Fr. Thomas Merton, OCSO


 (1) Meaning and Purpose


[1.1] THE original, primitive meaning of spiritual direction suggests a particular need connected with a special ascetic task, a peculiar vocation for which a professional formation is required. In other words, spiritual direction is a monastic concept. It is a practice which was unnecessary until men withdrew from the Christian community in order to live as solitaries in the desert. For the ordinary member of the primitive Christian community there was no particular need of personal direction in the professional sense.

The bishop, the living and visible representative of the apostle who had founded the local Church, spoke for Christ and the apostles, and, helped by the presbyters, took care of all the spiritual needs of his flock.

The individual member of the community was “formed” and “guided” by his participation in the life of the community, and such instruction as was needed was given

[1] first of all by the bishop and presbyters, and then,

[2] through informal admonitions, by one’s parents,

[3] spouse,

[4] friends

[5] and fellow Christians.

[1.2] But when the first solitaries retired to the desert, they separated themselves from the Christian community. Their departure into the wilderness was approved and, in a sense, canonized by no less a bishop than St. Athanasius, soon followed by many others. But they lived solitary and dangerous lives, far from any church, and rarely participating even in the Mystery of the Eucharist. Yet they had gone into the wilderness to seek Christ. They had, like Christ, been “led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” And, like the Lord Himself, they were to be tempted by the evil one. Hence the need for “discernment of spirits” — and for a director.

We look back after many centuries upon the desert fathers and interpret their vocation in the light of our own. After all, they were the “first religious.” We do not see how very different, in many ways, were their lives from ours. In any event, their deliberate withdrawal from the normal life of the visible Church was a very perilous spiritual adventure and an innovation of a type that would undoubtedly be considered out of the question by many today. In this adventure, certain safeguards were absolutely essential, and the most obvious and important of these was the training and guidance of the novice by a “spiritual father.” In this case, the spiritual father replaced the bishop and presbyter as representative of Christ. And yet there was a difference because there was nothing hierarchical about his function. It was purely and simply charismatic. It was sanctioned by the father’s own personal holiness. The greatest “abbots” in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts were generally not priests.

The Apothegmata or “Sayings of the Fathers” remain as an eloquent witness to the simplicity and depth of this spiritual guidance. Disciples travelled often for miles through the wilderness just to hear a brief word of advice, a “word of salvation” which summed up the judgment and the will of God for them in their actual, concrete situation. The impact of these “words” resided not so much in their simple content as in the inward action of the Holy Spirit which accompanied them, in the soul of the hearer. This of course presupposes an ardent faith, and a deep hunger for the word of God and for salvation. This spiritual appetite, this need for light, had in its turn been generated by tribulation and compunction. “Direction” then was God’s answer to a need created in the soul by trial and compunction, and communicated through a charismatic representative of the Mystical Body, the Abbas, or spiritual Father.

[1.3] This brings us to the root meaning of spiritual direction.[:]

[1.3.1] It is a continuous process of formation and guidance,

[1.3.2] in which a Christian is led and encouraged in his special vocation,

[1.3.3] so that by faithful correspondence to the graces of the Holy Spirit he may attain to the particular end of his vocation

[1.3.4] and to union with God.

This union with God signifies not only the vision of God in heaven but, as Cassian specifies, that perfect purity of heart which, even on earth, constitutes sanctity and attains to an obscure experience of heavenly things. Spiritual direction was, then, one of the essential means to monastic perfection.

[1.4] This description of spiritual direction brings out certain important differences between direction and counseling, or direction and psychotherapy. Spiritual direction is not merely the cumulative effect of encouragements and admonitions which we all need in order to live up to our state in life. It is not mere ethical, social or psychological guidance. It is spiritual.

But it is important for us to understand what this word “spiritual” means here. There is a temptation to think that spiritual direction is the guidance of one’s spiritual activities, considered as a small part or department of one’s life. You go to a spiritual director to have him take care of your spirit, the way you go to a dentist to have him take care of your teeth, or to a barber to get a haircut. This is completely false. The spiritual director is concerned with the whole person, for the spiritual life is not just the life of the mind, or of the affections, or of the “summit of the soul” — it is the life of the whole person. For the spiritual man (pneumatikos) is one whose whole life, in all its aspects and all its activities, has been spiritualized by the action of the Holy Spirit, whether through the sacraments or by personal and interior inspirations. Moreover, spiritual direction is concerned with the whole person not simply  as an individual human being, but as a son of God, another Christ, seeking to recover the perfect likeness to God in Christ, and by the Spirit of Christ.

The spiritual man is one who, “whether he eats or drinks or whatever else he does, does all for the glory of God” (1Cor. 10:31). Again, this does not mean that he merely registers in his mind an abstract intention to glorify God. It means that in all his actions he is free from the superficial automatism of conventional routine. It means that in all that he does he acts freely, simply, spontaneously, from the depths of his heart, moved by love.

[1.5] Originally, as we have said, the concept of the “spiritual father” is linked up with the idea of a special vocation, and very particular risks. But of course, all through the history of monasticism, we see evidence that the monk tends to become, in certain cases, the spiritual father to all comers, and to give advice about everything. This was quite common for example among the Cistercian laybrothers in 12th century England, some of whom acquired a great reputation for their ability to read and guide souls. Perhaps there was some element of nonsense in this sudden popular craze: the same kind of credulity that led people to frequent the recluses and anchoresses immured near village churches, who, though doubtless quite pious, had a universal reputation for being gossips. Nevertheless, we must not judge these manifestations of popular piety too harshly.

