Papa Bene on the Importance of Spiritual Direction

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Spiritual Direction is where you have a spiritual director, whether a priest or layperson, offer advice, guidance, and feedback in your spiritual health.

This usually involves going over what ails you, whether spiritual or even non-spiritual at times.  Then your director offers his or her direction in what aspect of your spiritual life may be deficient and offers a remedy to that deficiency.

This has been my experience so don’t take me as an expert, but as a witness in having spiritual direction.

Saint Theresa of Avila had outstanding spiritual directors which I long for and are a rarity to find.  She had spiritual direction from well educated and newly formed Jesuits who attacked the problem at it’s core.

Whether it be anxiety, hallucinations, problems at work, etc., there was a spiritual element that was deficient in which the Jesuit spiritual directors were able to identify and offer a solution to which via meditation, prayer, adoration, etc.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that the rise in psychotherapy in the United States was in direct correlation to the decline in Christian practice.  I immediately understood this to mean to a lesser extent the use of spiritual direction.

Here is the Catholic Encyclopedia definition for Spiritual Direction:

In the technical sense of the term, spiritual direction is that function of the sacred ministry by which the Church guides the faithful to the attainment of eternal happiness. It is part of the commission given to her in the words of Christ: “Going, therefore, teach ye all nations . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19 sq.). She exercises this function both in her public teaching, whether in word or writing, and in the private guidance of souls according to their individual needs; but it is the private guidance that is generally understood by the term “spiritual direction”.

I. In one way, the Church requires all her adult members to submit to such private direction, namely, in the Sacrament of Penance. For she entrusts to her priests in the confessional, not only the part of judge to absolve or retain the sins presently confessed, but also the part of a director of consciences. In the latter capacity he must instruct his penitents if ignorant of their duties, point out the wrong or the danger in their conduct, and suggest the proper means to be employed for amendment or improvement. The penitent, on his part, must submit to this guidance. He must also, in cases of serious doubt regarding the lawfulness of his action, ask the advice of his director. For a person who acts in a practical doubt, not knowing whether he is offending God or not, and yet consenting to do what he thinks to be morally wrong, thereby offends his Creator. Such consultation is the more necessary as no one is a good judge in his own cause: a business man is sometimes blind to the injustice of a tempting bargain, and passion often invents motives for unlawful indulgence.

II. Still more frequently is spiritual direction required in the lives of Christians who aim at the attainment of perfection (see PERFECTION). All religious are obliged to do so by their profession; and many of the faithful, married and unmarried, who live amidst worldly cares aspire to such perfection as is attainable in their states of life. This striving after Christian perfection means the cultivation of certain virtues and watchfulness against faults and spiritual dangers. The knowledge of this constitutes the science of asceticism. The spiritual director must be well versed in this difficult science, as his advice is very necessary for such souls. For, as Cassian writes, “by no vice does the devil draw a monk headlong and bring him to death sooner than by persuading him to neglect the counsel of the Elders and trust to his own judgment and determination” (Conf. of Abbot Moses).

III. Since, in teaching the Faith, the Holy Ghost speaks through the sovereign pontiff and the bishops of the Church, the work of the private spiritual director must never be at variance with this infallible guidance. Therefore the Church has condemned the doctrine of Molinos, who taught that directors are independent of the bishops, that the Church does not judge about secret matters, and that God and the director alone enter into the inner conscience (Denzinger, Enchiridion, nos. 1152, 1153). Several of the most learned Fathers of the Church devoted much attention to spiritual direction, for instance, St. Jerome, who directed St. Paula and her daughter St. Eustochium; and some of them have left us learned treatises on ascetic theology. But while the hierarchy of the Church is Divinely appointed to guard the purity of faith and morals, the Holy Spirit, who “breatheth where he will; and thou hearest his voice, but thou knowest not whence he cometh, and whither he goeth” (John 3:8), has often chosen priests or religious, and even simple laymen and women, and filled them with supernatural wisdom in order to provide for the spiritual direction of others.

IV. Whoever the director be, he will find the principal means of progress towards perfection to consist in the exercise of prayer and mortification. But upon the special processes of these two means, spiritual guides have been led by the Holy Spirit in various directions. Different is the type for the solitary in the desert, the cenobite in the community, for a St. Louis or a Blanche of Castile in a palace, St. Frances of Rome in her family, or a St. Zita in her kitchen, for contemplative and for active religious orders and congregations. Another marked difference in the direction of souls arises from the presence or absence of the mystical element in the life of the person to be directed (see MYSTICISM). Mysticism involves peculiar modes of action by which the Holy Ghost illumines a soul in ways which transcend the normal use of the reasoning powers. The spiritual director who has such persons in charge needs the soundest learning and consummate prudence. Here especially sad mistakes have been made by presumption and imprudent zeal, for men of distinction in the Church have gone astray in this matter.

