Normal and Extraordinary Means of Holiness

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 12
The Agony in the Garden by Trevisani. Complete surrender to God follows Jesus’ example.

In my Facebook Group Authentic Contemplative Prayer some discussions recycle every few weeks. One is whether we need a spiritual director. Another is whether contemplation is necessary for holiness. Misunderstandings on these topics have the same root. They rest on a misunderstanding of norms versus extraordinary workings of grace.

St. Therese and spiritual direction

For example, when I teach that everyone should look for a spiritual director, I inevitably receive this objection: St. Therese did not have a spiritual director, and she reached the heights of holiness at age 24. The statement is true, but people draw false conclusions from it.

Here are some things that are missing from the argument:

  • St. Therese was a Carmelite nun with a regular confessor.
  • She opened her heart to many confessors, but only one understood her.
  • He was unable to direct her permanently, because he was sent to Canada as a missionary.
  • You are not St. Therese.

On the last point, I am not (just) being cheeky. You may be as holy as St. Therese for all I know (though you’ll forgive me if I doubt it, because you must be very humble if you are that advanced).  But your life circumstances are different from hers. As one example, how many of us were raised by saints?

As Therese’s parents, Saints Louis and Zelie Martin were her first spiritual directors. They taught her to love Jesus. They taught her obedience to authority. They taught her to love, to embrace suffering, to put God before all else. However wonderful our parents, few of them would match Therese’s.

In other words, God did not leave her to figure everything out on her own. Neither does He with most of us.

Is it necessary?

In a recent Facebook exchange, a friend argued that spiritual directors are not “required,” because no Church document says we “must” have them. So, it’s perfectly fine not to.

This misunderstanding goes beyond the one above to include a second: conflating what is required for salvation with what is the norm for attaining holiness. The Church does not insist that we become canonized (or canonizable) saints, so She does not require the means. She only requires what is necessary for our entrance into Heaven. Yet, she urges us to embrace those “extra” things that are normally required for holiness.

When Pope John Paul II addressed the question of how lay people should discern their vocation, he wrote:

To be able to discover the actual will of the Lord in our lives always involves the following: a receptive listening to the Word of God and the Church, fervent and constant prayer, recourse to a wise and loving spiritual guide, and a faithful discernment of the gifts and talents given by God, as well as the diverse social and historic situations in which one lives.” (Christifidelis laici, no. 58)

In other words, we cannot discern God’s will about the big questions in life without some kind of spiritual direction. We might be able to go to Heaven without such a guide, but we also might err in some fundamental areas. Why would you want to take that chance?

Not the Norm

To say that one does not need to have a spiritual director because St. Therese did not have one, is like saying one is called to be a Carmelite nun because she was called to be one. Very few people (and only single women) are called to be Carmelite nuns. Likewise, very few people reach the heights of sanctity (or even grow beyond beginning stages) without some sort of spiritual direction.

Therese only lived to age 24. Most of us will live 50 years longer than that. Should we give up looking for a spiritual director and go decades without one?

Most saints have had spiritual directors at some point in their lives. Sometimes they had bad or mediocre ones, but most who persevered in seeking a good director were eventually rewarded with one. This is true of priests, religious, and lay people.

We should follow the norm, not assume ourselves to be the exception.

What about contemplation?

Let’s look briefly then at the other topic. Is contemplation the normal means to sanctity?

Every few weeks someone will post on Facebook that “there are many saints who were not contemplatives.” I don’t know where people get this idea. I suspect they misunderstand what a contemplative is. Sometimes they think that I am insisting a person must share my personal spirituality in order to be holy, and see me as being proud and judgmental when I insist on the need for contemplation. If contemplation is the normal means to sanctity, however, then most saints have been contemplatives. (We can exclude some martyrs and perhaps a few isolated others.)

I can think of one saint who was neither a contemplative nor a martyr. St. Dismas, otherwise known as the good thief, was saved and sanctified through his belief in Jesus. Dismas did not live a good life prior to meeting Jesus and he died before he could develop a life of prayer. He is not the norm. Deathbed conversions are not the norm for saints. They are very rare exceptions. Even many martyrs lived holy lives before giving them up for the Gospel.

How to be a saint

How does one become holy? By growing up spiritually. How does one grow spiritually? Through increasing intimacy with Christ. How does one become more intimate with Christ? Through the sacraments and personal prayer.

Contemplation is the way we experience intimacy with Christ. As He draws us closer to Himself, the increasing union transforms us. It is this transformation, initiated by God’s action, that enables us to act with heroic virtue. It makes us saints, if we submit to it.

In the purgative way (the beginning stage of the spiritual life), we try to align our wills as much as we can with God’s will. The problem is that we are so broken from Original Sin and personal sin, that we cannot even conceive the depth of that brokenness. We think ourselves almost perfect when we have barely begun to live for God. God Himself must enlighten us. When He does so, He also, because of our surrender to Him, heals us. We cannot see our need of this healing, let alone gain the healing itself, with common actual grace. God comes to our aid. This aid is contemplation.

Sometimes we mistakenly think that saints are saints because they are strong human beings. Not so! St. Therese spoke so often of her natural weakness. People of all temperaments and natural gifts (or the lack of them) have become and can become saints. Saints are saints because they surrendered completely to God, letting Him take over their sanctification. Realizing their inability to sanctify themselves, saints throw themselves on God’s mercy. They abandon themselves to Him. Then God begins the deep work they could never do. This is contemplation. This is the normal means to sanctity.

