January 24th, Feast of St. Francis de Sales
St. Francis de Sales is called the “Doctor of authors and of the Catholic press” on account of his great focus on making use of the tools of modern media in order to spread the Gospel. However, the Bishop of Geneva is most well known as one of the great spiritual writers of the Catholic tradition, due to the popularity of his classic, “The Introduction to the Devout Life”. [you can find this work on-line here]
Living from 1567 to 1622, and serving as bishop of Geneva in Switzerland, St. Francis de Sales had to face a very tumultuous and trying time in Europe. He was constantly at work in fulfilling his duties as a bishop in the counter-reformation period of the Church, and had scarcely a moments rest in the midst of his continuous labors.
And yet, this dedicated bishop insisted that it was his duty to provide spiritual direction to those souls who asked for his guidance and whom he believed would benefit from his personal care. What a witness St. Francis is to priests today! If he was able to serve as a spiritual director on top of his duties as a bishop, surely parish priests must find time to provide direction for their people as well. But how do I know whether I need a spiritual director? And what makes a priest to be a good director?
Should I find a spiritual director?
Speaking to the students of the Teresianum University in Rome, Pope Benedict stated that every Christian requires spiritual direction for at least some period of their life: “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.” [see the full text here]
I have written before on whether spiritual direction is for everybody, you may read that article [here].
At least this much is clear, all Christians require some level of spiritual direction, even if that is primarily fulfilled through confession. Yet there are certain circumstances which would lead an individual to seek more formal 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.
St. Francis de Sales speaks to this question directly (Part I, chapter iv of the Devout Life): “When Tobias was bidden to go to Rages, he was willing to obey his father, but he objected that he knew not the way;—to which Tobit answered, Seek thee a man which may go with thee: [Tob. v. 3] and even so, daughter, I say to you, If you would really tread the paths of the devout life, seek some holy man to guide and conduct you.”
Our Saint is clear – any who seek to live a life of true devotion must find a spiritual director.
Does a parish priest have time to offer direction?
Many priests are tempted to think that they do not have time for individual direction. With the priest shortage and the many demands of parish life (especially, in the mega-church model of city parishes) it seems at times that priests really do not have time to give direction – we are even led to wonder whether such priests are receiving direction themselves.
However, St. Francis de Sales shows this way of thinking for the lie that it is – every priest has time for spiritual direction, every priest must make time to offer spiritual direction. Let us listen to the words of this holy spiritual father [from the preface to the Devout Life]:
“This is a cavilling age, and I foresee that many will say that only Religious and persons living apart are fit to undertake the guidance of souls in such special devout ways; that it requires more time than a Bishop of so important a diocese as mine can spare, and that it must take too much thought from the important duties with which I am charged.
“But, dear reader, I reply with S. Denis that the task of leading souls towards perfection appertains above all others to Bishops, and that because their Order is supreme among men, as the Seraphim among Angels, and therefore their leisure cannot be better spent. The ancient Bishops and Fathers of the Primitive Church were, to say the least, as devoted to their duties as we are, yet they did not refuse to undertake the individual guidance of souls which sought their help, as we see by their epistles; thereby imitating the Apostles, who, while reaping the universal world-harvest, yet found time to gather up certain individual sheaves with special and personal affection. Who can fail to remember that Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Onesimus, Phekla, Appia, were the beloved spiritual children of S. Paul, as S. Mark and S. Petronilla were of S. Peter (for Baronius and Galonius have given learned and absolute proof that S. Petronilla was not his carnal but spiritual daughter). And is not one of S. John’s Canonical Epistles addressed to the ‘elect lady’ whom he loved in the faith?
“I grant that the guidance of individual souls is a labour, but it is a labour full of consolation, even as that of harvesters and grape-gatherers, who are never so well pleased as when most heavily laden. It is a labour which refreshes and invigorates the heart by the comfort which it brings to those who bear it; as is said to be the case with those who carry bundles of cinnamon in Arabia Felix. It is said that when the tigress finds one of her young left behind by the hunter in order to delay her while he carries off the rest of her cubs, she takes it up, however big, without seeming over-weighted, and speeds only the more swiftly to her lair, maternal love lightening the load. How much more readily will the heart of a spiritual father bear the burden of a soul he finds craving after perfection carrying it in his bosom as a mother her babe, without feeling weary of the precious burden?