V. Even in ordinary cases of spiritual direction in which no mysticism is involved, numerous errors must be guarded against; the following deserve special notice: (1) The false principles of the Jansenists, who demanded of their penitents an unattainable degree of purity of conscience before they allowed them to receive Holy Communion. Many priests, not members of the sect, were yet so far tainted with its severity as gradually to alienate large numbers of their penitents from the sacraments and consequently from the Church. (2) The condemned propositions summarized under the headings “De perfectione christianâ” in Denzinger’s “Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum” (Würzburg, 1900), page 485, which are largely the principles of Quietism. These are specimens: To obtain perfection a man ought to deaden all his faculties; he should take no vows, should avoid external work, ask God for nothing in particular, not seek sensible devotion, not study science, not consider rewards and punishments, not employ reasoning in prayer. (3) The errors and dangers pointed out in the Encyclical of Leo XIII, “Testem Benevolentiæ”. In it the pope singles out for particular condemnation: “First, all external guidance is set aside for those souls which are striving after Christian perfection as being superfluous, or indeed not useful in any sense, the contention being that the Holy Spirit pours richer and more abundant graces into the soul than formerly; so that, without human intervention, He teaches and guides them by some hidden instinct of His own.” In the same document warnings are given against inculcating an exaggerated esteem of the natural virtues, thus depreciating the supernatural ones; also against casting contempt on religious vows, “as if these were alien to the spirit of our times, in that they restrict the bounds of human liberty, and that they are more suitable to weak than to strong minds“.

VI. An important document of Leo XIII bearing specifically on the direction of religious souls is the decree “Quemadmodum” of 1890. It forbids all religious superiors who are not priests “the practice of thoroughly inquiring into the state of their subjects’ consciences, which is a thing reserved to the Sacrament of Penance“. It also forbids them to refuse to their subjects an extraordinary confessor, especially in cases where the conscience of the persons so refused stands greatly in need of this privilege; as also “to take it on themselves to permit at their pleasure their subjects to approach the Holy Table, or even sometimes to forbid them Holy Communion altogether”. The pope abrogates all constitutions, usages, and customs so far as they tend to the contrary; and absolutely forbids such superiors as are here spoken of to induce in any way their subjects to make to them any such manifestations of conscience. (See the decree “Quemadmodum”, with explanations, in the American Ecclesiastical Review, March, 1893.).

VII. Catholic literature is rich in works of ascetic and mystical theology; of which we mention a few below. But it must be noticed that such works cannot be recommended for the use of all readers indiscriminately. The higher the spiritual perfection aimed at, especially when mysticism enters into the case, the more caution should be used in selecting and consulting the guide-books, and the more danger there is that the direction given in them may be misapplied. Spiritual direction is as much a matter for the personal supervision of an experienced living guide as is the practice of medicine; the latter deals with abnormal defects of the body, the former with the acquisition of uncommon perfection by the soul.

(Biretta tip for the video:  Rome Reports)

14 Responses to Papa Bene on the Importance of Spiritual Direction

  • Isn’t this why St. Josemaria Escriva established the Opus Dei prelature?

  • AK,

    Yes, one reason why.

    What’s with the Cthulhu icon?

  • Spiritual direction has been a tremendous grace for me. I’ve been getting it off-and-on for years from Opus Dei people, but I finally “got serious” about it a year ago. It’s probably the only way a schlub like me will ever be able to kick the devil’s ass.

  • Tito,

    No idea. I’m technologically incompetent. In addition to spiritual direction I am in need of technical direction.

  • AK,

    Just poking fun at you.

    I’ve changed the self-generating gravatar from abstract to monsterID.

  • I’ve had nothing but disappointment in my search for a spiritual director. A few priests are willing to be a spiritual director to a certain kind of person – say, in a particular state of life – and aren’t seemingly interested in anyone else, but many aren’t seemingly interested in *anyone*.

    I say “seemingly” because it’s not my place to judge them. At some point a priest’s lack of support for a person in spiritual crisis has to rise to the level of serious sin. I’ve had a couple of confessors whose souls I pray for with significant concern.

  • Pinky,

    I haven’t encountered what you have, but I do long for an excellent spiritual adviser, which I haven’t found yet.

    I’m worried about putting more stress on our priests.

    That is why I mentioned the Jesuits of Saint Theresa of Avila’s time because THAT is what exactly I need.

    Well formed, well educated, and kind spiritual advisers.

  • Tito, I wouldn’t want to say anything that would discourage someone from looking for a spiritual director. I, personally, am just shell-shocked from my experience, but I had some bad luck. And I can’t complain (but sometimes I still do). When you consider the Fall of the House of Maciel, a lot of good people must feel a lot more let down than I ever have.

  • Pinky,

    I hope my comment hasn’t led anyone to be discouraged to search for a spiritual director.

