The first spiritual work of mercy
Counseling the doubtful is a spiritual work of mercy widely attested to since the origin of Christianity. It demonstrates the intellectual and wisdom dimension of the discipleship of Jesus and of the works of charity, a charity exercised in the service of truth, as recalled by Pope Benedict XVI in the encyclical Caritas in veritate. Humans thirst for truth and cannot live without it; anyone who does not find truth has a life not worth living, even if surrounded by many good things.
Therefore, counsel is a concrete act and the first work of charity, interpreted as the ability to understand the difficulties of another person; it also gives meaning and direction to the other works of mercy. St. Augustine wrote: “The person who gives alms is not just the one who gives food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty or clothing to the naked; hospitality to the pilgrim or refuge for the fugitive; who visits the sick and the prisoner, redeems the captive, corrects the erroneous, accompanies the blind, consoles the afflicted, heals the lame; the almsgiver is also the one who gives counsel to the doubter or does whatever is necessary for the needy, and is also forgiving with the sinner.”
Similarly, Rabanus Maurus, a monk of the ninth century, says this concerning charity: “He who gives alms is the one who puts the wanderer on the path of truth, who gives instruction to the ignorant, who announces the Word of God to his neighbors…. In fact all the good works that every just person does in this life can be understood under this same name.”
The works of mercy are an invitation to go out from oneself to look elsewhere: to the poor, the desperate, the poor from whom we would like to escape, who instead allow us to express our best selves. James F. Keenan, SJ, writes: “By participating in the life of mercy we can discover the dignity of the human person that sparkles oftentimes when they are most vulnerable. This is a lesson that we are called to learn, a lesson that lasts a lifetime.”
Counseling the doubtful, together with instructing the ignorant and comforting the sorrowful, is among the so-called “works of vigilance,” those actions that encourage awareness and form our way of looking at things, inviting us to go out from ourselves to meet the world of “the other” in his or her diversity. They enable us to get in touch with that part of ourselves which was previously unknown.
It is important to clarify possible misunderstandings that are often associated with the present theme and that end up rendering its exercise vain or counterproductive. One common situation involves someone who is merely looking for psychological or emotional reassurance for decisions already taken. On the other hand, there are those who claim absolute certitude while embarking on an impossible mission.
By qualifying this work as a spiritual work of mercy, the Church wanted to exclude it from the field of argument, debate or polemics. The Bible itself makes a similar evaluation in this field, clarifying the conditions that make a relationship of help possible, the intentions behind it, the criteria in choosing the “counselors,” and the situations to be addressed. It is not a technique: it is a grace and a gift.
Nobody can counsel on everything. This is not only a matter of competence: freedom of heart and detachment are necessary to be able to recognize what could be good for the other. If we are too involved with the person or the question, we could end up in an unresolvable situation. The Bible gives some examples that reveal a psychological finesse: “Do not consult with a woman about her rival, with a coward about war, with a merchant about business, with a buyer about selling, with a miser about generosity, with the merciless about kindness, with an idler about any work, with a seasonal laborer about completing his work, with a lazy servant about a big task – pay no attention to any advice they give” (Sir 37:11).
The person who is called to counsel should focus on these affective obstacles rather than on the specific problems. The relational context in which this work of mercy is found is fundamental. The ability to express it by preparing oneself to encounter the other is decisive: “Counsel finds its sense within a relationship of trust between two people,” writes Luciano Manicardi. “Spiritual paternity can be an important context in which to give counsel, taking into account that one should not tell the other what he or she needs or should do; rather, to help them find the answer that already lives within them, of which they are unaware, or dare not face. Suggest to them the possibilities they had not thought of before.”
As for the request for help, counsel is born from humility and presupposes self-knowledge of those areas of weakness we are called to be vigilant about, being aware that we need help. Without this freedom, we lack the fundamental condition for offering counsel. The Book of Sirach outlines the characteristics of the person who is able to counsel; it is not their skills, influence on the person, or dialectic ability, but an uprightness of the soul and a deep spiritual life: “Associate with a godly person whom you know to be a keeper of the commandments, who is like-minded with yourself and who will grieve with you if you fail” (Sir 37:12). These traits are linked to the goodness of the heart, the ability to experience mercy and affective prayer, which is not afraid of acknowledging fragility and shortcomings. Such behavior can be useful in protecting oneself from thinking that we are better than others (a great temptation for counselors!). In this way, counsel, being born in the heart and animated by such dispositions, can touch the heart of someone else and bear fruit for both.
The Book of Sirach also points out two fundamental aspects to clarify: “For our own conscience sometimes keeps us better informed than seven sentinels sitting high on a watchtower. But above all pray to the Most High that he may direct your way in truth” (Sir 37:14-15). Knowledge of oneself and a good spiritual life are necessary to reach the proper goal of counsel, which is recognizing and accomplishing God’s will. Counsel does not free oneself from judgment and personal decision but aims at letting people help themselves.