“But unquestionably it must be a really paternal heart that can do this, and therefore it is that the Apostles and their apostolic followers are wont to call their disciples not merely their children, but, even more tenderly still, their ‘little children.’”
Yes, if St. Peter and St. Paul and the other apostles were able to find the time to serve as directors for individual souls, how much more must the parish priest (whose calling is not nearly so demanding as that of the apostles) make time for spiritual direction!
What is particularly telling is that St. Francis de Sales sees spiritual direction as part of the refreshment of the priest – it is a labor which brings him true recreation. In this, we are reminded of our Savior who, when he was hungry and thirsty, did not fail to offer personal direction to the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob – and it was in this service that our Lord received the food of which the apostles did not yet know. So too must the parish priest find his spiritual food and nourishment in the individual direction of souls, both through formal spiritual direction and through the sacrament of penance.
What makes a good spiritual director? Study is necessary
But it will not be enough for a priest simply to make time for direction, he must educate himself to learn how to be a good director. Indeed, poor direction is far worse than no direction – especially for the priest offering the poor guidance! Giving bad spiritual direction (or bad advice in the confessional) is a path for a priest to lose his soul, and also to damn the souls of his sheep.
No, simply making time to give direction will not be enough, the parish priest must take time to study – he already ought to be making time for prayer. And what should he study? What sorts of resources should the parish priest look to in order to become a good director of souls? Simply relying on contemporary works (even if they are orthodox) will not be enough – the works of Fr. Thomas Dubay (for example) are a good start, but they are by no means sufficient.
It goes without saying that a priest must be familiar with Scripture and the teachings of the Church. Further, he must be an expert in Christian anthropology – and this is a point upon which St. Teresa of Avila insists: Most early errors in the spiritual life arise from a poor understanding of the nature of the soul. Put simply (by way of example), if a priest cannot clearly recognize and explain the categorical difference between the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the infused virtues, he has no business serving as a director of souls. And to this, a hundred other points could be added. If he does not know what distinguishes a charism from a fruit of the Holy Spirit, or if he does not know how the acquired virtues relate to the infused virtues, he is not prepared to serve as a director of souls.
Let the priest be familiar with the sections on morals and on prayer in the Catechism, as well as St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica I-II and II-II. He would do well to read Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s “Three Ages of the Interior Life” (a two volume work of over one thousand pages – and if this seems too long, he can be sure that he has not the love and devotion requisite of a director). He should consider reading the “Dignity and Duties of the Priest” by St. Alphonsus Liguori.
Beyond this, a spiritual director must read the classics of Catholic spirituality. Of the modern works, we point especially to “The Introduction to the Devout Life” of St. Francis de Sales, “The Interior Castle” of St. Teresa of Avila, “The Dark Night” by St. John of the Cross, “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a’ Kempis, and other such works (especially, “The Spiritual Combat” by Lorenzo Scupoli).
From the more ancient tradition, we point to St. Athanasius’ “Life of St. Anthony”, St. Augustine’s “Confessions”, John Cassian’s “Conferences” (which St. Thomas Aquinas carried with him at all times), St. Benedict’s “Rule”, and St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “Life of Moses”. Of course, many other works could be joined to these – especially from the great medieval authors.
A priest, in order to serve as a spiritual director without putting his own soul and the souls of his sheep in grave peril, must be an expert in the spiritual life. He must dedicate time every day to the study of moral and spiritual theology, resisting the modern “fads” (even if they be orthodox) and preferring instead the classical works and especially the writings of Church Doctors. If a priest has not yet read the works of St. Alphonsus, he has no business reading Fr. Dubay (even though Fr. Dubay is good and orthodox, he is no Doctor of the Universal Church). If he is not intimately familiar with Sts. Francis de Sales and Teresa of Avila, how can he justify reading contemporary authors? As good as “Spiritual Combat Revisited” by Fr. Jonathon Robinson of the Oratory is, the director of souls is ought to read the original “Spiritual Combat” of Scupoli with greater attention.
