Desire and Discernment: A Letter to Myself

Dear Faith,

In your latest letter, you asked a never-ending question in our spiritual journey, “How do I know what I desire is also what God wants me to do?” I know that you are seeking the will of God and are struggling about how to make a good discernment. I would like to share with you some wisdom that I borrow from the spiritual masters who were concerned with your question.

I am glad that you desire to do what God wants you to do, since an authentic desire is the beginning of a good discernment. If we consider discernment as a process which includes the interpretation of our spiritual experience, then the centre of discernment is desire because it is the power of attraction which begins our experience. Desire is powerful, for it can be the energy which moves us towards God and to do the will of God; at the same time, it can also enslave us when it is directed to anything other than God. In discernment, the power of desire and the purification of desire meet.

Dear Faith, in this letter I would like to show you that the authentic desire for God is the beginning and end of discernment. Discernment leads to the purification of our immediate desires in harmony to our ultimate desire for God, which in turn facilitates the process of discernment. Thus, the secret of making a good discernment lies in the authenticity of our desires, or to a broader extent, the authenticity of our Christian life.

What is an authentic desire? The dictionary of Christian Spirituality defines desire as a “longing or yearning for, or being attached to or drawn toward, something beyond the self.” For Christians, it is in the desire for God himself that our specific desires find their meanings. In the case of desire, discernment consists in a testing of the immediate desire against the most fundamental and authentic of all our desires — the Desire for God. Discernment requires us therefore a deep understanding of the Desire for God. We shall become what the Lord described as skilled changers of currency who are familiar with the “standard gold”, therefore have greatest knowledge to tell the difference between the purest gold and those spurious coins (Cassian, 54).

All the masters discuss the Desire for God, but I only want to select three representatives, Gregory of Nyssa (early Orthodox), Bernard of Clairvaux (medieval Catholic), and Richard Baxter (post-Reformation Protestant) to show you how our traditions understand the Desire for God. For Gregory, the Desire for God is to be called a friend of God by the virtues of the lives we live (Gregory, 135). The encounter with God requires one “in all things to be pure in soul and body, washed stainless of every spot in both parts, in order to appear pure to the One” (Gregory, 92). The Desire for God never ends, always creating a longing to see more (Gregory, 116).

Comparing with Gregory, Bernard uses more intimate imagery—kiss— to describe this Desire. This joyful, intimate, and passionate Desire is just like the Bride desires and loves her Bridegroom. “What can be more joyous than this marvellous union? What more to be desired than love … the contract of a holy and spiritual marriage” (Bernard, 271). The Desire for God is a loving response to God’s initiation, for “God has gone before you and sought you before you sought him” (Bernard, 275). The Desire for God goes through a dynamic process, which Bernard explains with three kisses: the kiss of feet, the kiss of hand, and the kiss of mouth. The kiss of feet represents repentance and forgiveness of sins as expressed through tears, shame, and grief (Bernard, 222). The kiss of hand, grace, fruits of worthy repentance, and works of holiness (Bernard, 223). The kiss of mouth, intimacy and union with Jesus, being “made one with him through his kindness” (Bernard, 223). In agreement with Gregory, Bernard also believes that the Desire does not end at “the happy discovery of what is desired”, but extends the desire (Bernard, 274).

Baxter describes the Desire for God as the saint’s everlasting Rest, which is the end and perfection of motion, the most happy estate of a Christian (Baxter, 29). The Rest involves a perfect freedom from all evils, the highest perfection in body and soul, and the nearest enjoyment of God (Baxter, 39-40). Agreeing with Bernard, Baxter states the Desire is caused by God’s love. It is a free gift which is purchased by “the precious blood of Christ.” The soul can experience the joys that are immediately from God himself in the Desire (74).

