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If you see an intelligent man, visit him early; let your foot wear out his doorstep.
There is something in our culture that prizes independence and shuns authority. Perhaps it is the nature of democracy that fosters the notion that we are all equal and should not be subordinate to anyone (although I sense that in recent generations there was more respect for those in authority than now). We do not mind the idea of obeying God, but that is because we can decide privately what he tells us to do. God does not generally speak to us in clear ways that we can readily discern. Have you ever heard someone say something like “I prayed about divorcing my husband and had a real peace about it” or other such nonsense? This kind of “obedience to God” is easy when your ears are dull, your mind is fuzzy, and your heart is set, because when you close your eyes to pray, you only feel the longings of your soul. And this, in today’s religious culture, is generally called “finding God’s will.”
Although we are all of equal value, we are not all at equal points in the spiritual journey. In the ladder of divine ascent, we are not all on the same rung—some are higher, some are lower, some have fallen off, and others have never started. Christians throughout the ages have realized this simple truth. That is why the Fathers have taught us that if we wish to take the Christian life seriously, we need to be under the authority of someone holier than ourselves.
“Do you seriously wish to travel the road to devotion? If so, look for a good man to guide and lead you.” That is how St. Francis de Sales suggests we begin our spiritual journey in the opening chapters of Introduction to the Devout Life. Finding a spiritual advisor should be done at the beginning of the spiritual life, and it is not something that we should be without at any stage in our life.
A spiritual director is a person who will warn us when we begin to wander from the way of truth. For this reason, it is important that we speak with him often. Jesus Ben Sirach said that if you find an intelligent man you should let your foot wear out his doorstep. That is, we should see him regularly, almost naggingly, pleading to be led further along the spiritual journey.
I once heard a woman remark that a medical researcher could make a fortune if he could find a cure for the genetic defect in the Y-chromosome that causes men to never ask directions when they are lost. There is something about men, a certain combination of arrogance and pride, that causes us not to want to seek directions. We want everyone to think that we know exactly where we are going and that we are always going down the right path. Unfortunately, in the spiritual journey, Jesus said that the path is narrow and that few of us are going to find the way. We need to have someone further along the path to come and lead us along.
Finding new paths in the spiritual journey is the role of heretics. They all lead to dead ends, quite literally. But we are told to “stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). We need to ask for the ancient paths. We need to ask someone who knows them well.