Monday, December 13, 2010

When you cannot find a spiritual director

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)
Spiritual reading
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)


De Liliis said...

The Holy Spirit truly is the best spiritual director.. it is He we seek in the ones we find on earth..

If we cannot find one who is full of holiness.. and even if we do.. the saints are the key to everything. Because He is within.

Daily recourse to their quotes and writings can make all the difference in the world..

'There is nothing of which apostolic men have more need than interior recollection, in order not to endanger their own salvation whilst seeking that of others.'

St. Ignatius of Loyola

Anonymous said...

Clearly, spiritual direction would be wonderful, and necessary. Sadly most parish priests are "crisis managing" much of the bad decisions of parishoners etc and don't have time for those of us who "seem to be going along just fine....." The few times I've asked about direction, I was always referred to someone else, often the local band of renegade religious who are already disqualified for spiritual direction because of their dissent.

ho hum

AJD said...

I think care should be taken with recommending the writings of St Teresa of Avila (and to a lesser extent St John of the Cross) to lay Catholics who have no spiritual direction. Many women who are just beginning in the spiritual life can read their works and convince themselves that they are having extraordinary (or at least advanced) experiences in prayer. It is not uncommon, and it can be very dangerous and damaging to real spiritual development.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@AJD, I agree; that is why I first recommended the writings of St. Alphonsus (though most people jump straight away to the Carmelites). Thanks for mentioning the concern!

@Anonymous (12:18pm), if a priest is not willing to be a spiritual director, that is a good indication that he is not fit to be a director anyways.
Also, you are quite right to be cautious of dissenting priests/religious, far better to have no director than to have a blind fool!

@De Lillis, you are correct: The Holy Spirit is our primary director. However, usually He chooses to direct us through the mediation of others as well as through interior inspirations. Remember, we are not merely in a personal relationship with Christ, we are members of the Church. Hence, the spiritual life requires (at least for some periods) some level of spiritual direction.
You quoted St. Ignatius, he is one of the biggest proponents of the necessity of spiritual direction.
Thanks for the link to the daily saint quotes!

Anonymous said...

I have the grace of having a spiritual director and have had the same one for a number of years. But previous to this holy priest, I did seek direction from some others who were not what I needed. One was a modernist deacon; that did not last long. The other was retired priest but I only felt like his sounding board and he also had soem unorthodox ideas. I prayed for years for a good director, and I truly think heaven must provide!

Direction is helpful in making holy decisions. It is helpful to point out when we are off track. It is helpful in going to the next step in our spiritual life and recommending things for our sanctification.

Anonymous said...

St Francis De Sales is a much better choice than St Alphonsus. I disagree with putting Fr Thomas Dubay in with Peter Kreeft, Fr Corapi et al. He is head and shoulders above them and is in many ways as great as Fr Garrigou-Lagrange. Fire Within belongs in the pantheon of spiritual classics and his book on Seeking Spiritual Direction gives great, concrete examples on growing spiritually. St Teresa and St John should not be widely read as they are too easily misunderstood. If you are to read St John of the Cross read "Sayings of Light & Love".

Greg in Arlington Diocese

Jenni said...

I noticed that you left out St. Louis-Marie de Montfort. His writings changed the life of JP II, according to JP II's own words. St. Catherine of Siena's Dialogues are a must. Also, I would highly recommend Fr. jordan Aumann, O.P., especially 'Spiritual Theology.' I would strongly caution readers of the idea that they have decided to take up contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer is a gift that is received.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for mentioning St. Louis de Montfort! My own spirituality has been shaped very significantly by his writings -- and I certainly would recommend him to any and all.
You will notice that he is not really entirely left out of this post: I linked to his "True Devotion" as the "others" in my list of spiritual doctors.

I have posted on de Montfort's advice regarding the Rosary as well (on Oct 7, 2010).

Regarding contemplative prayer -- you are correct, it is a gift received; however, Aumann (and Garrigou-Lagrange) makes it clear that it is an ordinary part of the Christian experience, something which should be as normal as the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Greg (Anonymous, 8:46pm); well I would hardly say that Francis de Sales is "much better" than St. Alphonsus... after all, Alphonsus was declared "Doctor of Morals" at a time when Spiritual Theology and Moral theology where considered a single discipline. Certainly, there is room for various opinions in this matter, no?

