Catherine’s teaching on discernment—as the rest of her wisdom—is not found in one place in her writings.  Rather, her wisdom on this topic appears in multiple letters and several passages of The Dialogue.  This wisdom is revealed through different metaphors and different words that indicate discernment, including multiple meanings of the word discrezione, the Italian equivalent of discernment.  Therefore, her wisdom on discernment must be culled through a literary analysis of many texts. [1]

Catherine’s wisdom on discernment is unique to her, but it fits into a tradition about discernment that started in the earliest years of Christianity and by the late Middle Ages had become part of history rather than ongoing practice.  This was the discretio (in Latin) or virtue of discernment tradition which referred to the virtue or capacity to order other virtues and to sort out what is the right ordered behavior or choice.  When virtue is ordered and there is capacity to recognize and choose right ordered behavior, the person is following God’s will.  Ordered virtue is the fruit of transformed capacity for love.  Thus, a person who can act with discernment and order her behavior with discernment, is a person who has grown in capacity to love and whose motivation or desire are influenced as little as possible by self-centeredness. [2]

The other tradition about discernment has come down through the centuries until today and still influences much contemporary wisdom on this practice.  This is the discernment of spirits tradition (discretio spirituum in Latin), which focused on sorting out which inner movements come from the Holy Spirit and which movements from the evil Spirit or at least not from God.  Ignatius of Loyola’s wisdom on discernment follows this tradition, and through Ignatius this approach to discernment has taken root in contemporary Christian spirituality.

I highlight that both discernment traditions, in their historical origins, relate the capacity to discern to the person’s level of transformation and closeness to God. Ignatius wrote his rules for discernment as part of his Spiritual Exercises, a retreat experience meant to guide a person to personal knowledge of Jesus and to surrender to God.  Such a process would lead to wholehearted desire to serve God and detachment from one’s own will.  This desire and detachment furnish the fertile soil for the practice of Ignatius’ prayer methods and practical guidelines for learning to sort out which movements come from God and how to recognize that one is hearing God and, therefore, hearing God’s will.

Catherine’s wisdom highlights that discernment takes place as a result of a process of transformation such that persons acquire the capacity to care for the good of the other (love), and it is this capacity that uncovers God’s will.  As we have seen such transformation involves a journey of knowledge of God and self, issuing in transformation of self-centeredness. Catherine does not offer practical methods or guidelines for discernment.  Ultimately Catherine’s wisdom is simple, as one grows away from self-centeredness, the way one views reality and others, will become more and more congruent with God’s love and will.  Together with this ordered perception one will have the capacity to act accordingly.

Let us examine some of the passages where Catherine communicated this wisdom.

The tree: discernment as branch and fruit

Catherine’s most well-known metaphor for discernment is that of a tree, a metaphor she describes in The Dialogue:

So be aware that the soul is a tree made for love and can be alive only through love . . . It is important that the root of this tree, that is the affetto of the soul, be rooted in the circle of true knowledge of herself, united to knowledge of me . . . This knowledge of herself and of me is rooted in the soil of true humility, which is as great as the circle of the knowledge she has acquired of herself united to me . . . And so the tree of charity is fed with humility and produces a branch (literally, bears a child) which is discernment, as I explained.  The tree’s marrow, that is, the affetto of charity that dwells in the soul, is patience, a sign that I am in the soul and the soul is united to me. . . . The tree bears fruits of grace for the soul and for the benefit of her neighbor, according to the receptivity of those willing to receive my servants’ fruit.  In this way she offers glory and praise to my name, accomplishing that for which I created her. . . . All fruits borne by this tree are seasoned with discernment as they are all related to each other. (Dialogue 10) [DLV translation]. [1]

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­While this extended metaphor repeats spiritual wisdom covered in other tabs, here I focus on its teaching about discernment.  The person is like a tree.  She is a love tree (not an apple tree, for instance).  Thus, the tree is a metaphor for the person as made for love.  This tree made for love produces branches, and these branches are acts of discernment rooted in love in that when the tree is growing as it should, it produces branches congruent with its nature: a love tree produces acts of love, whereas the apple tree produces branches that result in apples.  That is, when the person, made for love, has ordered her capacity for love, that which emerges from her will be congruent with love, and therefore, right ordered and consistent with God’s will.