Dear Faith, have you noticed some similarities in these masters’ understandings, even though they use different imagery? They all point out that the Desire is a relational union with God, being a friend, a lover, or simply resting with God. They all emphasize that the purification of body and soul is the precondition of experience this Desire. Does this remind you of Cassian? The aim of our life is the kingdom of God, and our objective is the purity of heart which rises to the high point of love (Cassian, 41). For Gregory, the Desire is predominantly an intellectual encounter with God, while Bernard and Baxter mention more affective aspects. Please keep both in mind, Faith, since we not only use our brain in discernment, but also trust our feelings. It seems for Gregory and Bernard, the Desire always creates a deeper longing and desire. Desire never ends. An authentic desire must be the energy which leads us to the union with God.

Now, let us move to discernment. As mentioned before, as a process, discernment contains a testing of the immediate desire against our ultimate Desire for God in which the Spirit yearns for God within us. If the meeting of our immediate desires and the Sprit-given Desire for God brings harmony, this indicates that our immediate desires are moved by the Spirit. Otherwise, it indicates a “spirit” at variance with the Holy Spirit. Discerning desires is discerning the spirits.

Faith, please forgive me that I will emphasize again the importance of discernment before we talk about how to discern. “No virtue can come to full term or endure without the grace of discernment…For discernment is the mother, the guardian, and the guide of all the virtues.” (Cassian, 64) Without discernment, we are susceptible to the temptations of the evil spirit (Cassian, 55). The blessed Antony spoke that it is “the lack of discernment [that] prevented them from reaching the end.” (Cassian, 62) Remember, Faith, discernment which the Scripture is described as the eye and the lamp of the body, is a gift from God (Cassian, 60). Pray that God may grant you this gift.

Discernment is impossible without humility. The masters believe that humility and true self-knowledge are the prerequisites of discernment. “True discernment is obtained only when one is really humble. The first evidence of this humility is when everything done or thought of is submitted to the scrutiny of our elders.” (Cassian, 67) Teresa also insists on the necessity of spiritual direction, to ask advice, to place oneself in the hands of others and to enter into the way of obedience (Teresa, 65). Humility instead of self-reliance, and growth of self-knowledge are important points for Teresa. “For in order to know ourselves, it helps a great deal to speak with someone who already knows the world for what it is.” (Teresa, 65) Faith, I think the point of obeying and listening to your director and wise friends is not seeking wisdom from them, but is learning to open your thoughts to God through trustworthy people. The pride of self-confidence and the danger of deception eliminate by placing ourselves in the hands of others. As Cassian says, “An evil thought sheds its danger when it is brought out into the open.” (Cassian, 68) Of course, we also need to exercise discernment in deciding who is trustworthy (Cassian, 71). I am praying that God will bestow you a trustworthy director with whom you can feel the presence of God.

Now we finally come to the practice of discerning desires/spirits. I would like to draw your attention to Cassian, Teresa, and John of the Cross, not because other masters do not give advice about controlling desires or avoiding temptations, but these three masters particularly deal with the deceptions in discernment. I also want to give you some insights from different traditions and male/female perspectives.

For Cassian, discernment begins with mediation of Scripture, that is, “the memory of the Lord’s cross”, with which we shall manage to destroy “the liars of wild beasts within us and the hiding places of the venomous serpents.” (Cassian, 58) He reminds us three sources of our thoughts/desires: God, the devil, and ourselves. The voice of God is always quiet and gentile, but firmly lead us to inner peace, joy, and desire for God. The devil always attracts us to sin, deceitfully presents himself as an angel of light. It makes us feel unworthy of God and run away from God, and leads to despair in the long run. Then discernment involves being attentive to the thoughts/desires that surface in our hearts and scrutinizing the source of our thoughts/desires. “Right from the beginning we will scrutinize their origins, their causes, their originators, deciding our necessary reaction to them in the light of who it is that suggests them.” (Cassian, 54).

