The guiding of a Christian soul in the path of perfection. On the part of the guide, or spiritual director, it demands knowledge of the general and more specific principles of Christian action as well as insight into the state of soul of the one directed. This requires that the director have considerable theological science and at least some degree of experience in spiritual matters to give him an understanding of the spiritual condition of the person whom he directs. Without such experience he could hardly have the penetrating perception classically known as discernment of spirits. Since he must have this, the spiritual director is ordinarily a man not only of theological learning, but also possessed of a degree of holiness. Direction itself supposes some lack of these qualities in the soul under direction, a deficiency that justifies the counseling in the sense that it makes counseling necessary or at least useful. This judicious counseling is the essence of spiritual direction.
In Catholic theology, especially during the last two centuries, the term has usually been taken to mean the counseling of individuals within the framework of sacramental confession. Historically the Christian tradition concerning it seems to have arisen from the same context, that is to say, as an extension of sacramental confession and revelation of conscience for absolution from sins. But since sacramental confession is connected with the total sacramental and hierarchical action of the Church, the extrasacramental counseling of individuals or groups, or hierarchical action, or other activities aimed at promoting the advance of souls in perfection can be included under the term. The more restricted meaning of the counseling of individual souls, however, has become common and is the accepted meaning today.
Understood in this way it is a peculiarly Christian phenomenon because of the special goal to which Christian counseling is directed. Something generically similar to it, however, has existed from time immemorial, even outside of the Christian tradition. The pagans of Western antiquity practiced a sort of moral guidance. Men put themselves under learned masters to develop in virtue. Socrates was a famous example of such a master and was thought to have genius in the area of moral decision. In the Buddhist tradition, a sort of psychological counseling has been used as a fundamental technique for the advancement of its disciples. In recent years this has become better known to the West through its growing acquaintance with Zen buddhism. In brief, these and other examples make it clear that some generic form of spiritual direction seems to be a nearly universal phenomenon.
Early Eastern Christianity. In early Oriental Christianity spiritual direction seems to have developed chiefly because of its utility in the formation of monks, although it had broader roots. Indirect evidence suggests that bishops must have exercised it with respect to groups of Christians in their communities who sought a more perfect way of life in the practice of continence and prayer. At all events, it was a much-honored practice and Oriental Christianity gave tribute to it in the names it applied to spiritual directors, e.g., the honorable name of father. The spiritual director was conceived of as the progenitor of the one directed in the life of perfection. This was a peculiarly Christian conception that apparently arose from the community awareness that Our Lord had never codified His doctrine and made explicit all of its principles. Neither had the disciples and apostles done this. The major portion of these principles was therefore implicit, and it was the work of the spiritual father to make them explicit.
Early Western Christianity. Evidence of such spiritual direction in early times in the West is obscure and indirect. It seems reasonable to believe that the ascetics among the community in the early Church, particularly the holy virgins, were the object of special instruction by the bishops and that this instruction had of necessity to take something of the form of spiritual direction. Many early works hint at this. Tertullian and St. Cyprian wrote at considerable length about the guidance of virgins. Unambiguous evidence is meager, however, and when it first appears it is chiefly in the form of letters and of legislative texts for monasteries, in which sources it is difficult to distinguish individual counseling from group direction.
St. Ambrose. This is not the case in the writings coming down from St. ambrose. They contain a clearly identifiable example of the practice of spiritual direction aimed at the perfecting of particular souls. It was not the advanced sort of guidance associated with the higher stages of the spiritual life and with mysticism. St. Ambrose restricted himself to the stage of the beginner and encouraged those whom he directed to practice the fundamental Christian virtues, particularly those connected with the state of virginity. His accentuation of virginity gained for him the reputation of being a determined opponent of marriage, and his basic attitude toward the moral life has often been pointed to as indicative of his debt to the Stoics. Although his spiritual treatises, compiled from his sermons, concentrated on virginity, his letters manifested a much wider range of interest. Some of them show him to have been a true master of the art of spiritual direction.