In the last sentence Catherine shifts her metaphor to tell us that not only are the branches of the tree “discernment,” but the fruit of the tree is “seasoned” with discernment.  [Remember, Catherine is not consistent in her metaphors nor follows linear logic].  If the tree is the person made for love, the root of the tree is the affetto of the soul, that is the depth of motivation that involves the whole person, and drives the perception, desire and acts of the person.  This root, the affetto of the soul, must be solidly planted in knowledge of God and self.  These two forms of knowledge and the related transformation are essential for the person-love tree to produce its fruit, that is, acts of love.  These acts of love are seasoned with discernment, that is, acts of love are congruent with God’s will.  Put in other words, when the tree, the person that is made to live from love and “produce” love is rooted in the transforming dynamic of knowledge of God and self, then the branches and fruit of this tree are expressions of discernment or perception and acts that are right ordered according to what is in God.  

To summarize, discernment refers to that which issues forth from the person in her affetto, perceptions, desires and actions when these are congruent with God’s love and truth and therefore, God’s will.

[1] Citations from my translations of the critical text of The Dialogue refer to chapter number.  My translations highlight Catherine’s use of affetto leaving the word in the original, while Noffke translated affetto in different ways according to context. See tab on “Affetto and desire” for more details.

Light, image for seeing rightly

The metaphor of light offers a different way of imagining and internalizing  Catherine’s teaching on discernment.  The light is a beam that shines on a person’s consciousness allowing her to see clearly.  In this case, this beam of light is a metaphor for grace, for God’s love that allows truth to be perceived.  Thus, in order to discern, the person must be consciously connected to God.  For it is through this connection that the person can notice the beam of light illuminating truth; that is, it is through this connection that the person allows her consciousness to be illuminated by God’s love revealing what is true and right ordered.

How does light function in the soul (the person), and how does one know the person has this light?  I’ll tell you.  The first level of light discerns the virtues and how much these are pleasing to God and valuable for the soul (person) who lives these.  This first light also discerns how vice is damaging and regrettable as it deprives the soul (person) of grace.  The second level of light embraces virtue and offers love to her neighbor, which is a function of giving live birth to the virtues.  Having arrived at the capacity to see/discern with second light shows that the first light was not blocked by self-centered love and could receive supernatural (God’s) love.  (Letter 201, Fall 1378)

Depending on a person’s level of conversion away from self-centeredness, the light will disclose the truth more or less deeply.  Perception at the level of “first light” is still clouded in part by self-centeredness, so only part of the truth will noticed.  Nevertheless, the person is able to recognize the virtues and how vice, the opposite of virtue is not pleasing to God.  Second light is an experience of seeing or consciousness of truth that is less clouded by self-centeredness.  Those capable of second light are persons more transformed by God’s love, so the beam of light, God’s grace, can illuminate reality more clearly. Those who can see through “second light” are not only able to recognize what is virtuous, but they are able to actualize the virtues.
Catherine adds an intriguing metaphor to that of light.  She speaks of giving birth to virtue.  This metaphor suggests that when one’s ability to discern is less obscured by self-centeredness, one is able not only to perceive what is congruent with love, but one is capable of acting on this perception.  This capacity to act, to carry out what is perceived, is giving birth to virtue.  Put in different words, the person’s discernment according to second light is significantly more free from self-centeredness so the person sees more clearly and most of all is more capable of carrying out that which is in accordance with God’s love.
Note that Catherine makes a distinction between recognizing God’s will and being capable or empowered to carry out God’s will.  One’s level of conversion away from self-centeredness is that which empowers carrying out God’s will.