More explicitly than Cassian and John, Teresa emphasizes a strong foundation of prayer in discernment. She trusts that good desires are given by God. In trying to pray, we are responding to God who “desires intensely that we love him and seek his company.” (Teresa, 49) As in Bernard, Desire meets desire. Teresa insists that our love and desire must “reach the point of overwhelming reason.” (Teresa, 62) She cherishes good desire as the energy which moves us towards God. For Teresa, the chief discernment criteria is that authentic desires are known by their subject—to love God and to love our neighbours (Teresa, 100, 181). We know that we are doing God’s will if we love both God and our neighbours intensely, generously and completely. Teresa notices that as we come closer to God, desire causes sufferings; the distance between what we desire and where we are causes anguish (Teresa, 108). Suffering is even desired if it helps the will of God to be accomplished (Teresa, 183). Faith, I know that probably you would not have mystical experiences in discernment, but I still think you can benefit from the principles of her teachings. When it comes to discerning mystical experiences, the attitude of humility and of indifference of spiritual consolation is of crucial important (Teresa, 59). Some mystical experiences, especially imagery visions, are easily interfered with by the devil. Teresa suggests that examining the later effects of the experiences tell us their origins (Teresa, 125). The authenticity of a mystical experience depends on whether it is in accordance with Scripture and furthers conformity to God’s will.

In contrast to Teresa, John’s treatment of desire is negative: all desires, no matter sensory, intellectual or spiritual are to be negated and purified. In agreement with Cassian and Teresa, John stresses that the soul needs to be greatly humbled and be detached from spiritual delights and consolations (John, 166). He lists many typical imperfections of beginners, among which I want you pay particular attention to pride and impatience. Pride expresses itself by “having a desire to speak of spiritual things in other’s presence” and to instruct rather than to be instructed (John, 164). Many beginners are impatient because they “want to become saints in a day” (John, 173). They measure God by themselves and not themselves by God (John, 177). The purification of passive night of the senses and spirits is needed in order to draw us closer to God, the union with the divine fire where the log burns “as beautiful as the fire itself.” (John, 205) For John, it seems that discernment relates to living an authentic spiritual life, rather than a process to make specific decisions.

Dear Faith, let me summarize for you lest you are overwhelmed by these teachings. You see that Cassian, Teresa, and John all emphasize the importance of humility and of placing yourself under others’ instruction. Humility is the prerequisite and the fruit of discernment. All of them exhort us to scrutinize the origins, directions, and intentions of desires by observing their later effects. When disordered desires are discerned, the purification begins. Cassian gives practice advice about how to discern our thoughts. Teresa cherishes good desires and provides us the chief discernment criteria—to love God and others. John seems to ignore the idea of discernment as a process of making particular decisions. His discernment is to discern the authenticity of our spiritual life. Faith, may I also suggest that in giving up the idea of “discernment”, you may attain the goal of discernment: the purification of disordered desires, the purity of heart, therefore the Desire of God — union with God? Discernment is not a technique but it is part of the way of cross. When you recognize which spirit is leading you by your growing familiarity with the Desire for God and purification of disordered immediate desires, you will simply know what do you in pleasing God. “Blessed the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

May the Lord grant you a discerning heart which desires to praise, revere, and serve Him!



Martin Luther and Teresa of Avila On the Lord’s Prayer

To this day I suckle at the Lord’s prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill. It is the very best prayer, even better than the Psalter, which is so very dear to me. It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it.

— Martin Luther

A German Protestant theologian and a Spanish Catholic mystic, at first glance, it seems that there is little commonality between Martin Luther and Teresa of Avila. Recent researches, however, show us that they may share more than we thought. For example, through comparing their theologies, Donald Christopher Nugent argues that “an evangelical theology can be mystical and that a mystical theology can be evangelical.”

In this paper, I am interested in the question whether Luther and Teresa, both as masters of prayer, have some common teachings about prayer. In light of the centrality of the Lord’s prayer in the Christian tradition, I will focus on their reflections on this prayer in Luther’s An Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer for Simple Laymen together with Teresa’s The Way of Perfection. First, I will briefly introduce the historical backgrounds of their writings. Second, I will compare their insights from the Lord’s prayer sentence by sentence. Finally, I will conclude with considering what their insights may offer to us now. In my opinion, although approaching to the Lord’s prayer from different perspectives, both Luther and Teresa emphasize the importance of the knowledge of God and ourselves, genuine humility and obedience, and the love and fear of God in prayer.

