New Stage of Spiritual Growth

To discern is to sift, to filter, and more precisely to separate two things that at first sight look the same. Discernment is penetration into something at a deeper level. It requires closer examination to seek out differences. Distinguishing between two or more things means, in fact, that we have the capacity to discern between them.

In the Scriptures, God is asking us to discern which spirit is guiding us: is it God’s Holy Spirit, or a bad spirit? Let us bear in mind that we have three enemies (three bad spirits): the Devil (bad, filthy spirit), the World (the thoughts and ways of the world) and the Flesh and its bad inclinations.

The first level of discernment in spiritual life is to discern between something good or spiritual and something bad. The first choice comes from God, and is an invitation to follow Him. The second one comes from one or more of our enemies, asking us to follow them. We remain at this level of discernment for a while, so that we are enabled to grow and become more rooted in God. We find ourselves implementing a new way of life, having times for prayer. In this first stage, the more we choose God and follow His Path, the more we grow spiritually. We become therefore a “spiritual person”.

When a person grows spiritually and becomes more rooted in God, henceforth having a committed daily spiritual life, when the person starts to receive graces in abundance, on a daily basis, becoming therefore a “spiritual person”, at a certain point, another level of discernment imposes itself as necessary: discerning between a “true good” and a “false good”. Both look good, but one is truly good and the other is so only in appearance! Hence the need to discern: which one is really good to the core? Discernment here implies that we need to go deeper, beyond the top layer, in order to see the reality. Why and how can this happen?

The reality is that we are no longer being tempted to choose between a bad sinful thing and a good holy thing. Rather, now, God is allowing us to be tempted by two “goods”, one being truly good and the other having only the appearance of being good/spiritual.

On closer examination we see God’s loving-kindness at work for, initially, what He gives us is the “spiritual milk” (see Paul 1 Cor 3, 1-2) which appeals to not only the new man in us, but to both the old man and the new man in us. In fact, the old man in us at this juncture is very big, while by contrast the new man in us is still very small. The result is that God has to lower himself and talk the “old man” language to us – the “spiritual milk”, – otherwise, being so weak, we would not be able to cope and to grow spiritually. These “candies” so to speak, then, support this initial weakness and are more adapted to our low capacities. In truth we are babes as yet, even if we think we have already reached the goal of conversion! He then proceeds progressively to propel us forward to allow the new man to grow, as He helps and guides us to make acts of Faith, acts of Hope and acts of Love.

Once the human being is well rooted in his new spiritual life, God starts to change tack: instead of giving “milk” He slowly moves to “solid food” … and here a new stage of discernment is needed. We are no longer dealing with spiritual “beginners”, but with “advanced” spiritual persons! This turning point is to be understood as very important and has to be well managed. The newness of the teaching and doctrine is simply mind-blowing, and almost shocking to normal “spiritual persons”.. Why? Because we start to discover the immense difference between what it implies and what we previously thought it implied. Should this be disappointing? On the contrary! It should be thrilling to find something new and correspondingly to grow! However, it can still come as a great shock because much of what one thought was spiritually correct to do, has now to be avoided!

The great master of this new level of discernment is St John of the Cross. There are three places, at least, where we can find his solid doctrine on the second level of discernment. Here they are not mentioned in their order of appearance in his works:

1- One in the Dark Night of the Sense (Dark Night, Book I), Chapter 1 onward.

2- The Second Book of the Ascent of Mount Carmel, especially the first ten chapters.

3- The drawing of Mount Carmel made by the Saint himself.

1- Dark Night Book 1: In these chapters, he takes the list of the seven mortal sins and applies them in the spiritual sense: spiritual pride, spiritual greed, spiritual lust, spiritual laziness, spiritual gluttony, … He calls them the “spiritual imperfections”.

It is very rare to have such lucidity amongst the Spiritual Masters of the Church.

The fact that St John of the Cross speaks to a “spiritual” person and points out serious spiritual imperfections (spiritual sins) is in a way almost unheard of in the history of spirituality. It is part of his genius and mission in the Church.

Usually being a spiritual person is considered to be something good, because the person converted to Jesus is now on the right path, and should be praised for all her effort and for her new life (new habits, new spiritual life and commitments). Here, St John of the Cross goes against that received, very obvious and common opinion. He says: be careful, there is a new level of discernment to be achieved now; after having had a long committed initial spiritual life, the time has come for a deep change (a new conversion)! He opens our eyes to the existence of two paths to follow in the spiritual world (please see the explanation of the drawing of the Mount below): one is large, to the left and one is a narrow path, in the middle. Initially, the “spiritual person” sees them as one, one good thing!

