Lately I’ve been reading the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila. Although not always easy going, it’s a compellingly interesting book and, now and then at least, a surprisingly amusing one. For Saint Teresa, along with being a great mystic, was a down to earth Spanish woman of the 16th century with a down to earth way of expressing herself. That certainly holds true for what she says about spiritual direction and spiritual directors.
Toward some of these she expresses gratitude (“he left me comforted and strengthened,” “he treated me with great skill, yet also very gently,” etc.). But she is candid about the limitations of others. That includes warning readers against directors who “teach us to be like toads, satisfied if our souls show themselves fit only to catch lizards” and a little later railing against spiritual counsel that amounts to no more than “advancing at the pace of a hen.”
Teresa, it appears, was a mystic familiar with the manner in which toads catch lizards and hens meander, and she saw no reason not to introduce both into her explanation of high spiritual matters—very much to the reader’s entertainment, I might add.
But—and here I take issue with her—when speaking of those hens, Saint Teresa uses their odd way of walking as a metaphor for the kind of spirituality that she considers suitable for married lay folk. The essence of lay spirituality she sums up as no more than“walk in righteousness and hold fast to virtue.” But even though walking righteously and holding fast to virtue are good and necessary things to do, they fall far short of the higher realms of the spirit that Teresa is trying to describe, and these she apparently considers reserved to religious like herself.
Here we have a glimpse of the two-tier spirituality that has been taken for granted by most spiritual writers for a long time. It might be put like this: The goal for priests and religious is to be holy, the goal for lay people is to be good. And although the holiness of priests and religious requires spiritual direction, the goodness of the laity, considered from this perspective, does not. A handful of lay people may seek out spiritual direction, but the vast majority won’t, and there is nothing surprising about that.
Recently—very recently, as the Church measures these things—that has changed. New thinking has emerged about the laity and the spirituality appropriate to them. So, for instance, spiritual direction for the laity is a central part of the program of Saint Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. Saint John Paul II makes the same point in his important document Christideles Laici (“The Role and the Vocation of the Lay Faithful,” 58) when he specifically includes among the necessary elements of the spirituality of the laity“recourse to a wise and loving spiritual guide.” In the Pope’s thinking, it seems safe to suppose, such a person has a considerably more important role than helping lay women and men be spiritual equivalents of lizard-catching toads.
It hardly needs saying that spiritual direction for the laity is far—very far—from being a universal reality in today’s Church. Most likely that has always been true. But the situation isn’t all dark. After all, some lay people do make retreats more or less regularly, and people attending a typical retreat are offered an opportunity to “talk with Father.” In speaking privately with a retreat master, they get a measure of spiritual direction now and then. Moreover, at least some lay people actually seek out and receive spiritual direction on a regular basis.
Still, it remains true that most of the Catholic laity never, or almost never, receive anything that could properly be called personal spiritual direction. Several years ago some who aren’t happy about that, commenting on a short piece I’d published on the subject of spiritual direction, reported that they’d tried to find directors but either the priests whom they deemed suitable for this role were too busy or else they couldn’t locate suitable priests.
That aside, it might also be objected that if by some miracle all active Catholic lay people really did go looking for spiritual directors, there wouldn’t be nearly enough priests to go around. That’s true of course. But if a large number of laity were to seek direction, it seems reasonable to suppose the demand would soon generate the supply.Consider, too, that no iron law says spiritual direction can be given only by clerics or religious. Add spiritual direction to the list of ministries for which qualified lay people can and should be trained.
In doing so, bear in mind that what we call spiritual direction occupies a place on a spectrum of activities. Spontaneous, informal spiritual direction takes place all the time in a variety of settings—the home, the workplace, the neighborhood, in hospital waiting rooms, in classrooms, in bars. All of us are, or at least have the potential of being, everyday spiritual advisors to our family and friends. And that simply underlines the practical relevance of the famous line in the first letter of Peter about being “ready always with an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3.15).
This, too, is part of Saint John Paul’s message. Rejecting the idea that lay people lead “two parallel lives”—on one track the spiritual life, on another the everyday life of family, work, and social relationships—he writes: “Every area of the lay faithful’s lives, as different as they are, enters into the plan of God, who desires that these very areas be the ‘places in time’ where the love of Christ is revealed and realized for both the glory of God and service of others” (Christifideles Laici, 59).
Discerning God’s will for oneself in all these settings is an important, even urgent, task for every individual. It is appropriate subject matter for the spiritual direction of lay people quite as much as clerics and religious. The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful, John Paul writes, is “an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live it” (ibid. 58). Spiritual direction can be a big help. Today, I think, Saint Teresa of Avila would agree.