Discernment of providence

Catherine specifies that an important form of discernment is the ability to recognize God’s providence.  Providence features prominently in Catherine’s wisdom because for her it is another way of recognizing God’s love for us. [1]  That is, God’s presence and life-giving grace are present in all that we live; God constantly seeks the salvation/transformation of persons, offering grace that can bring new life out of any life circumstance.  To recognize and receive this grace we must discern that it is being offered and cooperate with it; accordingly, we must have a relationship with God and time to reflect on how God is acting in our life.
In the following passages, Catherine writes to an unnamed Florentine woman who became known to Catherine as someone with many complaints about life.  Catherine offers wisdom on discernment of providence to help the woman recognize God’s love for her, and how God’s transforming grace is present in all that she lives.  The implication is that if she could discern, the woman could experience as possible blessings those realities about which she was complaining.

I write to you . . . with desire to see you have true and perfect light; for without the light we would not be able to recognize God’s truth nor the truth about others.  Instead, we would fall into false and ruinous judgments.  Why, because we would be deprived of light. For the soul (the person) that is illuminated with light, has shifted her deepest motivation away from self-centered concerns, and so discerns and knows the truth and judges justly with discrezione [meaning with the right ordered measure of the virtue of discernment].  (Letter 207, October 1378)

Catherine wishes that the woman be filled with light so that she might be able to discern truth.  Light is the illumination by God’s Spirit when we are in a relationship with God, showing us who God is for us and God’s perspective on the persons and situations that come into our lives.  Without this illumination, our judgments (discernments) could be seriously incorrect, causing harm to ourselves and others.  Put in other words, when we fail to recognize God’s grace present in a life situation, we risk false perceptions and incorrect attitudes and choices.

Catherine continues her exhortation.

Once the soul (person) has seen [with the light] and recognized the truth, she develops love for it; and with love is able to discern that whatever God allows in this life, he permits for our good, that through him [living whatever happens with God’s grace] we might be sanctified.  The person makes accurate judgements with the light of discernment.  That is, if she experiences prosperity and wellbeing, she recognizes this has been granted out of God’s bountiful goodness and not because through virtue it was deserved.  With this accurate understanding (discernment) the person can live her prosperity with ordered love.  With this discernment she loves with ordered love, that is out of love for God; she owns what is given her as on loan from God, not as her possession, because all is on loan and not our own. (Letter 207, October 1378)

When a person is sufficiently transformed to be capable of receiving the illumination (the light of discernment) offered by God present to the person, she is able to discern or recognize that all is gift from God, that God’s grace is present in all that she lives.  She is aware that all that is good in her life is gift and not due to her own efforts or even a prize for her goodness.  Catherine suggests that when one is transformed enough to receive the illumination of God’s presence letting us recognize God’s blessings and presence in all that we have and live, we become much better able to make accurate judgements (discernment) that are congruent with God’s love and truth.  That which we desire and love will be moved by God’s love which has taken a hold of our desire (with this discernment she loves with ordered love, that is out of love for God).

Catherine also tells us here that gratitude is a sign of discernment of providence.  When we are grateful for all that we have and have achieved, recognizing all as God’s blessing, we will be able to live with our possessions in an ordered manner, that is in a manner that is congruent with God’s love and truth.

Back to the “complaining woman.” Catherine expected her to stop complaining once she became able to recognize how God was present in each event of her life, that is, how God wanted her to interpret and grow from that which she was going through.  This would only be possible, however, if the woman engaged in a journey of relationship with God open to transformation of her capacity to love.

[1] Several chapters of The Dialogue, namely 135-153, are devoted to providence.

Discernment and desire

To the abbot of Monte Oliveto Catherine describes the importance of discernment in order to lead, guide, and form with love the monks under his care.  The abbot must himself be on a journey of transformation of his capacity to love in order to be capable of seeing, that is discerning, what each monk needs.

If the abbot is deprived of charity, he would be unable to bear the burden [of leadership] without offending God.  The charity [love] of the abbot cannot be imperfect or lukewarm; it must be perfect with warmth of love and with desire for the wellbeing and salvation of those under him.  He must be able to recognize with light and discernment both what each monk needs to receive and what he is capable of receiving.  He must correct his monks with charity [love], uniting himself with their needs; he must correct or praise depending on what is merciful and just.  He must seek the lost sheep, placing him on his back, that is taking upon himself the burdens of the sheep (monk) and rejoicing when that sheep (monk) returns to the sheepfold. (Letter 33, Fall 1378)

The abbot’s desire, that is the motivation emerging from his deepest self, must be free of self-centeredness to see that which his monks need.  For the abbot, the sensitivity of love, fruit of capacity to see the other separate from ourselves, involves seeing not only what a particular monk needs, but also what he is capable and ready to receive.  This sensitivity of love further involves that the abbot take upon himself some of the burdens of his monks when this is necessary to care for them and guide them to closeness to God.  Note how seriously Catherine considers this discernment: if the abbot ministers to the monks under his care without discerning what each needs, he would be offending God; it would be against God’s will.

