Sunday, January 04, 2009

Spiritual direction and deception... some thoughts.

God told me...
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I noticed Pat Robertson came out with his predictions this weekend, not unlike psychics are wont to do, only Robertson claims God told him - implying he has his knowledge from a higher authority...
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I think the fact that religious men and women claim such personal communications and messages from God is a pretty good sign that "faith has dwindled among the sons of men, empty follies they talk, each one with his neighbor." (Ps. 11) Modern men and women have "itchy ears" looking for religious novelty and revelations, along with signs and wonders, while neglecting the good they ought to be doing for their neighbor.
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Presumption of assumption.
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St. John of the Cross writes about such people who have a high regard for supernatural communications as "testing God" by their efforts - even when their spiritual directors, persuaded by their personal attachment to extraordinary revelations, ask the person under their care to to request some sort of spiritual knowledge. St. John says that God is displeased with such entreaties and does not even desire them. He points out that these people often act in accord with their revelations, and because of their attachment to the so-called prophecies, their faith is more rooted in these things rather than God.
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St. John writes, These souls "find natural satisfaction in them (revelations) and fit them naturally into their own way of thinking." Although "they often err exceedingly, and are taken aback at the unexpected outcome. Then doubts come to the fore concerning the divine origin of these revelations, since events do not come to pass as they were led to believe. (This is especially true of those who listen to such mystics and who placed their trust in their pronouncements.) They presumed two factors; 1) That the revelations were from God, since from the beginning they firmly adhered to them. Yet this adherence was probably due to their natural inclination towards them. 2) That since the revelations were from God, events would unfold according to their anticipation."
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Such people are easily deluded because God's revelations or locutions are not dependant upon natural understanding and do not always come to fulfillment according to human expectations, much less in accord with their literal sense. St John warns; "Though they (such revelations) may in themselves contain certitude and truth, they do not always have it in their causes and in our way of understanding them."
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Seeking spiritual direction.
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I would never presume to discuss the issue of spiritual direction as regards a person discerning a religious vocation, or one living in the religious state. Indeed, I have no capacity other than experience to discuss the subject even for lay people. Therefore, what I say here is strictly personal opinion and should be taken as just that.
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That said, a person ought to avoid spiritual direction from someone who claims to be a mystic; that is, one who claims to obtain direct knowledge from God or some saint in their (the penitent) regard, no matter if the person is a priest, a religious, or a lay-person. Alsso, one ought to remember that spiritual direction is not a matter of telling a person what to do, nor of trying to convince them to do this or that, but it is rather a mutual listening process with the purpose of guiding the soul to holiness. It is not therapy or psychological counseling.
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In fact, though priests today happen to be better educated than any other time in history, I believe few are qualified to be authentic spiritual directors in the traditional understanding of the process. Even if they have their degrees saying they are. I believe many newly ordained, no matter how pious and faithful to the Holy Father and Magisterium - in other words, orthodox - are ready to be spiritual directors in the classic sense. Of course they ought to be available for counsel and direction concerning the keeping of the commandments and living the ordinary ascetic life expected of a Christian, but rarely are they qualified to deal with such issues associated with so-called spiritual communications, much less mental disturbances or illness and its cause. (In such cases, other than acting as a confessor, the priest should refer the penitent to a psychiatric professional.)
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Ordinary means of spiritual direction.
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What I am really getting at is this, the average Catholic who prays daily and frequents the sacraments, hardly needs or requires a spiritual director, simply because most direction is received through homilies, confession, spiritual friendships and spiritual associations, as well as good reading from approved sources.
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Many times, especially in the case of emotionally needy persons, and those who happen to be very impressionable - male or female, young or more mature - one can be attracted to a particular priest on account of his outward piety, attractiveness, and/or sensitivity in dealing with penitents. The penitent, albeit of good will, can easily deceive herself that their attraction is purely spiritual, and therefore harmless. I think younger priests need to be especially cautious here, as does the penitent.
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Mutual admiration.
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Many people who have grown accustomed to spending much time in prayer, reading many spiritual books, imagine themselves saints already and seek a spiritual director who suits their fantasy and taste, flattering their progress in the spiritual life, long before virtue is proven, or prayer is more than an occasional interior consolation, and so on. Many of us lay people imagine ourselves to be very holy if we spend a few hours a week in adoration, attend daily Mass, or recite the Liturgy of Hours on a more or less regular basis.
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If we happen to have led wicked lives in the past, or have come through some great temptation or trauma, and experience the least hint of a remarkable conversion, even an experienced priest can think we are holy and very special. That is unfortunate, because then spiritual direction can become a pretext for mutual admiration and approval - a sort of spiritual recreation, rather than helping the soul enter the narrow way that leads to life.
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Two things to think about.
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"Never take a man for your example in the tasks you have to perform, no matter how holy he may be, for the devil will set his imperfections before you." - John of the Cross
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"Perfection does not lie in the perfections the soul knows it has, but in the virtues our Lord sees in it. This is a closed book, hence one has no reason for presumption, but must remain prostrate on the ground with respect to self." - John of the Cross
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Note: All thoughts from John of the Cross are taken from his Collected Works. It should be remembered that St. John wrote primarily for contemplative cloistered religious, hence his counsel should be digested accordingly for lay-people, conscious of their completely different lifestyle and state in life. Try to imbibe the aroma or spirit of his writing, rather than drinking in the literal interpretation. And do not forget, I am not qualified to interpret his work, but I am simply writing from my personal understanding. The contemporary soul ought to be wise as a serpent even under the care of a spiritual director.
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I recommend reading, "Spiritual Direction and Meditation" by Thomas Merton, as well as anything by Fr. Dubay on spiritual direction, before searching for a director.

