Bible. They are lacking altogether in the Gospels;
they are most frequently found in the Epistles of St. Paul and
Discernment refers to the process by which judgment is made concerning the truth and reliability of some thought or image claiming inspiration or some situation requiring a judgment relative to God=s will. Though the Jewish religion gives much less importance to dogmatic truths than does the Catholic Church, yet its religious officials and the representatives of civil authority were much exercised in testing the claims of prophets to speak for God. Thus, in all the major parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, the torah, the writings and the prophets, considerable attention is evident to present the necessity of discernment.
Awareness of the necessity for
discernment of spirits was particularly sharp in the Inter-testament period.
During the last couple of centuries before the birth of our Lord, the doctrine
of the two ways and two spirits was put forth and taught as fundamental ethics.
It was particularly prominent at
The desert Fathers understood this principle instinctively. Seemingly they arrived at this insight by experience that they assiduously examined. They did not formulate the principle but they acted upon it and obviously considered it fundamental. They were concerned to identify not only the images and thoughts that arise in the imagination and the mind and to study their effects on the spirit but felt the necessity of discerning their underlying sources. Specifically the question they asked themselves was whether such thoughts, images and impulses come from God or from another source, that is to say, from nature or from God=s enemies, the demons. For they realized that a variety of causes give rise to inner phenomena that influence choice and behavior. Ideas and images they knew could derive from the nature of the body or the natural workings of the soul, from its affections and the passions; they might also derive from the world of spirits, that is to say, from the demons or from angels sent by God.
Before long certain of the more gifted monks in the desert were able to discern with greater perspicuity specific features of the inner life that allowed for more precise identification of thought and impulses. Abba Abraham knew that what others too readily ascribed to demons often was the result of natural causes: >The demons are our passions=, he affirmed on some occasion. But it was Evagrius Ponticus who spoke with the greatest clarity of description and wealth of insight in this domain of the images and passions and their way of affecting the life of prayer especially. In this manner he contributed to a more scientific approach to discernment. By creating a systematic body of doctrine concerning the passions and the action of demons on the soul he made it more feasible to pass on the accumulated wisdom of the desert rather than rely solely on personal contact with an experienced abba. For one thing, he it was who first organized the doctrine of the passions.. He categorized them under eight heads and described each succinctly and with sufficient vividness to gain the approbation of discerning disciples, notably John Cassian who popularized his teaching in the West, though without mentioning his master=s name.
Evagrius went further and initiated, in brief compass and with considerable compression of expression, an analysis of the dynamic relations of certain of the passions among themselves, again with the express intent of providing for a more exact discernment.. Evagrius recognized that some passions arose from overcoming temptations arising from other passions, successfully freeing oneself from one demon only to fall into the hands of another: the demons of vanity and pride follow after overcoming gluttony and lust and find a more ready opening if the monk is not forewarned by insight into their ways. He was persuaded that by distinguishing with accuracy the specific demon and passion that tempted him, the monk was in a much sounder position to resist effectively.. This is one of the most fruitful insights in the domain of practical psychology, and one of the most important to keep in mind in advising and counseling others. In my experience many persons fail to recognize the importance of this very sound observation and accordingly, in spite of good intentions and serious efforts often renewed, continue to fall into the same faults repeatedly.
For human behavior is ambiguous in its deeper significance. The same act may have very different causes in different persons or even in the same person under different circumstances. For instance, reacting impatiently and with anger upon being criticized may be an indication of frustration of the need to dominate in order to feel worthwhile, but it may also arise from a sense of inferiority that renders one vulnerable. Until the precise meaning of the reaction is perceived it will prove quite difficult to overcome the same temptation to unreasonable anger the next time a similar criticism is made. It is not always helpful when one brings such a problem with unreasonable anger to be told it is due to pride, which is, of course, nearly always partly the cause of most of our sins. What is needed is to recognize what kind of pride is operative. The pride that is convinced it is above criticism because the individual considers himself better than his critics, or the pride that defends one=s sense of worth which is so fragile that criticism is felt as total condemnation and rejection. Or perhaps a mixture of both at the same time but at different psychic levels, as often is the case.
In addition to helping to resist temptation more effectively by choosing a form of resistance suited to the real nature of the passion involved, recognition of the meaning of the trial at a deeper level, as in the case of serious feelings of self-doubt, also opens up a path to more profound levels of the psychic life. To deal with anger or impatience by self-control so that one is not unreasonable is certainly a good thing, but if it leads to no further insight as to the cause of the unreasonable reaction, the same situation in the future will probably elicit the same unreasonable anger. However, if one traces the roots of the over-passionate response one feels to some deeper cause that is habitually present and active though unconsciously, then one is able to make efforts to rid oneself of the cause, for example, the sense of being unworthy or inferior. Discovering the deeper roots of disordered passion reveals also the real magnitude of the forces one must alter and so enables one to alter expectations so as to be more realistic. One cannot change character over night; when expectations are more in conformity with the actual character then it is possible to perceive progress that went unnoticed earlier and one can then avoid discouragement more readily as he experiences partial successes in following his good resolutions.