In this example we glimpse Catherine’s wisdom on the transformation of desire and discernment.  As desire and affetto are transformed so that they are congruent with love-charity, that which motivates our actions will be congruent with God’s love, and therefore, God’s will.  This is the wisdom Catherine offered this abbot.  If he has been on a journey of transformation so that his self-centeredness has been mitigated in favor of capacity to see the needs of others and care for them, then he will desire for his monks that which is congruent with God’s love.

The Cross and discernment

In many places of her writings Catherine teaches that willingness to pass through struggles and difficulties is also necessary for discernment of God’s will.  The cross symbolizes not just the form of Jesus’ death, but also his willingness to suffer for a greater good, namely our salvation.  This willingness to suffer for a greater good is part of the capacity to love, the foundational human capacity that according to Catherine makes possible discernment.  Thus, some goals and ideals require sacrifice; sometimes that which we are called to do will involve discomfort, conflict, loss, pain.  We must be willing to accept struggles and sacrifices when these are unavoidable or necessary in order to hear God’s voice guiding us to an act or choice that requires passing through suffering.

The cross further symbolizes the unjust manner of Jesus’ death which highlights that giving of self may require passing through injustice and unmerited suffering.  Indeed, these are dimensions of human life present to a lesser or greater degree in all of our lives.  In order to hear/see God’s will and carry it out, we must be able to hear/see when we are called to pass through injustice or unmerited suffering.
Further, while Catherine does not explicitly say the following, it is implied in her teaching.  We must be able to discern when a form of suffering is unavoidable as part of a greater good and when it is something to be combatted or avoided.  She certainly believed in fighting for truth and justice as she viewed these in her 14th century context.

The aforementioned teaching can be found in a number of places in Catherine’s works; several have already been cited in other contexts. (See “Time in Cell, Knowledge of God and Knowledge of self<knowledge of God as cross” and especially “Desire and affetto<the cross and transformation of desire”)

Catherine’s own practice of discernment

From her letters we know that Catherine lived her wisdom on discernment.  I have shown that Catherine committed herself to a journey of transformation and was intentional about seeking God’s will and making choices that reflected care for the good of the other.  Her letters give witness to her utter conviction that she was connected to God, and her wholehearted commitment to give of herself according to the ways in which she felt guided.  She was very willing to suffer for the sake of carrying out God’s will even to the point of martyrdom.
See the tab on Catherine’s holiness.

Indeed, Catherine’s letters offering advice to others about God’s will for them, show that she felt great confidence in her own connection to God and was convinced she had insights about God’s desires not just for herself but for most of her correspondents.  The examples of such advice are frequent in her letters. A major example is evidenced in exhortations to Gregory XI, where she went so far as to authoritatively tell the pope she knew God’s will for him.  (See excerpts from Letters 238, 255).  Pope Gregory is not the only person to whom she wrote with similar authority “from God.”  See letters to Queen Giovanna and to pope Urban VI.  See also my article, Catherine of Siena’s Crusade Letters: Spirituality and Political Context, p 4, where Catherine tells a knight she is certain regarding the vocation God wants him to follow.

Limitations of Catherine’s wisdom

Catherine, then, followed her own wisdom on discernment and was exemplary in pursuing God’s will in the light of her discernment.  However, her own practice of discernment shows the limitations of her wisdom and of any human endeavor to follow God.  This dimension of her own practice offers wisdom for today.