Luther and Teresa in Context

Martin Luther, who was born in Germany in 1483, is well-known as “the father of Protestantism”. On his way of becoming a lawyer, a bolt of lighting frightened him into becoming a monk. He joined the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt and study theology there. In 1512, Luther became a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. But he had problems of finding peace with God. He was taught to please God and earn His grace through his good work. But no matter how hard he worked, what he found was only exhaustion. Sometime in 1515, Luther found the answer to his problems. When studying Romans in a tower of the monastery, his eyes were opened and he realized the meaning of “the righteousness of God” which once caused his difficulty. It is not the righteousness by which God condemns us but the righteousness by which God justifies us by faith. In 1517, Luther was compelled to act in response to the abuse of indulgences by posting his Ninety-Five Theses for debate, which instead triggered the Protestant Reformation.

In 1519, Luther went to Leipzig to debate with John Eck, a leading theologian. In this debate, Luther appealed to Scripture as his final authority. Eck cleverly pushed Luther into admitting that a general council could err and into approving some of the teachings of Jan Hus. In 1520, Luther published three major treaties to clarify his theology. The same year, he was condemned as a heretic and excommunicated by the pope. In this religious context, Luther wrote his Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in 1519. As we will discuss later, his understanding of the Lord’s prayer rightly reflects his developing theology of “justification by faith” and “Scripture alone”.

When Luther made his famous attack on indulgences in 1517, Teresa was only two years old. Born in an old Spanish family, after her mother’s death, in 1531, Teresa was entrusted by her father to an Augustinian convent where she felt a call to the monastic life. In 1536, she ran away from home and joined the Carmelite monastery of the Incarnation in Avila. Like Luther, entering a religious order did not solve all Teresa’s spiritual problems. She had difficulties with her spiritual life, until 1554, she had a deeper experience of conversion. Since that, her life of prayer progressed rapidly. But her confessors doubted her unusual experiences came from the devil and asked her to write an account of her spiritual experiences, which she did in her Life. About the same time, she was also asked by her sisters to write some guidance for their prayer, which then became The Way of Perfection. In this book, Teresa comments the Lord’s prayer and defends the “mental prayer”. Her contemporary Spanish theologians were saying that ordinary people should confine themselves to vocal prayers. Against them, Teresa stresses the importance of praying with mind, but without despising vocal prayers.

Teresa was not merely a contemplative. She is also remembered as a reformer of her order. After facing much opposition, in 1562, she found St Joseph’s house in Avila where the strict Carmelite rules could be observed. Her Life and Way of Perfection were written during the period of 1562-1565. From 1567, she also found other similar houses throughout Spain and a new order known as the Discalced Carmelites came out.

Luther and Teresa on the Lord’s Prayer

Both Luther and Teresa reflect the Lord’s prayer on how to pray and what to ask in prayer. Luther believes that the Lord’s prayer gives us a patten to pray: “all other prayers that do not understand and express the content and meaning of this one are untrustworthy.” In a treatise to his barber A Simple Way to Pray, he suggests ways to mediate and expand on the Lord’s prayer. Teresa suggests that the Lord’s prayer is the most sublime and comprehensive of all short prayers, through which “the Lord has taught us the whole method of prayer of high contemplation, from the very beginnings of mental prayer, to Quiet, and Union.” Both of them believe that the Lord’s prayer provides us a model or a path to pray, thus it is worthy to compare their reflections in each sentence of the prayer.

Our Father, who art in heaven.

For Luther, the address “Father” is so friendly, sweet, intimate, and warmhearted, which reminds us our identity as the children of God. Teresa also believes that the first words show God’s great love for us. This address also reminds us how we should treat and honour the One whom we submit our petitions, and how we should put ourselves in His presence. Both of them insist the importance of humility and sincere prayer from the heart. Luther believes that the essence and nature of prayer is “lifting up our heart to the Lord.” Teresa notes that we do not need to feel strange in God’ presence, but we must take to Him very humbly as we talk with our father.

Luther points out that “who art in heaven” leads to a knowledge of self—what a miserable life we live on earth, which gives us a fervent yearning and moves us to pray.

