Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment
by Thomas Dubay, S.M. (1977)
In this book, Fr. Dubay attempts to map out a way for people to discern truth from error, in groups and alone. As always, he uses the gospel and the Church as his guides, so he is reliable and worthy of the reader’s trust. This book is his least informal and most academic of the ones I have read by him. It is a deceptively strong work. Appearing to be dry, long, dense, and pedantic, it turns out to be none of those. I found it to be extremely lucid, practical, insightful, and vibrant. And worthy of at least one additional reading.
It would probably require more than one excerpt to demonstrate the appeal of this book, but let one lengthy citation suffice. The book has four large divisions, the first of which is “Concepts and Problems”. Chapter 3 is “How Does God Speak?” and here are two sections from that chapter:
Experience of God: A Privilege
When we reflect on the endless gap between inﬁnite and finite, we glimpse at least vaguely how remarkable it is that man should encounter God, should experience something of how he experiences himself, should be able somehow to detect his mind in this encounter. Since discernment does at least in its loftier occurrences imply this experience of God, we ought not to assume that the classical feeling of peace is humanly produced. If perfect discernment demands perfect holiness, it demands what we have been talking about. A deep contact with God bestows a deep perception of his mind. How sublime this contact may be we may illustrate with a few snatches from a single page ﬂowing from the pen of a mystic: “This loving inﬂow. . . this inflaming and urgent longing of love. . . something immensely rich and delightful . . . this divine ﬁre . . . a living ﬂame . . . this enkindling of love . . . a certain touch of divinity . . . so sublime an experience.”
In the sobering remarks I shall be making about the likelihood of illusion among many who feel they are listening to the Spirit, I should not want the impression to be given that genuine experience of God is extraordinary, a thing not to be talked about. Quite the contrary, experiencing the divine is so important that we seek to receive it, yes, but we also wish to deﬂect counterfeits from it. Since it is the same John of the Cross who will furnish us with strong warnings about deception, we may also allow him to assure us at this point that there do indeed exist remarkable experiences of God indwelling.
Noting that we are called to delight in God in a manner transcending all knowledge and capacity to explain, John issues the invitation: “Come, then, O beautiful soul! Since you know now that your desired Beloved lives hidden within your heart, strive to be really hidden with Him, and you will embrace Him within you and experience Him with loving affection.” In this union, says the saint, one experiences a great closeness to God and is instructed in his own wisdom and mysteries. The saint uses all sorts of expressions to articulate some little of what he means: “secret touches of love . . . cauterized by the fire of love . . . it burns up in this ﬂame and fire of love . . .wholly renews it. . .changes its manner of being”. He speaks of a “touch of supreme knowledge of the divinity” that cannot be continual or prolonged, for if it were, the person would die. As it is, one “is left dying of love”. John feels that so lofty is this experience that only he who has had it can understand it well, and even the recipient cannot explain what he has felt, and so he calls it an “l-don’t-know-what”.
Authenticity of the Experience of God
We are going to consider in our next chapter illusions and errors as both possible and probable in alleged discerning of the Holy Spirit. We shall likewise devote still other chapters to the revealed signs of who is led by the Spirit and who is not. Nonetheless, we may make several needed observations at this point. And the first is to note how an experience of God may be distinguished from mere emotion. There are several differences. First of all, an emotion originates in some human or ﬁnite cause, whereas the experience of God does not. The latter is divinely given and lies beyond the control of the human person (though he can prevent it by neglect or sin). Secondly, the one is heavily of sense, while the other is spiritual, even though the latter can overﬂow into one’s feelings. Thirdly, an emotion never becomes continual, whereas the perception of God does become continual when one has grown fully in him. Fourthly, even the best of emotions do not necessarily produce a new knowledge of God or insight into his economy, while a genuine encounter with him does. Fifthly, emotions are usually neither indelible nor ineffable, while deep experiences of the divine are often both. Sixthly, emotions are not always peaceful, whereas meetings with God carry an inner calm with them. Lastly, emotions are not necessarily accompanied by moral goodness, while experiences of God do bring a growth in gospel living.
It will be interesting to note that what we are saying here will be said in biblical thought patterns when further on we study the signs of authentic discernment. Not everyone who thinks he is feeling the Spirit is feeling the Spirit.
The question may then be asked whether one can have a founded certitude that he has met God. Catholic teaching excludes an absolute certainty (unless one has a revelation) of one’s being in grace and of final salvation. Scripture tells us that we are to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) and that we are to hold on to the grace we have received in reverence and awe (Heb 12:28). The person who considers himself safe should beware lest he fall (1 Cor 10:12). Yet at the same time theology does allow for a reasonable assurance that one possesses the indwelling presence. What I am calling a reasonable assurance others term a moral certainty or a practical certitude.
How then do we explain the mystic’s certainty that God dwells within him and that he has really encountered this God? One answer given is that a deep experience of God can be equivalent to a revelation and thus can yield an absolute certitude. Another response is that the experience does not yield absolute certitude but only the well-founded reasonable assurance, the moral certitude that excludes reasonable doubts.
– pp. 74-77