Evagrius himself, to be sure, offers no such elaborate explanations of his recommendations. These have been worked out in modern times through the findings of depth psychology. But he put his finger on the right approach. If his insights were not more widely propagated surely one reason is the fact that his own powers of observation and the subtle intuitions that guided his analysis of the passions were necessary for employing this technique.
Evagrius was, like many others of the Fathers, intuitively gifted and rendered perceptive by his intelligence and contemplative experience, but had not been able to formulate in sufficient detail a logical, coherent system that described the functional psychic mechanisms and the laws governing the workings of the passions in all their dimensions. Accordingly, he himself was able to identify the deeper roots of the passions and devise effective ways of ordering them so that he attained to a high station of purity and contemplation especially the last three years of his life. However, passing on to other less gifted and less graced persons the skills required to reproduce similar results awaited a distant future and someone like Freud and those who learned from him and building on his work, created the body of writings that has made of depth psychology an art that can be taught with greater facility than was earlier the case. (cf Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos. Cistercian Studies Series 4, John Eudes Bamberger, tr., (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1970) ch. 6-14, pp. 16-20; also pp.28-30)
Evagrius, nonetheless, had important disciples and among them were some of the most important spiritual writers both in the East and in the West. In the East, Palladius, John Climachus and Maximus the Confessor are the most eminent; in the West John Cassian is by far the most influential. He wrote at length on discretion understood as discernment of spirits and as assuring the moderation essential for virtue. After the issue of attaining purity of heart, it is discretion that he sets before his monastic readers as the way to achieve the goal of the kingdom. Cassabut considers that he is characterized chiefly by this virtue and refers to him as the >doctor of moderation.= (André Cassabut, Dictionaire de Spiritualité, 3:1320 s.v. Discrétion. I follow this article at times in tracing the history of the teaching on this virtue.) His teaching on discernment maintained a decided ascendency in the West. In fact, his influence extended to the Eastern fathers as well, since he was early translated into Greek, being known as Cassian the Roman. Climachus had read him and learned from his teaching on the discernment of spirits. (John Climachus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 26 PG 88:717b, cf. Malatesta et al. Discernment, 63).
Cassian presents his views as the doctrine of the desert fathers, and no doubt his teaching derive in good part from contact with them. The early Egyptian monks soon had become convinced of the fundamental importance of such discernment of spirits, taught by experience that not every inspiration, even when directed to some spiritual good, comes from a good spirit. Evagrius put the matter succinctly: >When the spirit prays purely without being led astray, then the demons no longer come upon it from the left side but from the right.= (Evagrius Ponticus, Chapters on Prayer, ch. 72, p. 67. Both Evagrius and his disciple, Cassian, were well versed in Greek culture and their sensitivity to the central place of discretion was in good measure inherited from their Hellenistic culture.
