Following Christ in the Holy Spirit: Discernment of the Holy Spirit
by Fr. Dick Hauser, SJ
Christians are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Discipleship begins with the encounter with Christ, when one decides to follow Jesus. Keeping the Ten Commandments comes later, as one encounters Christ and decides to do his will. This is a two-stage process of initial and ongoing conversion, of internal and external assent that may happen simultaneously as we mature as Christians. This maturation leads us to an ever deeper level of discipleship with Christ. The Holy Spirit moves us from an external conformity of actions to an internal response to Christ, to following Christ in the Holy Spirit! "The redemption accomplished by the Son in the dimensions of the earthly history of humanity—accomplished in his 'departure' through the Cross and Resurrection—is at the same time, in its entire salvific power, transmitted to the Holy Spirit: the one who will take what is mine." (Dominum et Vivificantem, no.11) All Christian spirituality flows from responding to the Holy Spirit. Hence, the word "spirituality."
We know that prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It involves dropping external preoccupations and listening and responding to the internal voice of the Holy Spirit rising within our hearts. St. Paul is clear in this when he says, "In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will." (Rom 8:26-27)
Discernment of the Holy Spirit is also a gift of the Holy Spirit. Our reflections focus on God's presence through the Holy Spirit, given to us through faith and baptism. Discernment of the Holy Spirit is listening and responding to the voice of the Holy Spirit arising in the midst of daily activities. It is being aware of the internal fluctuations of our hearts and learning to discern those movements that flow from the Holy Spirit from those that do not. The Epistles and the Gospels invite us to be disciples "in the Holy Spirit," the third person of the Blessed Trinity.
Discerning the Holy Spirit: St. Paul
St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians is helpful for grasping discernment of the Holy Spirit. As good Jews, the Galatians lived their covenant with God by fidelity to the external law. Faithful Jews conscientiously observed all the 613 precepts of the Torah. St. Paul asserted that in one sense they have become slaves to the external law. Then St. Paul explained that conversion to Christ brings a new freedom. The focus of religious observance has shifted from responding to the external law to responding to the internal law of the Holy Spirit written on their hearts.
But, St. Paul cautions, not every internal movement of the heart can be trusted. The Galatians must learn to distinguish those interior movements of the heart that flow from the Holy Spirit from those that do not: from those that flow from the flesh. "I say then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want. But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law." (Gal 5:16-18)
St. Paul then lists examples of works of the flesh: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, hatred, rivalry, jealousy, selfishness, dissension, factions, orgies: "I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal 5:21). He also lists examples of works of the Holy Spirit or "fruits": love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. St. Paul concludes simply, "If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit" (Gal 5:25).
Discerning the Holy Spirit: Jesus
Jesus gives concrete guidelines for recognizing and living in the Holy Spirit: the commandments on love. A scholar of the law was testing Jesus and asking about inheriting eternal life. "Jesus said to him, ''What is written in the law? How do you read it?' He said in reply, 'You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.' He replied to him, 'You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.'" (Lk 10:27-28)
Jesus' guidelines for living in the Holy Spirit center on the interior movement of our hearts toward love. Jesus' criteria for recognizing the Holy Spirit is clear: to the degree our hearts are moving by the desire to love and serve God, our neighbor, and ourselves, our hearts are moving in the Holy Spirit; to the degree our hearts are not moving by these desires, our hearts are not moving in the Holy Spirit.
And notice that Jesus' criteria relate directly to St. Paul's fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience. The love arising within our hearts becomes the central criteria for discerning the Holy Spirit for Jesus and for St. Paul. This love is normally accompanied by peace and joy.
But after Jesus spoke, the scholar of the law asked, "Who is my neighbor?" And Jesus clarified his response, giving the parable of the Good Samaritan. The commandment to love extends to all human beings: not merely to relatives and friends. The Good Samaritan did not even know the person he stopped to help: indeed, he was considered an untouchable outcasts by the Jews because he was a Samaritan. The priest and the Levite, therefore, ignored the person. Jesus praised the Samaritan.