There is no doubt that the Lord has, in the past, reached souls very effectively in this way, and we must not make the mistake of thinking that direction is a luxury reserved for a special elite. For if, as Eric Gill said, “every man is a special kind of artist” it is perhaps true that every man has a special and even perilous vocation to complete the supreme work of art which is his sanctification. Hence the apt saying of a Russian Staretz who was criticized for spending time seriously advising an old peasant woman about the care of her turkeys. “Not at all,” he replied, “her whole life is in those turkeys.” Direction, then, speaks to the whole man, in the concrete circumstances of his life, however simple they may be. It is not a question of discussing the relative merits of the discipline and the hairshirt, and determining whether or not one has reached the “prayer of quiet.”

[1.6] The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a man’s life, to get behind the façade of conventional gestures and attitudes which he presents to the world, and to bring out his inner spiritual freedom, his inmost truth, which is what we call the likeness of Christ in his soul. This is entirely a supernatural thing, for the work of rescuing the inner man from automatism belongs first of all to the Holy Spirit. The spiritual director cannot do such a work himself. His function is to verify and to encourage what is truly spiritual in the soul. He must teach others to “discern” between good and evil tendencies, to distinguish the inspirations of the spirit of evil from those of the Holy Spirit. A spiritual director is, then, one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in his life, in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading him. And this, as we have said, originally presupposed a special vocation. A spiritual director was necessary, above all, for one who had been called to seek God by an unusual and perilous road. It must not be forgotten that the spiritual director in primitive times was much more than the present name implies. He was a spiritual father who “begot” the perfect life in the soul of his disciple by his instructions first of all, but also by his prayer, his sanctity and his example. He was to the young monk a kind of “sacrament” of the Lord’s presence in the ecclesiastical community.

In the earliest days of Christian monasticism the spiritual father did much more than instruct and advise. The neophyte lived in the same cell with him, day and night, and did what he saw his father doing. He made known to the father “all the thoughts that came into his heart” and was told, on the spot, how to react. In this way he learned the whole spiritual life in a concrete and experimental way. He literally absorbed and reproduced in his own life the life and spirit of his “father in Christ.”

The same concept of spiritual fatherhood persists today in Asia, for example in Yoga, where the difficult and complex disciplines can only be properly learned from a guru who is considered not only an expert in his professional field, but a representative and instrument of God. Russian literature of the nineteenth century introduces us to the figures of remarkable spiritual directors, startzi, holy monks who exercised a great influence in the life of the time, not only on the poor and humble, as we have just seen, but also on the intelligentsia.

[1.7] It is important that we recover the full idea of spiritual direction and rescue the concept from its impoverished condition — according to which the director is merely one to whom we apply for quasi-infallible solutions to moral and ascetic “cases.” If this is what we mean by a director, we will find that our understanding will be perverted by a kind of magic and pragmatic conventionalism. The “director” is thought to be one endowed with special, almost miraculous, authority and has the power to give the “right formula” when it is asked for. He is treated as a machine for producing answers that will work, that will clear up difficulties and make us perfect. He has a “system,” or rather, he has become an expert in the workings of somebody else’s system — which, having been approved by the Church, is devoutly believed to be infallible in every case, no matter how it is applied, and even if it is used arbitrarily with supreme disregard for individual circumstances. Such spiritual direction is mechanical, and it tends to frustrate the real purpose of genuine spiritual guidance. It tends to reinforce the mechanisms and routines with which the soul is destroying its own capacity for a spontaneous response to grace.

The first thing that genuine spiritual direction requires in order to work properly is a normal, spontaneous human relationship. We must not suppose that it is somehow “not supernatural” to open ourselves easily to a director and converse with him in an atmosphere of pleasant and easy familiarity. This aids the work of grace: another example of grace building on nature.

It is a paradox that those who are the most rigidly “supernatural” in their theory of the spiritual life are sometimes the most “natural” in practice. To imagine that faith can only operate in a situation that is humanly repugnant, and that the “supernatural” decisions are only those which the penitent finds revolting or practically impossible, is to frustrate the whole purpose of direction. Some directors, under pretext of acting entirely according to “supernatural principles,” are tyrannical and arbitrary. They allow themselves to ignore or overlook the individual needs and weaknesses of their penitents. They have standard answers which are “hard sayings” that admit of no exception and no mitigation and are always the same, no matter how the case may be altered by circumstances. Thus they take satisfaction in secretly indulging their aggressive instincts.

Obviously, we must be prepared to be told things we do not like and we must meet demands that are supremely exacting. We must be ready for sacrifice. And a good director will not hesitate to impose a sacrifice when he believes that it is the will of God. But the trouble is that a certain type of spirituality is arbitrary and unfeeling as a matter of deliberate policy. It assumes as a basic axiom of the spiritual life that every soul needs to be humiliated, frustrated and beaten down; that all spontaneous aspirations are suspect by the very fact that they are spontaneous ; that everything individual is to be cut away, and that the soul is to be reduced to a state of absolute, machine-like conformity with others in the same fantastic predicament. Result : a procession of robot “victim souls” moving jerkily from exercise to exercise in the spiritual life, secretly hating the whole business and praying for an early death, meanwhile “offering it up” so that the whole may not be lost.

Obviously, no direction at all is preferable to such direction as this. It is the bane of the religious life.

The seventeenth-century Benedictine mystic, Dom Augustine Baker, who fought a determined battle for the interior liberty of contemplative souls in an age ridden by autocratic directors, has the following to say on the subject : “The director is not to teach his own way, nor indeed any determinate way of prayer, but to instruct his disciples how they may themselves find out the way proper for them.... In a word, he is only God’s usher, and must lead souls in God’s way, and not his own.

