Newsletter Subscribe
Australian Catholics Subscribe

Listening to the Holy Spirit: A guide to discernment

13 February 2020

In the lead-up to the Plenary Council, Catholic communities are being asked to reflect on what the Holy Spirit is asking of the Church today. This type of discernment has been a part of Christian life for centuries, but it might be something new to many. Here’s a brief guide to how discernment works for individuals and communities, and how it might help you in your life and work.

Discernment in a Christian context is a way to make decisions that incorporate prayer, silent reflection and conversation.

In the gospels, Jesus often calls us to share what is happening in our hearts. ‘Go and tell what has happened to you’, he says. This is what we’re doing in a discerning mode. We are sharing what the Lord is doing for me in this place at this time.

St Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1541) wrote a great deal about discernment and the Holy Spirit. For him, discernment was a way to find God in all things – the workings of the world, his experiences in his daily life, and in particular in the deeper desires that moved him.

A key moment happened after having his leg shattered by a cannonball in
the Battle of Pamplona. He spent months recovering from his injury, and in that time started thinking about the life that he desired to live. He realised that there were different choices before him, but that some choices made his heart sing, while others left him feeling more empty. He realised that the choices that left him happy, the ones which made him excited to move forward, came from the Good Spirit.

This type of discernment of the Holy Spirit is an important tool for us to understand our relationship with God, and what God might be asking of us in our lives. It requires deep listening, deep prayer, and plenty of time.

How do I know which path to choose?

When we talk about discernment in a Catholic context, we often refer to the feelings that emerge when we contemplate the paths before us. The words we use are ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation’.

Consolation is an increase in faith, hope and love. It’s often accompanied by encouragement. These are signs of the Good Spirit, and indicate that what we are contemplating comes from God, and will lead us closer to God.

Desolation is a diminishment in faith, hope and love, and is often accompanied by negativity. These are signs that what we are contemplating is not from God, and will in fact lead us away from the path God wants us to take.

Taking time for reflection and deep listening is important in discernment, as sometimes the Bad Spirit can disguise itself as the Good Spirit.

Five ways to deepen your discernment

  1. Sometimes a particular event, encounter, or conversation will evoke a particularly strong inner feeling for you. Reflect on what that feeling might be telling you – where is God’s voice in that experience?
  2. Your reflections on these experiences might bring up particular responses or choices. Be aware of these as moments when the Holy Spirit might be speaking to you, to show you a way forward.
  3. In discerning whether a particular choice or way forward is coming from the Good Spirit or the Bad Spirit, look more deeply at the emotions that you might be feeling. Where does this joy, sadness, anger, love or compassion come from? Is it sourced in God or something else?
  4. It’s helpful when reflecting on particular choices to ask, ‘What might God want me to do in this situation?’ When we look our lives and world through God’s eyes, we look at it through a loving gaze – not only of ourselves, but of all of creation. This can help open new options for us.
  5. Prayer is a particularly helpful part of discernment. The process involves placing our trust in God, and prayer helps us do that. One such prayer, Ignatius’ Awareness Examen, can help us become more sensitive to the movements of the Good Spirit in our lives.

 Signs that you’re discerning the right path
(the ‘Good Spirit’)

  1. You have an increased sense of self-worth and a renewed confidence.
  2. You feel more hopeful, believing that God is with you.
  3. You have a sense of personal agency, of following my own path.
  4. Something is ‘lifted’ inside you – You feel lighter, more liberated.
  5. You grow in compassion, sensitivity, love and empathy.
  6. Your questions for God come from a place of clarity and conviction.
  7. You are more ready to put a good interpretation on the statements and actions of others than to condemn them as false.
  8. You are more ready to let go of hurts and have a more loving attitude to people, even those who might stand in opposition to you.
  9. You are more open to speaking to people about what’s happening to you.
  10. You feel a greater sense of peace and consolation. 

Signs that you might be on the wrong path (the ‘Bad Spirit’)

  1. You have a pervasive sense of being stuck, of heaviness and being burdened.
  2. You lose your sense of self-worth.
  3. Hope is blighted and fades away.
  4. You degenerate into negativity, cynicism and self-pity.
  5. Your questions for God come from a place of anxiety and confusion.
  6. You expend great energy mulling over incidents again and again.
  7. Your interactions with others become negative and energy-sapping.
  8. When you think about your sins and failings, you feel bad about yourself and stay there.
  9. You don’t want to share how your feeling with others, but want to keep things in the dark.
  10. Your choices and actions lead to greater turmoil, and a disintegration of relationships.

Discernment in community

The Holy Spirit can work in us individually, but it’s also active when we meet and reflect together in groups. Community discernment can take place in small groups and communities, or as with the Plenary Council, across a whole population.

At the heart of discernment is a trust in the Holy Spirit. When a group discerns together in a trusting way, the outcomes of that discernment can ensure that individual lives are enriched, and our work for God bears fruit as we collaborate as a community with a common mission.

Communal discernment is always preceded and accompanied by prayer. It requires that we come together as discerning individuals. We are then able to listen to the way the Holy Spirit is speaking within the group.

Importantly, we don’t come to communal discernment with our minds already made up. We come open and free.

Discerning the way forward for the Catholic Church

The 2020 Plenary Council is an unprecedented opportunity for Catholics in Australia to meet, converse and discern the way forward for the Church.

The process began in 2018, with more than 222,000 people participating in ‘listening and dialogue’ encounters. More than 17,000 submissions were brought together to highlight six broad themes, indicating that God is calling us as a Church to be:

  1. Missionary and evangelising
  2. Inclusive, participatory and synodal
  3. Prayerful and Eucharistic
  4. Humble, healing and merciful
  5. A joyful, hope-filled and servant community
  6. Open to conversion, renewal and reform

The ‘listening and discernment’ phase offers communities to come together to pray and reflect more deeply on what people have said, to share and listen, think nationally and locally, give thanks, and respond.

The responses from these sessions will be sent to the Writing and Discernment groups who are working to develop the agenda for the Plenary Council which begins in October. l

For more information and resources, go to



Request permissions to reuse this article

Interested in more? Sign up to our weekly Catholic Teacher and Parish Life e-newsletters for the faith formation resources you need.

Catholic Teacher sign-up

Parish Life sign-up

This website uses cookies to give you the best, most relevant experience.

Using this website means you are okay with this.

You can change your cookies settings at any time and find out more about them by following this link