On Discernment

In the letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John, there is an interesting exchange between a young zealous monk and St. John (letters 503 – 570).  In the first letter we find out that the young monk is upset with his spiritual father, who was also his cellmate,  because he eats and sleeps too much.  Apparently the spiritual father was eating three times a day, instead of once a day as was usual among desert monks.  In addition, when the young monk would wake the older monk while saying his early morning prayers, the older monk would say, “Giving rest to one’s neighbour is a great virtue…”   This young monk felt like the possibility of his spiritual growth was thwarted by the apparent laziness of his spiritual father.

St. John’s response is surprising.  He first says that each person must eat what he needs, even if this means eating three times a day.  And as far as sleep goes, St. John points out that there are two kinds of sleepiness: the sleepiness that comes from bodily weakness (referring probably to the spiritual father) and the sleepiness that comes from over-eating, leading to temptation to fornication (referring probably to the young monk).  

Further, St. John points out that even if one does eat only once a day, but he eats without discernment, then such ascesis is of no benefit.  “Without discernment” is a bit of a technical term.  It means to do something, anything, without understanding how what you are doing is helping (or hindering) your relationship with God and with the people around you.  Discernment is key to almost everything in the spiritual life.   And the beginning of discernment is to realize that we are really bad at it.  

One saying of the Desert Fathers is, “He who is his own spiritual father has a fool for a spiritual father.”  And when we do have someone else as a spiritual father or mother, we gain no benefit if we are continually second guessing them. Ironically, in our foolishness, we think we are discerning, but we are really just puffed up with pride and don’t realize it.  In the following letters, we find out that this younger monk’s real problems lay in his anger—often the underlying fuel for lustful thoughts.  And anger often finds it’s ground in a “pretence to rights.”  That is, we think we deserve something else, something bigger, better, easier, more spiritual, more important, more interesting, more this, less that.  We think we have a right to be treated better, recognized, thanked and respected.  And when our rights are ignored, we become angry.

This anger, however, is often hidden, as we are too proud to be honest.  That is, we would be ashamed if others knew, even our spiritual father or mother, that we are not as humble as we want them to think we are.  The inner anger and frustration then bursts out in unexpected places, often in thoughts of fornication.  But there is a way forward.

St. John writes to this young monk that he must talk to his spiritual father “without turmoil [in his heart], but with humility and discernment.”  Until he is able to do this, St. John gives this young monk a process by which he can begin to acquire humility and discernment.  He tells the young monk that he is to do his best, “and no more.”  

Those words, “and no more,” are the secret to the first steps in acquiring humility and discernment.  Here’s the problem: We so often set ourselves up for failure by thinking our best must mean that we should do what someone else, probably a saint, is doing or has done.  And so, without discernment, we force ourselves to complete a rigorous prayer rule or fasting discipline, or to sleep very little, or attend copious church services, or to volunteer at every opportunity—all without discernment, often motivated by a pride that thinks that all we have to do is force ourselves and we will attain the spiritual heights others seem to have attained.  

How do we know if our asceticism is without discernment?  Like this young monk, we start to judge the weakness of others.  Judging others is a sure sign that our own asceticism may be without discernment.  Or we find that trying harder only makes us more angry and fills our minds with turmoil so that we are too embarrassed or seem somehow unable to talk to our spiritual father or mother about it.  When we find ourselves in this spot, I think the advice of St. John is very helpful.  We must do our best, and no more.  And we must accept that our best may be much less than we think it should be.  This will be the beginning of the humility which will bring discernment.  


  1. Dear Father. I read your article and liked it. So I went to Praying in the rain so my wife could listen to it. It seemed to come alive as we listened to your voice and expressions. I even laughed out loud at “The first sign of discernment is realizing you don’t have any.” Thank you so much for this treat.