St. Jerome. St. jerome too was a talented counselor of souls as the term is now commonly understood. While in the East, he studied the ascetical practices of the monasteries. When he returned to Rome in 382, he was therefore well equipped to teach and to counsel the pious souls, particularly women, who sought him out. He was an excellent teacher, but an even more adept director of souls. From his writings it is clear that the moment he began to practice this art he became more at ease, more open, and more confident of himself. He did not hesitate to give orders and expected them to be obeyed. He was particularly at home in counseling concerning the life of virginity and of monastic perfection.
St. Augustine. The busy life of St. augustine made it impossible for him to dedicate much time to the direction of particular souls. Nevertheless, he is important in the history of spiritual direction because of his efforts to set up and sustain monastic communities. This was the milieu in which he lived his own personal life from the time of his conversion, and it was particularly dear to him. His counseling therefore tended to concentrate on it, but he replied also to particular requests for help from individuals in every station of life. These replies gained him his reputation as an authority in spiritual direction.
5th and 6th Centuries. During the 5th and 6th centuries the major portion of spiritual counseling was devoted to the formation of novices to the monastic life. cassian enjoyed a widespread reputation for this. His counseling was based on his youthful experience in the Near East, particularly in Egypt, where he received his own spiritual formation. He applied the fruits of this experience to the formation of novices in the monastic life of southern France. He put every novice under the guidance of an older member of the community, and the young monk was encouraged to reveal his conscience and the movements of his heart to the older monk assigned to direct him. Without his advice no spiritual enterprise was to be undertaken. Cassian warned that great care should be taken in choosing responsible directors. Any imprudence on the part of the director would cause the novice to lose confidence in the value of revealing his conscience. This work of Cassian was furthered and stabilized by the Rule of St. Benedict (c. 580). This stressed the importance of the spiritual director for the monastery, because the maintenance and conservation of community life depended on the formation of the new generation of its members (see benedictine rule).
7th to 11th Centuries. This tradition of spiritual direction, once firmly established by Cassian and St. bene dict, continued in effect during the period from the 7th to the 12th centuries. But its vigor varied with the decline and the revitalization of society at large. During the period of cultural decay preceding the Carolingian renaissance and following it, spiritual direction fell into decline. No doubt there were souls during this time who attempted a high level of spirituality and who sought out directors to aid them, but they could not have been very numerous, for the evidence of their existence is scanty. What direction remained took place, for the most part, within the monasteries. There is scarcely any evidence from the 10th and 11th centuries of spiritual direction as it is now understood.
12th to 15th Centuries. With the 12th century, however, it began to rise to a high level with St. anselm of canterbury. Anselm's efforts were directed primarily to the formation of the monks who were under his charge, but he also provided counsel for others in every walk of life. In his instruction he was gentle and kind, but at the same time forceful. He insisted on unceasing effort and continuing progress. He taught that the primary goal was not the negative one of avoiding sins, small and great, but the positive one of union with God. The high level of spiritual counseling as practiced by Anselm continued in vigor during the period from the 12th to the 15th centuries. For the most part it maintained its traditional purpose of forming novices to the monastic life, a direction given it by St. Benedict and generally followed in the newly emerging orders. An exception must be made for the Dominicans. Because of the specific purpose of their foundation, spiritual direction became one of their primary activities; and because the souls toward whom their apostolate was directed were primarily the laymen of the emerging medieval cities, their spiritual direction became oriented toward them. Even so, it still maintained some connection with the past in that it attempted to impart to laymen the maximum of the benefits of monastic experience that were compatible with their lives. The Third Order was the favorite vehicle for this, but the type of monasticism that could be adapted to this purpose was more primitive in form than that which derived from St. Benedict. This explains, in part, the spiritual direction given by St. Catherine of Siena, which was outside the hierarchical structure and fundamentally charismatic.