14 comments:

  1. Well, dang Terry - you just "stole" my next post. Problem is I could have never, ever written it as well as you just did! Good job.

    P.S. Don't worry about me - I'll think of some other thing to post on. Sigh!

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  2. Ter: Thanks! You are right, this is timely! I'll recommend this post to my friend.

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  3. That was very well done, Terry.

    When it comes to messages from Jesus, I believe that they are there, but they are a lot more subtle, often coming from something I've seen or read or something someone says out of the blue.

    I happened to be walking by the Jesus People church on Hennepin Avenue one afternoon in the 70s and one of their street evangelists asked me if "I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior?" Even as a bad Catholic at the time I knew that Jesus was my Lord and Savior and so without hesitation I said "Yes!" and kept walking.

    He then called out, "Are you ready?" I looked back at him and shouted "No!" and kept on walking.

    It probably was five or six more years before I went back to Confession and rejoined the Church on my spiritual journey.

    But I know that message that day was from Jesus, wondering where I had been.

    I used to have a friend who became a member of the "Jesus People" church. He wasn't a bad guy before but boy he went whole hog when he became "born again."

    It became very difficult to talk to him when "the Lord" was referenced in almost every sentence as someone who regularly gave him messages.

    For a time he saw his ministry to be personally smuggling bibles into China. He never got stopped.

    Then he died of a stroke about age 50 about 1985 or so.

    I don't know if there is a message in that or not.

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  4. Thanks, Terry, you just inspired my own pst on this. I linked to you.

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  5. Terry, I don't know...I see what you're saying, but I'm going to play the opposite end of the argument here.

    Granted I'm writing as someone discerning/training to be a spiritual director. So a few grains of salt needed here. But even though it would be overstatement to say that everyone needs spiritual direction, and a close relationship to the Church through sacrament and prayer and friendships is essential, I think more people can benefit from it than not. We live in a society of mega-parishes with limited confession times and stretched priests, where programming becomes a substitute for relationships. And we don't live in a Catholic or Christian culture that nurtures a life of prayer, so some of the most basic acts of the Christian life are counter-cultural. And most Catholics I know don't have a clue about how to translate a quest for holiness into everyday life (and I say that as the person I have been, and struggle with now).

