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What is “discernment of spirits”?

Discernment of spirits is as old as the church and as fresh as you and me, because anyone on the God-quest needs to know how to detect the divine fingerprint along the way. The question came up a lot in the early church: Saint Paul addresses it in letters to four different communities!

From Genesis forward the Bible contains stories of people confronting both good and evil spirits in many forms. Adam and Eve knew God and still bet wrong on the serpent. Abraham gambled more effectively when three strangers showed up at his tent. Jacob was never a God-centered chap and so had no clue what he was wrestling with that night he had his grip on an angel. Learning to tell good from evil isn’t enough, of course: King David knew better but chose poorly the night he laid eyes on Bathsheba.

Paul loves to talk about divine mysteries, but the discernment of spirits isn’t in that category for him. Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit, clearly identified by the fruits it produces, just as Jesus once said: “Each tree is known by its own fruit.” Paul spells out which fruits come from which baskets in Galatians 5. If you’re pursuing the idea of religious life, say, and the experience fills you with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” Paul would call that a validated discernment. If on the other hand you wind up with a rotten bunch of fruit—immorality, idolatry, rivalry, jealousy, acts of selfishness, factions” and so on (it’s quite a list in Galatians 5!)—chances are the proposal is in error.

Paul’s also clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that discernment of spirits is a gift some enjoy as a specialty. It’s the “many parts, one body” idea: Not all are great at everything, which is why we must be church together. If you’re the Jacob-type wrestling with anonymous spirits in the dark, by all means seek spiritual direction from someone better at discerning spirits. Blessings on the journey!

Genesis 32:23-31; Romans 12:2-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; Galatians 5:16-26; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22

Vocation Match: Fill out a short profile to find which of the more than 250 religious communities are compatible with you
Biblical Catechesis on Vocations: Message of Pope John Paul II for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations (April 20, 1997)

The Discerning Heart: Exploring the Christian Path by Wilkie W. Au and Noreen Cannon Au (Paulist Press, 2006)
Discernment: A Path to Spiritual Awakening by Rose Mary Dougherty (Paulist Press, 2009)

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Alice L. Camille
Alice Camille is a gem among contemporary writers on scripture and Catholic teaching. She has received numerous awards for her books, columns, and exegetical reflections. She received her Master of Divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, where she also served as adjunct faculty in ministry formation, preaching and proclamation. Alice is an author, religious educator, and parish retreat leader. Learn more at

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