  2. Thank you Father Michael, you say so important things in the light of St. Barsanuphe and John, because I had already read this text some time ago and I realize that I had read only superficially ….
    You help me to go deeper…. and what a wonder and relief to discover reality, the truth about oneself, in its smallness and vanity ; and then another wonder, I laugh as often by reading you ! Glory to God !
    (Forgive my bad English)

    Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

  3. Your beautiful reflection has greatly helped me. Recently I have felt a lot of turmoil for reasons that remain unclear to me. Now I wonder if it is a critical spirit. Undoubtedly I have much anger beneath my false veneer of humility. It is hard for me to see how I can do anything about this except to confess my weakness. Knowing that it may be best for me to simply do what I can “and no more” has greatly calmed my heart so that I can at least be aware of the presence of God. It also calms my critical spirit to know that others are already simply doing what they can. Thank you!

  4. Fr. Michael,

    This is, with your other posts, the interior examination I often need. I hate being guilty of such things, but I’d rather know in advance to watch than to be aloof or intentionally ignorant. My disappointment with others, if it was gone because they improved to the point I was satisfied, may accomplish nothing for me spiritually. I know this in my heart I think, but, I often act as if I will not make improvement until they are in a better position to support me, not in the sense of holding me up, but more as fellow participants in the same struggle. I am tempted to think that they do not understand or appreciate the gravity of the Christian life and therefore offer less than fully meaningful help. Because there are several possible reasons for this, which may be personal to people I have in mind, I am tempted to assume the worst, assume a kind of naïve optimism of them that is rooted in not believing the full ramifications of the the Gospel, etc. There is a part of me that thinks, the atmosphere/imagination in a parish, for what we are all supposed to be getting around to doing/thinking/feeling is set to some degree by the Priest. And when in preaching, teaching, etc., in the overall focus/what is emphasized, doing everyday stuff, when it seems to lack genuine awareness/concern for the health of the soul, or seems to ignore the real dangers and pitfalls, or seems to see them as not nearly as big a deal as the Gospels/liturgy/tradition, and it feels like, substituted, is getting by, doing some charity this and that, having some program here and there, doing the liturgy – that something is wrong. Yet, if I sinned during this time period of disappointment, and my conscience was alarmed and awakened, I often experience real guilt over what were judgments. And then I am stuck, because, I do know something is missing, and I do know that my desire to see it fixed, is also tainted by pride. If this were Satan’s strategy, I’d say it was quite brilliant. I know I have no business experientially correcting others. I know our Tradition calls for more than what is presented. And I’m not asking for stricter fasting, but for more attention to things like you call attention here in this article, things that call us all to repentance and a view of the world where Christ is truly Lord and King.

    I guess, if I were the the young zealous monk, I wouldn’t be asking to do more strict fasting, more services, I would be asking that we not try and make the Christian life more comfortable or more strict than it is presented to us, psychologically, emotionally, physically, etc. I want to be with people who genuinely feel the struggle for holiness, and want to be helped by each other, under a Priest with a similar imagination. I wonder if penances are ever given today, helps toward repentance. But in the meantime, my disappointment, is probably, detrimental for me. So, there it is. I’ll keep this one anonymous.

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      It is indeed a severe temptation to judge others when we are “quickened” to an awareness of the struggle of salvation while those around us, especially our spiritual leaders, don’t seem to feel the urgency we feel. I have found it helpful at such times to imagine that I am a greater sinner than the others and that’s why God is filling me with what seems to be a greater urgency and awareness of the spiritual struggle because if God didn’t give me such a strong feeling, I would certainly give myself completely to laziness and sin.

    2. “I want to be with people who genuinely feel the struggle for holiness, and want to be helped by each other, under a Priest with a similar imagination. ”

      Amen and AMEN!!

  5. Thank you for your answer Father Michael. How relieving it is for the soul !
    Archimandrite Zacharias of Maldon, says that if we were given to see the extent of our sins, the true state of our soul, we could not bear it…
    On this path of purification, the further we go, the more we have to feel and see our sinful state, and pride fights this awareness by giving us to see, real or imaginary, the sins of others, or even simple words or attitudes that displease us, judging them negatively…..
    We have no idea what is going on in the hearts of others, their conscience, the struggle they face…
    To feel the smallest and the poorest in everything, and to really live it, is surely the best way…..
    It is an unceasing struggle that leads us to the prayer of supplication “Come to my aid Lord, hasten to help me !

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