 (2) IS Direction Necessary


[2.1] THE answer to this question has been prepared by the opening paragraphs of our study. Strictly speaking, spiritual direction is not necessary for the ordinary Christian. But wherever there is a special mission or vocation a certain minimum of direction is implied by the very nature of the vocation itself. Let us clarify.

First, let us briefly consider the place of direction in the life of the ordinary Christian layman. Strictly speaking, the ordinary contacts of the faithful with their pastor and confessor are sufficient to take care of their needs. But, of course, this implies that they are known to their pastor and that they have a regular confessor. In a very large parish, where contacts with the pastor may perhaps be at a minimum or even non-existent, then certainly one should at least have a regular confessor to whom he is known, even though the confessor may not be formally and explicitly a “spiritual director.” The reason for this is that confession itself implies a certain minimum of spiritual direction. The confessor is bound to instruct and direct the penitent at least to the extent that this is necessary for a fruitful reception of the sacrament of penance. But where one is habitually sinning gravely, advice and special instructions are certainly necessary if the penitent is to take effective steps to avoid sin. And if he is not prepared to take such steps, can it be said that he is fruitfully receiving the sacrament ? Hence, even ordinary confession should involve some spiritual direction. It is very unfortunate that many busy priests have come to forget or to neglect this obligation; but perhaps in some cases it is morally impossible to fulfill.

[2.2] However, this kind of “direction” which is inseparable from the sacrament of penance is not really what we mean by spiritual direction in the present study. It does not go deep enough, and it does not aim at the orientation of one’s whole life, with a special ascetic vocation or apostolic mission in view.

One might suppose that because the layman is not in a “state of perfection” he does not need this kind of direction. But certainly, wherever a layman has a special work to do for the Church, or is in a situation with peculiar problems, he certainly ought to have a director. For instance, workers in Catholic action, college students, professional men, or couples preparing for matrimony need some spiritual direction.

[2.3] So much for the layman. For the religious, direction is a much more serious matter. It would seem that spiritual direction is morally necessary for a religious. Anyone who freely adopts certain professional means for attaining to union with God naturally needs to receive a special formation. He or she needs to be taught the meaning of his vocation, its spirit, its aims and its characteristic problems.

This means something much deeper than a mere exterior formation — learning how to keep the rules, how to carry out the various rites and observances of community life. From the moment one enters into a strictly institutionalized life, in which everything is regulated down to the minutest detail, intimate personal direction becomes a morally necessary safeguard against deformation. It is false to imagine that mere external observance of the rules of a religious community is sufficient to educate the novice interiorly and give him the proper spiritual orientation demanded by his new state. Unless, in personal direction, the rules and observances are explained, unless they are applied to the actual circumstances of the life of the individual, they will infallibly produce a spirit of uncomprehending and lifeless routine. Without a really interior and sensitive direction during the crucial period of formation, a young religious is likely to be placed in a very delicate situation, and, indeed, his whole life may be turned into a meaningless pantomime of perfection. Happiness in the religious life really depends on wise direction, especially during the period of formation. Of course, a religious can be “saved” without a good director. That is not the point. The question is, can he lead a fruitful, happy, intelligent spiritual life ? Without at least some direction, this is hardly possible. But of course, the direction of a priest, of a theologian, or a specialist is not necessarily indicated here. Where sisters are concerned, a wise prioress or a good novice mistress should be capable of some direction in this sense.

Even after the period of formation the professed religious needs direction. In some cases the more serious problems are not met with until after one has made profession. It is then that direction is most of all necessary, in certain circumstances. It is very important for all newly professed religious to enjoy, if possible, a guidance that is fairly continuous, though not necessarily frequent. What is most to be desired is the intimate direction of someone who knows and understands them, in an atmosphere of informality and trust which perhaps may not be easy to achieve with the superior. Those who have years of experience in the religious life are presumably able to direct themselves— but even they sometimes need to consult a wise spiritual guide. No religious should assume that he has absolutely no need, at any time, of spiritual direction.

[2.4] It will be noticed that we by no means assume the same need for spiritual direction in all religious. The young need it more than the old, but in fact everything depends on the individual case. In general, however, we might profitably reiterate the statement that a mature religious should normally be able to direct himself. Certainly anyone with a position of responsibility or with a difficult assignment finds that he has to make many decisions for which he alone is accountable in the presence of God. He may even have to solve problems which it is impossible to refer to the judgment of any other human being. This places him in a truly dreadful solitude. Some religious and priests are filled with terror at the very thought of such decisions. And yet that is an error. We should not flee from responsibility, and we should not make such a fetish out of spiritual direction that, even though we are mature and responsible clerics, we refuse to move an inch without being “put under obedience” — in other words without someone else assuming responsibility for us. Needless to say, the concept that we are to “obey” a director in all things is another error, as will be explained later on. The normal religious ought to develop the virtue of prudence, in line with his religious formation, and guide himself when he cannot or need not seek guidance from another. This implies trust in God and a sincere abandonment to the Holy Spirit, from whom we can at any time rely on the light of divine Counsel, provided that we are conscientious religious and try to be men of prayer.

[2.5] It is not necessary to add that through the course of the ages spiritual direction has become a special function, separate from that of the superior and even from that of the confessor. In early organized monasticism the abbot was at the same time not only the canonical superior of all the monks, but at the same time their spiritual director and confessor. Today the superior is forbidden to hear the confession of his subjects except in certain rare cases. He can, however, be their spiritual director. Very often spiritual direction is separated from confession, and “direction” is given by a specially qualified priest, perhaps on rare occasions. Today most people are lucky if they can find someone who can “give them direction” when they are burdened by accumulated problems. The ideal would be for everyone to have a father to whom he or she could go for regular direction. Superiors will always be ready to grant permission for conscience letters to be sent to a qualified director. The code guarantees access to any confessor with faculties.