Also, it is a bit funny that you consider Dubay to be so great while at the same time stating that Sts Teresa and John "should not be widely read"...are you aware of the fact that Fr. Dubay recommends them to be read above all the others? In "Seeking Spiritual Direction", to which you refer, these two Carmelites are at the top of his recommended spiritual reading list (together with Augustine's Confessions and the "Imitation of Christ").

While I personally would hardly name Dubay together with Garrigou-Lagrange, I would nevertheless say that even the great Dominican Theologian would be closer to Kreeft and Corapi than he is to Alphonsus and John of the Cross.

There is nothing wrong with reading the contemporary authors, but we must be firmly rooted in the classics.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous (8:35pm), You wrote, "I have the grace of having a spiritual director [...] I prayed for years for a good director, and I truly think heaven must provide!"
This is the most important point we can make: If we truly desire a holy director, we must persevere in prayer and mortification -- certainly God will provide for us, if only we pray!
Blessing to you and thank you for your witness!

Anonymous said...


I would definitely recommend St Francis De Sales Intro to the Devout Life over every other writer...especially for the laity who are beginning to take their spiritual life seriously. St Alphonsus' writing on the spiritual life is directed far more to religious and priests. He was not named a doctor of the Church for his writing on the spiritual life but specifically for moral theology which was aimed at priests not at the laity.

As far as classics go..there are modern spiritual classics. One does not have to go back to the 16th century to find them. For example, I have read and am convinced that Mystical Evolution by Fr Juan Arintero, The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Fr Garrigou-Lagrange and Fire Within by Fr Thomas Dubay are all spiritual masterpieces. No offense to Peter Kreeft or Fr Corapi but nothing they have written comes even close. Although Fr Dubay extols John and Teresa they are by no means an easy read. In fact I found Ascent of Mt Carmel to a very dense read. Not what I would recommend in general to someone interested in John and it goes without saying that no one interest in John should start with Dark Night. I have found Teresa to be a difficult read because of her scattered style.


Anonymous said...

Excellent article! Thanks!

@AJD: As a woman and when a new convert to Catholicism, I was unable to find the help and spiritual direction I needed for my prayer life, which was growing (a former evangelical). After a couple years I stumbled across the works of St. John of the Cross - and wow! Exactly what I needed. He guided me inerrantly in what to do, and - even more important - what not to do, until I finally found a good director. His writings prevented me from making many errors, and I am grateful.

I have since recommended him to many people, but the key is that I think people have to have some kind of growing prayer life for him to make sense and be useful. That is the feedback I have received from both men and women. I don't think it has anything to do with being a woman, but rather with having the right experience and actual need for direction in a growing prayer life.

Adam Haake said...

Very good post. Very good blog. Let us pray that the Lord provides for his Church more spiritual directors! None of us can go at it alone. The Lord loves to give himself through the obedience of good spiritual direction. The wisdom of the saints radiate this fact.

St. John of the Cross, pray for us!

Anonymous said...

The priests of Opus Dei are a very available and very fine source of spiritual direction, and the daily plan of life outlined by St Alphonsus and cited in this article is very similar to the daily plan of life of most members of Opus Dei.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Greg (5:29am),
It is certainly fine for you to personally prefer Francis de Sales over Alphonsus...I, personally, prefer Alphonsus.
However, I would point out again that Alphonsus was named Doctor of Morals at a time when spiritual theology and moral theology were a single discipline -- his greatest "moral works" deal heavily with prayer.

It is simply not the case that Alphonsus wrote exclusively or even primarily for priests/religious -- while it is true that he does have some works directed to these groups, he also has many for lay people as well.
"How to converse continually and familiarly with God", "The practice of the love of Jesus Christ", "Uniformity with God's Will", "Visits to the Blessed Sacrament and the Virgin Mary", "The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection", "The way of Salvation and Perfection", "The Way of the Cross", etc, etc.
You prefer Francis de Sales, that is fine. Personally, I recommend Alphonsus first. There is room for diversity of opinion.

Thank you for expressing your love for Francis, let this not war against the love others have for Alphonsus.

Alphonsus is the Marian Doctor and the Doctor of Morals.
While, Francis de Sales is the Doctor of Authors and of the Catholic Press.

