Question: Whenever I research about Catholic discernment in Spiritual Life, the information I get usually comes from Ignatian spirituality such as in terms of discernment of spirits and election. Is there a Carmelite version of “discernment of spirits” that is distinct somehow from Ignatian spirituality?

Answer: Your question is spot on and very much needed. I have to say that St. Ignatius, when he conceived the Spiritual Exercises, dedicated a great deal of effort to clarifying discernment within the process of the Spiritual Exercises, which he himself lived, conceived and wrote. In fact, the Exercises are first and foremost derived from his own experience when in his forties, while trying to find the new path God wished him to follow after his conversion. His desire was to discover what exactly the Lord wanted of him. Consequently, when he created the text of the Exercises it was to help those who would be undergoing a similar process of second conversion, to find their way to the Lord. He was hoping that what had helped him would help others. However, trying to understand what God wants from us while on the one hand is important, on the other it is not easy and it can take some time. The process itself of discovering God’s will is called – as you mentioned – by St. Ignatius: election. He found that discernment was needed within this process of election in order to discover which spirit (whether the good or bad spirit) was leading the candidate and what the spirit was saying to him or her.

Some Jesuits and some of those following Ignatian spirituality wanted to generalise about these tools of discernment, tools that belong to the process of election itself rather than to the wider issues of spiritual life. This is a very delicate operation, because to treat the entire span of the spiritual journey of growth toward holiness and the fullness of love as equivalent to a very narrow moment in our life – that which follows our second conversion – is to expand the thinking in a misleading way. In fact, St. Ignatius is searching for tools to help the candidate to visualise more clearly the election i.e. God’s will for a new state of life. By contrast the spiritual journey itself is something very different from knowing the state of life we are called to have. Some people might think it is the same, but I beg to disagree. The proof comes from the Jesuits themselves: when they need to deal with deeper spiritual life, with contemplative prayer, they immediately direct us to the Masters in this field: St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Why? Because further discernment, a discernment that regards the entire journey of growth, is needed.

In fact, when we look at what St.  John of the Cross says about new and deeper stages, we find that the way to discern seems to go against (and I insist on saying “seems”) the way St. Ignatius invites us to discern God’s action in us. St. John of the Cross would direct those whom God was drawing in a new way, to new depths of His Action in them, and they, ironically, would state that they felt the absence of God. In this deeper stage, then, there are some who would wrongly apply St. Ignatius’ tools of “consolation/desolation” and call this new state a “desolation”. St. John of the Cross, however, offers a completely new insight and discernment here. It is worth noticing that we are not dealing here with an election regarding a state of life but with a stage of growth in spiritual life, a new one, in which we are trying to understand and discern the new Action of God in us and how to respond to it and correspond to it.

Here, what is “dark” (absence, aridity, “desolation”, absence of feeling God) in fact comes directly from a new intervention by God himself in us and is definitely positive. Furthermore, at this new stage what was seen as a “consolation” before, is now seen as something to be considered as pertaining to a previous stage, or in some cases as a temptation from the devil. The entire way of discerning here is turned upside down! To reiterate, only St. John of the Cross offers this tool.

Now, to answer your question directly, I would say the following: much has been written about discernment, regarding the election process, with regard to the viewpoint/teaching of St Ignatius of Loyola. Very little, by contrast, has been written about discernment that pertains to the spiritual journey in all its stages. This is mentioned in my online video-Course “Reading and Studying St. John of the Cross” (see link).

The first stage of discernment in this journey of growth consists in abandoning every attachment to creatures, to earthly things (the road to the right on the drawing of Mount Carmel, see article mentioned at the end) and to search for God.

As a result, very often God will give his “milk” to the person as St. Paul puts it, and as does St. John of the Cross. This “milk” covers the entire span of “consolations” that God gives. This process helps us to start the journey where effort is needed and the “recompense” of this effort seems to be the “consolations”. The milk, however, is but a taste of our new life and of our new spiritual life.

