Some ask, “What do I talk about?” Anything can be a topic of conversation: difficulties in prayer, temptations, struggles with good or evil desires, victories or defeats, noble aspirations, worries, joys, sorrows, defects, and sins. In addition, struggles with work, ministry, family, friends, or social relations are subjects for discussion in spiritual direction.
The distinction between a spiritual director and a spiritual mentor is that a director must have a master’s degree in a field related to theology. A mentor must be certified to serve as guide and companion to others on their journey to holiness. In both cases, the director and mentor must be loyal to the teachings of the Catholic Church because sound doctrine is essential. One who disobeys the teachings of Christ is a dangerous and unreliable guide. As Jesus taught, “When the blind lead the blind, they both fall into a pit” (Mt 15:14).
There are people who are trained and are competent to assist us as we journey in conforming our lives to God’s perfect will. We should seek wise counsel because the challenges are too numerous for us to journey alone.
In the Gospel of Mark 10:17, a role example of director/directee takes place:
Thomas Merton wrote, “The spiritual director is concerned with the whole person, for the spiritual life is not just the life of the mind, or of the affections, or of the ‘summit of the soul’—it is the life of the whole person … a spiritual director is, then, one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in their life.”
The role of a spiritual director/mentor is focused on a person’s growth in holiness. The spiritual director/mentor is a voice of objectivity, a neutral set of eyes and ears to help a person discern God’s will and to grow in virtue and faith. Once these principles become integrated into a person’s heart and soul, the faith journey becomes the path to a deeper relationship with God bestowing endless grace and blessings. A good analogy is that of a piano teacher: the pupil may feel burdened by the rules and regulations governing their instrument. The teacher may seem authoritarian at first, but as these rules become integrated into good musical habits, the pupil is freed to become an artist!
What spiritual direction is not
Dealing with moral and spiritual matters are the proper domain for spiritual direction. It is not the proper arena to deal with or seek to resolve relational, psychological and mental issues. These cases should seek assistance from therapy and counselling.
Next time — Qualities of a spiritual director
One of the many inspiring messages from praying with the Sacred Scriptures is that God creates us to be in community. We are not intended to be isolated. We need to depend on, seek council from and encourage one another. In fact, this is the underlying assumption of why the New Testament was written. St. Paul mentors Timothy and Titus. He writes to the churches throughout Asia Minor encouraging and calling them to share community with one another. He simply follows the example of Jesus as he mentored his Apostles every day for three years.
The evil one attempts to steal our peace in order to block our reception and response to God’s messages. Worries, anxieties, fears, wanton passions and inflamed anger are all ways that the evil one tries to agitate our spirit to make it unreceptive to the Holy Spirit. He does this by distracting us from the reality of the present moment. Instead, the devil tempts us to dwell on unpleasant thoughts of the past or the possible foreboding future. Neither of these is the reality of now. In this way, the evil one tricks and steals our peace and the possible grace-filled moments of the present.
During the agony in the garden, Satan used these tactics against Jesus. Satan tempted Jesus to think about all of the torture and pain that lay before him. Jesus dispelled the evil one with trust in his Father’s will revealed when he said, “… not my will but thy will be done.” In placing ourselves into the Father’s hands in trust, we will destroy the devil’s plan to tempt us into turmoil and despair. The Father will bring us safely through the most challenging difficulties and dangers, leading us to final victory!
Docility means trust — trusting in the will and plans of our Heavenly Father. He has a special plan and design for each of us in order to reach our destiny of eternal life. We need only trust him! Docility enables us to move with the Holy Spirit according to his plan. We are royal sons and daughters of God. There is not an end or purpose more grand or fantastic! We must trust him in order to achieve this.
Obedience is the necessary virtue for docility. We need to forge an obedient heart to be open to Christ and his church. The Israelites suffered indignities and exiles because of their hardened hearts. Ezekiel, the prophet, foretells of the time of the Messiah when new “fleshy hearts” would be given to God’s people. They (we) would obey his statutes and commands through the washing of the waters of renewal. (cf. Ez 36:24-29)
When we doubt or withhold our acceptance of the Catholic Church teachings, we are no longer living in obedience and faith. We only accept the teachings of the church that agree with our position. In other words, we believe only that which suits ourselves and reject anything that does not. In this case, we are not living with the obedience of faith, but following our own inclinations. These inclinations are fallen and will not lead us to the truth.
