BELOVED, DO NOT BELIEVE EVERY SPIRIT, BUT TEST THE SPIRITS WHETHER THEY BE OF GOD (1John 4:1).  St. John was quick to recognize that each individual Christian was subject to the action of various spirits. He was alone in this conviction, though none more than he appreciated the consequences of such influence. St. Paul before him had already pointed out that there were spirits of darkness as well as angels of light who sought to guide those who were baptized into Christ and so were given the Holy Spirit to be their very life. He too learned quickly that the fight we are engaged in is an unequal one. ‘for our fight is not against flesh and blood but against the princes and powers, against the rulers of these darknesses, against spirits of evil in heavenly places. On this account take up the armor of God that you might resist in the evil day and stand perfect in all things (Eph. 6: 12, 13).  

The early monks were not very long in the desert of Egypt before they learned the abiding importance of this great mystery of the Christian life. St. Anthony, considered to be both the founding Father of monastic life and its most notable exemplar, had already insisted that the most essential virtue of the monk was discernment. The reason for this being that so often the monk’s perseverance depends on his recognizing in good time what movements of his soul come from the Spirit of God or one of his angels and what come from the spirit of darkness. In different ways each of these sources of our thoughts and feelings requires an ability to perceive precisely what fidelity to the Lord requires of us. One need not live in a monastery a long time before experience that he must be able to stand up against an encounter with  most subtle temptations that, in fact, are inspired by an evil spirit and which eventually threaten his vocation. These temptations commonly occur before the novice has learned the rules of this spiritual combat. That is one reason that he is to be accompanied by an experienced monk. 

St. Benedict is careful to prescribe that the novice not bare his soul to just any of the monks he lives with. Even those who are fervent and holy often do not have the training or the gift of discernment in the degree required to advise others. Gregory of Nazianzus called spiritual direction ‘the art of arts’ and like all human undertakings it requires, in addition to the spiritual gifts of the Spirit, a certain measure of natural skill and training properly to function. Knowing what to avoid saying is part of that art as well as knowing how and when to frame an insight that meets the need of the individual being advised. One of the ways in which novices and young monks undermine themselves is through discussing some current problem with a monk who has access only to part of the situation and who lacks the self-knowledge essential for realizing the limits of his common sense.  

It is not surprising then that if one consults a number of different authorities on the subject, contemporary as well as historical, one finds differing views as to the more specific nature and methods of spiritual direction, although there is a broad agreement on its more general purpose. Already in the earliest period in Egypt one finds very divergent concepts as to the best method to impart insight; more, even whether it should be the concern of the abba to attempt to stimulate insight by any direct means; example of how to pass the day, and how to deal with occurrences as they arise is the method of choice for some. Some had a gift for formulating short, pithy sayings that pointed the way to spiritual progress, but left a very large margin for the individual=s initiative and industry. When Evagrius decided to organize and synthesize such sayings, his own mostly but also those of other fathers, he got the reputation of being too voluble, >a hewer of words=, he was called. To others, on the other hand, such as John Cassian, his approach seemed to be very helpful and faithful to the spirit of the earlier fathers, notably Macarius the Great, his spiritual director. It would be more exact to say >one of his several spiritual directors= and teachers for he considered Gregory of Nazianzan to have formed him in the things of the spirit before he became a monk. Melanie too had served for a time as his spiritual guide who proved a capable, very effective therapist as well, when he passed through a psychological crisis concerning his vocation. From the desert he continued to remain in touch with her by letter even while under the influence of other guides. He also had a special relation with the other well known Macarius, of Alexandria, after he took the monastic habit upon moving to Egypt.  Thus we find in the early tradition there could be more than one influential spiritual guide not only at different periods of one=s spiritual journey, but even at the same time. Moreover, the variety included persons of very distinctly different station: one was a famous Bishop, another a priest, another a simple monk, and still another who proved no less capable than the others, was a woman, Melanie. St. Antony the Great had already set a precedent for such multiple guidance, for in his early years after having learned what he could from his first teacher, he made it a practice to spend prolonged periods with a number of others, gaining from each successively such lessons on ascetic practice as they were particularly competent to impart.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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