Despite Catherine’s confidence in her connection to God and the wholeheartedness of her commitment to acting according to that which she perceived to be God’s will, there is historical evidence that she made choices that were most likely wrong, and the discernment of others was more likely to represent God’s will.  For instance, when Gregory XI placed an interdict on Florence, she sided with Gregory.  This interdict was a papal mandate that no sacraments could be offered in Florence; this order was intended as punishment of the City State because it would not join politically with the Papal States, and it was also a form of pressure to force Florence to do the papal will.  Priests whom Catherine respected advocated for the violation of this interdict arguing that offering the sacraments was more important than obeying the pope.  On the other hand, Catherine who considered the pope Christ on earth, asserted with absolute certainty that obeying the pope was more important and that priests who disobeyed the pope by offering the sacraments were incurring in sin.  (See my article Catherine of Siena Controversial Discernments where I discuss this example and others).

Many wise and prayerful persons in Catherine’s day and most of us today would find it scandalous that persons should be deprived of the sacraments as a result of papal power exercised for secular political purposes.  Yet Catherine was guided by her beliefs about the pope’s authority.  If the pope was Christ on earth, disobeying the pope was akin to disobeying Christ, and disobeying Christ was clearly the ultimate wrong.  I discuss the influence of Catherine’s beliefs on her discernment and how even the holiest person can misinterpret belief in my article just mentioned above.

That someone as transformed as Catherine and as desirous of doing God’s will could misinterpret that will reminds us that,

We are all limited and sinful and therefore vulnerable to misinterpretations; even the most holy mystic is vulnerable to personality and contextual influences in the interpretation of even the most sublime spiritual experience – for interpretation of the Spirit’s movement within us is filtered through our human reality, which includes our profoundest beliefs. Indeed, beliefs deeply root the way we seek to uncover the transcendent meaning of our lives, and the practices we pursue on this journey of discovery and growth.  And beliefs are in turn coloured by our personality, our culture and our time in history. This suggests discernment calls not only for awareness of our level of transformation – following Catherine’s wisdom – but also for conscious consideration of our beliefs and awareness of our personalities and cultural contexts.  (from my article, Catherine of Siena Controversial Discernments, p. 8


Discernment as expression of transformed perception and desire

Catherine’s wisdom highlights that following God’s will occurs not just at moments when we engage in a discernment process.  Living according to God’s will is ultimately a matter of how we choose and act day to day out of the depths of who we are. The more the depth of who we are is transformed away from self-centeredness and the more we become capable of seeing and choosing what is good for others in our life or for the common good, the more our spontaneous acts and choices will be congruent with God’s will.  Every day we make judgment calls when we make choices about how to react to a person or situation or make one of many day-to-day decisions.  These judgments are all more likely to be congruent with God’s will in an automatic manner as our heart is transformed more and more into our capacity to love.

In other words, to the extent that our deepest motivation—rooted in all of who we are—is free of self-centeredness and moved by God’s love, then we are likely to act in an ordered manner that is congruent with God’s will.

This wisdom reminds us that if we wish to follow God’s will, we must not only engage in occasional conscious discernment processes.  We must also be engaged in an ongoing relationship with God that includes time to reflect on our experience so the dynamic of knowledge of God and self so well described by Catherine, can change our heart.  As well, reflection on God’s action within us can facilitate our cooperating with transforming grace/love.

Catherine’s wisdom, then, highlights for us that recognition of God’s will and choosing accordingly is not just for certain conscious moments of decision making.  In this emphasis her wisdom is Biblical, reflecting, for instance, Paul’s teaching in his Epistles that acting out of love-charity is the ultimate accomplishment of God’s will.  Addressing the new Hebrew Christians, Paul explains that fulfillment of the law—or doing God’s will—had to do with love.  Paul tells the new Hebrew followers of Christ that God’s will is living out of a transformed heart; and “fulfilling of the law” meant loving one’s neighbor and God.