Don’t try to be extraordinary

In the spiritual life, we should not view ourselves as someone special. That is a trap. It has led many down the road to perdition through pride.

Similarly, we should not view ourselves as the exception to the norm. If you perseveringly seek a spiritual director and can’t find one, you entrust your spiritual life to God and keep looking. It’s up to God to decide if He wants to do extraordinary things for us. Maybe He wants us to persevere for just one more day, and we give up!

Do not fool yourself into thinking that being a contemplative is something extraordinary. It is normal (or, better, normative). Contemplation is only extraordinary in the sense that few give themselves to God so completely as to receive it, and that it requires a deeper infusion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Do not despair if you think you have given all and you are still not experiencing contemplation. Perhaps the “all” you are lacking is trusting for one more day. Perhaps letting go of the “when” is the abandonment you still require.

But why am I telling you this? Go ask your spiritual director about it.

Connie Rossini

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Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

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12 Responses

  1. Kathleen Lessl

    I read and re-read this piece to be sure I understand your clear explanation of normal and extraordinary means to holiness. I thank you for the information you gave. After reading this, I am wondering if I should start the search for a spiritual director again? For some years, I had different ones, who did help me, but life would interrupt and cause me to stop meeting with them. I had an unbelievable amount of “crosses” to bear. Between 11 surgeries in 10 years, and the loss of my mother and 6 siblings within 5 yrs., I still pursued my relationship with Jesus avidly. But the hardest tragedy that seems insurmountable has been my youngest son shooting himself 3 yrs.ago. I believe he lived through it and regained his normal life (except for right-eye blindness) as a result of the hundreds of rosaries I prayed for him while he had estranged himself from us (me, father, brother and sister). I have always been close to Mother Mary. My prayer life and ebullient joy in my relationship with Jesus seemed to snap and I am stuck trying to regain it. I attend mass on Sundays but used to be a daily communicant. I have only a semblance left of my daily routine of prayer, scripture, rosaries and quiet reflection time. I recognize this as depression and have sought treatment, which is going well. I have a wonderful pastor who loves me (and everyone) so deeply and lovingly. I believe he is the reason I stay connected to Jesus because I see Jesus so alive in him. So, all of this boils down to not having a spiritual director. We have the House of Prayer here in Clearwater, FL. which has many spiritual directors, but I haven’t availed myself of them for yet another complicated reason. I don’t trust those directors because my sister-in-law (who deliberately got us cut out of my husband’s family by forcing her parents to choose between us and her family from jealousy and mental disorder), is one of the spiritual directors. Not confident about finding one there. Is there ever a situation where a person muddles along trying to cling to Jesus on their own? I feel grateful to God for all my blessings. I am aware of His grace each day as I try to resurrect my walk with Him through the disciplined life of prayer and reading that I used to have. I offer up this suffering each day. That’s the most I seem to be able to do at the moment. Thank you for “listening”.

    • Connie Rossini

      Kathy, God be with you and comfort you! He disciplines those whom He loves. I would say, keep looking. You aren’t responsible for finding a spiritual director, just for looking for one. The Lord Himself will have to guide you to the right person at the right time. In the meantime, trust, trust, trust. I find that’s what tragedy can teach us more than anything. If you completely entrust yourself to Him, believing that He has your ultimate good in view — no matter what happens — you will find the intimacy with him that your heart longs for. I will be praying for you. Hugs!

      • Kathleen Lessl

        Thank you, Connie. I will keep searching until He sends me a director. Your comforting words and prayer are definitely encouraging. Blessings, always!

      • Jacqui

        Why did you use the word discipline with your above response to Kathleen? I feel based on what she’s shared that she’s already beautiful in Jesus’ eyes. Per shapes you could define your meaning and intent behind using that scripture in your response

        • Connie Rossini

          Jacqui, even though I didn’t put it in quotes, that is a formulation from Scripture: ““My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb 4:6). The Lord refines us to make us into the perfect image of Himself. That doesn’t mean He is punishing us. The reason I quoted that was to say that she 8is a beloved child of God.

  2. Michelle

    Hi Connie. Thank you, I really appreciate this post. Are there simple guidelines available to assist us in this? Such as should the priest have additional academic credentials? Does it even have to be a priest? What are possible dangers or warning signs that we have a bad one?

    Thanks and God bless.

    • Connie Rossini

      Great questions! My spiritual director is the wife of a permanent deacon. Many permanent deacons I know of are spiritual directors themselves. I would look for someone who studied in Florida (I forget the name of the school, but it’s associated with Franciscan University), or the Avila Institute. Here are a couple more
      I would ask about their favorite saints and personal spirituality. Are they Ignatian, Carmelite, something else? What are the books they recommend most to their directees? The answers to these questions can give you a good idea of what kind of direction you would get. You can also look to religious orders — priests, brothers, or sisters — for direction. Just be choosy about the order. Or if their is a recognized association of the faithful in your diocese, they might have lay people who are spiritual directors.

  3. Ed Gamboa

    Thank you for clarifying several things in a brief blog — contemplation’s role in sanctification, the advantages of spiritual direction, normal and extraordinary means, intimacy and transformation, spiritual pride and humility, trust and surrender…keep on writing!

  4. dianero2014

    Thank you Connie for your clear words. I will share them with those who are seeking a spiritual director and have similar questions for me.

  5. Jacinta

    Do you think it’s ok for someone to receive spiritual direction over the phone?

    • Connie Rossini

      Yes. I receive direction this way. However, if your personality/temperament is hard for your spiritual director to read without seeing your gestures and facial expressions, you might try Skype, if that’s possible.

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