For Teresa, however, this phrase emphasizes the importance of knowing where the Father must be sought. “Remember how important it is for you to have understood this truth—that the Lord is within us and that we should be there with Him.” God is within us and the place we can be alone and look upon Him is our soul. Thus, she explains the nature and importance of the prayer of recollection. “It is called recollection because the soul collects together all the faculties and enters within itself to be with its God.” For wandering minds, it is of great important not only to believe but to learn by experience.

Interestingly, both Luther and Teresa have comments on the value of vocal prayers. Although Luther urges us not to pray only with the lips because the heart says more, he also believes that “no one should depend on his heart and presume to pray without uttering words unless he is well trained in the Spirit and has experience in warding off stray thoughts.” For him, vocal prayer is a great gift of God, and it is so for Teresa. She insists that one must be attentive to the Father who dwells in him when reciting vocal prayers and this active recollection will help to prepare for contemplation.

Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come

In the petition “hallowed be thy name”, Luther considers how we misuse the name of God and what the children of God are like. “We profane God’s name when we do not live as his children.” Thus, he insists that God’s name must be hallowed in our whole life, not only with our lips but also our soul and all the members of our body. Again he reminds us that the petition is a lesson and indicator of our miserable life on earth, because no one is able to hallow God’s name perfectly, otherwise he would not longer need to pray the Lord’s prayer. Thus, this petition contends against our pride and arrogance and humbles us. “God becomes everything and man becomes nothing.”

In the petition “thy kingdom come”, he discusses two kingdoms: kingdom of the devil and kingdom of God. He suggests that the kingdom of God is a kingdom of truth and righteousness, where we are free from sins and have been subjected to God. In this kingdom, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” In Luther’s opinion, Christ has brought us with His very self and the kingdom is now within us. He urges us to give our inmost self to God and seek for kingdom of God itself rather than the fruit of the kingdom.

Teresa treats these petitions in a different way. She considers what we ask and when we ask for this kingdom: “of the many joys to be found in the kingdom of Heaven, the chief is that we shall have no more to do with the things of earth; …when we see that all are hallowing and praising the Lord, and are blessing His name, and that none is offending Him. For all love Him there…” She insists that God would not tell us to ask for impossible things because He would like to give us a foretaste of the coming Kingdom now. She explains the prayer of quiet in which God begins to give His kingdom here and now. In her description, this prayer is a “supernatural” state in which one enters into the peace that God gives through His presence. The soul “sees that it is in the kingdom, or at least is near to the King who will give it the kingdom.” We cannot reach the state for ourselves, no matter how hard we try. It is purely God’s grace. Although with different languages, both Luther and Teresa mention the relationship between union with Christ and the foretaste of the coming kingdom.

Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven

Luther believes this petition especially brings about genuine humility and obedience. In his opinion ,God’s will being done means that His commandments are kept, because God reveals His will through these commandments. Thus, in order to know and understand God’s will, we need to learn to distinguish the old self in ourselves. He notes that God often breaks our will and let us learn to know a will superior to our own will, so that His will be done. It is of great importance to discern the ways in which our will is evil. He insists that we should have a God-fearing will. “A good will is found only where there is no will. Where there is no will, God’s will, which is the very best, will be present.” He also reflects the the connections of the first three petitions: no one can honour God’s name unless he is righteous and lives in the kingdom of God; no one is in the kingdom unless he is free of sin; only those whose own will is uprooted and replaced by God’s will can be free of sin.

Teresa reflects on what the Lord desires us to give the Father in this petition. Like Luther, Teresa urges us to surrender our wills completely to God: “Unless we make a total surrender of our will to the Lord, and put ourselves in His hands so that He may do in all things what is best for us in accordance with His will, He will never allow us to drink of it. This is the perfect contemplation of which you asked me to write to you.” She views Jesus as the one in whom God’s will was done completely. Like Luther notes that a total surrender of our will may be painful, Teresa believes that love is the measure of our ability to bear crosses, since the Lord gives us in proportion to our love for Him. She indicates that for such an offering, the reward the Lord gives us is great: “He begins to make such a friend of the soul that not only does He restore its will to it but He gives it His own also.”

