The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 2

Spiritual Direction in General

Chapter Two


IN this chapter we intend to consider the general nature of spiritual direction and the qualities needed for a good director. Other chapters will be devoted to the direction of beginners, of the proficient, and of the perfect;1 special attention will be given to the direction of contemplative souls (cf. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa). The final chapter will treat of the discernment of spirits.

The moral necessity of spiritual direction

A confessor is not intended merely to rid the penitent of his vices but also to conduct him along the way of perfection and to help him grow in virtue. Such has been the constant teaching of the saints; for instance, St. Alphonsus (Praxis confessarii, c. 9): "One perfect soul is more acceptable in God's sight than a thousand imperfect ones. So when a confessor finds a soul whose life is free from serious faults he should take all possible care to lead such a soul into the way of perfection and of divine love. Let him bring home to that soul how deserving God is of all our love, and the gratitude we owe to Jesus Christ who has loved us to the extent of laying down his life on our behalf. He should also point out the danger to which a soul exposes itself by resisting a special call from God to a more perfect way of life."

Therefore spiritual direction is one of the normal means of progress in virtue and of arriving at intimate union with God.

That has been the testimony of the saints; for example, St. Basil, St. Jerome, St. Augustine. All of them say: "No one is an impartial judge in his own case because each man judges according to his own particular inclination", and it is precisely this inclination which we have to try to correct; we have to avoid all the temptations and deceits of the devil.2 On the other hand, a priest has the graces proper to his state for giving wise direction not to himself but to those who ask for it. This is also proved from experience by the frequent occasions on which temptations and deceptions have lost their force once revealed to a director. For this reason St. Bernard says that novices in the religious life need a spiritual guide to direct, encourage, and help them. He says: "it is easier for me to direct others than myself" (Sermo VIII, 7); "Self-love leads us astray" (Epist. 87, n. 7).

St. Vincent Ferrer expresses a similar view in his work De vita spirituali, Part II, c. 1: "Our Lord Jesus Christ, without whom we can do nothing, will never grant his grace to a person who has the opportunity of going to an experienced director but refuses this valuable means of sanctification on the grounds that he is quite capable of deciding for himself what is useful for his salvation. . . . He who has a director, whom he obeys unreservedly, will reach his goal in life far more easily and quickly than he would if he relied on his own powers, no matter how keen his intelligence or how good the books he chose for spiritual reading. ... As a general rule it is those who have followed the path of obedience who have attained perfection—except those souls who have been unable to find a spiritual director, to whom God has granted the special privilege of being directly instructed by himself."

St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis of Sales are all of the same opinion. St. Francis writes, in his Introduction to the Devout Life (Part III, c. 28), that no one can be an impartial judge in his own case because of a certain self-complacency "so secret and imperceptible that it remains hidden to those who suffer from it."

St. Alphonsus in his excellent book, Praxis confessarii (nn. 121—171), indicates the principal objects of spiritual direction: mortification, the dispositions required for receiving the sacraments, mental prayer, the practice of virtues, the sanctification of ordinary actions.

All these testimonies emphasize the general need of direction. As we will show later on, this necessity is all the more apparent at a time of trial, especially during the passive purification of the senses which leads to the illuminative way of the proficients, and during the passive purification of the spirit which marks the passage to the unitive way of the perfect.

The qualities of a good director

St. Francis of Sales says that a good director "must be full of charity, of knowledge, and of prudence; if one of these three qualities be wanting in him, there is danger."3 Knowledge is required of the spiritual life and of the means which lead to union with God: prudence is essential for the practical application of principles to the individual being directed: fervent charity is required so that the director inclines his will towards God and not towards himself, leading souls to God and not to himself. This spirit of sincere and fervent charity is opposed to sentimentality which is merely a pretence of love existing in the emotions and hardly at all in the will.

St. Teresa expresses the same opinion in her Autobiography, c. 13: "It is of great importance, then, that the director should be a prudent man—of sound understanding, I mean—and also an experienced one: if he is a learned man as well, that is a very great advantage. But if all these three qualities cannot be found in the same man, the first two are the more important, for it is always possible to find learned men to consult when necessary. I mean that learning is of little benefit to beginners except in men of prayer. I do not mean that beginners should have no communication with learned men, for I should prefer spirituality to be unaccompanied by prayer than not to be founded upon the truth. Learning is a great thing. . . . From foolish devotions may God deliver us."4

The spiritual director's charity must be free of all desire for personal advantage; he must not attract souls to himself but to God. Tauler is most insistent on this; some directors, he says, are like hunting dogs who eat the hare instead of bringing it back to their master. They are then beaten with a whip or a switch.

The director's charitable kindness must not be allowed to degenerate into weakness or slothful leniency. It must be firm, courageous, fearless in speaking the truth, in order to be effective in leading souls to perfection. He must not waste time in useless conversation or letter-writing, but go straight to the point in directing a soul towards holiness of life.