However, spiritual directors are not easy to find, even in the religious life. Even where there are several priests at hand, this does not mean that they are all suitable as “directors.” The scarcity of really good spiritual directors for religious may perhaps account for the magnitude of the problems in certain communities. Sometimes religious do not receive a really adequate formation, and they are nevertheless professed with unfortunate consequences. After profession, the effects of a good novitiate may vanish into thin air, through lack of a director to continue the work that was well begun. No doubt many losses of vocation could have been prevented by a really solid and firm spiritual direction in the first years after the novitiate.

Those who are firmly grounded and who can share their knowledge and their strength with others receive in this process lights which are of inestimable value for their own religious lives. Nevertheless, even for a superior, a timely conference with a good director may resolve many apparently hopeless problems and open one’s eyes to unsuspected dangers, thereby preventing a disaster.

At all times, spiritual direction is of the greatest value to a religious. Even though it may not be strictly necessary, it is always useful. In many cases the absence of direction may mean the difference between sanctity and mediocrity in the religious life. Naturally, one who has sought direction and not found it will not be held responsible for its lack, and God Himself will make up to the soul what is wanting to it in His own way.

[2.6] We have said above that good directors are rare. This, in fact, is a rather important matter. If we really desire spiritual directors for our communities and for others, let us seek them. We can at least pray for this intention! In the last ten years there has been an amazing growth in the publishing of spiritual books and in the study of the spiritual life. This growth has come at a time when it was needed and desired by the faithful. If it is realized that there is not only a need for spiritual direction, but also a very real hunger for it on the part of religious, directors will soon begin to be more numerous, for God will send them. He will raise up priests who will desire to give themselves to this kind of work, in spite of the difficulties and sacrifices involved. But there is always a danger that the priest qualified to seriously direct religious will be overwhelmed by the demand for his services. His first duty, if he wants to be an effective director, is to see to his own interior life and take time for prayer and meditation, since he will never be able to give to others what he does not possess himself.

 (3) How to Profit



[3.1] SETTING aside this urgent problem, let us suppose that one has found a director. How can he make the best use of this grace? In the first place, those who have regular spiritual direction ought to realize that this is a gift of God, and even though they may not be thoroughly satisfied, they should humbly appreciate the fact that they have direction at all. This will enable them to take advantage of what they have, and they may perhaps see that supernaturally they are much better off than they realized. Gratitude will make them more attentive to the direction they receive and will attune their faith to possibilities which they had overlooked. Even if their director is not another St. Benedict or St. John of the Cross, they may come to realize that he is nevertheless speaking to them in the name of Christ and acting as His instrument in their lives.

[3.2] What are we normally entitled to expect from spiritual direction ? It is certainly very helpful, but we must not imagine that it works wonders. Some people, and especially some religious who ought to know better, seem to think that they ought to be able to find a spiritual director who with one word can make all their problems vanish. They are not looking for a director but for a miracle-worker. In point of fact, we very often depend on someone else to solve problems that we ought to be able to solve, not so much by our own wisdom as by our generosity in facing the facts and obligations that represent for us the will of God. Nevertheless, human nature is weak, and the kindly support and wise advice of one whom we trust often enables us to accept more perfectly what we already know and see in an obscure way. A director may not tell us anything we do not already know, but it is a great thing if he helps us to overcome our hesitations and strengthens our generosity in the Lord’s service. However, in many cases, a director will reveal to us things which we have hitherto been unable to see, though they were staring us in the face. This, too, is certainly a great grace, for which we should be thankful.

[3.3] One thing a good director will not do is make our ill-defined, unconscious velleities for perfection come true with a wave of the hand. He will not enable us to attain the things we “wish” for, because the spiritual life is not a matter of “wishing” for perfection. Too often people think that all they need to turn a “wish” into the “will of God” is to have it confirmed by a director. Unfortunately, this kind of alchemy does not work, and one who seeks to practice it is in for disappointment.

[3.4] It often happens, as a matter of fact, that so called “pious souls” take their “spiritual life” with a wrong kind of seriousness. We should certainly be serious in our search for God — nothing is more serious than that. But we ought not to be constantly observing our own efforts at progress and paying exaggerated attention to “our spiritual life.” Some who lament the fact that they cannot find a director actually have all the opportunities for direction they really need, but they are not pleased with the available director because he does not flatter their self-esteem or cater to their illusions about themselves. In other words, they want a director who will confirm their hope of finding pleasure in themselves and in their virtues, rather than one who will strip them of their self-love and show them how to get free from preoccupation with themselves and their own petty concerns, to give themselves to God and to the Church.

This does not mean that all that passes for spiritual direction is really adequate. On the contrary, very often the “direction” given after confession is nothing more than a short, impersonal homily delivered to each penitent individually. It may be doctrinally correct, and perfectly good as a sermon. But direction is, by its very nature, something personal. It is quite obvious that a sister who knows she is receiving exactly the same vague, general exhortation as the twenty who went before her to confession hardly feels that she is receiving spiritual direction. Of course she is not. Even then, she should try to make the best of it. If she is humble enough to accept at least this, she will find that the Lord has His message for her in it all. And the message will be personal.

On the other hand, a priest who might be glad to give direction pertinent to the individual case is sometimes unable to do so because the penitent has not made a sufficiently clear manifestation of conscience.


