Wednesdays on this blog are dedicated to the Year of Mercy, and specifically on looking at mercy as a ‘work’ – the traditional list of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Today we come to the second spiritual work of mercy: to counsel the doubtful. And I have to be honest here that I am struggling a bit to know what to say about it. Not, as I said a few weeks ago with ‘visiting prisoners’, because I don’t do this particular work much. Quite the opposite, actually: this work of mercy pretty much is my principal job description in Madonna House.
I am a spiritual director. More and more all the time, this is my main work in MH, at least in terms of time spent on it. While spiritual direction certainly encompasses instructing the ignorant, admonishing sinners, and comforting the afflicted, it is principally a matter of counseling the doubtful. And so… what can I say about the work that takes up an ever-increasing chunk of my waking hours? Nothing, and everything?
It is also a bit delicate since I do realize that at least some portion of my blog readership is made up of… uhh… the ‘doubtful’ ones who I counsel, my directees. Hey, guys! How ya doin’? I suppose you’ll tell me that, next time we talk! And of course I have to be careful how I talk about the work that I do, since it is very much a work done in confidence.
To make some general statements, I would say first that ‘the doubtful’ are not necessarily or usually doubting the actual truths of the faith. That would be a strange circumstance, if everyone was continually revisiting the question of whether God existed, whether Jesus really is His Son, and so forth. And people don’t, usually.
Doubts can simply be doubts as to the next step forward. Or doubts as to whether a course of action already taken is indeed God’s holy will. Doubts as to one’s graced capacity to persevere in a task, a vocation, a life commitment. Or doubts, yes, not as to the truth of our faith, but as to whether or not God is truly trustworthy, whether or not we can truly yield our whole self to Him in this regard or that.
All of that are the primary ‘doubts’ that I find myself ‘counselling’ people on. My own experience of the matter is that almost always, people do know the next step forward. It does happen that sometimes a person is genuinely baffled by turns of event, but usually people do know the next move they have to make. My role as a spiritual director is to listen deeply to what the person is saying, and in that and through that and with lots of prayer, to what God is saying in them and to both of us.
I sometimes do wonder what it’s all about and how I am really helping the person (I am NOT fishing for compliments here). But it seems that there is indeed great value in this act of deep listening, prayerful discerning together, a simple careful word of advice, confirmation, perhaps (occasionally) caution or correction.
There is a real need for this in our world today. The proof of this is that people are willing to drive hours to come to a place like MH in the back woods of Canada to get spiritual direction from me and the other MH priests who offer this service. And that we receive many more requests for spiritual direction than we are able to accept.
After twelve years as a priest, I still am learning what spiritual direction is. In what I have written here, I have barely scraped the surface of what I have learned so far, mostly because to say more would begin to touch on the more confidential aspects of the thing, and I can’t go anywhere near there, obviously. But I know that there is a great an urgent need for it in our world, and at the very least, for people who are willing to sit and just listen to someone for an hour and maybe just say a prayer with them at the end, or give a word of encouragement or even a little bit of advice. This is something that can be done by anyone, not just qualified spiritual directors.
Catherine Doherty said that loneliness was the greatest poverty in the modern North American city. She opened up ‘listening houses’ in the 1970s as a direct way of assuaging that poverty. How I would like to see every Catholic and Christian house everywhere become a ‘listening house’, a place where anyone can just come and lay their burdens down at some kind soul’s feet, not to get answers but to get solace and maybe just a word or two of counsel.
The world would be a lot less cold and lonely if we all understood our ‘house’ to be a listening house and were willing to take up this great and beautiful work of counseling the doubtful, according to our abilities and opportunities.