Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Give Me a Word

From 2005 to 2009, I had a spiritual adviser by the name of Fr. Vince, a priest at St. Joe's University. I would typically see him once a month for an hour or so, at which time we would talk about my spiritual life (or more specifically, my struggles to lead a spiritual life). Prior to this, I relied on a Trappist monk by the name of Fr. James Orthmann for guidance and discernment in spiritual matters (and during my monastic discernment), mostly through handwritten letters, though I would visit him at the Abbey once or twice during our acquaintanceship where he served as Vocation Director for Holy Cross in Berryville, VA. It sounds kind of hokey, such meetings, but having a "spiritual father" has always been important to me.

Spiritual seekers in the early centuries of the church sought out fathers and mothers in the desert. They would often travel for days through harsh terrain to find such a wise man or woman, and when they found them, would usually beg for a crumb of spiritual wisdom. "Abba, give me a word," they would say.

In the Christian tradition, we believe the Word saves, that God comes to us through the words of scripture, and Jesus is often referred to as the Divine Logos, or Divine Word. For the early Christian seekers, a word (or a few words) from a spiritual elder used in the quest for salvation was life-giving. Oral tradition was invaluable as a "pedagogy of spiritual direction" (as Douglas Burton-Christie relates it in his book, The Word in the Desert), as was the lineage of the elder, that is, where (or, more specifically, who) the elder received his "word" from.

My friend Tim and I were talking on the phone the other night, and we were both lamenting the fact that at the time, we are both "teacher-less." We have no one to confide in, really, and no one to guide us spiritually. I feel like an athlete without a trainer...flabby, and directionless. We are spiritual orphans.

But I am wary of anyone who posits themselves as a teacher seeking disciples. I often think the best, most authentic teachers are the ones reluctant to enter into such a relationship, and who certainly do not seek out the opportunity to be a teacher. There are many false prophets today, and the importance of avoiding them can not be overstated. A good teacher is hard to find.

It can also be tempting to find someone who simply reinforces our own erroneous beliefs about ourselves, rather than someone who challenges us to work out our salvation in a way we might find unattractive. If I go to someone seeking a word, and he says, "Pray," and I don't want to pray or am seeking something other than prayer, like someone to baby me or to help rationalize my sinful behavior, I can be assured that the problem is with me, and not the speaker of the word.

Trying to find a teacher is like trying to find a good car mechanic. You want someone you trust, because what they work on is valuable to you. You rely on word of mouth, because you trust people you know. You seek someone in particular out because you hear they are honest and fair, and do good work and are competent. You want to know yourself, first-hand, because you are trusting them with your car.

Who, then, can I trust with my soul?