 (4) Manifestation of Conscience



[4.1] THE manifestation of conscience, which is absolutely necessary for spiritual direction, is something apart from sacramental confession of sins. In actual fact, sometimes our real problems are not very closely connected with the sinful acts which we submit to the power of the keys. Or if they are connected, the mere confession of the sins does nothing to make the connection apparent.

Actually, sin usually presents itself to the confessor as something rather impersonal — genus and species are the same in everyone. In consequence, the best he can do is to respond with advice that is more or less general and universal. It may be good advice in itself and perfectly in accordance with moral theology, and yet not get anywhere near the real root of the concrete, personal problem in the soul of the penitent.

Those who have never stopped to make a distinction between confession and direction may, when the time comes to have a director, fail to take advantage of the situation because they do not know how to make a manifestation of conscience. This is perhaps because they have a vaguely professional and technical idea of spiritual direction — the sort of thing we have outlined and perhaps caricatured in the first chapter. Direction for them is a strange, efficient, magical system. One comes to the director with complex ascetic problems and he resolves them with appropriate technical solutions. Hence the temptation to falsify the whole thing from the very start by coming in with an “interesting problem” or a “new case” —just to show how important and how different we are. This can sometimes happen. But usually we are so unimaginative that we simply cannot work up this kind of material, and we become discouraged. Naturally this is all very foolish.

If we are to take advantage of spiritual direction we must, on the one hand, avoid inertia and passivity — simply saying nothing and waiting for the “magic” director to read our minds and apply spiritual balm — and, on the other, we must not falsify and dramatize the situation by the creation of fictitious “problems.”


[4.2] Manifesting the True Self


[4.2] What we need to do is bring the director into contact with our real self, as best we can, and not fear to let him see what is false in our false self. Now this right away implies a relaxed, humble attitude in which we let go of ourselves and renounce our unconscious efforts to maintain a façade. We must let the director know what we really think, what we really feel, and what we really desire, even when these things are not altogether honorable. We must be quite frank about our motives insofar as we can be so. The mere effort to admit that we are not as unselfish or as zealous as we pretend to be is a great source of grace. Hence, we should approach direction in a spirit of humility and compunction, ready to manifest things of which we are not proud! This means that we must abandon all pugnacity about ourselves and get rid of our instinct for self-defence and self-justification, which is, in itself, the greatest obstacle to grace in our relations with a director.

The manifestation of conscience supposed by ordinary spiritual direction implies[:]

[1] an atmosphere of unhurried leisure,

[2] a friendly, sincere and informal conversation,

[3] on a basis of personal intimacy.

The director is one who knows and sympathizes, who makes allowances, who understands circumstances, who is not in a hurry, who is patiently and humbly waiting for indications of God’s action in the soul. He is concerned not just with this or that urgent problem, this or that sin, but with the whole life of the soul. He is not interested merely in our actions. He is much more interested in the basic attitudes of our soul, our inmost aspirations, our way of meeting difficulties, our mode of responding to good and evil. In a word, the director is interested in our very self, in all its uniqueness, its pitiable misery and its breathtaking greatness. A true director can never get over the awe he feels in the presence of a person, an immortal soul, loved by Christ, washed in His most Precious Blood, and nourished by the sacrament of His Love. It is, in fact, this respect for the mystery of personality that makes a real director; this, together with common sense, the gift of prayer, patience, experience, and sympathy.

Of course, as St. Theresa points out, he ought to be a theologian. But no amount of theological study can give a man spiritual discernment if he lacks the sense of respect for souls in their uniqueness, which is a gift of humility and love.

Manifestation of conscience in the deep sense of the word is often very difficult. It may be even more difficult than the confession of sins. One feels an inexpressible shame and embarrassment in laying open the inmost depths of his soul, even when there is nothing there to be ashamed of.


[4.3] The Unique, Good Gift


[4.3] As a matter of fact, it is often harder to manifest the good that is in us than the evil. But that is precisely the thing about direction. We have to be able to lay bare the secret aspirations which we cherish in our hearts because they are the dear refuge to which we can escape from reality. We must be able to lay them bare, knowing well enough that even in manifesting them we run the risk of seeing them in a different light — in which they lose their mystery and their magic. The director has to know what we really want, for only then will he know what we really are.

The trouble is that very often we ourselves do not know what we “really want.” And this brings us to an important but very delicate subject: the attitude of religious and of Christians in general toward the will of God.

Too often a legalistic concept of the will of God leads to a hypocritical falsification of the interior life. Do we not often unconsciously take it for granted that God is a harsh lawgiver, without interest in the thoughts and desires of our own hearts, seeking only to impose upon us the arbitrary dictates of His own inscrutable, predetermined plans? And yet, as St. Paul has said, we are called to collaborate with God. “We are God’s coadjutors” (i Cor. 3:9). As sons of God, we are called to use our freedom to help God create His likeness in our own souls. And of course, we help Him also to build His kingdom in the world. In this work of collaboration we are not mere passive and mechanical instruments. Our freedom, our love, our spontaneous contribution to God’s work is itself the choicest and most precious effect of His grace. To frustrate this active participation in the work of God is to frustrate what is most dear to His will.

This means concretely that in spiritual direction it will be very important to discover what holy and spiritual desires in the soul of the penitent really represent a possibility of a special, spontaneous and personal gift which he alone can make to God. If there is some gift which he alone can give, then almost certainly God asks that gift from him, and a holy, humble, and sincere desire may be one of the signs that God asks it !