This will allow us also to start to gaze at Jesus, learn from Him, imitate Him, listen to Him and put into practice what He says. See Ascent of Mount Carmel Book I. If one goes full steam ahead, this will eventually lead us to a first liberation from the “house of sense”, or if you prefer liberation from the Old Man’s behaviour. He is still not dead but clearly not in control anymore generally speaking, for although the roots of his presence in us and unconscious action in us are still there, but we are unaware of it. This new state is felt as a first big liberation and new faithfulness to God! Unfortunately, some confuse it with a holy life. Far from it – real holiness comes a long time afterwards. St. Teresa of Avila calls this new state “union of will” (see Fifth Mansions in her book: The Interior Castle and see it also described by Bl. Fr. Marie Eugene in his book: I Want to See God). This stage, compared to the previous stage, does not rely on consolations given to the “house of sense” or the lower half of our being, the Old Man is not fed any longer by the milk (see book: Dark Night Book I: Dark Night of the Sense). The upper half of our being is now training itself to activate the Theological Virtues that draw us to God directly – without searching for consolations, which would be going backwards.

After a while, then, God will start to change the way He behaves and here even the upper half of our being will be deprived of any sort of consolation! Faith only will be the means to cross this period of purification. This is the core of the meaning of this stage. As you can see, we are very far from St. Ignatius of Loyola’s tools of discernment given for the Election process.

It is by reading and studying what St. John of the Cross says that we can learn the further stages of discernment because he describes what God wants to achieve in us and what to expect. These descriptions, analyses and his advice and the different sets of tools for each stage are the guidance he gives us.

It is true that, as far as I am aware, very little has been written about this type of global and further steps in discernment. It is true also that St. John of the Cross’ teaching is difficult for most of the readers and is left to the personal effort and judgement of the reader, instead of “systematising” what he says and offering a summary of the further tools of discernment.

Is it much easier to talk about discernment within the Spiritual Exercises (even if even this initial stage of discernment is new and difficult for the beginner to perceive), hence the abundance of articles and books about it. But many, by extrapolating the tools used by St. Ignatius to the general teaching of Spiritual Life mislead people, keeping them in a narrow circle of confining them to living in a narrow circle of consolations and torturing them into thinking that if they fail to have them, they need to seek them out and worry about their absence, and so forth. Significantly, seeking them out for St. John of the Cross is a venial sin! The behaviour of such people is unfortunately amateur and is very damaging for spiritual life in the Church today.

I invite you to follow the online video course on “Reading and Studying St. John of the Cross” (see link) for an in-depth study of the Saint’s analysis of the spiritual journey.


Your initial question reads: Whenever I research about Catholic discernment in Spiritual Life, the information I get usually comes from Ignatian spirituality such as in terms of discernment of spirits and election. Is there a Carmelite version of “discernment of spirits” that is distinct somehow from Ignatian spirituality? As you can see from my brief explanation, we are talking about discernment in Spiritual Life, and not in other areas: Moral Life, or Which State of Life to choose. Also, the discernment offered by St. Ignatius is restricted to the Spiritual Exercises. Many will disagree, but I hope the above explanation shows why I have said this and what I mean by it. One cannot put words into an author’s mouth, namely, St. Ignatius here. The “discernment of spirits” you are talking about is not a general one! We cannot, accordingly, either talk about an “Ignatian version” and a “Carmelite version” of discernment.

The spiritual journey of growth in its general lines is the same. However, I would avoid splitting the analysis of the issue into schools of spiritualities that would appear so alien to each other. The deeper stages of spiritual life offered and explained by St. John of the Cross are offered to all of us regardless of our spiritual family! Similarly, what St. Ignatius offers us is valid for all, including the Carmelite family, because it addresses successfully the immediate post Second Conversion stage. No Carmelite can challenge this. It is taken on board. But we cannot expand, as some do, the areas where these tools of discernment are used. Regarding the stages that come afterwards which have been addressed by St. Ignatius, even Jesuits themselves would advise the following of St. John of the Cross’ discernment. Therefore, I would not specify as separate the “the Ignatian version of discernment” and “the Carmelite one”. The crux of the matter lies in the phase of growth in the spiritual life that is being considered, and where the discernment is so crucial.

I hope this helps.

In Mary


Please see also the following article: The Second Level of Discernment