Further, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expands the love commandment to include even enemies. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and unjust. . . . So be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt 5:43-45, 48)
Jesus invites us to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves with "all your heart, all your being, all your strength, all your mind." Clearly, Jesus wants his followers to love, not merely by external actions, but with an internal quality of heart reflecting God's love: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). For Jesus, discernment of the Holy Spirit focuses primarily on our internal quality of heart. To the degree that we respond to the Holy Spirit, we will be loving and perfect, just like our heavenly Father!
Recognizing Obstacles to the Holy Spirit
The key discipline for a Christian following Christ in the Holy Spirit is consciousness of his or her quality of heart. We all experience fluctuations of heart daily. Some of them arise from our propensity to sin. Initial and ongoing conversion in the life of the disciple is critical. In this pursuit, the basic question for conscientious Christians becomes, "In what situations in my day is my heart not moving with the desire to love, and therefore not experiencing the peace of the Holy Spirit?" Just as the experience of peace normally accompanies responding to the Holy Spirit, absence of this peace—anxiety and restlessness—normally accompanies our lack of response.
It is important to be concrete in naming obstacles to the Holy Spirit. What events or people in my daily schedule do I approach without the desire to love and serve God? Further, what situations habitually disturb me, arising from local or national governments, or even Church administration? And perhaps most importantly, what in my personal or family life causes stress, such as health, finances, employment, relationships?
When we ignore the situations causing anxiety and restlessness, they will continue to influence our thoughts and actions and we will not be moving with the desire to love and serve God. But when we have concretely named these situations, we can deal with them. With God's grace, we can replace anxiety and restlessness with good desires, and then respond to those good desires. We have been redeemed by Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit! Grace in us is stronger than sin in us. We can trust the Spirit of Christ to give us the strength we need to live our Christian vocation and follow Christ in the Holy Spirit.
Following Christ in the Holy Spirit implies growing in the awareness of Christ's indwelling in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Conscientious Christians will spend some time each day reviewing their awareness and response to this presence. The review normally includes five moments.
First, we pray to the Holy Spirit for enlightenment. This examen is a Holy Spirit-guided reflection into the quality of our hearts during the day. Second, we thank God for our blessings by inviting the Holy Spirit to make us more aware of God's presence and blessings in our activities. Often, this is the major part of the examen. Standing back and reflecting on our day, we become aware of God's abiding and peaceful presence. Third, we ask the Holy Spirit to reveal where we have not faithfully responded to God's presence. If some major obstacle was present, this usually rises immediately to the forefront of our consciousness. Fourth, we ask forgiveness for any infidelity. Fifth, we look ahead to the next period and ask for the Spirit's help.
The New Testament presents discernment of the Holy Spirit as central for Christian discipleship, especially for adult Christians. The invitation to recover the Holy Spirit has been a feature of almost every major council of the Church. The Second Vatican Council has given us an invitation to reclaim this traditional dimension of New Testament spirituality. We catechists have to ask ourselves whether we have fully presented this dimension of the Gospel.
Note: Discerning God's Will
The reflection above focused on discernment of the Holy Spirit in daily life and not on discernment of God's will for specific significant decisions. The signs of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience—are also key for finding God's will for significant life decisions. Presented with two alternatives for serving God, we can ask God to reveal his will by attaching these experiences to one of the options. If we are truly free from personal inordinate attachments and open to God's will, the perdurance of the fruits of the Spirit in one alternative may be the sign of God's personal will for us.
Note: St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556)
St. Ignatius is the founder of the Society of Jesus (1540) and the author of a thirty-day retreat manual called, The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius (1548). This manual contains guidelines called "Rules for the Discernment of Spirits." His guidelines are a major contribution to Christian mysticism. My reflections are an attempt to put his text into New Testament language.
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Excerpts from Pope John Paul II, Dominum et Vivicantem, copyright © 1986, Libreria Editrice Vaticana; Used with permission. All rights reserved.