But this is where a certain unconscious hypocrisy comes in. We are afraid to make this spontaneous gift, afraid of spontaneity itself because we have been so warped by the idea that everything spontaneous is “merely natural” and that for a work to be supernatural it has to go against the grain, it has to frustrate and disgust us. The truth is, of course, quite different. It is necessary for us to frustrate and overcome our sensual, selfish and exterior self, the compulsive and automatic self that is really incapable of true love. But when we do this we set free our interior, simple self, our godlike self, the image of God, “Christ in us,” and we become able to love God with spiritual liberty and make Him, in all simplicity, the gift that He asks of us.


[4.4] The Good of Spontaneity and Simplicity


[4.4] But when we fear spontaneity, we tend to mask our desires and to present them by denying them as it were. We feel that the director will automatically reject anything that we really desire. We believe that both God and the director are predisposed, in advance, against everything spontaneous. Hence, rather than simply manifest what we really feel, or really desire, we say something else that we imagine we are expected to feel, expected to desire, and we give the impression that we do not desire what we secretly desire. This, for all our good intentions, is plain hypocrisy. The consequences are really quite dangerous, because if this is our concept of the interior life, then we are saying, in effect, that God wills a façade. And we concentrate on building this façade in our own life and perhaps even in the lives of others. The result is the falsification of the whole religious life of our community.

No, we must be perfectly open and simple, without prejudices and without artificial theories about ourselves. We must learn to speak according to our own inner truth, as far as we can perceive it. We must learn to say what we really mean in the depths of our souls, not what we think we are expected to say, not what somebody else has just said. And we must be prepared to take responsibility for our desires, and accept the consequences. This is neither hard nor unnatural, since every man coming into the world is born with this simplicity. It is the simplicity of the child, which we all unfortunately lose before we have a chance to make good use of it.

Incidentally, this childlike simplicity has nothing to do with the artificially cultivated effrontery of the average teen-ager today. Cynicism is not a deep conviction with him (he has no deep convictions). It is only a pose which he adopts because he is insecure and is afraid to lose the approval of his group.

True simplicity implies love and trust—it does not expect to be derided and rejected, any more than it expects to be admired and praised. It simply hopes to be accepted on its own terms. This is the kind of atmosphere which a good director tries to produce: an atmosphere of confidence and friendliness in which the penitent can say anything that is on his mind with the assurance that it will be dealt with frankly and honestly. If in trying to be sincere the penitent simply poses, then he must be prepared to take the consequences. But anything he says that is genuine, that really comes from his heart, will be understood and accepted by a wise director. Such real, genuine aspirations of the heart are sometimes very important indications of the will of God for that soul — and sometimes they must be sacrificed.

This gives us a clue to what the director is really seeking to find out from us. He does not merely want to know our problems, our difficulties, our secrets. And that is why one should not think that a direction session that does not tackle a problem has not been a success. The director wants to know our inmost self, our real self. He wants to know us not as we are in the eyes of men, or even as we are in our own eyes, but as we are in the eyes of God. He wants to know the inmost truth of our vocation, the action of grace in our souls. His direction is, in reality, nothing more than a way of leading us to see and obey our real Director — the Holy Spirit, hidden in the depths of our soul. We must never forget that in reality we are not directed and taught by men, and that if we need human “direction” it is only because we cannot, without man’s help, come into contact with that “unction (of the Spirit) which teaches us all things” (1 John 2:20).

In manifesting our inmost aspirations and trials, we should strive above all to be perfectly frank and clear. Direction will school us in being true to ourselves and true to the grace of God. The discipline of sincerity and simplicity which a good director will discreetly impose, perhaps by indirect means, is one of the most vitally necessary things in the interior life of religious today.


[4.5] The Horror of Pious, Contemplative Jargon


[4.5] Sometimes it seems that the so called “interior life” is little more than a web of illusion, spun out of jargon and pious phrases which we have lifted from books and sermons and with which we conceal, rather than reveal, what is in us. How often the director, listening to seemingly admirable religious souls, is saddened and chilled by the sense that a smug, unconscious complacency, armed with the clichés of pious authors, stands before him fully prepared to resist every advance of humility and truth. His heart is contracted by a kind of hopelessness, a feeling that there is no way of breaking through and setting free the real person who remains buried and imprisoned under the false front that has been acquired, unfortunately, as a result of religious malformation.

Perhaps unwise direction is itself to blame for this spiritual “warping” of the person. Such souls are really unable to manifest what is in them, because they have blinded themselves completely to what is there and put something else in its place. Yet they are in perfect good faith, and in a sense they have a kind of peace, based on the rigid structure of artificiality which they have erected precisely as a bulwark against anxiety. Perhaps sometimes a little anxiety can be a good thing! In any case, the director must be on his guard against the unconscious spiritual vanity which makes virtuous souls seek to shine, in a subtle way, in his eyes and capture his approval. Where there is good, he should certainly approve and encourage it, in all simplicity. Artificial humiliations are not necessary to keep the soul humble. But the simplicity of the director and perhaps a gentle sense of humor will be alert to detect anything that savors of a pious “act” on the part of the penitent. Nothing does so much harm in direction as the acceptance by the director of an unconscious pretense of perfection in place of the real thing.


