Discernment is the ability to judge wisely and objectively. Discernment is an important and common trait of religious and spiritual tradition and education and, as such, is a key characteristic in discussions of religious and spiritual development. The concept of religious and spiritual discernment is most famously described and modeled by St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises (1548/1997) in which he describes a unique method of prayer and meditation in which one carefully attends to or "discerns" one's feelings for the movement of the Holy Spirit. Ignatius taught principles of discernment to others by founding schools and directing silent, 30-day retreats. By the time of his death in 1556, Ignatius and his companions had founded 35 schools and had conducted hundreds of retreats. Today there are more than 20,000 members of the Society of Jesus, the religious order Ignatius founded, over 200 "Jesuit" schools worldwide, and 56 retreat centers in 24 U.S. states and 17 foreign countries.
Ignatius believed and shared with others that God establishes relationship in the human heart, the interior dimension of the person. In the heart, the person discovers God's purpose or vocation for his or her life. Each person is seen to have both a general and a specific vocation. At a general level, humans are called to "praise, reverence, and serve" God, but specifically how they are to do this is seen to vary from person to person. Ignatius discovered that when the call of God presents itself to the heart, it stirs the emotions. Thus, the way to know the will of God for one's own life is to discern with the intellect the various stirrings of the heart. The will then puts what the intellect has discerned into action in the world.
The overall goal of Ignatian spiritual development is to be able to "find God in all things." In order for this to occur, Ignatius believed that the whole person-body, intellect, and soul-must be educated. In particular, the body and the intellect must be freed from "inordinate attachments" that prevent them from being open to discerning the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Such attachments include physical passions and appetites, as well as psychological needs for esteem, power, and wealth. Ignatius guided others on the development of discernment. His teachings frame contemporary applied efforts to develop discernment in children and youth.
The ability to discern depends upon the commitment of parents, teachers, and the discerning individual. It is therefore impossible to articulate a series of invariant stages applicable to all individuals. However, given a familial and scholastic environment explicitly devoted to cultivating spiritual discernment in the young, it is possible to formulate a five-phase sequence of change based upon psychological capacities that emerge at particular periods in the life span. Ages, of course, are only approximations.
1. Custodial Phase (0-1. years). By most accounts, the human intellect is only crudely developed in infancy. Since the ability to discern depends upon a differentiated intellect, the infant's parents are primarily responsible for the task of discernment during the first years of life. Parents' main task is to discern the infant's emotions and then reflect this information back to the infant in the form of gestures, facial expressions, sounds, and words, e.g., "You're frustrated because you can't reach that toy." These reflections are crucial because they are external tools of discernment the infant will later internalize and employ as a child.
2. Transitional Phase (1.-6 years). During this phase, the child begins to internalize and employ the reflected tools of discernment provided by parents and educational surrogates. The child teeters back and forth between being able to discern alone and needing the support of parents and teachers. This phenomenon is analogous to the "private speech" observed by Vygotsky (1986-1934) in which the child labors to make external linguistic tools his or her own. The child is also improving his or her ability to isolate and identify his or her emotions and to appreciate the connection between these effects and the will of God. This period of development is also one of great mental and physical activity. As such, it is an opportune time for the cultivation and practice of habits, for example, moral virtues, daily recitation of prayers, scripture readings, that will dispose the child to be open to the workings of the Holy Spirit.