    As for me, I am still looking and so should you!

    :)

  • It is nice to know that I am not the only sinner in need of direction. I must admit that pride gets in the way. When I reverted to the Faith, I think I was captivated by Grace and then I relied heavily on the natural virtue of religion. It seems a schmuck like me needed to get catechized after three decades of paganism. It worked for a while and then it became like I was reaching for faith by my own power – God had another plan and he let me get knocked down. He is wonderful.

    Now with my new found humility and a vestigial tinge of pride, He has brought me to the realization that I am NOT so special and I am just like every other sinner; which is to say infinitely special in His eyes, and of the lowest consequence from every other perspective. That is great.

    But, then I feel lost. I know the faith better than the average ‘Catholic’ – I am not boasting, I think this is natural for converts and reverts – The Catholic religion is very exciting and intellectually stimulating. That is NOT enough, in fact, I am not so sure it is even all that necessary. Apparently, the Cure d’Ars was not too bright and yet he was far more faithful and in love with God than I. So I began going to Reconciliation more often, and as often as possible to the same priest. That was very helpful, but he is new, he is busy, he has other sinners that need confession and we can’t really get deep into the issues. He tells me I have a pretty good perspective on the nature of my sins – that has to be Grace. But, I know I need something more.

    I used to think the holier people went to daily Mass, weekly confession, and had spiritual directors. I am now realizing that all that assistance is probably not for the holiest souls, but for the least – like me. I think I need more help, I don’t think I am alone (judging from this thread and the poor quality of Catholic culture in our country). So where to go?

    I have been bumping into Opus Dei more and more and St. Escriva’s books are, well, just amazingly insightful. I keep reading about different spiritualities and praying for guidance, but I seem to like aspects of de Sales, Ignatius, de Montfort, etcetera, etcetera. All good stuff. All orthodox Catholic. But it seems I need focus. So that is what lead me to think of spiritual direction.

    Then I am absent from this site for over a month and the moment I come back, Tito, posts this thread. Theoincidence? Must be.

    So how do you go about figuring this out. Opus Dei is the direction I am planning on going in. In fact, before I stumbled across this thread, I had called to the local Opus Dei study center to make an appointment.

    Do any of you know more about what is required, expected and the type of direction one can expect. I don’t want to be too skeptical, but I know that once the founder dies, things can get dicey. Heck, the Church’s Founder lives and things are dicey. Before, you tell me to pray for the Spirit of discernment – I am doing that. I am still looking for some practical advice from others exploring the same thing. I know this is just a blog, but I have found some of the mos profound Catholic insights on here, although y’all are charitable enough to tolerate some serious wackadoos, too. I might be one whenever the Federal Reserve or the War for Southern Independence comes up :)

    Any ideas?

  • Theoincidence

    I like that term! :)

    As a Catholic I don’t believe in coincidences. Everything happens for a reason.

    This ‘theoincidence’ probably means God is directing you to follow a holier path. To pray more often during the day and do an examination of conscience at least once a week.

    I attend the month Opus Dei evenings/mornings of reflection. They involve over a two hour period three talks on the faith, reflection, prayer, and benediction of the Holy Sacrament. All throughout the evening/day the Sacrament of Confession is available.

    It’s pretty peaceful and you feel as if your spiritual batteries are recharged after each reflection.

    So I highly recommend it AK!

    (Here in Houston we have an evening of recollection once a month and a morning of reflection once a month… normally these monthly reflections coincide on the same week. This may differ from city to city)

  • Thanks, Tito,

    Theoincidence is not my word. I heard one of my brothers use it on our weekly Cardo Pivot Point call.

    I have been to the reflections, we have one next weekend. I like the Saturday morning Opus Dei reflections with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

    I am going to go meet with one of the Opus Dei priests and I’m sure he’ll have some ideas about what I should do to make the decision.

    St. Josemaria was inspired to develop Opus Dei during the Spanish Civil War, so it seems perfect for our times. It is sometimes tempting to run into the desert and become a hermit; but, I don’t think that is where God wants most of us. I am glad you brought this important aspect of spiritual growth to everyone’s attention. I think it is a path many, if not all, of us should pursue.

  • For my part, God has blessed me with a wonderful Jesuit director for many years but then I have to say he’s directed me under duress bc he’s my brother so he basically has no choice :) That said, a wonderfully accessible book has been published this year precisely for Catholics who say they can’t find a good SD. For 15 bucks, its helped me alot & might help others: Consoling the Heart of Jesus by Michael Gaitley, MIC by Marian Press.
    If you’re serious, this book will help and, best part, its not written by academics for academics!

  • GB,

    Thank you for that recommendation!

    If there are other such books out there that our readers are aware of, please share them with us.

    One reason I posted about his was because I too am yearning for a top-notch spiritual director.

    You are very blessed, GB, to have such a good SD!

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