From Saint John:
My dear friends, not every spirit is to be trusted, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets are at large in the world. This is the proof of the spirit of God: any spirit which acknowledges Jesus Christ, come in human nature, is from God, and every spirit which does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God... 1 John 4:1-3When the angel Gabriel comes before Mary and starts his announcement, she isn't jumping for joy, or all excited about having some sort of spiritual "experience". She is, "deeply disturbed by [his] words and asked herself what [his] greeting could mean" (Luke 1:29). And here we have presented the first concrete step in the discernment process:
Step One: Challenge the angel and/or experience. When presented with some form of spiritual experience, whether it be the visiting of an angel, a prophetic word, a vision, or any kind of mystical experience, one should challenge it.
There is always a danger to our very salvation, and the salvation of those around us, if we embrace mystical experiences enthusiastically. There is also the danger that we may grow comfortable in those experiences, allowing them to become the focus of our faith experience, and use them as some form of gauge of holiness. Holiness is ultimately found in a deep, Sacramental, relationship with Jesus Christ and not His gifts.
As Saint Paul tells us:
The Spirit has explicitly said that during the last times some will desert the faith and pay attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines that come from devils, seduced by the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are branded as though with a red-hot iron..." 1 Timothy 4:1-2Step Two: Listen carefully to the angel and/or experience. As St. John told us, the spirit or spirits who are participating in the experience will either lead us to Jesus Christ or they will either blatantly or subtly lead us away from Him.
Saint Gabriel makes his point by drawing Our Lady's attention to God, and to whom she is being called to bare in her womb. He clearly makes every effort to maintain his focus on God's work, and how that work will become a part of Mary's life.
It is in the very details of the experience that we will discover whether it is from God or to be discarded.
Step Three: Question everything and anything at all. We should not let our hunger for consolation and the mystical experiences to overcome our ability to carefully question every aspect of the mystical experience.
Once the Archangel Gabriel has indicated to Mary what is to happen, she challenges him with a question, "But how can this come about, since I have no knowledge of man?" Luke 1:34.
The questions we ask will need to be blunt. Her question directly challenges everything Gabriel has presented to her, since she has made an offering of love to God in a vow of virginity. It is now up to Gabriel to bring her closer to God by explaining how she would not be breaking her vow. Or, reveal that he is indeed not from God, but appearing as an angel of light as Satan can do (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
The questions must challenge the authenticity of the experience. We are called to:
Our questions must always be honest. Even if that means discovering that what we have just experienced was not from God but from ourselves or the devil.
Beware of false prophets who come to you disguised as sheep but underneath are ravenous wolves. You will be able to tell them by their fruits ... a sound tree produces good fruit but a rotten tree bad fruit. A sound tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor a rotten tree bear good fruit. Matthew 7:15-18
If we discover that what we have experienced was indeed from ourselves or the devil then we must discard it. If however, we see that it does indeed draw us closer to God, then we can move on to the next step.
Step Four: Share the experience with a few close friends who are gifted in discernment (1 Corinthians 12:10). The best person to share the experience with is a spiritual director. One to whom we have submitted to in obedience. If he or she helps us to see that what we have experienced is not of God, then we must be obedient and let it go. This is one aspect of the Lord's wisdom in sending out the disciples in pairs (Mark 6:7, Luke 10:1). Each member in the pair would be able to be a check and balance for the other.
This step is important because if we go into the community and share the experience with them, we risk the danger of becoming the centre of attention. And we all know where that leads. We also all know that most of us in some way shape or form enjoy being the centre of attention!
When Our Lady went to Saint Elizabeth's home, Saint Elizabeth immediately knew that Our Lady was carrying Jesus! (Luke 1:42). This is a very powerful witness to the gift of discernment in Saint Elizabeth. Her relationship with God must have been very deep and very intimate. Elizabeth indeed was attuned to God's Spirit.
Where we go from there is something we would need to discern further. Is the experience a gift from God to us alone? Or, does it need to be shared with a few key people, or even the general community? It is important for us to realize where the Lord wants us to take the experience.
Mary, help us to learn how to discern. Help us to listen to God's Holy Spirit and to His angels and saints. Teach us how to ask the right questions. Help us to be honest with ourselves and with our spiritual directors. Thank you Mary for your gift of discernment. Thank you for accepting the call of God through Saint Gabriel. Thank you for bearing and sharing Jesus Christ with us!