Feast of St. John of the Cross, December 14th
After a long period of searching for a good spiritual director, St. Teresa of Avila rejoiced to find the holy young priest, St. John of the Cross. And, although she was 52 and he was only 25, she entrusted herself to his guidance. St. John of the Cross is the image of a good director, merely thinking of him makes us desire and pray for more holy directors.
On the feast of St. Teresa of Avila (October 15th), I wrote a short post regarding what qualities we ought to look for in a spiritual director. In response to this, several people wrote asking what ought to be done if a suitable director could not be found, or if the director desired could not fulfill this role due to a lack of time. I had promised to write a second article to address this situation, and it seems fitting that we take the opportunity provided by the feast of St. Teresa’s spiritual director, St. John of the Cross, to consider this troubling and all too common scenario: Recognizing the importance of spiritual direction and the lofty qualities required of a director, what ought we do to if we cannot find a spiritual director?
What to look for in a spiritual director
First, I briefly summarize the October 15th post:
1) The good director must have a knowledge of the spiritual life. Not only must he have progressed to at least the beginning phases of contemplation, but he must also have a profound knowledge of the fundamental principles of the spiritual life. St. Teresa says that it would be better to have a learned director who is not very holy than to have a holy director who is not learned.
2) The spiritual director must be faithful to the Church. Any director who deviates from the clear teaching of the Catholic Church is a poor guide in the spiritual life. Moreover, the good director will guide his directees along the path to holiness according to the spiritual traditions of the Catholic faith (as opposed to Eastern religious practices) – hence the primary tools of the spiritual life which the good director must recommend are prayer and mortification.
3) Finally, it is not necessary that a spiritual director be a priest. However, it is generally safer to choose a priest rather than a lay person. Nevertheless, a well educated and faithful lay woman would make a much better director than an ignorant, dissenting priest.
Do I really need spiritual direction?
We all need at least some level of spiritual direction – at the very least, we need the counsel of a confessor. Spiritual direction is an ordinary part of the Christian life, something to which we all should avail ourselves at least at some point of our spiritual journey. However, there are times and circumstances which demand a more intense and consistent program of direction – this is when one on one direction becomes truly necessary.
There are several circumstances which require us to look for spiritual direction: If we are considering religious life or a vocation to the priesthood; if we are a priest or a religious; or if we are experiencing supernatural visions or locutions. There are certainly other cases as well, but these seem to be the most essential times for direction.
However, we must also say that spiritual direction can be necessary in a secondary sense for those who are seeking to grow in holiness in a particular way, especially for those who are attempting to move into regular contemplative prayer. I say that spiritual direction is necessary for these persons “in a secondary sense”, meaning that it is not strictly and absolutely necessary (such that the goal cannot be reached without direction), but rather it is necessary in the sense that the goal cannot be attained in as fitting or perfect a manner without a director.
What if I cannot find a suitable spiritual director?
We must first state that it would seem to be better to have no director at all than to have an unsuitable one – so long as the terms of “unsuitability” are primarily those which have been enumerated in my previous article and are not merely our whimsical fancies. It would be better to have no director at all than to have one who is unfaithful to the Church’s spiritual tradition – Far better to struggle alone up the mountain, than to be dragged down into hell with a companion! On the other hand, we must be realistic and recognize that our director does not need to be another St. John of the Cross, we simply need someone who is learned, faithful, and prayerful (and who is willing to take us on as a directee).
That being said, it is often the case that no suitable director is available. Often, the director we might desire is exceedingly busy – in this case, we must add, it never hurts to ask if he can take us on anyways. Moreover, I would add that any good director will be busy, but he will also have a generous heart. Also, there may be a place for direction through written letters or even over the phone – remember that St. Gemma often had her guardian angel deliver letters back and forth between her and her director!
If we cannot find a director, and we are convinced that we need one, we must first turn to prayer and mortification. Through prayer, fasting, mortification, and works of charity, we will merit a good director! Perseverance is the key, we must not stop asking God to give us a good director; he will surely answer our prayers. But what ought we to do in the meantime?