Dangerous Obsession withmysticismand states of prayer


[4.6] There is perhaps no more difficult and delicate task for the director than the guidance of Christians called to a life of interior prayer. This is rendered all the more arduous by the fact that there is so much pious nonsense written, printed, and said, about “mystics,” “victim souls” and other such categories. Direction is very important in the life of prayer, but at the present time the situation is such that a director who is not very simple and very wholesome can do great harm to someone who might be quite close to God in prayer. The whole trouble comes from the inordinate reflection upon self that is generated by the consciousness of “degrees of prayer” and steps on the ascent of the “mountain of love.” Actually, when a person begins to take his prayer life overseriously and thinks of it as something requiring especially earnest direction, he tends to undermine it by reflection. He starts looking at himself, judging his reactions, and worse still, deciding whether or not to make them known to the director. This of course is fatal to genuine prayer, and even in the long run leads to the ruin of perfectly good contemplative vocations. It would seem that most of the pseudo-technical questions that seem to require consideration in direction are completely useless and should be forgotten. What possible good can be done for a monk by deciding whether or not his contemplation is “infused”? Even those who are still interested in the defunct argument, acquired vs. infused contemplation, agree that in practice it makes little difference in the direction of a person whose prayer is simple and contemplative in a general way. A contemplative is not one who takes his prayer seriously, but one who takes God seriously, who is famished for truth, who seeks to live in generous simplicity, in the spirit. An ardent and sincere humility is the best protection for his life of prayer. A director who can encourage simplicity and faith will find many genuine, simple contemplatives responding to his guidance, with little or no nonsense about ligature, prayer of quiet, prayer of full union and so on. The trouble is not that such things are unimportant or unreal, but rather that the verbiage that tends to surround them actually gets between the contemplative and reality, between the soul and God.

[4.7] The most dangerous thing about this kind of reflexive self-consciousness in prayer is that the soul turns into an opaque mirror in which the contemplative looks no longer at God but at himself. Such technical folly, together with the worse folly of visions and locutions that are taken seriously without sufficient reason, ends by the sanctuary of the spirit becoming a kind of abomination of desolation in which the voice of God cannot be heard because on all sides the walls re-echo with clichés from “spiritual authors.”

An artificial gruffness and the use of deliberate humiliations will do nothing to remedy this state of affairs, if the director himself, even secretly, adopts the same false standard of values and declares implicitly, by the very way in which he “humbles” his penitent, that these are great graces capable of turning anyone’s head. This is just another way of making the same mistake. Neither the director nor the one directed should become obsessed with the problem of gifts and graces, but should concern themselves with God the Giver, not with His gifts. The important thing is the will of God and His love. The more objective one can be about this, the better. Graces and gifts are never going to turn the head of anyone who keeps his attention fixed on God, instead of on himself, and the more truly contemplative a state of prayer is, the more will it be obscure and transparent and unaware of itself.

[4.8] What has been said about graces of prayer applies in equal measure to trials and passive purifications. The important thing is to quietly reassure the soul that seems to be anxious and upset, to create a proper understanding of spiritual trials without overdramatizing the “night” of the soul. In reality, there is just as much danger of self-contemplation in trials as in consolations, provided that the trials themselves are not really severe. A lot of darkness in prayer that glorifies itself as “passive purification” is perhaps in large measure a matter of boredom due to confusion and fixation upon the subjective and accessory aspects of the spiritual life. Let the soul get back into full contact with reality and the dryness will probably clear up to a great extent. Unfortunately, the routine and spirituality encouraged in certain contemplative communities tend to invite frustration and to glorify every form of infantile moodiness as a spiritual night. The victims of this kind of system are encouraged in masochism and self-pity on the ground that this has something to do with “contemplation.” Actually, this is an evasion of grace and a pure pretense of spirituality. In the long run, it leads to various forms of escape, for example useless and futile activities, unnecessary work projects, etc., which are dreamed up more or less deliberately to break the spell of obsession with self. But they do not accomplish their effect, producing only a different kind of anxiety and a new frustration.


[4.9] The Value of Simple Tasks and Pleasures


[4.9] What is really required is a normal, realistic and completely simple grasp of what the contemplative life is, in all its simplicity, with its humble, spontaneous activities, its genuine, if rustic, satisfactions, and the legitimate diversion that can come from a variety of reading and a broadening of healthy human interests, not at all incompatible with a life of prayer.

It is certainly not necessary to break up an unhealthy fixation on experiences in prayer by going to the other extreme and launching the bewildered subject into a round of parties and secular diversions, as too many directors might be prone to do. We must be careful to seek a happy and balanced medium. This consists neither in the extreme of self-conscious asceticism or the opposite extreme of self-abandoned sociability and conviviality, but rather in the recovery of a simple and wholesome ordinary life, lived at a moderate and humanly agreeable tempo, with a few very humble satisfactions and joys of a more or less primitive character. Manual labor (especially outdoor work) plays a very important part in this readjustment, not purely as a penance but also as a way of relaxing and refreshing the mind.

In summary, one of the most important benefits a director can bring to the prayer life of his contemplative penitents is to help them reintegrate their whole existence, as far as possible, on a simple, natural and ordinary level on which they can be fully human. Then grace can work on them and make them fully sons of God.


 (5) Special Problems



[5.1] ONCE we have opened the depths of our soul to him, the director penetrates our motives and sees, though “through a glass darkly,” to what extent they correspond to the truth and grace of God. The value of a director lies in the clarity and simplicity of his discernment, in sound judgment, rather than in the exhortation he gives. For if his exhortation is based on a wrong judgment, then it is of little value. In fact it may do harm. This faculty of supernatural discernment is a grace; in fact, it is a charismatic gift, a grace of a high order, given especially by God for the sake of souls. And such charismata are by no means as rare as one might imagine. The Holy Spirit still works powerfully in His Church, though His power is more hidden than it was in the first centuries! Have we any reason to doubt it?

Sometimes the light of truth given to the director pierces, in spite of us, through our unconscious armor. He may say something that troubles us deeply. We may rebel at first. We may imagine that he has made a serious error and does not understand us. We argue that everything he says ought to bring us peace — and this new statement of his brings profound disturbance! We may be tempted to reject his decision and disregard his advice, even to leave him altogether.