St. John of the Cross, on the other hand, is the Mystical Doctor.
And St. Teresa is the Doctor of Prayer.

What are we to discern from the titles the Church has given?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Adam, Thanks for the comment. Indeed, let us pray for good directors, and merit them through our good works, prayer and mortifications! Blessings to you, brother!

@Anonymous (2:53pm), Thanks for mentioning the priests of Opus Dei! You are quite correct, they are often willing to serve as directors and (if they are faithful to their founder) they will be very good directors for both laity and priests.

@Anonymous (6:48am), Thanks for the witness to the great value of the Mystical Doctor! Praise the Lord for the friendship we have with the saints!

Unknown said...

Dear Reginaldus: I discovered this blog through New Advent and the timing is fortunate. I was recently in a heated discussion with a master’s program colleague about a new program in our archdiocese. It is a program that seeks to train individuals to be “spiritual mentors.” Here is a quote from a web site about the program:
“The program aims to form Spiritual Mentors to serve as guide and companion to others on their journey to holiness. It is designed for Catholics who have a desire to develop a deep prayer and sacramental life, a desire to increase their knowledge of the Catholic faith, a desire to grow in the virtues and a desire to help others do the same.”
Something doesn’t ring quite right about this concept with me and I’m wondering about your take on it. Are you familiar with similar programs? This seems to me an odd position for a member of the laity who is not fully formed himself to be in with regard to the faith journey of another.
The url for the program is:

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Mary Ann, In general, there is nothing wrong with having lay persons serve as "Spiritual Mentors/Directors" for other lay people.
However, I agree with you in being very hesitant. It is very rare that a lay person will have the knowledge to serve as a director. He may be holy, but does he really know the spiritual tradition of the Catholic Church?

A weekend or even several months of evening "classes" will not cut it.
Priests receive constant formation for up to 8 years -- and even many of them are not really prepared to direct souls.

I did look at your seems ok. Again, the same concerns remain...

A final note, no one should become a spiritual director who has not already been in constant and fruitful spiritual direction for several years.

I hope this helps.
Blessings to you, and peace in Christ Jesus!

Pam H. said...

Had not great experiences with Opus Dei priests, myself - the ones here seemed rigid and rule-bound, more so than orthodoxy demands. One told me it wasn't possible to have friends of the opposite sex, even though I don't consider myself to have temptations to immorality in this regard. (Haven't many saints and popes had friends of the opposite sex?) The other two would only advise me in the confessional, with people waiting in line behind me; they refused to meet with me personally.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Pam, I'm sorry to hear that you have had bad experiences with priests of Opus Dei. I myself have had one or two slightly negative experiences, but mostly very positive...
The most important thing is to not get discouraged; if one priest doesn't work as a director, we should try another.

To be very up front with you, I should say that many priests are a bit cautious about one-on-one spiritual direction with women...and this is very wise, since there are some dangers here. However, priests must also recognize the great need for spiritual direction among the faithful...hence, there is both a pastoral need and a personal danger for the priest...

In any case, persevere in prayer and be sure that God will provide you with a director that works, if it is necessary for your salvation.

Blessings to you in Christ!

Mar said...

What I like about St. Alphonsus is that he is not afraid to say 'hard words' when necessary, yet he always leaves you with a feeling of hope, call it optimism of an
understated kind. He does not play down the seriousness of a bad life, but shows what to do, in which direction to go, and how Jesus and Mary are all too ready to help no matter what the situation. You go away thinking: I can manage that!

faithful123 said...

I agree that spiritual direction doesn't necessarily need be the primary method of drawing close to God. Certainly, spiritual direction cannot 'trump' frequent reception of the Sacraments. I've come to the conclusion that at times we can use a human 'director' as a crutch - running to one with every question or enlighenment. NO...all we need to is frequent the Presence of our Lord and read uplifting spiritual books.

Interesting what you say about not reading spiritual blogs especially since you are writing one)but it's true; we can be all caught up in internet blogs - and time fritters away; time that could be better spent saying a rosary or readomg the Good Book.

Spiritual Direction is not for all.

A 90 year old doesn't need spiritual direction. The peace on his face speaks he's on the right path. Sometimes, too much talk is
not good.

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