What if I cannot find a good director?
Yet, it may sadly happen that a devout soul cannot find a good director – indeed, good directors are most rare. If such occurs, I would refer to a previous article on what to do when you cannot find a spiritual director [here]. Indeed, it would be better to have no director at all than to have a bad director.
St. Francis de Sales advises: “But who can find such a friend? The Wise Man answers:—He that feareth the Lord: [Ecclus. vi. 17] that is to say, the truly humble soul which earnestly desires to advance in the spiritual life. So, daughter, inasmuch as it concerns you so closely to set forth on this devout journey under good guidance, do you pray most earnestly to God to supply you with a guide after His Own Heart, and never doubt but that He will grant you one who is wise and faithful, even should He send you an angel from Heaven, as He sent to Tobias.”
And further, “In a word, such a friendship [as spiritual direction] should be strong and sweet; altogether holy, sacred, divine and spiritual. And with such an aim, choose one among a thousand, Avila says;—and I say among ten thousand, for there are fewer than one would think capable of this office. He must needs be full of love, of wisdom and of discretion; for if either of these three be wanting there is danger. But once more I say, ask such help of God, and when you have found it, bless His Holy Name; be stedfast, seek no more, but go on simply, humbly and trustfully, for you are safe to make a prosperous journey.” [Introduction to the Devout Life, I,iv]
Should lay people serve as spiritual directors?
While I make no absolute claims on this point, I will post my response to this question take from a comment to another article. This comment was given in response to a question regarding programs which claim to train lay people to be spiritual directors:
While I am not completely opposed to the idea of lay people being directed by other lay people, there are a couple of points I think should be made:
1) Priests ordinarily go to seminary school for eight years (or at least four years). The formation is academic (intellectual), spiritual, pastoral, and also human. This formation is almost continuous (literally, nearly 24 hours a day 7 days a week) for the whole eight years. And, even after all that training, very few priests are truly capable confessors or directors.
Does anybody really think that a three to four year program (which is not even live-in) suffices for training lay people as spiritual directors?
2) After this intense eight year seminary formation, newly ordained priests work with a more experienced priest for usually at least two years. Again, this is a 24/7 formation, as they live with the priest and receive constant guidance.
Is there anything like this for lay spiritual directors? No.
3) The priest's whole life is dedicated to his people (or at least it ought to be) – he has no family, no other work, no other obligations. But all he does is for the flock.
Even with that, many priests still find it difficult to dedicate the time needed for direction (since prayer for the people outside of actual meeting time is very important). How can we expect lay people, who have jobs and (perhaps) families, to be truly dedicated and serve as directors of souls?
Are there exceptions? Certainly! Are there lay people who are holier than priests? Many (perhaps most)! Are there even lay people who are more educated in the spiritual life than priests? Some.
But is it at all likely that even the most devout and holy lay person can, after a three to four year course, serve effectively as a spiritual director? I doubt it. (though, again, there are certainly some rare exceptions)
For my part, I can hardly think of a single situation in which I would recommend a lay person to go to another lay person for formal spiritual direction (and I would never recommend a priest or religious to take a lay person as a spiritual director).
Nuns and monks serving as directors is, of course, a different story all together. Though, personally, I would consider the case of permanent deacons to be pretty much the same as that with lay directors – rarely would a permanent deacon be capable of serving as a director.
Articles from NTM on spiritual direction
Here are a couple articles on spiritual direction which I have posted previously on New Theological Movement:
The importance of spiritual direction – Is spiritual direction really for everybody? [here]
A good spiritual director – What to look for in a spiritual director [here]
If there is no possibility of spiritual direction – When you cannot find a spiritual director [here]
And for priests:
Books every confessor should read – For priests: How to be a good confessor; The example of St. John Vianney [here]
How to be a good confessor – The good confessor, according to St. Alphonsus [here]
On giving advice in the confessional – Is confession a time for spiritual direction? An answer from St. Alphonsus [here]
St. Francis de Sales, Pray for us!