Aristotle had given expression to
the long-established conviction that the dominant virtue for humans is
discretion. His master, Plato, was the
chief spokesman and proponent of this ethical strain which permeated all
domains of Greek culture. Behind this conviction is the keen consciousness of
human limits. Religion sanctioned this view. Historians such as Herodotus,
propagated it: To go beyond one=s allotted limits is to provoke the gods and fate and
eventually to encounter nemesis. Excess and hubris are the great sources of man=s undoing. Aristotle=s had mastered this lesson and centuries before
Virtue then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us . . It is a mean state between two vices, one of excess, one of defect. . . . in point of excellence and rightness it is an extreme.( Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics 2.6.15, 16, The Loeb Classical Library, H. Rackham, tr. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962) 95)
That moderation is a feature of all human behavior that is in accordance with man=s nature and situation in the universe was a conviction of the great Greek philosophers. Little reference is made to the importance of measure and moderation in the Old Testament authors whose religious perspective led them to stress the duty of total loyalty to the absolute and one God, Only scattered sayings in the wisdom literature recommend moderation as a guide. >Do not be too just nor wiser than is necessary= we read in Ecclesiasticus 7: 17. Christian theologians, on the other hand, in the East and the West, from St. Basil and St. Augustine in the high Patristic period to Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, were impressed by the Greek teaching on discretion and moderation whether they received it directly, as did St. Thomas who read Aristotle=s ethical works, or indirectly in the writings of those who had assimilated it from the Greeks, including Cicero and St. Augustine. Bernard of Clairvaux felt intensely the need for discretion in his own life. His passionate temperament required particular efforts guided by this moderating virtue and he repeatedly referred to the need to strive for equilibrium and balance. He was marked by Cassian=s writings on the subject, which he cites at times, and supplemented these insights with important original observations, derived from experience so that he also became a recognized master of this topic, as widely influential in certain periods as was Cassian. His well-known teaching on the ordinatio charitatis, the ordering of charity, is one form assumed by his version of discretion. Discretio=s function is to order all the virtues, in fact, as Bernard was to point out:
For discretion puts order in all the virtues; order makes for measure and decorum, and even assures perpetuity, as is written: >The day persists by your order = (Ps. 118. 91), where he calls virtue the day. And so discretion is not so much a virtue as the moderator and conductor of the virtues, the moderator of the affections and teacher of morals.( .Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermones in Cantica 49.5 PL 183: 1018. He took up the theme of discretio spirituum (discernment of spirits) and developed it at length in his Sermones de diversis, 23 and 24. PL 183:600 ff. >But because there are diverse kinds of spirits discretion is necessary for us especially when we have learned from the apostle not to believe every spirit (1 John 4.1).=Sermones de diversis, 23.1).
Richard of St. Victor, writing in the mid-twelfth century, proved to be the theologian who, coming after Bernard, wrote with exceptional fullness of analysis and appreciation about the role and consequence of discretion. He pointed out that every other good habit must be accompanied by this quality of discretion at the risk of losing their character for, he wrote, >virtues are turned into vices if they are not moderated by discretion.=11 Moderation, accordingly, is assured by discretion, but moderation itself requires discernment as well as control of appetites. The man of moderation must be sensitive to the fluctuating limits of appropriate and just action and thought, the border where good passes over its own frontier to enter the territory of sinful excess. Discretion has an exacting task with multiple demands. It must avoid the defect of faint-heartedness and incorporate the generosity that is eager for what is noble and arduous without falling into exaggerations that defeat the purpose of spiritual striving. It is the virtue of discretion that leads to a fuller knowledge of self and conducts the soul to knowledge of God and contemplation. As Richard goes on to say, it is the province of discretion “to know thoroughly every thing about the state and behavior of the interior man and the exterior man, in so far as this is possible, with keenness and diligence to seek to know what it is and what it ought to be.” (Richard of St. Victor, Benjamin minor 66, PL 196: 47, cf. Maletesta et al. Discernment, 67)
Such knowledge, he is careful to affirm, is not won easily; it cannot be transmitted from one person to another, by means of books. It is bought only with the coin of experience, hard won at that. He grows eloquent, expresses his views with fervor concerning a subject which obviously held a certain charm for him that had led him to reflect with intensity of concentration on the matter.
[T]o attain the perfection of discretion we are taught not without much practice, only through large experience. First we ought to be exercised in the virtues singly and what we can experience in each one, what full knowledge we can possess concerning all things and judge adequately of each severally. We can learn a great deal about discretion by reading, much by listening, much through the judgment of our native reason, however, we shall never be taught it fully except through experience as our teacher.( Richard of St. Victor, Benjamin minor 67, PL 196: 48)
For Richard as well as for St. Bernard, a major field of
application of discretion is charity. So closely do the two fuse in the virtuous
person that in his usage discreta charitas is a synonym for ordinata charitas,
so that all well ordered charity has been purified by discretion that loves in
keeping with the deserts and worth of its object. The highest stage of
discretion, he maintains, is >to preserve in every good and evil matter, the fitting
measure of love or hate.= (Richard of St. Victor, De statu interioris
hominis, 26, PL 196: 1135) Such a view opens up
vast horizons for the spiritual director in light of many of the cherished insights
and much of the data gathered from clinical cases and the practice of
psychoanalysis and counseling. The more familiarity the spiritual friend or
director has with personal experiences of the demands of charity and of
affection on all levels of the psyche and spirit, the keener his ability to
assist in the great task of ordering charity. This includes, to be sure,
mystical and contemplative experience. One of the more fascinating surprises I
have encountered over the years is the considerable number of persons who have
had some form or other of mystical and transcendent experience. In most cases,
such occurrences are rare or even confined to a single isolated happening, but
the impression made on the spirit is such that the concept of self and of God is
deeply marked by it. Consequently, the view one takes of love and charity
assumes fresh outlines.
