Guidance in Grace, Part II

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
Guidance In Grace Part Ii

Last week’s bulletin article, “Guidance in Grace, Part I,” mentioned the life-giving role that Confirmation gives us, the role to play in another’s journey to holiness.  I would like to explore, a little more, how a mature Catholic can tap into that grace and also some pitfalls to avoid.  I’ll just call this grace “guidance” – though it might be called other things.  For example, the word “accompaniment” is in vogue these days, though it’s a mouthful.  When I say “guidance,” I’m not talking about the type of “guidance” one gets from a guidance counselor, a psychologist, a “life coach” or any kind of specialist.  Moreover, I’m not speaking about the directives that must be given by a boss, manager, parent, teacher, or anyone who holds a formal position of responsibility or authority.  The guidance I’m speaking of is usually informal and non-directive, and it happens on a supernatural level.  It can take place within the context of any position in life.  It’s oriented toward another’s holiness.  This guidance works through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, in a special way through Counsel.  You need not be an expert in “spiritual theology” to draw upon this grace.  But you must believe what the Church believes (i.e. have faith) and have undergone some purification yourself.  A mostly purified ego and a degree of detachment are necessary.  Some practical and spiritual wisdom – and humility and maturity – are also necessary.  Another caveat: I’m not speaking about formal or prolonged spiritual direction.  That’s another topic.  However, this ordinary “guidance” about which I speak is part of our Christian vocation, for those who have a more mature and experienced faith.  It’s a Christian thing: being an instrument of the Holy Spirit in guiding another on his or her journey to life, holiness and heaven.

Are you a parent, teacher, mentor, employer, volunteer, role model, godparent or someone who holds a position of influencing or guiding others, in any way, big or small?  Or, has someone (for whatever reason) chosen you to be a personal confidant, a good ear or an advisor, even briefly or in passing?  In many contexts, providence puts people in our paths.  Sometimes these people just want to “borrow our ear,” or they might be seeking a “word” from us.  If so, be humble.  In these cases, make a silent prayer to the Holy Spirit: “Dear Lord and Giver of Life, give me your gift of Counsel.  Remove my self-serving desires, attachments and ideas.  Let my words be yours and not mine.  Free me from presumptions and calculations.  Make me humble and obedient to the Church, not presuming that I’m a guru with all the answers.”  Beware of trying to be the “favorite” or the “wise one.”  In ongoing encounters, as with teachers, a good guide might be popular and affirmed for being so, but that need not be the case.  Popularity is not always a good thing, nor does it validate one’s counsel or guidance.  Illusions can set in – even in graced moments – given our human weakness for things “going to our head.”  We’re all vulnerable to this.  Here’s an examination of conscience worth making: Am I benefitting the other or myself?  Am I saying things that evoke responses from the other that satisfy or affirm me?  Beware of subtle forms of selfishness.  It’s the human condition.  We must not use our influence over others to gratify our unmet needs.

Muriel Spark wrote a novel, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” about a teacher at a girls’ school in Scotland.  Rather than teach what she ought, Ms. Brodie uses her position and young sophisticated personality – her “prime” – to create a circle of favorites whom she calls her “crème de la crème.”  Of course, the parents of the “crème de la crème” think she’s wonderful.  But her popularity with students and parents becomes a power play.  She turns some parents and students against the headmistress, with whom she has disagreements.  Ms. Brodie is a master of evoking responses from students that affirm her own neediness.  Ms. Brodie’s insidious machinations lay the groundwork for long term, adverse effects in her students’ lives – illusions that will take decades to unravel.  She creates a dysfunctional bond  between herself and her favorites.  Years later, some of her “crème de la crème” begin to see what happened, and they turn on her.  Muriel Spark brilliantly and perceptively narrates a toxic dynamic that can set in when a guide does not examine his motives or submit his actions to a higher authority or someone more experienced.

