January 7, 2011


I was touched by this anonymous comment: I had gone to Reconciliation and had been feeling somewhat disconsolate afterwards. I wished I had a spiritual director.

The spiritual life isn't easy. Prayer, as is said, is an 'uninteresting wilderness.'

A spiritual director is a good thing, but only a help. Not everyone who thinks he needs a spiritual director really does, and not every who tries to engage in directing souls is competent to do so.

In the early years of my baptism I was often preoccupied with a certain interior struggle that was made much worse by my inability to really understand it or articulate it well. A significant part of my journals from those years is taken up with my struggle to find an understanding of this trouble. I remember trying to explain it in confession without much success. One time a priest just admitted that he didn't know what I was trying to explain. It was very frustrating because I felt like my spiritual progress was being impeded by something, but I couldn't quite describe what it was; I couldn't name the demon, as it were. I was also scandalized to find that priests were little help; I had presumed (in my innocence) that one of the ordinary works of priests was the diagnosis of spiritual maladies and prescription of appropriate remedies.

I began to arrive at some resolution in this issue when I read John Cassian. I realized that I was struggling with a subtle form of kenodoxia or vainglory. Cassian taught me how to recognize and name the particular thoughts and interior movements that were at the root of the affliction.

This is why I say that in the pursuit of a spiritual life, the best thing that someone can do is read. Through the ages, the life of prayer and the call to holiness have been lived by all kinds of different people with all sort of personalities, gifts, and faults. The Holy Spirit arranged for many of them to write about their experiences and what they had learned, so that their wisdom might be available to us.

For any individual soul, personality, and temperament, there is some spiritual writer out there who will speak to you from the communion of saints. Pay attention to cues you receive in prayer or through spiritual friends, and God will lead you to someone with whom you resonate. Find the spiritual writers who speak to your particular condition, and you will find that your own spiritual life begins to enter into the communion of saints. The saints will give you language and conceptual frameworks to understand your own experience, and you will also find your own sense of your journey comes to be informed by those who have gone before you. This is what I mean by the communion of saints in this regard. For example, my sense of my own prayer has ben strongly patterned by John of the Cross and John Cassian. My understanding of the narrative of my own conversion has received much from Augustine, Francis, and Thomas Merton.

To anyone who would live a spiritual life, make such friends. It is for you that God made them write.


K T Cat said...

What a wonderful post! Thanks for sharing this wisdom with us. I completely agree that reading and contemplation is crucial.

Lee Gilbert said...

Shortly after we threw out the TV when David was two or so I began a program of reading lives of the saints. This was a way to continue my habit of being passively entertained while at the same time putting myself in the way of actual graces. Among the lives which I remember reading was a life of St. Stanislaus Kostka by Edward Healy Thompson.

Incredibly although this book is not in print it IS online.

Effectively Thompson's bio of St. Stanislaus has already become a rare book.

Without exaggeration to me this is almost tragic, because it contains one paragraph that would be of inestimable value to many, many people:

“Padre Bartoli, who wrote ninety-seven years after the saint's death, asserts that instances were daily occurring- and, doubtless, many more existed, known only to the individuals themselves- of relief from every species of horrible and afflicting temptation; from scruples, aridity, desolation of spirit; from the inability to excite contrition in the heart, and even to offer a single prayer; in short, from every peril and internal suffering which can menace or oppress the soul- all through the effectual intercession of St. Stanislaus."

That paragraph, or rather St. Stanislaus himself, has been of great help to me along these lines in the 30 years since I read it- three or four times (at least) markedly so.

As for spiritual directors, I think Thomas Merton once wrote that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who is the spiritual director. If one prays, and keeps his nose in scripture and the lives and writings of the saints, sooner or later he will trip across the nugget of wisdom or the intercessor that will deliver him of his difficulties...for which, May God be Praised!

It's an odd and beautiful thing, isn't it, to be reading such a life and to realize that, wait a minute, I don't have to just read about you, why I can put the book down and talk to you right now, for you are as alive as ever you were.

Ad abolendam said...

Great post, Father. I had the unfortunate experience of not getting much out of going to a spiritual director. I should be reading the great spiritual masters, but I've always felt "blocked" from doing so. Your post has helped rekindle my intention.

Sara said...

"I remember trying to explain it in confession without much success."


Whoever you are, Anonymous: I'm a new Catholic and I'm baffled by the concept that anyone feels anything but desolate and unsettled after Reconciliation. For a while I thought that doing all the time might help me get better at it, but it made things worse. Take care.

Greg said...

Was working on a presentation I am giving next week then read this post.

My talk includes quotes from Francis, Cassian, Merton, Augustine, among others. I was encouraged by your thoughts to not shy away from such references in the talk.

I'm finding there is a hunger for spiritual direction or at the very least spiritual community that relies on the writings of the Fathers.

It does not appear the Church offers a standard format that parishes might adopt to meet this hunger.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post... My SD suggested several saints to read: The Little Flower, Margaret Mary Alocoque, John of the Cross... There was very little I could relate to.

He also gave me a prayer lifted out of Anselm's Proslogion. It absolutely touched my heart. Now I am reading the Works of St. Anselm... I am hungry for more nourishment...

I have also received understanding from Mother Teresa's letters...