Other noted directors, such as St. bernard of clairvaux, in the 12th century, had exercised a strictly ecclesiastical direction. They were concerned with the diminishing authority of the Church, and therefore made submission to it a prime object of their counseling. St. Bernard preached, above everything else, the necessity of obedience. Since this was to be given to a spiritual director acting in the name of the Church, it placed enormous responsibility on him. St. Bernard, recognizing this, attempted to achieve the necessary balance by stressing the importance of choosing for this function only a person of recognized ability in the discernment of spirits.
In the Franciscan school the work of St. bonaven ture merits special attention. His spirituality was totally oriented toward the mystical, but his attitude toward the necessity of spiritual direction for this end was not rigid. He thought that those who had themselves the gift of discernment of spirits did not need it. He was convinced, however, that there were few such souls and that most individuals needed spiritual guidance at least in the initial stages of their advance to perfection.
During the last centuries of the Middle Ages, the Dominicans exercised a great influence through their spiritual direction. This was a natural consequence of their specific mission in the Church. Teaching and preaching Christian doctrine naturally led them to the counseling of individual souls. St. dominic had given the example of it by his own apostolic activity. He had also made it part of the legal structure of the order in abbreviating the office, exempting the friars from manual labor, and granting dispensations liberally for the needs of study. All of this inevitably gave rise to increased activity in the area of spiritual direction. The cura animarum thus became primarily counseling of souls in the way of perfection. A striking case of this occurred when the Dominican friars took over the spiritual direction of the convents of Dominican sisters in the Rhineland. This particular apostolate gave rise to the remarkable school of Rhineland mysticism in which both directors and directed reached a high level of mystical perfection (see spirituality, rhenish). In England Richard rolle de hampole, an independent spirit living an eremitical life, hardly insisted on spiritual direction at all. But the author of the celebrated cloud of unknowing thought it necessary. Humble submission to a spiritual director is needed for spiritual progress. Among the Lowland writers, Jan van ruysbr oeck, who depended on the Rhineland mystics for many of his teachings, stressed the possession of the discernment of spirits on the part of the soul seeking perfection, as more necessary for progress than submission to a director. For this reason, although he consented to advise many souls on particular problems, he refused to do it in the continuous way ordinarily understood as spiritual direction. Gerard groote followed Ruysbroeck's principles and stressed obedience to superiors as fundamental for the monk. The deplorable condition of many convents in his time, however, led him to put limits to this. thomas À kempis, author or definitive editor of the imitation of christ, placed great importance on spiritual direction as one of the four ways to obtain deep peace of soul.
Modern Period. With the 16th century, the character of spiritual direction changed. It became institutionalized and empirical. In large part this was the result of the great success of the Exercises of St. ignatius, which encouraged the practice of individual and group retreats. It was due also to a heightened appreciation of the necessity for the interior life to counter the forces that culminated in the Reformation. With respect to this, spiritual direction of a more institutionalized form had an obviously important role to play. The Dominicans of Florence, whose attention was drawn to it by the example of Girolamo Savonarola, were among the initiators of the new movement. At Rome, the Oratory in the church of S. Girolamo gave it great impetus through the work of St. philip neri. In his apostolate, spiritual direction was essential. He gave it with profound perception, being at the same time paternal and firm. The primitive form of the Oratory, with its considerable liberty of action, aided him in this work.
St. Philip Neri was only one of many who began at this time to practice spiritual direction intensely. Others too saw it as a necessary correction for the neglect of this sort of apostolate in the preceding period. To this neglect they attributed a large part of the spiritual decline of the Church. The absence of an intense sacramental life was felt to be a contributing cause. Spiritual directors therefore began to counsel an intense life of sacramental activity and of prayer. Through the influence of Savonarola and others of his brethren, the prayer took the special form of meditation on the Passion of Christ. Louis of Granada, in Spain, was one of the leading advocates of this form of meditation.
