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.