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor: therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.  (Rm 13:8-10, NRSV)

Paul’s formulation reminds us that engaging in correct outer behaviors (following the law without acting out of love-charity) is important but does not mean we are ultimately following God’s will in terms of the law of love.  In this way, Paul’s teaching echoes that of Catherine: the commitment to follow God’s will must start with a commitment to a journey of transformation where we take time to connect to God in order to allow God to change our hearts.  In other words, the fact that one follows certain church rules or recites certain prayers, or even adheres to good morals, does not mean one is acting out of love-charity, the ultimate criterion for God’s will.  Following the law without a journey of transformation–engaging in a relationship with God and the related spiritual endeavor of knowledge of God and self—may not lead to acting out of love-charity, and, therefore, acting on a regular basis according to God’s will.

Complementarity discernment of Spirits and virtue of discernment traditions

Since the discernment of spirits tradition—such as the Ignatian tradition—is most common in the practice of spirituality today, I reflect here on the complementarity of this tradition with the virtue of discernment tradition that influenced Catherine’s wisdom.

The discernment of spirits tradition offers practical guidelines for examination and reflection on inner experience, so that one can sort out how one is being guided by the Spirit.  Such practical guidelines for sorting out one’s perceptions and desires are a valuable complement to Catherine’s wisdom which implies that depending on our level of transformation, consulting our deepest desires or insights guide us to God’s will.  Practical guidelines for discernment can function as a complement to consulting one’s deepest desires and insights.

For instance, in the case of major life decisions one may not want to rely only on one’s deepest desire, for none of us is fully transformed.  In this case, discernment according to an intentional process would be a significant complement to consultation of one’s deepest motivation.  As well, there are life situations where there may be several ordered options that we equally desire so that simply consulting our deepest motivation and desire while present to God does not clarify the choice that should be made.

On the other hand, Catherine’s wisdom offers balance to discernment of spirits.  For following a process or set of guidelines, as Ignatius himself would tell us, does not necessarily lead us to discover God’s will.  Ignatius would tell us that an inner attitude of detachment from our own views and desires and a transformed desire to follow Christ must be contexts for discernment.  Catherine’s approach highlights transformation as essential for discernment.

Guidelines for discernment based on Catherine’s wisdom

What would Catherine advice today’s seeker who wants to follow God’s will and discern how God is guiding them?  Since her wisdom on discernment highlights transformation in order to regularly act according to God’s will through ordered desire, she would advise engaging in an ongoing spiritual journey where one takes time to quiet oneself, turning awareness of one’s inner consciousness to God’s presence; she would urge us to engage in learning how God loves us and how much we need God.  In the context of this process of knowledge of God and self, we can consult our deepest motivations and desires, trusting we are moving in an ordered manner (meaning according to God’s will).

Catherine would certainly advise that knowledge of God and self—foundational for discernment—are furthered by participation in the Christian community.  For instance, participation in church services and Bible groups contribute to our formation and capacity to know God.  For those in sacramental traditions, she would encourage participation in the sacraments, significant sources of God’s love important to our transformation.  Catherine would point to the usefulness of dialoguing with wise, spiritually mature persons close to us and/or a spiritual guide that can help us know ourselves and reflect on our experience of God.

And she would advise that we regularly consult our deepest desires—when present to God and conscious of surrendering our self-centered concerns—in order to seek God’s will for our day-to-day choices and actions.

While Catherine offers no guidelines for engaging in a discernment process, I propose the following based on her wisdom. 

  1. Examine ourselves to see to what extent we are engaged in a personal connection with God, with Jesus, with the Spirit.
  2. Make an honest appraisal of how much we are willing to hear what God wants to say to us.
  3. Make an honest assessment of our motives and a priori preferences in a particular situation.
  4. Engage in a prayer process asking God to order our motives and render us willing to hear God’s guidance.
  5. Choose to surrender to God our self-centered biases.
  6. When in prayer and after acts of surrender to God, observe what we desire from the bottom of our hearts and minds.
  7. One could also meditate using Catherine’s metaphor of light. We imagine a beam that is God’s light, shining on the issue about which we want to discern.  We spend time meditating on this image and see what insights arise through the work of the Spirit within us.

[1] These suggestions for contemporary applications of Catherine’s spirituality are based on my own personal and pastoral experience.  They reflect my particular point of view on application of Catherine’s spirituality.  There are certainly other approaches to the appropriation of Catherine’s wisdom.