For some persons while unusual spiritual happenings are welcome as being a strengthening grace, they also may cause perplexity and create unexpected problems. This happens for instance when they lead to a marked change of behavior and of tastes that favor their spiritual growth but which result in considerable tension in relations with others and a certain isolation. An instance came to my notice not long ago that illustrates this type of difficulty which is not rare. An accomplished psychiatrist, a professor of psychiatry, consulted me who had an extraordinary experience involving the Eucharist. He told his wife and a close friend the details of his a mystical vision and neither could accept it for what it meant to him, though all the indications suggest it was a true grace. The friend, also a psychiatrist, considered it a mental aberration and withdrew his friendship; his wife also was disturbed by it and expressed a decided mistrust and distanced herself emotionally from him. He could not find anyone to assist him to integrate this very powerful grace and was tempted to lose his confidence and peace to some extent. He was easily brought to inner calm when he met a priest-monk who took his experience seriously, on its own terms instead of treating him as if he were losing his mind or emotional balance.
It is not rare that people have some form of inner contact with God or some heavenly reality that they know to be highly meaningful for their spiritual life, whether it is strictly speaking mystical or not, but profit from it less than they might for they feel unable to share it with another. Because they fear to be misunderstood, they keep it secret until they encounter someone who communicates a sense of confidence that their valuable encounter with God will meet with respect and understanding. It is not enough for the director to know the rules of discernment so as to be capable to evaluating such special graces. He was cultivate the art of communicating such respect to others as will allow them to have confidence in telling him of their most treasured inner happenings. One of the challenges posed in spiritual direction that contributes to the building of healthy and stronger personality is that of assisting others to recognize and accept such unusual happenings as valid and pointing out that they are an expression of a particular divine care that is a dimension of love. Another useful form of assistance in this connection is for the director to help their clients to prepare themselves to receive graces of that kind by the classical means of meditation known to all monks, frequent prayer, recollection, fasting, silence and working at humility of heart.
Denys the Carthusian (+1471) in his various comments
concerning the nature and function of discretion, especially in his De
discretione et examinatione spirituum, incorporates earlier teaching with
which he was eminently familiar. He expresses his views with a vigorous and
gracious language that derives from his personal experience of contemplation.
Some of the charm of his style is felt in his comment that >by discretion man become lovable and an intimate of God=s=.( Cited in Cassabut, Discretion, p. 1325). He makes the piquant observation that for hermits,
discretion can replace every other guide. This is also the case, in varying
degree, for many lay persons but also for others such as clerics, or even for
cenobites. He followed in the same line as Bernard and Richard concerning the
relation of discretion to charity.
Thomas Merton has out that spiritual direction is not the same as psychotherapy, and discourages the director from acting as either a therapist or psychoanalyst.(Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1960) 40, 41). On the other hand, just as many of the saintly fathers and doctors had made use of the accumulated wisdom of their times, so also the modern director- and Merton himself is an example of this practice- can profit from many of the findings of dynamic depth psychology. These must be used with discretion, to be sure, so that one does not attempt to treat conditions that call for a therapist, but many individuals there are who are basically healthy and of strong character who nonetheless can profit from insights into the more hidden realms of the heart that a perceptive and experienced director can assist with. Already in the 14th century the author of the Letter on Discretion had defined the virtue of discretion as >the art of teaching and counseling our brothers.= (Cf. Maletesta et al. Discernment, 71). Evidently, the author, who was also the writer of the Cloud of Unknowing, was one of the outstanding mystics and directors of his age, is a qualified witness to the long standing tradition which holds that spiritual direction includes teaching, whether oral or written, and counseling as well as manifestation of thoughts, discourses given in person and dialogue.
There is surely need for this broader view of what spiritual direction should consider its matter and techniques in our times. To exclude the realm of psychic depths, even the unconscious in our age would be too narrow a conception that limits arbitrarily the legitimate scope of direction. Discretion, which is a primary qualification for spiritual direction, requires that good judgment and adequate skill determine any incursions into this realm where the forces encountered can be powerful, not so say violent. The fact is that there are few persons who, at some period of their life, do not have to struggle with problems that arise from unconscious conflicts that are no different in kind than those which render some individuals neurotic in their behavior. When circumstances such as impose emotional stress such as loss of work for a man with a family, injury that results in disability, or simply inter-personal difficulties in community, these latent sources of temptation may lead to crises of fidelity or even of vocation. There is no established firm and clear line of demarcation that serves as an impermeable barrier separating neurotic tendencies from healthy behavior. The normal, healthy personality is a dynamic balance of dynamic forces that remain subject to change in their interactions throughout life. It was the 19th century novelist, Emily Brontë, as I recall, who observed, with pointed exaggeration, that a normal person is a mad man who watches himself. The fact is that at times all of us act in ways that, taken in themselves, are not sound and realistic. One need not listen to people=s manifestation of their private lives a long time before making the discovery that at times most people make trouble for themselves. Is there anyone who on occasion does not act against their true self-interests?
