Sunday, July 06, 2008

Ask the Prior: July 2008

I mentioned about a week ago that questions, all of them thought-provoking, were piling up in the comment boxes. Since I am not certain how many of you read them, and since I imagine that many questions that you have are shared, and that our combined insight is better than my own, I will try about once per month to catch up on answering such questions or highlighting particularly good insights from your comments. Thank you to all who provide them! They help me a great deal in preparing these posts.

A while back, amidst the posts on autonomy versus Christian freedom, Connie asked,

"When does a person begin to trust their own conscience? I ask because I think all too often we have become so accustomed to hearing our own voice (as opposed to God's) and so partial to our own ego that we can quite comfortably turn an evil into a good (a vice into a virtue) by playing a sort of justification by mental gymnastics. This lack of trust in ones own conscience could be a disaster for a person discerning the religious life, or any major decision, such as marriage, etc. because the person will never make a decision for fear of their own conscience.

"Perhaps it is as simple as spending time getting to know ourselves by getting to know God. It's a bit of a paradox though...kind of...because can we really KNOW God, not know OF Him but really KNOW Him, without knowing ourselves? And can we really know ourselves without knowing God? "

The Desert Father tradition as well as the Ignatian tradition acknowledge three sources of thoughts: our selves, God and the Evil One. Discernment of spirits is the skill of coming to know which thoughts are which. In this way, coming to separate out our thoughts from the thoughts that God places in us indeed demonstrates that we come to know God better by coming to know ourselves and vice versa. I would add only that we need to come to know the devices of our Enemy as well.

From this follows a provisional answer to your question about conscience. Cardinal Newman's teaching that the conscience is the voice of God has been much abused, since today it is so often divorced from the complementary teaching of the Venerable Cardinal, that the conscience must be formed properly. This means immersion in Christ's teaching, the Bible, the liturgy, the public disciplines of Church life and the private disciplines of asceticism.

If one is not sure about one's conscience, I hope that there would be spiritual mothers and fathers around who could hear you lay out your thoughts and then help you to see what God is asking. On the other hand, I think that today thoughtful Christians sometimes over-react to the cultural subjectivism and avoid listening to their thoughts altogether, hoping to receive some kind of outward sign. We should be confident that the Holy Spirit, Who is the real 'spiritual director', dwells in us and helps us to pray and act as we ought. So when in doubt, especially on lesser questions, we should pray for illumination and then proceed with faith in God's help. For bigger questions, or if we find ourselves unusually perplexed, then recourse to an external spiritual director can be of great help. But in the Benedictine tradition, the spiritual director should never be more than a crutch (said Columba Marmion), to assist the directee in learning discernment. Spiritual direction is not therapy, and so we should expect to outgrow it.

Above all, be bold in asking God's assistance! Don't wait to pray until you have it figured out--pray in order to figure it out!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Father Peter,

I am very shocked to read that you wrore that we should expect to outgrow spiritual direcion. Please explain this further. Thank you.

Mr. Potato said...

Here are assorted thoughts, for afterall, being a Post-modern I think in disconnected fragments. :)

In his book "Jesus of Nazareth", Pope Benedict XVI writes that God teaches each of us as individuals how to pray the Our Father. We each pray it differently. (I don't have the book here so forgive the lack of a page number.)

I think that it is quite imaginable for one to outgrow spiritual direction; especially if one is attentive through self-giving love to the Holy Spirit. He guides each of us. We sometimes have to beg but He will guide us. He really does teach us.

In the end we must face up to our faults and constantly work on them begging for the grace to overcome them.

I love the phrase "Don't wait to pray.....pray in order to figure it out!" If I spent as much time "reading & praying the scriptures" as I do "surfin' the net" I'd be a lot better off.

There seems to be a deep respect for the individual behind the Benedictine approach. We aren't a cult which gives out A+B+C = Desired State. You are really the one who must work out your salvation and at the particular judgment you must account for your actions and words. The Catholic faith gives a lot of freedom for one to do this. That is why there are such diverse groups as Benedictines, Carmelites, etc.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.


Origen of Alexandria
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