Monday, July 09, 2012

When you speak or write, do you sound like what you read?

Some thoughts on spiritual direction.

I once knew a cloistered nun whose deepest desire seemed to be the direction of souls, a desire which eventually led to her leaving her monastery.  During her term as superior of the community, she frequently invited visitors in to discuss their spiritual experiences at the grill in the monastery parlour.  She claimed Our Lady spoke to her and taught her certain prayers.  Another time she told me she had the gift of tongues - before the charismatic movement popularized the phenomena.  One day she said she found herself praising God in Slavonic, praying the orthodox 'Sanctus'.  She said she did not know Slavonic, nor had she ever heard their Sanctus.  If I remember correctly, I think it was only after a visiting Byzantine priest celebrating Divine Liturgy for the nuns, that she realized what she had prayed was something from the Eastern rite.   

Anyway - if sometimes I come off rather skeptical about extra-special-spiritual persons and their preoccupation with the stages of prayer and lofty mystical experiences, it is because of religious people like that nun.  She once had me convinced that I was a contemplative - indeed, at a high stage of prayer, when that was not at all true.  It did great harm for me to be convinced of such a thing when I was so young and newly returned to the sacraments. 

I mention my experience with this nun because in retrospect, I really believe she must have been  delusional.  One hallmark being, or so it seems to me now, is the way she spoke and wrote of spiritual things.  She expressed herself in the same style of language one reads in spiritual books and accounts of locutions experienced by some visionaries.  Ever since, that peculiar style of 'pious talk' has always raised red flags for me.  It is difficult for me to articulate the problem, but I recall something Thomas Merton wrote in in his little book on Spiritual Direction, which sheds some light on what I'm trying to express:
"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 cliches 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." - Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation
Interestingly, this particular nun fostered an attitude of suspicion as regards other priests, as well as religious and lay people.  She was so convinced of her spirit, she felt she was well able to discern who was faithful, who was liberal, and so on.  Thus she remained closed or suspicious of anyone whose credentials didn't quite fit her criteria, and she fostered a similar near-paranoia amongst her 'followers', teaching them a sort of defensive detachment and interior reservation towards anyone who didn't approve of her style of mysticism, which relied heavily upon extraordinary phenomena, locutions, apparitions, and the like.

NB: Don't pay great attention to what I write here save for entertainment purposes.  All of what I write is based upon my personal opinion and personal experience.  Always check with your spiritual director or confessor if you have any questions regarding the spiritual life.

"You talkin' to me?"


  1. I remember I read a book by an alleged "visionary" (who has since gone on to meet his reward) and who was diabolical in his delusions. "Our Lady" spoke often to him beginning with the phrase, "O, deluded souls!....." At the time I was grabbing for straws trying to make sense of the crisis and mess in the Church all around me. I'm extremely leary when people tell me they possess glossalolia/tongues. I don't think it's at all a common thing. I mean I believe there were Saints and holy people like St Vincent Ferrer who possessed the "gift of tongues" but I don't really buy the wholesale modern pentecostal version of it.

  2. Anonymous12:06 PM

    You don't need locutions and special knowledge to know whether people are "liberal", just down home discursive reason.

  3. Anonymous2:44 AM

    Great post.

    Loved the accompanying picture and caption, too

  4. Anonymous5:12 PM

    Ter, you have articulated so well the thoughts that have been going through my mind as of late. I know quite a few who talk the pious talk -- and they believe they are as pious as they portray themselves to be-- yet cannot see the sores in their own souls which need Christ's healing. I know because when I was a newbie (reconvert) I was like this -- so grateful I got over myself! This is why God sends trials and sufferings, I think.

  5. Anonymous1:22 AM

    And then there are people who feel justified and smug when they "discover" the spiritual failings of others.


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