At such a time we must be on our guard. We may be resisting the light of God. We may be refusing to accept a grace which will transform our whole lives. We may be hesitating and turning back on the threshold of one of those “conversions” which lead to a whole new level of spirituality and to deeper intimacy with Christ. Let us be very careful when we are angry with our director. Let us see if we cannot accept what he has said, no matter how wrong it may seem. Let us at least try to go along with him and see what comes of it.

A little good will, a little faith and a humble prayer to God may enable us to do what seemed to be impossible, and we may be surprised to find that an almost miraculous change has suddenly come over our life. Even when the director himself was clumsy or high-handed, God may reward our humility and good will with great graces.

[5.2] Of course, as we have indicated above, it is quite possible that we have a director who does not understand us. There is no such thing as a perfect director, and even the most enlightened and sensitive spiritual guide can fail to respond to the delicate resonances which reveal the true inner secret of one’s character. There are people who simply do not “click.” The situation may be serious enough for a change of director to be indicated. For instance, if a director simply refuses to listen to our sincere views and rejects all serious discussion of them, it may be a reason to change. However, do not be too hasty. Give the matter time and thought. Have you really sufficient reason for changing? Supposing he does not understand you thoroughly: supposing there is a kind of wall between you: can you say that even then he has not revealed to you many important things that no one else has yet told you? If that is the case, then God is using him as an instrument, and you should stay with your director, unless it is quite clear that another and more understanding director is available. In any case, a change of director should be made only with prudent consideration, and if possible after consultation with a wise friend, a competent superior, or an alternate confessor — for example at the time of annual retreat or of extraordinary confessions.

[5.3] What is the value of direction by mail? It should not be overestimated. An occasional letter from some spiritual guide who knows you well, and is a good theologian or a deeply spiritual person — this may be of some value. But direction by mail is seriously handicapped by one important thing : the lack of direct personal contact. In oral spiritual direction, much is communicated without words, even in spite of words. The direct person-to-person relationship is something that cannot be adequately replaced. Christ Himself said, “Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them.” There is a special spiritual presence of Christ in direct personal conversation, which guarantees a deeper and more intimate expression of the whole truth.

Of course, letters from a really good director are perhaps better than direct contact with a bad one. But most good directors have very little time to write long letters. They have too many other things to do.

[5.4] One must not imagine that one owes strict obedience to the spiritual director. A director is not a superior. Our relation to him is not that of a subject to a divinely constituted juridical authority. It is rather the relation of a friend to an advisor. Hence, the virtue to be exercised in direction is docility rather than obedience, and docility is a matter of prudence. Obedience is a matter of justice. To ignore the guidance of a director may be imprudent, but it is not a sin against justice or against the vow of obedience.

We might add that theologians today discourage any such thing as a private vow of obedience to the director. However, in the case of people with scruples, they must follow to the letter the instructions given by the director and not quibble over words; it will be, in practice, a kind of obedience. But in this case the scrupulous person is incapable of practicing prudence, and consequently he must obey the director. He is in the position of a child who has to obey his parents since he cannot yet trust his own prudence.

[5.5] One final point. The director is not a psychoanalyst. He should stick to his divinely given mission, and avoid two great mistakes. First, he should not become an amateur in psychotherapy. He should not try to concern himself directly with unconscious drives and emotional problems. He should know enough about them to recognize their presence. He should have a deep respect for man’s unconscious, instinctual nature. He should not make the mistake of giving a direction that reinforces unconscious and infantile authoritarian trends. At the same time he should not be too easy and too soothing, giving approval to every whim, no matter how unreasonable.

Secondly, he should realize that psychological problems are very real and that when they exist they are beyond the range of his competency. He should not be one of those who derides psychiatry on principle and pretends that all emotional problems can be solved by ascetic means. He should know when to refer someone to a psychiatrist for proper treatment. He should not try to “cure” a neurotic by bluffing him, or jollying him along, still less by jumping on him !

[5.6] We have taken a brief glance at some of the advantages of spiritual direction and at some of its problems. Inevitably, such a treatment as this lacks perspective. It gives the impression that there is always a great deal going on between the director and the one being directed. It creates the idea that the director has to be always on his toes to avoid being deceived — as if every direction session turned into a battle between light and darkness.

This is by no means the case. Once the director and his penitent get to know each other, the direction generally goes on peacefully and uneventfully from month to month and from year to year. Great problems seldom arise. Difficulties are few. When they come up, they are handled simply and peacefully, without much fuss. There may be rare moments of difficulty and stress, but they pass by. One is tempted to think that all this is too tame, too quiet, too safe. It almost looks as if direction were a waste of time, as if it amounted to nothing more than a friendly chat about the trivial events of the season.

However, if we are wise, we will realize that this is precisely the greatest value of direction. The life that is peaceful, almost commonplace in its simplicity, might perhaps be quite a different thing without these occasional friendly talks that bring tranquility and keep things going on their smooth course. How many vocations would be more secure if all religious could navigate in such calm, safe waters as these!

Nihil obstat ex parte Ordinis: Fr. M. Thomas Aquinas Porter; Fr. M. Paul Bourne; Fr. M. Shane Regan. Imprimi potest: Fr. M. Gabriel Sortais, Abbot General. January 16, 1960.

Nihil obstat: John Eidenschink, O.S.B., J.C.D., Censor deputatus. Imprimatur: + Peter W. Bartholome, D.D., Bishop of St. Cloud. December 14, 1959.

Copyright 1960 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota.

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