"Pray for a wise guide whom, when you have found, trust, revere and obey"
THE main reason which should lead a Christian to give himself to God is that He is the chief and, strictly speaking, the only director of souls. Christ is not only the Way, which He reveals to us by His doctrine and example, He is also the inward Guide, the Shepherd Who provides good pasture and, by secret inspirations and suggestions, leads His sheep to find it. Nevertheless, according to the order of His providence, He makes use of the ministry of priests for the direction of souls. To that ministry He attaches His grace, and through it He gives needful advice and instruction. He is the inner Master; He and He alone can speak to the heart. But He speaks to it most certainly when His ministers in the exercise of their functions speak to the outward ear. He wills that they be heard and obeyed, as His representatives.
Since, therefore, priests are the principal and usual means that God uses for the direction of souls and by them introduces us to the way of perfection, whoever aspires to that perfection (and all ought to do so according to their state) should, if they are free to choose, ask God to enlighten them in their choice in order that they may be rightly guided. Their prayer will surely be granted, if they ask with real faith.
In no matter, however, should one be more on one's guard against being influenced in one's choice by human motives, or by human prudence. We must beware of listening to the suggestions of self-love or nature, which seek ever to be flattered and spared, or to inspirations which are clearly not from God, and which will inevitably lead to deceptions most difficult to retrieve. There is no point concerning which we are more easily blinded, or more apt to be prejudiced. We must place the matter in God's hands, simply and honestly, and resolve to take whoever He indicates, in spite of prejudice or aversion, or of any human feeling whatsoever.
The same caution must be observed when it is a question of changing one's director. Such a change may be right and desirable in certain cases; as, for example, when the director is unskilled or careless, wanting in firmness or gentleness, unspiritual in his direction, or for any other reasons which would seem to make him unsuitable. Having thoroughly weighed the matter in God's presence, we must then act firmly but impartially, putting aside all irrelevant considerations.
And the choice is all the more difficult in that good directors are very rare, and the external signs by which we may recognize them most deceptive. St. Francis of Sales used to say that scarcely could one find one in a thousand, if that! No doubt, the expression is a little exaggerated, but none the less they are scarce. Just think of the combination of qualities which go to form a good director. He must be a man of an interior spirit, experienced in spiritual things, utterly dead to himself and intimately united to God; devoid of self-will, desiring neither to rule nor dominate those whom he guides. He must seek in nothing his own glory or interests but solely the glory and interests of the Master he represents. He must be susceptible of no attachment save that inspired by charity, exercising his ministry with perfect independence; above all method and system, infinitely pliable to the inspirations of grace, able to follow different approaches to meet the different needs of souls and God's designs in their regard. He must know when to give milk to the young, more solid food to those more advanced in virtue, adapting himself to each age and state of the spiritual life. He must be wise with divine wisdom, gentle without softness, compassionate without weakness, firm without rigidity, zealous without precipitation. With the apostle, he must be all things to all men, [ ] condescending in a certain degree to human misery, prejudice and frailty; ready to exercise unfailing patience and equity of mind; reproving, consoling, urging, restraining, yielding or resisting, as circumstances require; sustaining, encouraging, humiliating, revealing the patient's progress or withholding the knowledge, according to the soul's need. In a word, he must be a man who, in directing souls, does nothing of himself but wholly seconds the work of grace, neither hurrying nor retarding it. He follows grace step by step, going as far, but no farther, than it leads. Are such men common today? Were they even in the time of St. Francis of Sales, when the interior life was more known and practised?
We cannot, therefore, ask God too earnestly to send us such a director, for it is one of the greatest graces He can give us, one which will be the source of many others. Rightly used it will surely lead us to perfection. Would it not be intolerably presumptuous to make such a choice ourselves, and would it not be most dangerous to look upon it in any but the highest light?
The foregoing applies specially to religious communities, who need nothing less than a saint to direct them, whether it is a question of inciting them to fervour or maintaining them in it. Generally speaking, it is as well for the whole community to have the same confessor, who can maintain the same spirit throughout; but for this, especially in the matter of regularity, union and charity, he will need all the qualities I have enumerated above.
I am well aware that not everybody can choose his own confessor, and that it often happens that those who decide the matter for us may not always carry out God's intention for us. There is no doubt that it is very unfortunate to fall, whether one knows it or not, into the hands of a director who has not all the requisite qualities. Nevertheless, even in this case, God supplies what is lacking in His minister; He takes upon Himself to lead us in His ways, and never will He fail us if we do not fail Him. It was thus He directed St. Paul and St. Mary the Egyptian in the desert, and thus He directs those in heathen lands who are deprived of almost all human help. So, in country places, where priests are perhaps less zealous, the Holy Spirit Himself will always guide holy souls, and teach them the secrets of the interior life.
However that may be, once we have reason to believe that we have found the director God intends for us, we must not fail to give him our complete confidence. When we feel that his words enlighten our darkness, disperse our doubts, awaken us from languor, warm our heart and lead us to serve God more worthily; when we feel by experience that such a man is the instrument of God, really following up the secret operations of grace; above all if he leads us in the way of recollection and prayer and interior mortification (for that is the touchstone of true direction), we must no longer hesitate to place ourselves entirely in his hands, hiding nothing from him, so that he may search out and develop what is hidden even from ourselves.
