Discernment can be an overwhelming process. Perhaps it is partially because, by its very nature, it is personal and internal. And while everyone has seen other people make decisions, it is almost impossible to see their actual discernment (the movement of the spirits within their soul). We can see parts of the process: their time in prayer, their time reading, even actions that they take to gather more information. But we have no way of witnessing the movement or the effects of the different spirits on their mind and soul. This means, for the individual who has never discerned anything before, knowing how to begin is an overwhelming challenge.
The good news is that everyone has been a newbie to discernment at one time or another, and there are a plethora of resources available to help.
What is Discernment?
Despite popular usage within Catholic circles, “discerning” and “deciding” are not the same thing.
While all discernment ends in a decision, not all decisions require discernment (kind of like all thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs).
You don’t need to discern things like what cereal to eat, what dress to wear for the gala, or what time you should go to Mass.
You also don’t need to discern things which have already been revealed (“Should I use contraception?” // “Should I have this affair?” // “Should we try IVF?”), because the answers for objective Truth will always remain the same.
Situations that require discernment are usually life-altering decisions which would also affect the state of our soul and our journey to Heaven. Things like:
- “What college should I attend?”
- “What major should I choose?”
- “Should I go to grad school?”
- “Am I called to marriage?”
- “Am I called to religious life?”
- “Do I want to be a consecrated virgin?”
- “Do I make this cross-country move?”
- “Is now a good time to buy a house?”
- “Is this the right job for me?”
Resources on Discernment
These are all big decisions which require a lot of thought, prayer, and action. It can often help to seek out the wisdom of others who have done it before us.
Discernment of Spirits and St. Ignatius of Loyola
When it comes to discernment, St. Ignatius of Loyola is the man to whom you want to turn first. Almost everything we know about the prayerful process came from him. He literally wrote the book on it. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is a compilation of prayers, meditations, and spiritual practices written in the 1500s.
While the content is gold, the writing style is sometimes difficult for the typical modern reader. Thankfully, there are countless resources on discernment which flesh out and explain these exercises—and all his other writings on the subject.
So as not to overwhelm you, we’ve narrowed it down to these few as cream-of-the-crop examples.
A service of Loyola Press, this website contains all things Ignatian. There are numerous articles, prayers, and videos. They even offer spiritual direction and discernment retreats. It’s kind of like one-stop-discernment-shopping.
Discerning the Will of God: An Ignatian Guide to Christian Decision Making by Fr. Timothy M. Gallagher
This book is a dream for any confused mind. The author is clear in putting forward principles and provides plenty of real life examples. It’s available in hard copies, Kindle versions, and audio books, making it suitable for every busy individual.
St. Ignatius’ 8 Rules for the Discernment of Spirits
This is a summary of the principles of Ignatian discernment. It’s a good starting point, as it uses the words of the Saint himself. Thus the reader can get the information “first hand” without having to purchase, borrow, or struggle through the entire book. This list is also handy for anyone who needs a refresher.
Discernment: Making Inspired Choices
This is another outline of the Saint’s advice. It is written in the modern voice of the author and is a little more user-friendly.
Get the BIS Blog Posts weekly in your inbox!
Fr. Mike Schmitz Videos
When it comes to brevity and practicality, Fr. Mike Schmitz is the guy. He posts weekly videos about everything Catholic, including discernment.
Looking for a way to get started with your discernment? Check out Discernment 101. He highlights the dual importance of prayer and action in the process, as well as discerning one step at a time.
In 4 Helpful Rules for Discernment, Fr Mike proposes that any discerner should ask four specific questions about their potential choices. He highlights an aspect of the process that many people tend to overlook: our own personal desires.
The Key to Discernment is another brief but helpful clip. Fr. Mike points out that, in the discernment process, most people are looking for an answer. This is, weirdly, is the opposite of what we should do. The mindset of all prayer and action throughout the discernment process is simply to gather more data. Don’t go into prayer (or a convent visit, or a college visit, or on a date with someone) looking for all the answers. Simply collect data. Ironically, with that as your focus, the pressure is off and the answer becomes clear over time.
Sometimes, God takes a lot of time to make things clear. It can be really frustrating when an earnest desire for clarity is pressing on the human heart. Fr Mike talks about that, too. Check out What does God want me to do? and Letting God Take His Time.
Fr. Michael Scanlan, TOR
Fr. Mike was a Franciscan Third Order Regular priest, a past president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, and a former spiritual director for hundreds of individuals.
His strong relationship with the Holy Spirit is apparent in his writings on discernment, which are full of both depth and simplicity.
He proposed five basic questions to ask when facing important decisions. He also penned Nine Secrets to Discovering Your Call. If either of these leaves you wanting more, his book What Does God Want? (one of our favorite resources on discernment) expands upon these points.
Not the heavenly kind, but the married Catholic couple, Bobby and Jackie Angel.
Their own story is anything but typical. When they first met, Jackie was engaged to someone else and Bobby was a seminarian. It was a windy road they had to walk to discern their own vocations. Thus, they have a lot of good and practical advice on the subject.
Even if you are looking for advice on how to discern something other than your vocation, their wisdom applies. Check out their three-part written series on discernment here.
Searching for and Maintaining Peace by Jacques Philippe // If fear and distress seem to be hindering your discernment, perhaps this book is for you. This simple book about peace of heart provides concrete ways to learn confidence and trust in God, making forward movement within your spiritual life much more possible.
3 Steps for Discernment from Life Teen // Though it’s a resource written for teens, anyone of any age can benefit from giving it a read. It includes some incredible insight into the state of one’s heart, mind, and soul before discerning.
How to Listen to the Spirit (Instead of the Flippant Opinions of Others) in Your Vocational Discernment from Blessed is She // Sometimes, the opinion of others can be the biggest hindrance to discernment. This post has advice for tuning out voices that are not God’s.
Discernment from Peter Kreeft // Brilliant. Brief. Practical. He presents five ideas to iron out and smooth over the process—all based on logic.
6 Steps in Vocation Discernment from the Diocese of Harrisburg // A step-by-step process for vocational discernment. These principals can be applied no matter what it is being discerned.
A Never-Ending Story
I have a friend whose vocational discernment was extremely difficult. On his wedding day, one of the many things he was most excited about was the end of the process. Years later, he expressed to me how, at that time, he had actually thought he was done with discernment forever. Now, after three kids, a move, shifts in careers, and taking on other professional roles, he laughs at his naivety.
The truth is, discernment will appear in all of our lives time and time again. Thankfully, it’s a process which makes us familiar with God’s voice. The more we discern, the more certain we are of the Holy Spirit moving within our lives, and the easier the whole process becomes.
Do you have any favorite books or resources on discernment? Feel free share them with us in the comments below!Best Books + Resources on Discernment #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Grace Bellon is a regular contributor to the BIS blog. She’s a lover of bearded men, rich coffee, cheesy puns, cuddly doggies, and Catholicism. You can find out more about her here (warned ya she liked cheesy puns).