In my experience, I have found that people like to plan most things they do.
They carefully select the college they want to attend, the major area they want to study, the classes they take each semester – sometimes well in advance.
They think long and hard about the career and job they would like to pursue, the part of the country in which they would like to live, the part of town in which they rent an apartment or buy a house.
They ponder seriously whether to get married to a specific person, often asking the advice of friends and family, and nowadays most plan how many children to have.
They plan their budgets of finances and time; they plan the details of a weekend and vacation. They plan their daily workouts at the gym, when to get their car’s oil changed and their dog groomed, how to landscape the yard and decorate the master bedroom.
In fact, we often criticize people who don’t have a plan or at least an idea of where to find guidance.
“By failing to prepare,” Benjamin Franklin said, “you are preparing to fail.”
We can’t plan everything about our lives. Things happen unexpectedly. We are forced to consider a direction that hadn’t been considered, and we end up changing our plans, directing our steps and anticipating a different future.
Still, in almost every area, we plan, we expect, we dream. Almost every area.
Most of us, I fear, fly through our spiritual lives by the seats of our pants. We wing it, and we see where that carefree spiritual lifestyle takes us. With that approach – or better yet, lack of approach — we make that spiritual life much more difficult, much less fulfilling, than it should be.
During my retreat early last month, my three friends and I spent time each day reading a chapter from the book: A Retreat With Thomas Merton, by Anthony Padovano. We gathered in a quiet place each evening and discussed what we had read that day, helped by some questions at the end of that day’s chapter. Following one chapter, the book challenged us with this simple question:
Who are your spiritual guides?
I listened to each of my friends talk about the various people who have influenced their spiritual lives, people whose advice helps influence how they pray and worship and believe, people who might even help them eventually attain eternity in heaven.
As they were sharing, my mind probed my life for my response. “Do I have a spiritual guide?” I wondered. I don’t think I had ever looked closely enough to see if I indeed have been guided. I don’t think I ever laid out a spiritual plan, not in an organized and intentional way.
“Of course you do,” the Voice In My Head whispered. “I guide you. In many ways. Through many people.”
Immediately, I recognized the Voice of the Holy Spirit.
So I don’t fly by the seat of my spiritual pants. Or do I? I mean, how do I let the Holy Spirit guide me? Do I just spend some time in prayer and listen to see what He is telling me? Do I play Bible roulette, pick a Scripture verse or passage, then try to hear the Holy Spirit telling me what to think?
I’m not a mystic. I’ve heard the voice of God, audibly, a couple of times. And I can powerfully feel urgings and messages from God. But I don’t count on it regularly. And I don’t completely trust that all the voices in my head are solely those of God, and many of those other voices likely don’t know much about what they are saying.
In his 1986 book Reaching Out, the late priest Henri Nouwen wrote:
“We need a guide, a director, a counselor who helps us to distinguish between the voice of God and all other voices coming from our own confusion or from dark powers far beyond our control.
“We need someone who encourages us when we are tempted to give it all up, to forget it all, to just walk away in despair. We need someone who discourages us when we move too rashly in unclear directions or hurry proudly to a nebulous goal. We need someone who can suggest to us when to read and when to be silent, which words to reflect upon and what to do when silence creates much fear and little peace.”
Henri Nouwen, I realized, is one of my spiritual guides. So is Thomas Merton, the late Trappist monk. I have more of his books on my dresser than those of any other author. In “Spiritual Direction,” he wrote:
“A spiritual director is, then, one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in his life, in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading him. A spiritual director is, then, one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in his life, in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading him.”
I have gained much wisdom over the years from Henri and Thomas – yes, I often feel that close to them. I truly believe the Holy Spirit directs me through their words sometimes. No every word they write, mind you. They didn’t write and say things only for me. Some doesn’t apply. Some doesn’t ring true, at least not for my spiritual journey.
The more I thought about my spiritual guides, I realized there are others. That includes several saints, most prominently St. John of the Cross (probably the most influential in my life for the last several years), and numerous authors and speakers whose insight into Scriptures have deepened my knowledge of God. Expanding beyond the books I have read – I could give you a great list! – there are all those people with whom I have prayed and shared faith conversations on a regular basis: my wife, my best friend, the guys in my 10-year-old prayer group, people I have met on retreats, confessors …
I could go on and on, the more I think about it. Sometimes, their guidance has been brief, a matter of one sentence. Other times, it has been ongoing, a river that continues to flow and transport to new places.
One of the most valuable and necessary pieces of the way the Holy Spirit has guided me through specific people is by the help of a spiritual director. I have been meeting with Father Phil since early this year. He has come to understand my heart and my spirit. Well-versed and familiar with Carmelite Spirituality, he has been able to answer a lot of questions during this period of my formation as a Secular Carmelite and indicate whether some of my thoughts are true to that spirituality.
I see Father Phil and many of my other spiritual guides as companions. They aren’t there to impose their faith on me. Instead, they are there to talk and witness, to walk alongside and point out things I might not notice, ideas I might not understand. They can help me discern whether it’s just a voice in my head or if it’s the Voice that I should heed.
For me, a spiritual guide is someone who has helped me meet God in places I didn’t expect. Someone who is a compassionate friend but also willing to challenge me. Someone who loves me, cries with me, shares my enthusiasm for my God and desire to know Him better.
My guides haven’t given me specific plans, but they help me find the direction in which I am meant to travel. They remind me of the ultimate destination.
As another wise sage, former New York Yankees catcher and manager, Yogi Berra, said: “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
My spiritual guides always lead me back to Father, Son and Spirit. They do their best to make sure I don’t end up “someplace else.”