Generally speaking, God inspires us with the will to begin by making a general confession, so as to inform the priest, not only of our past faults, but of the graces we have received, the dangers from which we have been preserved, the secret attractions we have neglected or followed, and the vices and temptations to which we are most subject. By this means, he becomes acquainted with our whole life and character, the habitual dispositions of our soul, the various tentatives of grace, the obstacles we meet, and the precise point where we stand. He is thus better able to see what God expects from us, and how he is to cooperate with His designs.
We can never be too open with our director in all that concerns our interior life, and, through the whole of his direction, nothing should be kept back, whether as to the lights given us by God, the desires and aversions felt by nature, or the suggestions of the devil, whose artifices we shall never unravel unaided. Anything which secret pride or the temptation of the devil leads us to hide or disguise, is just the very thing we should mention; however humiliating, it must never be concealed.
It is also necessary to be on our guard against suspicions or prejudices concerning our director, and the thousand and one imaginations that flit across our mind, or which the devil inserts there in order to lessen our confidence and trust. For this is the one thing he wants to do. As soon as he sees that a director is working hard for our spiritual advancement, he seldom fails to inspire us with feelings of distrust and repugnance. One cannot be too watchful on this point. Almost always, the danger arises from our allowing ourselves to be too critical of the direction given us. 'Why has he forbidden me to do this? Why does he treat me like this?' And so we argue with ourselves; we make judgments and indulge in feelings of resentment, and generally our confidence is undermined, our obedience weakened, and we think of the man instead of seeing God in him.
Here I may remark that one of the most certain signs of a disposition to the interior life is that candour and delightful openness which leads us to hide nothing, neither our defects, our faults or our motives from our director; never to make excuses, speaking plainly even though it means that we shall be humiliated and be thought less of. How rare, and yet how precious in God's sight, is this humble ingenuousness.
But it is not enough to be open with our confessor. We must receive his advice and decisions as reverently as if they came from the lips of Our Lord Himself. There must be no arguing with him, nor must we even mentally dispute whatever happens to be contrary to our own ideas. In all that touches our conscience, we must submit our way of thinking to his, believe the good or evil he tells us of ourselves, never justify what he condemns, nor by false humility condemn what he approves. We pretend that we have not made ourselves clear; that he does not understand us; that he does not see what passes within us, as well as we do. But these are poor excuses, by which we assume the right of private judgment. The confessor judges us better than we can judge ourselves. Let us hide nothing knowingly, then, from him, and be at peace.
Apart from the fact that we are blind in all that concerns ourselves, we know very well that God wills to lead us by the way of faith and obedience; and that we are acting in a manner directly contrary to His intention when we make ourselves not only our own judges but judges of those who are guiding us. The devil tries to ruin us, through presumption or despair, by representing us to ourselves as better or worse than we really are. These indocile and unsubmissive judgments are always dictated by self-love. They lead the conscience into error and its consequent blindness. They are the beginning of scruples, anxieties and all those miseries born of the imagination. They expose the soul to the most subtle snares of Satan, and to the most dangerous of illusions.
The spiritual life has its dangers, and great dangers too, if it is misunderstood. Erroneous ideas of it are not uncommon. This evil must inevitably befall anyone who professes to judge of the workings of God or of our enemy Satan, and to distinguish by his own lights as to what proceeds from nature or from grace. Therefore, when we have clearly and honestly manifested our internal state to our director, we must humbly and quietly submit to his decision. Should he be mistaken -- which could be the case, for he is not infallible -- no harm will accrue to us from his error. God will always bless submission and obedience, and hinder or repair the effects of the mistake. He has bound Himself to do so by His providence, because it is His will that we should see Him in the minister who takes His place. This principle is the sure foundation and only basis of all spiritual direction.
I allow that it requires great faith always to see God in a man, who, after all, is subject to error and not exempt from faults; and that it is no little sacrifice to give up our own ideas and convictions in the very matters which concern us most deeply. But without this sacrifice there can be no submission of judgment, and without such submission there is no real direction.
Finally, we must faithfully and without delay perform all that the director bids us do. If, through weakness or indolence, or for any other reason, we have failed to do so, we must tell him so. By this fidelity alone shall we advance. He will often prescribe things that are very painful to nature; practices which will humiliate us in the eyes of others; practices sometimes so apparently petty and insignificant, that our pride will disdain them; practices opposed to our minds, our tempers, our dearest inclinations. But if he has the spirit of God he must act thus, because the design of God, of which he is the interpreter, is precisely our death to self. We must be determined, therefore, to obey him in all things wherein we do not perceive manifest sin. And if we think it right to offer any remonstrance, it must always be subject to his decision.
It would be wrong to put before him such difficulties and impossibilities as are often imaginary, or the effect of strong prejudice or temptation. At any rate, after stating them simply, if he pays no attention to them, we must submit and resolve to obey. This will be easier than it seems, for nothing is impossible to grace and obedience. And if the victory over self calls for great efforts, it will be all the more glorious and meritorious. Virtues are the gift of God, and He almost always bestows them as a reward for some signal effort. Then what was formerly difficult becomes easy. Any number of proofs of this are to be seen in the lives of the saints.
Work of God Apostolate