Q: Dear Father John, I remember reading long ago St. Vincent Ferrer’s Treatise on the Spiritual Life, which near the end says that those who cannot find a director will, if sincere, be guided by God/the Holy Spirit himself. He does Not say how God will do this (audibly, by supernatural phenomena, by circumstances one lives in or encounters, by books, or some other ways)?
I would very Much like to receive your Valued thoughts on this. St. Vincent says also that near the end of the age/approach of Antichrist, there will be a very big shortage of spiritual directors, and that the God-direct approach will in most cases be the only option.
I am not very advanced in the spiritual life and have been a sinner.
A: Only a precious few are advanced in the spiritual life, and all of us are sinners, so you are right at home here.
The Persistent Challenge
Your first question begins with a concern that comes up over and over again here on this website, and also in real life: Where can I find a spiritual director? It is hard, and you are not alone in having experienced the difficulty. But St. Vincent’s advice involves two points. The first is a condition, and the second is a result. If the condition is met, the result will follow. The condition is that someone is unable to find a spiritual director. This implies that the person has made a concerted effort to do so. And there is actually a lot we can do in this field. We have had a chance to examine this question from various angles, and I am sure that you will find some good advice, comfort, and practical tips from re-reading the following posts: How Do I Find and Select a Spiritual Director?; Faithful Priests Are Too Busy! Where Can I Look?; How Can I Determine if a Spiritual Director is Faithful to the Church?; Should My Spiritual Director and Confessor Be the Same Person?.
God Won’t Be Stymied
Now, if someone has made a concerted effort – doing everything within their power over an extended period of time, and asking God consistently and humbly in prayer – and God has still not given a director, then, certainly, we can count on God to guide this person directly. And he will do so through all the normal means that he gives us to grow spiritually: the sacraments, prayer, spiritual reading, faith-based friendships, and study of the faith. He will also do so through shaping circumstances in one’s life, and providing insights here and there from surprising sources – a comment of a stranger in a bookstore, a sudden inspiration to pick up a book or make a visit to the Eucharist, a line or scene from a movie, a beautiful sunset… The Catechism (#s 1 & 27) reminds us that “at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength… God never ceases to draw man to himself.” God works from within our hearts, and he also works from the outside, passionately seeking every possible way to draw us closer to him.
More than a few saints experienced long periods of suffering and confusion before they were able to find good spiritual directors or confessors – St. Margaret Mary, St. Faustina Kowalska, even St. Teresa of Jesus followed this path. But God guided them throughout, and he even used their suffering to help them grow in wisdom and docility. Nevertheless, we should beware of presuming on God’s goodness. We should be careful to ask ourselves if maybe our difficulty in finding a director is linked to some vanity or pride. Maybe we are looking for the perfect director, the one who has experienced all four levels of infused contemplation, the one who glows with a holy aura, the one who will have an answer for everything, the one we just really like… That over-exalted standard is a distraction, and it can unnecessarily delay our taking advantage of this means for spiritual growth.
God works through ordinary instruments as easily as he works through extraordinary instruments. An ordinary priest or religious who is faithful and well-instructed in Catholic doctrine can be an excellent spiritual director, even if God has not graced him or her with infused contemplation, the gift of reading souls, or an outwardly attractive spiritual mien. Again, the experience of the saints instructs us. St. Elizabeth of Hungary’s confessor was imprudent and temperamental. Blessed John Paul II, as a young man, had a layman, a humble tailor, as his spiritual guide.
A good spiritual director doesn’t have to be a perfect spiritual director. The spiritual director is not the one who is responsible for the holiness of the person receiving direction – the directee is still the one journeying into the Heart of Jesus. To forego the many, many benefits of spiritual direction because we are waiting for the perfect spiritual director, when a good one is available, is surely not an inspiration from the Holy Spirit.
End Times’ Shortage?
Now we are ready to go on to the second part of your question, regarding the End Times and the scarcity of good spiritual directors.
I was unable to find the exact passage in St. Vincent’s book that you are referring to. But he does write much in that Treatise about a problem common among Catholic circles during his lifetime (late 1300s and early 1400s): an obsession with visions, locutions, private revelations, and other supernatural phenomenon. In his Treatise, he warns the sincere Christian against following any spiritual leader whose obsession for such phenomena leads them to contradict or question the tenets of the Catholic faith. And he laments that, unfortunately, such persons and the spiritual temptations they engender “are very common in these times, and which God permits for the purpose of purifying and testing his elect” (p180).
In this sense, his warnings appear to echo the New Testament, where St. Paul, St. John, St. Jude, and others, issue vehement and frequent warnings against false teachers. St. John even writes, towards the end of the first century, “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming, so now many antichrists have appeared. Thus we know this is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). So, in a broad sense, we already live in the End Times, the times of the Antichrist – this last age of history, the age of the Church, in which the Gospel is to be preached to all peoples and believers are to suffer great persecution.
When the Catechism discusses the Church’s final trial, however, which will immediately precede Jesus’ Second Coming (see Catechism #s 675-679), it makes no mention of any specific signs or indicators – as, for example, what you write about there being a shortage of good spiritual directors. In fact, when we read Church history, we find many periods when that has been the case.
I hope this answer has given you some encouragement. You can rest assured that if you are doing your part to use whatever means are available to you to deepen your friendship with Christ, he will certainly also do his part, and you have nothing to fear.
God bless you!