Next issue – Spiritual direction.
Mary, our Blessed Mother, is the ultimate created expression of the Holy Spirit. Her guidance and understanding of the Holy Spirit are inexpressible. She is truly the Mother of God because God entrusted himself to her and he became Incarnate, the Redeemer of mankind. The Holy Spirit waited for her “yes,” then the Man-God was conceived in her womb.
In the books of Exodus and Numbers, Moses and the Israelites discerned and heard aloud the Word of God in the tent of meeting. The Ark of the Covenant, in a shimmering Cloud of Glory, dwelt in this tent. This is why it was the tent of meeting; it was literally the place on earth where God and man met and conversed.
Our faith has its own “sniffer.” It can sniff out good doctrine from bad doctrine when our hearts are attuned to prayer and flexible in the hands of God. This is the gift of “spiritual sense.” Faith is the infused gift we receive at baptism that enlightens our spiritual intellect. It is capable of illuminating the mind and heart with supernatural instinct and insight, but only when we are living in accord with the teachings of the church.
The Holy Spirit speaks in a voice that is gentle, still and small; made audible especially to us. If we allow ourselves to become accustomed to this voice, we can learn to hear and obey him. The Holy Spirit speaks to us according to our unique frequency, so that when we receive a message, it is encrypted only for us!
In Chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord gives us the parable of the sower. In this parable —a parable of the Kingdom of God—seeds are sown in various places: on bird-filled paths, rocky ground, shallow soil, amidst thorns and thistles, and on fertile soil. Only the fertile soil offered proper ground for the seed to sprout and grow.
Continuing from the last issue —most of us exhibit a combination of the four temperaments, but one usually predominates. Our temperaments are innate and hereditary. They are permanent and can be modified only secondarily without being totally eliminated. Acquiring the moral virtues are the greatest means to shape and modify the temperaments. This knowledge helps people to know themselves better, and to find good strategies for overcoming bad habits. In the last issue we examined the temperaments: sanguine and melancholic. The remaining two, choleric and phlegmatic:
In the last issue the four temperaments were introduced: sanguine, melancholic, choleric and phlegmatic. These are based on the predominant characteristics of our own internal make-up. Most of us exhibit a combination of these temperaments, but one usually predominates. Our temperaments are innate and hereditary. They are permanent and can be modified only secondarily without being totally eliminated. Acquiring the moral virtues are the greatest means to shape and modify the temperaments. Spiritual writers and modern psychologists have utilized this knowledge to help people know themselves better, and to find good strategies for overcoming bad habits.
In continuing the subject of the sacrament of reconciliation and purification from sin, there are some interesting concepts to help us understand our tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. Ancient spiritual writers have delineated some components of our human psyche that, once identified, can assist in uncovering root causes for certain types of behavior. These components, known as temperaments, are inclinations and reactions that each person has with regard to a given stimulus. For example: When we are assigned a huge task; or have a large block of free time; or find ourselves at a party — how do we react to these situations?
“If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give me life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.” 1 Jn 5: 16,17
This passage teaches us about mortal and venial sins. St. John the Apostle instructs us that praying for those whose sins are mortal has no affect. This is because mortal sin can only be removed by sacramental confession. This begs the question: What is a mortal sin that I may avoid it?
The first step in making a good confession is an examination of conscience that walks us through the Ten Commandments or other listings of sins. The examination of conscience asks penetrating questions that helps us to know ourselves and recognize our faults. If we do not examine our conscience, we may fail to realize our sins and weaknesses.
How do we root out sin if holiness persists in rising again after falling? The sacrament of reconciliation is a very important gift given to us by Jesus Christ. In past issues we focused on the importance of the Eucharist in our spiritual growth. Now it is necessary to emphasize the role of the sacrament of reconciliation.
Let’s begin the subject of the sacrament of reconciliation and purification from sin by reviewing the journey to holiness. If we wish to become holy, we must overcome our sinful tendencies and seek union with God the Father through Christ his Son, in the person and power of the Holy Spirit. This union is the essence of the term, “interior life.”
