|St. Teresa and her director, St. John of the Cross|
The Holy Father recently spoke these words to the students of the Teresianum in Rome: “As she has never failed to do, again today the Church continues to recommend the practice of spiritual direction, not only to all those who wish to follow the Lord up close, but to every Christian who wishes to live responsibly his baptism, that is, the new life in Christ. Everyone, in fact, and in a particular way all those who have received the divine call to a closer following, needs to be supported personally by a sure guide in doctrine and expert in the things of God. A guide can help defend oneself from facile subjectivist interpretations, making available his own supply of knowledge and experiences in following Jesus. [Spiritual direction] is a matter of establishing that same personal relationship that the Lord had with his disciples, that special bond with which he led them, following him, to embrace the will of the Father (cf. Luke 22:42), that is, to embrace the cross.” (read the full text here)
It would seem that Pope Benedict XVI believes that every Christian adult must avail himself of spiritual direction in order to reach perfection in Christ. Certainly, this would come as a surprise to many, since there are relatively few Catholic faithful (even among the most devout) who regularly engage in spiritual direction. Indeed, we must admit that, if every Catholic were to seek formal spiritual direction, there would hardly be enough priests and other spiritual persons to serve as directors! Even if every priest were as devoted as St. John Vianney, I doubt that there would be enough time for him to offer personal formal spiritual direction to each and every member of his flock.
Still, the Holy Father has spoke and we must seek to understand the meaning of his words. Are we to conclude that spiritual direction is for all Christians? What sort of direction? And how much is needed?
The necessity of spiritual direction
In this matter, we will refer to the great modern doctor of the spiritual life, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange: “Spiritual direction should be numbered among the exterior means of sanctification. […] Though it is not an absolutely necessary means for the sanctification of, souls, direction is the normal means of spiritual progress. In constituting the Church, Christ willed that the faithful should be sanctified by submission to the pope and the bishops with respect to external jurisdiction, and in matters of conscience to confessors, who point out the means needed in order not to fall back into sin and to make progress in virtue.
“Pope Leo XIII, (Testem benevolentiae, 22 January 1899) following Cassian and St. Francis de Sales, recalls on this subject the fact that St. Paul himself received a guide from the Lord. When Paul was converted, Jesus did not at once reveal His designs to him, but sent him to Ananias at Damascus to learn what he should do.
“St. Basil says: ‘Employ all diligence and use the greatest circumspection in finding a man who may serve you as a very sure guide in the work of leading a holy life which you wish to undertake. Choose one who knows how to show souls of good will the straight road toward God.’ He says elsewhere: ‘To believe that one does not need counsel is great pride.’
“In his conferences, Cassian says that anyone who relies on his own judgment will never reach perfection and will not be able to avoid the snares of the devil. He concludes that the best means to triumph over the most dangerous temptations is to make them known to a wise counselor who has the grace of state to enlighten us. In reality, to manifest them to one who has a right to hear them often suffices to make them disappear.
“St. Bernard says: ‘He who constitutes himself his own director, becomes the disciple of a fool.’ And he adds: ‘As far as I am concerned, I declare that it is easier and safer for me to command many others than myself alone.’ Our self-love leads us less astray, in truth, in conducting others than in dealing with ourselves, and if we knew well how to apply to ourselves what we tell others, we would make far greater progress.
“We understand quite well that we need a guide if we intend to climb a mountain. He is not less necessary for climbing to the summit of spiritual perfection, the more so as in this ascent we must avoid the snares laid by Satan, who wishes to prevent us from ascending.
“The testimony of all these authorities shows clearly the general need of direction. We shall obtain a clearer idea of this necessity by considering the three stages of the interior life, or the spiritual needs of beginners, of proficients, and of the perfect.” (Three Ages of the Interior Life Part I, Chapter XVII)
Am I holy enough for spiritual direction?
One of great problems in the modern approach to spiritual direction is that many Catholics think that they already need to be well along the path of holiness before they can profit from spiritual direction. How foolish this is! Who needs the guide more: The man who is well experienced or the one who is lost? Moreover, it was for the little ones and the lost sheep that Christ came – let them now come to him and find profit.
What is most necessary for spiritual direction is not holiness itself, but the desire for holiness. Just as what is most necessary for anyone seeking a guide is not that he already know the way (nor less that he already have accomplished his goal), but simply that he desire to know the way and be resolute in striving for the goal. To climb the mountain we need only two things: The will to persevere and a good guide!
Is spiritual direction really for everybody?
St. Teresa of Avila 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.
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 to look for in a director
Indeed, it seems that it would be better to have no formal direction at all than to have a bad spiritual director – just as it is better to wander alone with some limited sight than to be led by the blind. In this regard we point to our earlier article on this subject.
Here are the much-abridged thoughts of Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange (taken from the same place in The Three Ages of the Interior Life): “St. Francis de Sales says on the subject of a director: ‘He must be a man of charity, learning, and prudence; if anyone of these three qualities be wanting in him, there is danger.’
“His charity ought to be disinterested and to incline him, not to draw hearts to himself but to lead them to God. The director's charitable kindness should not be weakness; it should be firm and fearless in speaking the truth in order to lead souls effectively to goodness. Neither should he lose his time in useless conversations or letters, but go straight to the point for the good of the soul.
“In addition, he should have a knowledge of the spiritual life, be penetrated with the teachings of the great masters of the interior life, and be a good psychologist.
“That the director may be the instrument of the Holy Ghost, he ought prudently to discern in souls the dominant defect to be avoided and the supernatural attraction to be followed. For this purpose, he must pray for light, especially in difficult cases, and, if he is humble, he will receive the graces of state.
“When he directs generous souls, his prudence must avoid two dangers: that of wishing to lead all pious souls indiscriminately and rapidly to give themselves to contemplative prayer, and that of imagining that it is useless to concern oneself with this question. Here a person must advance neither too slowly nor too rapidly.”
What if I cannot find a spiritual director?
To answer this question, we refer our readers to an earlier article.