All of us, even the strongest and healthiest, have minor
defects of the body that go unnoticed except to the eye of an experienced
physician and which are potential sources of serious problems. A not uncommon
instance is the presence of a black nevus in some location where, due to
repeated irritation, it risks becoming a malignant melanoma, and which, for
that reason should be removed surgically. The psyche functions analogously, so
that, under certain untoward circumstances, hidden conflicts, hardly noticed by
the individual himself, though transiently felt and observable to a perceptive
director, can become sources of serious spiritual or inter-personal
A significant role of the spiritual director is to discern the presence of such hidden tendencies and, by bringing them to the awareness of his client at the appropriate time, assist in dealing with them so as prevent their becoming a source of temptation and crisis. For the spiritual companion has the task, not only of treating of the current issues brought to him in discussions, but as far as possible of foreseeing and forestalling their consequences, recognizing their inner inconsistencies, and otherwise preventing troubling developments in the future. One need not possess special charisms, impressive funds of knowledge or all the practical technique of a therapist to function usefully in spiritual accompaniment, even in this kind of preventive direction. But some measure of such capacity is highly desirable if not essential. For instance, pointing out to a monk in crisis concerning his vocation that his motives for desiring to leave the monastery are not well founded and that he will very probably soon come to regret his decision should he leave under the influence of his present motivations may lead him to reconsider and even save his vocation if he accepts the insight offered. Many an abbot or spiritual director has had the unhappy experience of treating with someone who, having failed to heed such admonitions, has come to rue his departure, or to cause the same problems that he alleged as reason to leave, or worse in some instances I know of, for himself and for those he lives with in his subsequent life outside.
To be sure, there are different degrees of skill, and of the grace of the Spirit as well, that are needed to prove effective in this delicate area. One of the humbling features of spiritual accompaniment is the repeated discovery that no matter how competent the director may be he remains limited in what he can contribute to the progress and well being of the disciple. One soon becomes aware that all too frequently the range of his ability falls short of the high aims he is pursuing. This knowledge leads one to have more fervent recourse to prayer which is one of the chief duties of the spiritual director.
At the same time, frequently the work of grace also becomes
manifest, often enough when not foreseen and at times in surprising forms that
are clearly due to special divine favor.
Such gratifying occurrences serve to give him confidence in his prayer
for those he strives to help, and in particular instances God may in this way
reveal to him with a sharpness of conviction that the most important agent in
spiritual accompaniment is the Holy Spirit.
This brings us to the final point I would make in this conference, namely that prayer is the climate in which spiritual accompaniment most effectively thrives. Not necessarily formal, vocal prayer at the time of the meeting- though some of that too may be an excellent practice- but that prayer which is a way of being in the presence of God while living and acting attentively in the world. Perhaps the director is relatively weak in his technical knowledge, or in his ability to formulate useful insights that go to the heart of experience, but if he communicates, by his presence, the sense that he lives in God=s loving presence, and is on intimate terms with the Lord, he may well produce in the soul of his disciple the light and love of God that is the very purpose of the spiritual life. In any case, however well qualified the director may be, there is no substitute for this communion in the Spirit of God.
Spiritual accompaniment is a sharing in the knowledge and life of the Lord and if the senior, by his own contemplative union with God himself lives according to the Holy Spirit he will transmit something of the grace that alone effects the changes of heart and mind that transform the seeker into a child of God. This dimension of spiritual accompaniment in fact is the justification for giving the process this name rather than spiritual direction. The communion that is shared is common, in the last instance, with God in the Spirit. It is not merely human friendship, though it certain includes that at its best, as St. Aelred well understood. But for it to be worthy of its name it must be truly the fruit of that knowledge of God that is given only to the pure of heart. Thus it presupposes that the one providing the accompaniment has himself passed through the discipline of discipleship as taught by Jesus >who was handed over for our sins and who rose for our justification= (Rom 4:25) and, been in some measure transformed into a child of the light.
 Manual of Discipline= III. 18- 19. Cited in Malatesta et al., Discernment of Spirits. Sister Innocentia Richards, Ph.D., tr. (Collegeville, Mn: Liturgical Press, 1970) 27. I derive a number of the following points from this extensive and detailed work in tracing the history of the teaching on this virtue.
 . The Shepherd of Hermas, Mandatum 12.1, cited in Maletesta et al. Discernment, 55.
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