How we Become “Masters in Spiritual Life”

Working in the field of Spiritual Life” means one or more of the following activities: Teaching Spiritual Life (Spiritual Theology), Offering Formation in Spiritual Life (Masters of Novices, Masters in Institutes,…), Offering Personal Tuition in Spiritual Life, Offering Spiritual Direction.

Parable of the Sower

Dear B,

I would just like to clarify something important regarding how we are enabled to fulfil the mission of teaching, forming and guiding in Spiritual Life, according to the Catholic Tradition. You certainly intuit it or have even heard me talking about it. First, I want to remind you of the conditions to become a master in spiritual life, then I will give you a specific warning.

I- A reminder of what you already know

What makes us Masters in Spiritual Life is a prudent blending of three capacities (see this in St. Teresa of Avila):

1- Science (Degree in Spiritual Theology).

2- Personal Experience of God (intense spiritual life, receiving manifold graces related to our spiritual growth, practising Lectio Divina and Prayer of the Heart).

3- Discernment that comes from discipleship: many years of personal tuition/supervision and Spiritual Direction from a very knowledgeable master.

When the three are combined under the supervision of the Tutor, this helps re-cognise i.e. it makes the connection between two things: a- what was learnt (science, the Degree, the books, the readings, the study) and b- what has been felt or perceived or understood in our experience (or that which is not experienced) of God.

Re-cognising is a very delicate and subtle operation where two “worlds” meet and seem to us to match: on one hand the world of our experience and on the other hand the world of what we read or study. These two worlds are distinct. Re-cognising occurs when we feel that they have met and resonated on a point or more. Re-cognising offers a new understanding of both our experience and the text and roots in us a new knowledge and “judgement” in spiritual matters. The Holy Spirit, Master of Spiritual Life, leads the operation. It is a long process knit together by a multitude of graces which goes towards the formation of the new master.

We realise this operation both consciously and unconsciously. The unconscious operation occurs almost always and consists in the projection of our own experience on what we are reading. We therefore end up by unconsciously filtering and conditioning our reading.

Our own prism interferes unknowingly: it often either reduce or deviates from the real objective sense of what the author is saying.

An important observation: when we talk about “authors” in spiritual life we need to make a very important distinction that many scholars don’t make. It is very common to make the mistake of confusing Saints and Doctors of the Church (or Masters). Of course, Doctors of the Church are also saints and even have an eminent holiness, but they are much more than just saints.

A saint is only a saint and is not necessarily called to teach, lead or explain spiritual matters. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas in a concise way says: “let the saint pray for us and let the doctor teach us”. Even if Saints are writing about their spiritual life or about the graces they have received, they are not teachers or doctors. A “Doctor of the Church” or a “Spiritual Master” on the contrary has received from God extra graces to help him do two things:

a- understand what the graces are all about and situate them correctly on the journey of transformation/sanctification

b- express and explain the graces correctly.

As we can understand therefore, great confusion can result from this delicate, risky but vital operation of Re-cognition. Consulting a Master is very much required here in order to ensure the necessary attention to an accurate process of “re-cognition”. A lot of patience, resilience and humility are needed here. And of course, a great spirit of obedience to God through the Master is a must.

Of course, it goes without saying that the choice of the Master here is decisive. As Saint John of the Cross puts it: the disciple will become like the master, so we need to pay great attention to the hands into which we are entrusting ourselves.

Three pitfalls are worth mentioning:

1- The obscurity inherent in spiritual life and its consequences: an important component of spiritual life is the difficulty to perceive it, understand it and explain it correctly. Faith, by its very nature, as a theological virtue implies a certain obscurity. Spiritual experience, then, despite the fact that it is an “experience” of what the Holy Spirit is doing in us, remains obscure. This can very easily induce us into error and makes finding the correct understanding and explanation of the experience more arduous. Humility, patience and perseverance are of the essence here.

Spiritual Life is obscure like faith, because God action in us happens essentially in our spirit, which is above our consciousness, “your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3) and any echoes that might fall into our awareness (mind, emotions, senses) must be subject to subtle discernment and correct interpretation. What we feel or don’t feel (soul-emotions-body, i.e. area of awareness) is not necessarily what occurs in our spirit (beyond awareness), while the latter is in fact the cornerstone and measure of progress.

Experiencing the action of the Holy Spirit can generate a very wide range of thoughts, images, feelings and sensations that can be even perceived as contradictory. The spiritual experience is therefore multifaceted and versatile. Not being purely material at least in its source, its description ends up by being rather relative.

Understanding and describing a spiritual experience is difficult also because it is conditioned by the culture, experience and knowledge of the individual: we often re-cognise in our own way! As a consequence, what we read about the experience of others can be interpreted in different ways, some correct and others not.

As a consequence, studying spiritual life, reading various authors and working in the field of Spiritual Formation, is a very sensitive undertaking. Paradoxically accuracy is needed but is altogether difficult to achieve. The pitfall is to transform that long initial lack of precision and tangibility into something certain and final.

