Direction, SPIRITUAL.—In the technical sense of the term, spiritual direction is that function of the sacred ministry by which the Church guides the faithful to the attainment of eternal happiness. It is part of the commission given to her in the words of Christ: “Going, therefore, teach ye all nations…teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt., xxviii, 19 sq.). She exercises this function both in her public teaching, whether in word or writing, and in the private guidance of souls according to their individual needs; but it is the private guidance that is generally understood by the term “spiritual direction”.
In one way the Church requires all her adult members to submit to such private direction, namely, in the Sacrament of Penance. For she entrusts to her priests in the confessional, not only the part of judge to absolve or retain the sins presently confessed, but also the part of a director of consciences. In the latter capacity he must instruct his penitents if ignorant of their duties, point out the wrong or the danger in their conduct, and suggest the proper means to be employed for amendment or improvement. The penitent, on his part, must submit to this guidance. He must also, in cases of serious doubt regarding the lawfulness of his action, ask the advice of his director. For a person who acts in a practical doubt, not knowing whether he is offending God or not, and yet consenting to do what he thinks to be morally wrong, thereby offends his Creator. Such consultation is the more necessary as no one is a good judge in his own cause: a business man is sometimes blind to the injustice of a tempting bargain, and passion often invents motives for unlawful indulgence.
Still more frequently is spiritual direction required in the lives of Christians who aim at the attainment of perfection (see Christian and Religious Perfection). All religious are obliged to do so by their profession; and many of the faithful, married and unmarried, who live amidst worldly cares aspire to such perfection as is attainable in their states of life. This striving after Christian perfection means the cultivation of certain virtues and watchfulness against faults and spiritual dangers. The knowledge of this constitutes the science of Asceticism (q.v.). The spiritual director must be well versed in this difficult science, as his advice is very necessary for such souls. For, as Cassian writes, “by no vice does the devil draw a monk headlong and bring him to death sooner than by persuading him to neglect the counsel of the Elders and trust to his own judgment and determination” (Conf. of Abbot Moses).
Since, in teaching the Faith, the Holy Ghost speaks through the sovereign pontiff and the bishops of the Church, the work of the private spiritual director must never be at variance with this infallible guidance. Therefore the Church has condemned the doctrine of Molinos, who taught that directors are independent of the bishops, that the Church does not judge about secret matters, and that God and the director alone enter into the inner conscience (Denzinger, Enchiridion, nos. 1152, 1153). Several of the most learned Fathers of the Church devoted much attention to spiritual direction, for instance, St. Jerome, who directed St. Paula and her daughter St. Eustochium; and some of them have left us learned treatises on ascetic theology. But while the hierarchy of the Church is Divinely appointed to guard the purity of faith and morals, the Holy Spirit, who “breatheth where he will; and thou hearest his voice, but thou knowest not whence he cometh, and whither he goeth” (John, iii, 8), has often chosen priests or religious, and even simple laymen and women, and filled them with supernatural wisdom in order to provide for the spiritual direction of others.
Whoever the director be, he will find the principal means of progress towards perfection to consist in the exercise of Prayer (q.v.) and Mortification (q.v.). But upon the special processes of these two means, spiritual guides have been led by the Holy Spirit in various directions. Different is the type for the solitary in the desert, the cenobite in the community, for a St. Louis or a Blanche of Castile in a palace, St. Frances of Rome in her family, or a St. Zita in her kitchen, for contemplative and for active religious orders and congregations. Another marked difference in the direction of souls arises from the presence or absence of the mystical element in the life of the person to be directed (see Mysticism). Mysticism involves peculiar modes of action by which the Holy Ghost illumines a soul in ways which transcend the normal use of the reasoning powers. The spiritual director who has such persons in charge needs the soundest learning and consummate prudence. Here especially sad mistakes have been made by presumption and imprudent zeal, for men of distinction in the Church have gone astray in this matter.
Even in ordinary cases of spiritual direction in which no mysticism is involved, numerous errors must be guarded against; the following deserve special notice: (I) The false principles of the Jansenists, who demanded of their penitents an unattainable degree of purity of conscience before they allowed them to receive Holy Communion. Many priests, not members of the sect, were yet so far tainted with its severity as gradually to alienate large numbers of their penitents from the sacraments and consequently from the Church. (2) The condemned propositions summarized under the headings “De perfectione christiana” in Denzinger’s “Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum” (Wurzburg, 1900), page 485, which are largely the principles of Quietism. These are specimens: To obtain perfection a man ought to deaden all his faculties; he should take no vows, should avoid external work, ask God for nothing in particular, not seek sensible devotion, not study science, not consider rewards and punishments, not employ reasoning in prayer. (3) The errors and dangers pointed out in the Encyclical of Leo XIII, “Testem Benevolentiae“. In it the pope singles out for particular condemnation: “First, all external guidance is set aside for those souls which are striving after Christian perfection as being superfluous, or indeed not useful in any sense, the contention being that the Holy Spirit pours richer and more abundant graces into the soul than formerly; so that, without human intervention, He teaches and guides them by some hidden instinct of His own.” In the same document warnings are given against inculcating an exaggerated esteem of the natural virtues, thus depreciating the supernatural ones; also against casting contempt on religious vows, “as if these were alien to the spirit of our times, in that they restrict the bounds of human liberty, and that they are more suitable to weak than to strong minds”.
An important document of Leo XIII bearing specifically on the direction of religious souls is the decree “Quemadmodum” of 1890. It forbids all religious superiors who are not priests “the practice of thoroughly inquiring into the state of their subjects’ consciences, which is a thing exclusively reserved to the Sacrament of Penance“. It also forbids them to refuse to their subjects an extraordinary confessor, especially in cases where the conscience of the persons so refused stands greatly in need of this privilege; as also “to take it on themselves to permit at their pleasure their subjects to approach the Holy Table, or even sometimes to forbid them Holy Communion altogether”. The pope abrogates all constitutions, usages, and customs so far as they tend to the contrary; and absolutely forbids such superiors as are here spoken of to induce in any way their subjects to make to them any such manifestations of conscience. (See the decree “Quemadmodum”, with explanations, in the American Ecclesiastical Review, March, 1893.)
VII. Catholic literature is rich in works of ascetic and mystical theology; of which we mention a few below. But it must be noticed that such works cannot be recommended for the use of all readers indiscriminately. The higher the spiritual perfection aimed at, especially when mysticism enters into the case, the more caution should be used in selecting and consulting the guide-books, and the more danger there is that the direction given in them may be misapplied. Spiritual direction is as much a matter for the personal supervision of an experienced living guide as is the practice of medicine; the latter deals with abnormal defects of the body, the former with the acquisition of uncommon perfection by the soul.