In conclusion of the phases of discernment, we recall that discernment is the art of the spiritual life in which we understand how God communicates himself to us. Through discernment we avoid deception and learn to recognize truth. Discernment is the art of speaking with God rather than with temptation. The main character in this journey is the Holy Spirit. We use our intelligence in the most complete way only when our intellect is enlightened by the Holy Spirit.
In the last issue we talked about developing a “spiritual sense.” A person can refine this sense with experience by resolutely and faithfully following the path of Jesus Christ. If everything ended here, the evil one would never be able to conquer the person.
The second phase of discernment is to live constantly in God. The special ability that enables us to easily recognize and respond to the divine movements of God is the development within our interior of a spiritual sense. This spiritual sense is almost nonexistent at the beginning of our life; however, a person can refine this sense with experience by resolutely and faithfully following the path of Jesus Christ. This grace-filled gift allows us to recognize the unmistakable voice of Jesus. It is a loving instinct that permits us to distinguish the voice of the Spouse more easily in concert with all the sounds that present themselves to our hearing.
In the past issues we have looked at the first of two phases of discernment: to recognize God as the center of my life.
What type of thoughts or feelings direct me most toward God? What type of thoughts or feelings enclose me in my own world where I choose only my will?
The action of the Holy Spirit on the person oriented toward God:
The Spirit of God always attempts to maintain and keep reason and feeling oriented toward God. The Holy Spirit will try to make the believer’s level of adherence to God not only ideal and profound, but also detached from feelings of the heart. When a person is seriously oriented toward God, the Holy Spirit nourishes his feelings with spiritual consolations.
The first of two phases of discernment is to recognize God as the center of my life. There are primarily two entities involved: God and me. In discerning, we ask ourselves:
God speaks through our thoughts and feelings. It is of fundamental importance to know our thoughts and arguments and to understand where they come from in order to discern which to follow. The interaction between thought and feeling is important because it permits us to verify adherence to God or to the realities that take us away from God. Feelings can betray the effective adherence to God. I can have a good thought of Gospel content but associate it with a negative feeling. The question becomes: What is it that resists this thought that is good in itself?
Some final considerations: Any predominant fault will be opposed to either an active or passive pursuit of God’s will. We will either fail to actively do what God wants by disobeying, sinning against the virtue of charity or seeking our will over his own; or we will fail to passively desire what God does by rebelling against his will for us with complaining and growing impatient because things seem out of our control.
The examination of conscience is indispensable for gaining self-knowledge. Frequent confession and spiritual direction are also wonderful aids in finding our predominant faults.
We must seek to divide and conquer. Trying to root out all of our faults at once will only unsettle us and we will lose heart. It is not possible to do this anyway. Aim at only one objective at a time.
In the previous issue we examined the deadly sins of pride, anger and envy. We continue that examination of the seven deadly sins with those of lust, gluttony, avarice and sloth. The purpose is to enable an honest evaluation of our weaknesses and begin to take steps toward a positive change in our lives and to embrace our Lord’s mercy and forgiveness.
Before moving forward in A Disciple’s Journey to Holiness, let’s review the four R’s of mental prayer: read, reflect, relate and resolution. We end our meditation by choosing a practical concrete resolution to keep in mind and live throughout the day. Resolve to apply the grace from this meditation to transform you. You can, also, take a phrase or word that struck you—and repeat it throughout the day. This will keep your mind on the meditation and help to focus your thoughts and heart on God and following the example of Jesus.
Because our physical life is a good, as stated in a previous article, another aspect of our plan of life should be exercise. Thirty minutes of brisk exercise at least three times a week is a feasible goal. We must also combine this with a healthy diet and proper sleep. God gave us the night to rest and the light to work. Staying up late and sleeping in late are often signs of imbalance and disorder in our life.
The next element to establish a “plan of life” is to practice daily meditation and spiritual reading. As mentioned in earlier issues, it is in our daily meditation that our hearts and minds become like Christ’s because we spend time with him. (cf. Mt 6:6) In fact, meditation is nothing other than a discovery of God’s indwelling in our souls. He is already in us, we need only remove the obstacles in our wills and intellects to let him flood us with his sanctity. (cf Jn 14:12)
This first element involved in establishing a plan of life is to realize one very important fact: Holiness is for you and everyone else. It is possible? Yes, sanctity is not just for the priest, nun or monk living in some cloister somewhere. It is for you as well, and you must take advantage of the means available to achieve this marvelous destiny.