2- Ascent of Mount Carmel Book II: We find here, especially in the first ten chapters, a more technical explanation of the new discernment. The Saint explains the “true spirit” or ” the true spiritual purity” required in order to be united with God. In these ten chapters he explains what is spiritual purity, i.e. seeking God/Jesus for himself and not for what we can get from Him. He lays down the guiding principles that he will apply, case after case for the Act of Faith, the Act of Hope and the Act of Love (the rest of Book II and Book III).

3- The Drawing of the Mount: This drawing is the true sword of discernment. And a drawing is worth a thousand words.


First of all, let us have a look at the drawing. Above we have three drawings of Mount Carmel as conceived by the Saint. The first one is a very close drawing from the original made by the Saint himself. The second is a literal translation of it into English. The third is a better rendering of the three ways of the Mount Carmel. The summit of the Mount represents the “Union with Jesus” or “Spiritual Marriage”. The human being needs to climb the Mountain of Holiness in order to reach Jesus in His Fullness.

The genius of St John of the Cross is that he presents three possible ways and not two:

a- To the right: the way of the lost (or misled) spirit (the translation on the drawing is wrong)

b- To the left: the way of the imperfect spirit

c- In the middle: the path of the perfect spirit.

The revelation St John of the Cross is bringing to us is, first, the existence of b and c and, second, the necessity to stop (after a certain time of being fed by the milk) feeding into b (the way of imperfect spirit).

St John of the Cross’ genius and “newness” of teaching and doctrine is to show us that there are real spiritual “goods” (the road to the left) that are NOT in any way God himself! They are created goods and not the Uncreated very God. This is news to us and is shocking. This IS the second level of discernment: spiritual good and the Naked Jesus as he calls Him. What this means is that we discover the necessity to love Jesus for himself and not for the “goods” that we receive (and often sense) from Him!

These “goods” are created “goods”, whether we want to believe it or not. And at the new turning point, God allows the Devil to tempt us with a subtle but increased power: inducing us to become attached to and seek the spiritual “goods” Please note the road to the left on attachment to spiritual goods (“goods of heaven”): spiritual knowledge, glory, pride, consolation, rest… This road is not leading to Jesus, the Jesus wanted purely for himself…

Why do we have to neglect such spiritual goods? Things we thought initially were good to be sought out? The answer lies in the Old Man who initially was in control of us and of our spiritual life. God, then, had to lower himself and present us with the bait of taste, consolation and feelings which we get from Him. But this is only a path for beginners. When the person starts to be more rooted in God and in new spiritual habits, God seeks to change the way he acts, switching to a different way of dealing with him, trying out this “solid food, and encouraging the person into a higher way of dealing with God: to seek, now, Jesus purely for himself, the Naked Jesus.

The second level of discernment can be explained by another image: the Divine Fisherman offers bait to the Fish. Then, when the Fish firmly bites into the hook, and is solidly attached to it, the Fisherman knows that if He lifts him up out of the water he will not escape. Similarly, the mother, after breastfeeding for a period of time, will start to wean the baby when she feels it is the right time… and start to give him more solid food. Otherwise there will be no growth!


Finally, if we want to understand the spiritual imperfections and sins specific to this stage of spiritual life (it is important to note that this is not to be required of beginners otherwise we would be going against God’s work), we need to read the profound and strong doctrine of St John of the Cross presented and explained in the first chapters of Book 1 of The Dark Night.

If we want to understand the true spiritual purity, the pure spirit, how to deal with God in purity, we need to read and study the first ten chapters of the second book of the Ascent of Mount Carmel.

Lastly, a general synthetical overview of discernment is to be found when looking at the drawing of Mount Carmel. First level of discernment is to distinguish (a) from (b + c). Second level of discernment, is to distinguish between b and c.

Relying only on the first stage of discernment as the only known possible means of discernment has been the case for many spiritual directors and writers for centuries. St John of the Cross felt great pain seeing so many people whom God was starting to lead into the next stage of spiritual life, being erroneously led to to “feel” that God was taking away the spiritual milk; seeing too how they were treated with very little discernment, how they were being tortured by asking them to check hidden sins,… This is what moved him to write. Please do read the Prologue of the Ascent of Mount Carmel where he discusses this.

Note 1: Please bear in mind that in the Saint’s thinking, the Ascent and Dark Night, are one book, not two. The first, Ascent, explains what we have to do in order to grow at each stage (1 and 2) and the second, Dark Night, explains what God wants to realise in us and what happens if we put into practice what we have learned in the Ascent.

Note 2: Please remember that one cannot apply the second level of discernment to beginners. It can seriously damage their spiritual life and go against what God has to do initially in them. Each of the two levels of discernment is very different from the other and therefore they should be used with discernment and prudence, applying them wisely, otherwise we will not be serving God in people.

Note 3: The Second Level Course, Initiation into Spiritual Life, goes into full detail about this second stage. Please have a look at the initial videos. If you want to see the rest of the Course please do contact us.

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