If providence puts you in the position of being someone’s guide (or that of a group), here are some pointers for being a fruitful and unselfish instrument of the Holy Spirit:

  • Good guides don’t choose or seek disciples.  The disciple chooses the guide.  When the  Holy Spirit makes a disciple, a master will appear.  In St. John’s Gospel, Andrew and the “other disciple” first follow Jesus before he turns around and asks, “What do you seek?” (John 1:38)  When the Holy Spirit puts the gift of discipleship in a heart, the master appears.
  • Guides don’t seek out or chase down disciples, even when they leave.  They’re loath to interfere with freedom.  For example, Jesus lost many disciples after his Eucharistic talk in Capernaum (in John 6).  He didn’t go after them, saying, “Hey, come back!”  He let them go.  He just said to his Apostles, “Are you going to leave me too?” (John 6:67)
  • If a guide issues an invitation (i.e. “reaches out”) to a potential disciple, it’s not high pressure, willful or self-serving.  An authentic invitation is gently inspired by the same Holy Spirit who creates a disciple’s disposition to follow.  For example, take the calling of St. Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).  These tax collectors were invited by Jesus.  He knew their dispositions to follow him before calling them.  They followed Jesus because they recognized the One whom they sought.
  • A guide is not possessive.  Notice how John the Baptist readily hands his disciples over to Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).  John lets them go.  They follow Jesus.  Good guides don’t create sub-cultures around themselves.
  • The guide is not unduly anxious about his disciples.  For example, when Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery, he just says, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).  He doesn’t check up on her.  He doesn’t take her out for coffee to see how it’s going.  When Jesus gets the report that his friend Lazarus is dying, he’s in no rush to see him.  He waits a few days (John 11:6).
  • Master-disciple encounters need not be long or deep.  Most of the people Jesus heals don’t hang around.  He tells them to go and say no more about it.  Emotional bonds or prolonged friendships are usually not necessary.  In fact, they could get in the way or even, in some cases, be harmful.  However, if it gets heavy, the guide should seek counsel from someone more experienced, while still respecting boundaries and confidences.  Nonetheless, prolonged depth is not necessary.  Remember, Jesus’ active ministry was only three years.
  • The guide doesn’t answer all of the disciple’s questions or solve all of his problems – even if he knows the answer.  Nor does a good guide go above his head.  He’s not afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

Sometimes, inactivity is more fruitful than activity.  Cooperation with grace may, in some cases, be as simple as detecting its subtle veins of peace and joy and following wherever they lead.  “They follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Rev 14:4).  Among religious people, and those who seek virtue, there are some common illusions and pitfalls, especially in today’s “achievement” oriented society.  It’s notable how we often apply prevailing social attitudes to faith, which usually does more harm than good.  Here are some common illusions: tense generosity, putting one’s self out there, steadfast commitment, noble principles, high ideals, pursuing excellence, perfectionism, making progress.  These may lead to laudable activity and impressive results, for a while.  However, these are ways of resisting grace – or running ahead of it.  Ultimately, they make faith stilted, unattractive and even unreal.  They’re unsustainable.  They’ll break down because they’re built on the weak and shifting sands of willpower and effort.  In fact, spiritual encounters with “another” are often about relieving a person of these imagined expectations in order to let grace take over.

It’s like this.  In a spiritual encounter, the guide asks the Holy Spirit for Counsel.  He turns inward, attentively listening for a movement of grace.  What flows therefrom may be a “word,” a gesture or even just serene silence.  Then, the guide lets go.  Everything is then turned over to grace – to the Holy Spirit.  The guide gets out of the way.  He lets time bring more things to light.  “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.  See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.  You too must be patient” (James 5:7-8).  The Holy Spirit runs through a soul like a river, carving a path and giving life, whenever an obstacle is removed.  A good guide helps remove obstacles and helps discover where grace is working.  Once allowed to flow, grace works on its own accord.  All one must do is surrender to it.  And the Holy Spirit’s life-giving unction will do its good work.

Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor