Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, October 15th
It is well known that St. Teresa had to overcome numerous difficulties in the spiritual life. Among these difficulties, finding a good spiritual director was particularly challenging – ultimately she became acquainted with St. John of the Cross, who at the age of twenty five became her confessor and director (she was fifty two at the time). And yet, in spite of these difficulties, St. Teresa insists that spiritual direction is part of the ordinary life of the Christian – something to which nearly every person should avail themselves at some point during their journey. In particular, the Church herself encourages all those who strive for a special perfection in the spiritual life to entrust themselves to a director – all the faithful are required to receive some direction in the spiritual life through at least a yearly confession.
Even if we admit the normalcy and occasional necessity of spiritual direction, there is yet the great difficulty of finding a spiritual director whom we trust. What are the characteristics of a good spiritual director? The Catholic Encyclopedia offers helpful guidance in this matter.
Knowledge of the spiritual life
A good director must have a sound knowledge of the science of the soul – he or she must know the various spiritualities of the Church’s tradition and, more importantly, must have a firm grasp of the fundamental principles of the spiritual life. In this regard, St. Teresa is famed for having advised that, if we must choose, it is better to have a learned director than a holy one – since one who is learned will be able to advise the safest course to take in the spiritual life, but one who is holy (without being learned) will not know of any spirituality beyond his own.
Faithfulness to the Church
Since the primary way in which God’s guides his holy people is through the pastors of the Church, a good director must be orthodox – faithful to the Church in every point upon which she has pronounced her judgment. Even in those matters of faith and morals upon which the Church has spoken only in her ordinary (and not infallible) Magisterium, the spiritual director must submit to the Church’s wisdom with a spirit of religious obedience and must never contradict her judgment. A spiritual director who lacks a love for the Church and her pastors (and especially for the Pope) will serve only to lead souls astray – such a director is a thief or a robber and has not entered the sheepfold through the gate.
Prayer and mortification
The principle means of progress towards spiritual perfection consist in the exercise of prayer and mortification. Within these two principle works, there are many and varied directions in which the Holy Spirit might lead the soul. However, without a true commitment to prayer and mortification, the spiritual life will be dry and barren – a desert wasteland without water. Prayer provides the primary matter to be discussed in spiritual direction. Without contemplation, without at least a movement toward the interior life, there can be no true direction. Thus, any good spiritual director will advocate the life of prayer (and even contemplation). Moreover, in order to grow in prayer, mortification is needed. Thus, these two – prayer and mortification – must be an essential part of the program of direction.
Errors to be guarded against
Jansenism – this heresy required an unattainable degree of purity of conscience before allowing penitents to receive Holy Communion. The drive for perfection need not be tempered, but an over-reliance upon the personal conscience of the individual (requiring perfect rather than merely moral certainty) is a grave error. While a good director will lead the soul to perfection; he will also guard against an excessive reliance upon the soul’s esteem of itself, trusting instead in the grace of Christ given through the sacraments of the Church.
Quietism – this heresy required men to deaden all their faculties, to avoid rational thought, to cease all study of the divine mysteries, and even forbade the taking of vows or the performance of works (including all sensible devotions, like the Rosary). Any good spiritual director will advise means of growing in various prayers and devotions – among these, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, meditation upon Sacred Scripture, and the Most Holy Rosary hold a certain pride of place. A good director will not degrade the intellectual life, but will direct the soul to unite the search for truth with a true spirit of love.
Montanism – this heresy held that, once led by the Spirit, the soul no longer relied upon the teachings of the Church or the guidance of her pastors. A good director will always lead the soul into a closer union with Christ, through the Church which is his chosen instrument of salvation.
Spiritualism (after the Spirituali) – I coin as a heresy the concept that, in order to be a saint, one must be a religious consecrated by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. We are called to live the spiritual life within our vocation, not without it! Thus, a mother is meant to be a saint as a mother, not as a nun – this means that her interior life will be nurtured in a different way than the nun’s. St. Josemaría Escriva has done much to bring to light the vocation of the laity and their means to attaining holiness – through work and prayer, in accord with their calling in life. A good director will always take the circumstance of daily life into account and will help each soul to live out her particular vocation in Christ.
Can I change spiritual directors?
The Church insists upon the right of the faithful to choose from any number of approved directors – one is always free to change directors. There are certain circumstances where this is most advisable: if the director varies from the clear teaching of the Church or abuses the privileges of direction, the individual being directed should change directors. However, we must be careful not to avoid a director simply because he or she is challenging us to grow. If the director has not clearly erred, it is best to remain – or, perhaps, one might discuss the possibility of a change with the current director and follow his advice in the matter.
It is important not to try and find the perfect spiritual director – he probably does not exist; rather, he is the Holy Spirit! Remember that St. Teresa of Avila was directed by Fr. Domingo Bañez, who is reported to have fathered an illegitimate child – but he was the most learned man in Europe, a master of the spiritual tradition, and served her as a good director for a time. The principles enumerated above serve as a sort of measure against which a director can be judged.
Does my director have to be a priest?
There is no reason why a director should have to be a priest, but there is a certain safety in having a priest director. In general, men should not be directed by women and clergy should not be directed by lay faithful – likewise religious should generally be directed by religious and not by diocesan priests or lay people. However, there can certainly be exceptions to the norm. A well educated and faithful lay woman would make a much better director than an ignorant, dissenting priest. Moreover, many priests today do not take time for direction – thus, many faithful will have to look elsewhere.
In any case, there is no need to be discouraged! If you feel the need for a director, and if you are convinced of this need but cannot find anyone suitable, you must pray and fast – merit a director through your good works, trusting that the Lord will provide everything which is necessary for your salvation if only you ask him with zeal, humility, perseverance, and a steadfast faith.