    The other thing is that the journey often has real challenges along the way...for example, not being to see real progress or real attachments for what they are. Perhaps if you have some major truth-telling friends, you'll get that elsewhere. But typically, it's hard to see where you really are. Obviously direction for an ego-massage is a problem, but a good "directed" bucket of cold water ends that sort of relationship.

    I agree that Dubay and Merton are great resources on this. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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  6. Great advice, Terry. For years I have thought it would be a good idea to have a spiritual director. My idea of a spiritual director is not one who is going to stroke my ego, but one who is spiritually further along and more knowledgeable about what resources would help me move forward in holiness. For me, it isn't about receiving any perceived "divine revelation" (your post really hits on this and it seems like an exception instead of the rule, but maybe you have more experience in this area), but in having a person who will keep my lazy butt honest about where I'm at spiritually and where I hope to be!

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  7. Ironic catholic - Thanks, you make excellent points.

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  8. Amen on so much of what you wrote, Terry, however, I do think spiritual direction on a regular basis, from a GOOD director (solid in theology, balanced in human psychology, and prayerful in all things) is a good touchpoint. We all need someone (no matter what we call him)who can listen to us and be free enough to say either, "Yeah, I think the Lord is leading you this way..." OR "Bullshit, get off the cross we need to wood!" But overall your words have much food for thought.

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  9. David - you make a good point as well. I also think in good spiritual direction, the penitent should be prepared to say, "bullshit" as well - especially if something improper is perpetrated or proposed. Read my post on Fr. Flynn.

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  10. I don't mean to offend anyone, but I do not really like the idea of anyone but a priest doing spiritual direction and never anyone doing it for a fee.

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  11. gette3:27 PM

    terry, great post, man! ON all points, especially concerning spiritual direction.

    Ironic Catholic makes the good point about our day--whether we like it or not, it's the way it is, most Catholics have little or no contact with a priest for spiritual direction. BUT, isn't that what homilies were for when they used to be taken seriously by the priests who gave them? Daily Mass, and a good solid homily, can do much to bring a person along in the spiritual life, especially if they are careful to spend some quiet prayer time each day, just listening to what God's trying to show them in their life at the moment.

    But, you know, most of us don't even have that, the good holy homily. But you know, God provides, to meet the challenges and needs of His Faithful even in the ever-changing world. I think good Catholic blogs are a means of spiritual discussion, such as yours and Elena's and Fr Marco's, Cathy's and Adoro's and others. And, if we are careful and discernable with the company we keep--including the blogs we read--we can glean MUCH spiritual good from these sources as well, I think, to help us in our progress.

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  12. David3:59 PM

    I am open to other than a priest being spiritual director because the lives of the saints and church history shows that this is a charism independent of ordination. BUT I can see how convenient it would be to have one and the same being confessor and director, which is probably why this custom has risen to prominence.

    And a big AMEN! to the idea of either charging for direction or requiring a certificate to become a director. The latter HAS to be the ultimate in our church's tendency these days to "professionalize" everything. What's next? Will I need 6 hours at a class and a pretty paper slip to show that I am qualified to teach someone how to pray the rosary? Oi Vey.

    I have not had a specific, exlusive, director for quite some time. They are so difficult to come by. Was it St. Teresa of Jesus who said that she preferred an intelligent educated director to a holy one? (Of course the ideal was both).

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  13. Terry, no offense taken (priests as spiritual directors). I don't agree with that, but I do agree that spiritual direction for a fee is very problematic...maybe supporting the center/parish where they work, but never direct payment.

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  14. Ironic - Thanks. Re-thinking this - I do believe a non ordained person would be fine - and a woman would be excellent - especially for other women, but not limited to. Thanks for your good comments.

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