The beginner tends to rush into conclusions, by pushing the initial normal lack of clarity and tangibility inherent in Spiritual Life toward assumptions and convictions that are artificial. Intellectual patience is a very important form of charity towards the full mystery of what the Holy Spirit is accomplishing in us. Accepting not to have clarity for long time is necessary. Otherwise we choose part of the truth, and transform it into the whole truth which is the root of any heretical attitude. In Greek, heresy means to choose (part of the truth)!

Another factor of imprecision: People who are meant to work in the field of Spiritual Life need to know that the Holy Spirit is meant to provide them with two graces in order to support this sacred mission: a- understanding the graces received and b- being able to talk about them and explain them (see St. Teresa of Avila, Life 17,5). Not every person or even every saint is meant to receive these two graces because they are only related to the service/ministry. As a consequence, we will often find people (saints for instance) giving an account of their own spiritual state (present, past) who haven’t necessarily received the second and third grace mentioned by St. Teresa of Avila. They will not be necessarily accurate in their understanding and explanation. Therefore, relying on their perception and judgement is not always safe. As a consequence, an extra effort is necessary on our part to understand and explain properly what we read. This factor of uncertainty is normal but has to be taken into consideration always.

2- Confusing levels: spiritual life’s growth could be comparted to an ascending spiral. Seen from above, growth will look like moving in an indefinite circular way. If we take a point on the circle and focus on it, we might think that we have come back to the same point. But a side view of the spiral will show us that it is two different points or levels of spiritual growth.

As an example, Martha and Mary are mentioned by St. Teresa of Avila at least twice, once in the Prayer of Union (4th-5thMansions) and another in the 7th Mansions. An inexperienced eye won’t see the difference.

If watching our own experience and comparing it with what we are reading is done in an inaccurate way (like seeing the spiral from afar, or from above), we will make wrong assumptions, the process of “re-cognition” will deviate. In fact, if we take a closer look, we find to our utter surprise that there is a difference in the spiritual levels or stages. And this often offers a radical difference in the evaluation and judgment of the spiritual state of the person.

Confusing different levels, makes us read a grace or read a person’s experience thinking the person is at a certain stage, while the person is at a completely different stage! Similarities are tempting and we often rush into conclusions.

3- Feeling we can relate while we read a spiritual book: it is not because we read about a grace or a set of graces and feel good about it and can relate to them (like, pleased, feel good) that it means we have reached that level. Illusions are very common.

II- My warning for you

It is truly the most difficult Mission in the Church: to be involved in the ministry of Spiritual Life. No discussion about that. It is easy to study and pass exams intellectually, one can be brilliant intellectually but quite ignorant and misleading if he or she endeavours to work in the field of Spiritual Life. Intellectual acumen is one part of the ministry. Important, necessary and should be of high quality (solid Philosophy, solid general Theology (especially dogmatic, moral and pastoral theology), and solid Spiritual Theology). No fancy knowledge here! Solid and traditional.

My point for you is the following: of course, having a Degree in Spiritual Theology is something very good, but, paradoxically, the Degree doesn’t qualify you. So only focusing on getting the degree is wrong. Worse, being prevented from becoming a master in spiritual life because of the lack of the degree would affect your Call seriously.

It is never never enough to just base everything on Science, on the Degree! More things are needed and can be implemented or strengthened from now onwards.

Again, the Degree doesn’t qualify you, it just informs you about spiritual life according to a certain school or way of engineering it today. The Degree gives you an idea of the 2000 years of experience and knowledge of the Church about Spiritual Theology. In a way, it roots you in the Church.

But it never replaces the thousands of hours of personal study (study, not reading) and personal research. It will never replace the advice of a good Tutor in the field. Impossible. It will never replace the hours of Spiritual Direction received. There is the added danger that study can inflate our ego! In Spiritual Theology, true study should deflate the ego and should make one very prudent before making any assumption.

What does the above mean? Am I dissuading you from venturing in this field? No, on the contrary. I am inviting you to do a great deal of work, to study, and of course to get the degree! But I am also saying: don’t ever think that the degree is enough! Never! Spiritual Theology is a practical science so without experience and tuition (discernment) it is impossible to teach properly or to form.

Humility, patience and resilience are necessary. Great charity also is of the essence: love for people, loving to help, loving to understand them, and an immense devotion to the Holy Spirit and to Our Lady.

Please don’t be prevented by not having yet obtained your Degree. Even if you had a degree, if you were to think that this were enough, that would be a crime! Inherent in Master ship is a sacred triangle: science, experience, discernment, well blended together.

If humility is needed to grow spiritually, humility is a million times more important if somebody feels called to teach (form in) the Spiritual Life. Humility manifests itself in the form of a great spirit of supernatural obedience.

Avoid at all costs a spirit of improvisation, of rushing, of amateur science or discernment. Many people today in the Catholic Church who work in the field of Spiritual Life fall into these categories.

Continue please, but in humility… experience… love. Don’t neglect personal Tuition and Spiritual Direction!!

In Mary

Jean Khoury