St. Alphonsus (one of the greatest doctors of the spiritual life) recommends the following daily practices:
1) Short prayers immediately upon rising
2) ½ hour’s meditation each day (or at least 15 minutes)
3) 15 minutes of spiritual reading each day
4) A daily examination of conscience (particularly considering the quality of our prayer)
5) To make a confession and take Holy Communion at least once per week
6) Avoid the near occasions of sin and bad company
7) Entrust yourself to the Blessed Virgin Mary
8) Pray to Our Savior to obtain his Holy Love
9) Daily ask for the grace of final perseverance (i.e. the gift of salvation)
While no other human power can fully take the place of a personal spiritual director, spiritual reading can assist us greatly. Moreover, if we truly desire holiness and persevere in prayer, God himself will direct us through our spiritual reading – he will guide us along until he provides a suitable spiritual director.
When we consider what sorts of books are best suited for spiritual reading (especially if we do not have a spiritual director), caution is the key. We must be very cautious about what books we use for our spiritual guidance. It is true, there are many good books out there, but there are also many bad ones (and many mediocre ones too). We must entrust ourselves to only the very best of our spiritual tradition.
Hence, I would strongly recommend against using the writings of popular modern writers, even if they are very conservative and spiritual. While people like Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Fr. Thomas Dubay, Peter Kreeft, Fr. Romano Guardini, Fr. John Corapi, and others have many good things to say; it would seem more than a bit rash to rely on their writings as the foundation of one’s spiritual life. Rather, we ought to look to the spiritual classics of our Catholic tradition – sure these can be a bit more challenging, but the spiritual life requires persistence and endurance.
If we are intending to use spiritual reading as a hold-over until God provides us with a spiritual director, we must look first and foremost to the writings of the saints. And not even of the saints in general, but of the doctors of the spiritual life – here I think of Sts. Alphonsus Liguori, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, and Thérèse of Lisieux, among others (and, in my opinion, in that order). If we have not read How to converse continually and familiarly with God, or another spiritual classic by St. Alphonsus, we are not in any place to begin reading modern authors. We must refrain from turning to the catchy writings of the present day, until first we have spent numerous holy hours over several years meditating with St. John of the Cross’ poem, The Dark Night of the Soul.
You can find a decent list of recommended spiritual reading here (this list is good precisely because it is short).
From what has been said above, it should be clear that blogs are a terrible place to go if we are looking for spiritual reading. We must never seek a replacement for spiritual direction through the blogosphere. While there is nothing wrong with reading (and writing) a blog, this must be kept in its proper place. We ought to spend far more time reading the spiritual classics than reading the blogs.
Finally, we ought to be very cautious of getting too involved in private revelations. While it is certainly true that God has given and continues to give many visions to various persons throughout the world, it is very rare that the writings of or about these visionaries will be particularly suited to be a temporary replacement for spiritual direction. It is far better to trust in the clear and solid doctrine of the spiritual classics than to turn to the exciting and often confusing messages of private revelations (even if these revelations are authentic).
The example of the saints
In addition to our spiritual reading, we ought to read often about the lives of the saints. There are many good devotional books out about the saints and, so long as they are from reliable authors and publishers, these can be used to great benefit. We ought to give a special place to the Roman Martyrology, which gives a very brief overview of the saints of each day – personally, I prefer to the old Maryrology, even though it does not match up with the current calendar. The example of the saints will call us on to greater holiness.
Among the saints, we must entrust ourselves in a particular way to the guidance and protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here follow the words of St. Bernard, on Mary the Star of the Sea:
When the storms to temptation burst upon you, when you see yourself driven upon the rocks of tribulation, look at the star, call upon Mary. When swallowed by pride or ambition, or hatred, or jealousy, look at the star, call upon Mary. Should anger, or avarice, or fleshly desire violently assail the frail vessel of your soul, look at the star, call upon Mary. If troubled on account of the heinousness of your sins, distressed at the filthy state of your conscience, and terrified at the thought of the awful judgment to come, you are beginning to sink into the bottomless gulf of sadness and to be swallowed in the abyss of despair, then think of Mary. In dangers, in doubts, in difficulties, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let not her name leave thy lips, never suffer it to leave your heart.
We conclude with the words of the late Fr. Thomas Dubay: “We can now say that for people who engage in the very best of spiritual reading and who are immersed in the saints, ‘self-direction’ is not really self direction. They are being guided by the masters themselves, even if they lack the blessing of a living voice.” (From Seeking Spiritual Direction: How to Grow the Divine Life Within, the last paragraph of the seventh chapter)