Give us this day our daily bread

Both Luther and Teresa believe that this petition teaches us where we may seek consolation and nourishment. But what does the “bread” mean? Although Luther and Teresa both agree that we are not asking for earthly food, but for heavenly and spiritual bread, the food for the soul, this petition may be the place where Luther and Teresa have the biggest different understanding. For Luther, the “bread” is one name of the Word of God—Jesus Himself. It comes to us directly or through a person. “Christians ought to be richly and abundantly supplied with this bread.” Thus, we need to pray for our spiritual leaders, through whom God gives us the Word. He insists that the Word should be given through words and sacraments together. “It is a bad situation that in our time so much stress is laid on saying and having masses said, while unfortunately neglecting the most important part, the one for which the masses were instituted, namely, the proclamation.” For Teresa, however, the “bread” means the Holy Sacrament and she condemns Lutherans’ “irreverence” of the Holy Sacrament by saying that they go to church meaning to offend Him rather than to worship Him. Their understandings reflects the conflicts between Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

Luther notes there are two modes of forgiveness: one is bitter and hard, for those who have strong faith and the other is easier, for beginners. He reminds us that those who are blind to their own sins and those who judge the sins of others can not pray this petition.

Teresa links this petition with the previous petitions of “give us daily bread” and “God’s will be done”. She notes that this petition is “as we forgive” not “as we will forgive” because one who surrendered his will to God must have done this already. She notes that people who have been drawn to closer to God through contemplation in the prayer of union will be willing to forgive others. Although she realizes people are in various degrees in surrendering their will to God and forgiving others, she urges us to do what we can and to be assured that God accepts everything.

And lead us not into temptation or trials

Both Luther and Teresa note that God’s concern of our mindfulness of temptations and trails is to teach us the knowledge of ourselves and God, to perfect us in humility. “The person who is truly humble is always doubtful about his own virtues; very often they seem more genuine and of greater worth when he sees them in his neighbours.” Teresa also gives counsels concerning different kinds of temptations and discerning true and false humilities. She says that true humility comes with peace and delight, and expands the soul’s capacity to serve God. She stresses that the way we can be free from temptations is to use the love and fear given by God. She urges us to always walk in the love and fear of God.

But deliver us from evil. Amen

Luther notes that the request of release from evils should be done in a proper manner and at the very last. He insists that we need to first examine our faith before prayer. “Amen” expresses the faith we should have in praying every petition and the faithful promise of God. Luther concludes, “A prayer is not good and right because of its length, devoutness, sweetness, or its plea for temporal or eternal goods. Only that prayer is acceptable which breathes a firm confidence and trust that it will be heard because of the reliable pledge and promise of God. Not your zeal but God’s Word and promise render your prayer good. This faith, based on God’s words, is also the true worship; without it all other worship is sheer deception and error.” I think that his emphasis on the importance of faith and God’s word in prayer reflects his developing theology during this period.

Teresa concludes her commentary by stressing some key insights: we should be aware of whom we are addressing, who we are and what we are asking for; the Lord’s prayer includes the spiritual journey from beginning through the prayer of recollection, to the prayer of quiet and the prayer of union; praying the Lord’s prayer is a source of great consolation. “As we repeat the Paternoster [the Lord’s prayer] so many times daily, then, as I have said, let us delight in it and strive to learn from so excellent a Master the humility with which He prays, and all the other things that have been described.”


Luther believes that the Lord’s prayer gives us a patten to pray and he suggests us to mediate the meaning of each petition and expand the Lord’s prayer with our own language. He stresses the role of faith and Scripture in prayer. Luther’s teaching concerns more about the nature and implications of the prayer. Teresa, however, aims to lead her readers to mystical prayer. She believes that the Lord’s prayer includes a spiritual journey of different stages of prayers. Her reflections are more related to the individual persons and their growth in prayer and personal relationship with God. Even though they held different theological views on some topics, both of their teachings and reflections stress the importance of the knowledge of God and ourselves, genuine humility and obedience, and the love and fear of God in prayer. Luther’s simple way of prayer and Teresa’s mystical prayer both encourage us to continue to discover in the Lord’s prayer different paths of drawing closer to God.