Therefore a director must be well acquainted with ascetical doctrine, with the traditional teaching of the well-known masters of the spiritual life on the right road to follow to union with God. Moreover he ought to be a competent psychologist —especially if he has to direct persons suffering from hysteria, psychasthenia, or neurasthenia. He should be acquainted with the type of mental troubles which result from such ailments as hypertrophy of the thyroid gland or of the endocrine glands, especially during the critical age. These disorders sometimes cause chronic and progressive poisoning which gives rise to mental confusion accompanied by fixed ideas.5

In order that the Holy Ghost may use the director as his instrument in sanctifying a soul, he must prudently discover in that soul the predominant fault which has to be destroyed and the special supernatural attraction which has to be encouraged. For this purpose he must pray for guidance—especially in difficult cases—and if he is humble, he will receive the graces proper to his state. He will learn to incite some souls to greater effort and to restrain the enthusiasm of others who tend to confuse sentimentality with genuine love of God, which can only be proved by good works.

When a priest is directing generous souls there are two opposing dangers which his prudence must avoid: that of wishing to lead all pious souls swiftly and indiscriminately to contemplative prayer, and that of thinking it a waste of time to consider this question. Neither too much speed, nor too little. The directed soul should be scrutinized to see whether it shows the three signs of the passage from discursive meditation to contemplation, as described by St. John of the Cross in the Dark Night of the Soul (bk. I, c. 9) and by other spiritual authors. Until those signs appear, the soul should be told to be docile to those inspirations of the Holy Ghost which do not conflict with its vocation in life.*

Duties of the person being directed

These duties follow naturally from what we have said about the nature of spiritual direction and the obligations of the director. The person being directed must show respect, sincerity, and docility towards the director.

In order to have that respect the penitent ought to avoid harsh criticism and over-familiarity. His respect should be accompanied by a filial affection which is frank and spiritual, which avoids even the slightest trace of jealousy towards any other souls under the spiritual director's care.

To be sincere and perfectly open the person being directed must not try to conceal anything from his director, neither his good qualities, nor his faults, nor his imperfections.

Finally, he must be extremely docile: otherwise, he is more likely to be following his own will than the will of God. However he would be quite justified in pointing out the serious difficulty involved in carrying out the advice given. If the director does not change his opinion, his counsel must be followed. Admittedly he may be wrong but the person being directed cannot go wrong in obeying him, unless the advice is contrary to faith or morals. He must then seek another director.

Only a grave reason justifies a change of directors. Inconstancy, pride, false shame, curiosity, impatience are not sufficient motives. However a change is warranted if the director's views are too natural, if he displays too much emotional affection, or if he lacks the necessary knowledge, prudence, or discretion.

Apart from such cases it is important to maintain a certain continuity in direction so far as this is possible, in order to persevere along the same road. Therefore it is the height of folly to leave a good spiritual guide simply because he justly reproves us for our own good. We should remember the advice of St. Louis, King of France, to his son: "Choose a wise and virtuous confessor who will tell you what to do and what to avoid, and give him complete freedom to reprove and correct you." This is a form of affection which is good, holy, fearless, and unspoilt by that sentimentality which is nothing more than an affectation of true love.

Under these conditions the spiritual director will become the instrument of the Holy Ghost in recognizing the promptings of grace and in urging the directed soul to respond to those inspirations with increasing promptitude. This is the way whereby souls avoid "the wide road that leads on to perdition" and make progress along "the narrow road that leads on to life" (Matt, vii, 14). This narrow road is continually widening to become eventually as broad as the infinite goodness of God to which it leads, whereas the wide road of perdition gradually narrows to become as restricted as Hell which is its terminus. While neglect makes the soul endure the terrible confinement of Hell, the narrow way of sanctity allows the soul to enjoy the perfect freedom of the sons of God—freedom from all disordered judgments and desires—and the fulness of eternal happiness.

Spiritual direction, if conducted along the lines indicated, reveals the wonderful effectiveness of the good priest's charity, knowledge, and prudence. He well exemplifies the words of Christ: "It was not you that chose me, it was I that chose you. The task I have appointed you is to go out and bear fruit, fruit which will endure" (John xv, 16).

1Cf. Saudrcau, Degrees of the Spiritual Life, and St. Alphonsus, Praxis confessarii, c. 9.

2Cf. Cassian, Collationes, II, 14, 15, 24.

3Introduction to the Devout Life, Part I, c. 4.

4Reproduced from Allison Peer's translation, by kind permission of the publishers—Sheed and Ward.

5Cf. Robert dc Sinéty, S.J., Psychopathologie et direction, Paris, 1934.

*Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange clearly implies (hat such "inspirations" would not be genuinely from the Holy Ghost if they were to conflict with one's vocation.— Tr. note.