In Spain also the great works of teresa of Ávila and john of the cross inculcated the necessity of spiritual direction for the renewal of the Church. St. Teresa took care to provide her convents with good confessors. Because many of the difficulties she encountered came from her failure to find them, she developed a great respect for theological learning and regarded it as a fundamental qualification in a spiritual director no less necessary than a personal experience of spiritual things. In his writings, St. John of the Cross aimed at illuminating not only souls seeking perfection, but also spiritual directors. He was severe against ignorant and timid guides. The role of the director as he saw it was that of an instrument of the Church who provided a vital sense of the Church's presence at each step in the advancement toward perfection. The director was not a master imperiously intervening in the affairs of the soul and limiting its progress by the standard of his own spiritual gifts, but an instrument to maintain contact with the Church in the soul as it developed through the operations of the Holy Spirit.
Another classical source for spiritual direction was provided by the Exercises of St. Ignatius. Although these were not properly a manual of direction, they constituted a standard framework of reference. This was particularly true for the doctrine of discernment of spirits. The Exercises taught that by this knowledge a prudent director can safely lead the soul into the first steps of the spiritual life. But he should do this, according to St. Ignatius, as a witness of God and should carefully avoid involving himself in any way except as one who mediates a divine action. The detailed revelations of the soul of the one whom he guides permit him to accomplish this, as long as he can truly perceive the spirits involved.
17th Century. The 17th century has been called the golden age of spiritual direction. During this period a rich literature arose on the subject. The general tendency was to regard it as continuous with sacramental confession. In the beginning this led to the mixing of matters of internal and external forum in the government of convents. Consequently there were many works of that time bearing on the external forum, but containing much excellent advice on the direction of souls. The leading director of the period was St. francis de sales. His passage in the Introduction to the Devout Life on the necessity of spiritual direction became classic. The ancient religious orders also occupied themselves extensively with spiritual direction during this period as did the secular clergy. Bishops J. B. bossuet and F. fÉnelon, marie de l'incarnation, and several lay men and women gained fame by their achievement in the apostolate of spiritual direction.
18th Century. The 17th century condemnation of the errors of Miguel de molinos and of Fénelon's Maximes des Saints tempered enthusiasm for the publication of spiritual writings and for the apostolate of spiritual direction. In some circles this gave rise to a spirit of obstinate resistance, as among the Jansenists. The result was an impoverishment of doctrine and a paucity of spiritual directors. Some outstanding examples of men skilled in the art of direction did emerge, however, such as the Jesuit Jean Pierre de caussade, whose name is commonly associated with the doctrine of abandonment to divine providence. But even Caussade's estimation of the need of a director was much tempered by his experience. He once characterized a director of conscience as more an embarrassment than an aid. In this censure, however, he criticized certain faults in the relationship of director and directed, rather than the essence of the practice itself.
19th Century. With the end of the French Revolution and the termination of the Napoleonic Wars, Europe experienced a renewed interest in religion and therefore in spiritual direction. The basis for this was less theological than had previously been the case, but the charity animating it was undoubtedly genuine. Some founders of religious congregations made important contributions. G. J. chaminade, founder of the Marianists; John bosco, founder of the salesians; and Charles de foucauld, founder of the Little Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart are only a few. The Dominican lacordaire, and J. N. grou, SJ, also made important contributions to the reviving spirituality. The redemptorists, preachers by vocation and therefore naturally inclined to carry this forward into direct counseling of individual souls, made comparable contributions, as did various bishops and secular priests who distinguished themselves in this apostolate.
20th Century. All of this activity in the 19th century, but particularly the work of editing spiritual texts and the publication of studies in numerous spiritual periodicals, as well as the promulgation of a number of important papal documents, led to a flourishing of direction in the 20th century. The discouraging effects of the condemnation of quietism have been removed and directors have been freed to resume this important ministry now on a solid and authoritative basis, for the Holy See has given the movement considerable encouragement, although it has insisted on certain qualities in those who occupy themselves in giving direction.
The advancing knowledge of depth psychology has both aided and hindered spiritual direction. Although it is popularly surmised that a crisis is imminent in the apostolate of the director as a result of depth psychology, the demand for direction is greater than ever before.
Depth psychology and guidance in the life of grace are different things. Neither need be a hindrance to the other, but both may gain by mutual confrontation if the possibilities and the limitations on both sides are properly understood.
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