Thomas Green underlines that often the greatest obstacle to overcoming doubt is not the greatness of the mystery of God but rather a lack of self-knowledge, the fact that you do not want to face the challenge of exploring your desires, living in a superficial and fleeting way: “Many people say that it is very difficult to know God, since we do not see him, hear him or touch him as we do another human being. This is true, of course, but I have become convinced that the greatest obstacle to real discernment (and to genuine growth in prayer) is not the intangible nature of God, but our own lack of self-knowledge – even our unwillingness to know ourselves as we truly are. Almost all of us wear masks, not only when facing others but even when looking in the mirror.”
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, spiritual counsel presents well-defined characteristics. First of all, it is a gift linked to reason. In harmony with what Green observed, it does not free us from the challenge of self-knowledge but requires listening, reflecting and interiorization. It is not mere curiosity but has an operative characteristic; it is an act of deliberation in view of a choice.
Another characteristic of counsel is that, in harmony with the integration of a good life, it is linked to other gifts; therefore it can effectively help anyone who has a pure and transparent heart, who is docile, merciful and above all prudent, able to find the most suitable means to reach the established goal. So, in concrete detail we can understand the essence of what is at stake: “Prudence is highly perfected by the gift of counsel that allows us to know what should or should not be done in particular and difficult cases,” writes Adolphe Tanqueray.
It is not by chance that the contrary defect to counsel is “rashness” – rushing to conclusions – “which impedes a person’s ability to act according to prudence, that is, right reasoning,” says St. Thomas. It can happen that you make mistakes, but if you are humble it is possible to recognize them and let yourself be instructed by what happened. Humility saves us from every rushed conclusion and from thoughtlessness, but above all from every presumption that is spiritually dangerous. Presumption wants total certitude that is impossible, humanly speaking, and even superfluous for we are perfectly capable of making decisions about those things we really care about.
Counsel and docility
Hence we understand the importance of this gift for ourselves and for others. It allows us to act quickly, to evaluate challenges, and above all to find unexpected strengths to accomplish what seemed beyond our capabilities: “We may compare those who are led by the gifts of the Holy Spirit to a vessel running full-sail before the wind,” writes Louis Lallemant. “And those who are led by virtues, not as yet by gifts, to a shallop propelled by oars with more labor and noise, and at much less speed.” With the Spirit one is freer and what was once impossible becomes possible (Mt 19:26), because it is the sign of the benevolent presence of God in our life, which is stronger than any doubt.
The texts we quote, though brief, nicely outline the optimal conditions for counsel to be fruitful. It is not just a set of information, nor even a recipe, nor a good technique for all occasions. Rather, it is a walk with faith and the desire to find the good; if this desire is deeply rooted in the person, it will be accomplished. St. Thomas points out that it is not possible to doubt the essential connection between the desire to recognize what is true and its realization, making it appear an illusion or compensation for the unease of life. A profound desire that is written in human nature tends toward the good that is already present and known in some way as its own end: therefore it is not possible to deny the chance of its fulfillment. It is also an explicit invitation from the Lord: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Mt 7:7-8). It is a promise, but also a reassurance that should not be doubted, because the Lord does not deceive.
The inability to give and receive counsel is mostly tied to the failure to accept these wise criteria. For this reason the first and unavoidable step is the desire to clarify, overcoming the fear of confrontation, the challenge of understanding, and the easy way of laziness that remains at the surface of things. When the heart is docile it is easier to recognize what you are looking for and enjoy counsel that does not free you from personal self-assessment. Recall the advice that comes from the one of the sayings of the fathers: “A desert father asks another father: Why do monks today not have any words to offer? Answer: Because the children are unable to listen.”
An always present gift
Counsel is a gift that we all need, especially in our complex society that is rich with unlimited possibilities yet lacking some basic points of reference and full of contrasting proposals: the abundance of information, counsel and counselors is unfortunately part of the problem for they raise anxiety and worry in decisions. For this reason doubt is important: it helps to clarify and challenge fixed ideas, ways of thinking, and customs taken for granted that could become major obstacles to attaining resolution.
The contested dimension of counsel is linked in psychology to what is called “optimal frustration”: the problem should not be resolved for the sake of maintaining tranquility at all costs, both because the one offering counsel has no such power and above all because, if listened to with intelligence and peace, doubt can become the necessary condition to continue the journey with renewed energy and greater depth. The decision is always entrusted to the responsibility of the one asking for help. This is the reason why the degree of certitude that counsel can give is neither mathematical nor empirical but moral. In other words, it is never obligatory and takes nothing from freedom – to receive or refuse it – and it cannot be delegated. St. Thomas says that no counsel, no matter how excellent, can free one from the contingency that characterizes the human condition: “Doubt is implicit in counsel as it is found in the present state of life.”
Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini noted how he was often asked not for counsel but for an “oracle” – in the sense of an infallible word capable of dispelling doubt, rather than being instructed by it in such a way as to more fully accomplish God’s will. This misunderstanding is often present in religious experience: we do not look for an encounter with the Lord but simply to be well, even at the cost of living a mediocre life. In this way we fear the uncertainty and the struggle that are part of the life of faith and thereby resist the work of the Holy Spirit: “The gift of counsel allows us to live calmly this conflicted and ambiguous situation, to live without anxiety, without interior division, with humility and patience, to be at peace in the face of the choices for which we do not have an absolute certainty,” writes Martini. “The gift of counsel is not a brilliant light; if it were there would be no more problems for it is easy to act when we can see everything clearly. Counsel helps when the situation is uncertain, it allows us to go on with confidence and humility, choosing with reason – after prayer, thinking, reflecting, being counseled – the way that seems the best at this moment, ever ready to be corrected.”
Those searching for help are often tempted to look for an “oracle.” For this reason, in the Bible (and in life) false prophets are often listened to and followed because they tell people what they want to hear and not what would be good for them, which is often a remedy as bitter as it is healthy. This is a deadly temptation that leads us to be closed in on ourselves, not focused on the good until losing one’s way. Even with Jesus, the supreme counselor, many have not been persuaded even in the face of miracles.
If we are more concerned with doing what is pleasing to the Lord (motivated by what the Bible calls the “fear of the Lord”), we have the foundation for good deliberation, and we can find wisdom, which corrects doubt and properly orients it. This is also the meaning of the word “conversion”: to change direction, including in the sense of seeing the problem in a different way. It is the experience of those who have experienced doubt at various levels: through multiple encounters with wisdom (concretized in a book, person or experience), they have made great steps forward even if the problem at the root is still unsolved.
Bernard Lonergan, concluding his work Insight, recognized that his frequent and assiduous study of the writings of St. Thomas did not give him a clear answer concerning those dilemmas that were dear to his heart; however, that very long intellectual path changed his way of thinking and this was for him what mattered most. It is what he calls the “intellectual conversion”: it is not the precise solution to the problem but rather the change of horizon that introduces him to different interpretations of it and opens up new and unexpected paths.
An aid for counsel: the discernment of spirits
Counseling the doubtful means pointing toward a path of wisdom to be walked together, offering a possible interpretation of the context in which the problem is placed. In the history of Christian spirituality this kind of help has found a well-known, proven application: the discernment of spirits of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
For Ignatius, discernment means above all putting the question inside the proper context of one’s own life journey. He has a narrative conception of discernment: he refers to the person’s history, his direction of life (“those who go from sin to sin”; “those who are committed to purifying themselves from sins”) and the customs that are consequently rooted in the heart through the repetition of acts. In the history of sin, the good spirit intervenes with “incidents,” spreads doubt, speaks through remorse and an interior sadness (literally “biting conscience”), presents unexpected situations where you can find indications for a change of life. The enemy on the other side tries to appease with apparent pleasures, presenting more suggestive ways to obtain them, so as to continue on the same dangerous path. This tactic is presented in a reverse way for those who want to grow in goodness.
To be able to recognize these divergent styles we should exercise our interior vision, educating the “synteresis of reason,” that is, the capacity to know the first principles of good and evil, to distinguish the real good from that which seems to be such but which is actually deception, leaving at the end a sense of emptiness and boredom.
Ignatius was able to identify these different styles by reviewing in his personal experience, in particular during his first fundamental discovery of a spiritual life, the difference between true and false consolations. He was at home recovering from a severe wound after the siege of Pamplona: to overcome boredom he wanted to read something exciting, like the tales of knights; unfortunately all he could find was the life of Jesus and the saints. And so, against his own will, he adapts. But through those narratives he starts to find two alternative worlds: the adventures of knights and the works of saints. Two very different worlds, apparently equidistant. And as though on some kind of interior pendulum or swing, he finds himself sometimes more on one side and sometimes more on the other.
However, when he starts to examine with more attention the development of his thoughts, he notes a significant detail: “But in these thoughts there was this difference: When he thought of worldly things it gave him great pleasure, but afterward he found himself dry and sad. Yet when he thought of journeying to Jerusalem, of living only on herbs, and practicing austerities like the saints, he found pleasure not only while thinking of them, but also when he had ceased.”
Ignatius has his own first foundational experience of God by listening to the affective resonances that came from reading and noting a strange asymmetry: the thoughts of the world are assimilated easily, but they do not last long and in the end leave a bitter taste in his mouth. The thoughts of God, on the contrary, present a certain difficulty, asking for an interior struggle to welcome them, but once you are inside, even if they concern difficult and unpleasant things (fasting, penance, austerity), they give a deep and lasting peace that motivates you.
The discernment of spirits reveals other surprises. The future founder of the Society of Jesus notes with wonder that, as long as he lived the life of a sinner, he experienced a kind of superficial peace and everyone left him to this peace. When he began to reform his life, he found significant and unexpected difficulties. Revisiting this experience years later, he finds a kind of confirmation of his choice, sub contraria specie: reforming his life, making it more docile to the will of God, will bother some people, clash with environments, and ways of thinking and feeling and obstructions will suddenly awaken to block his purpose. Paradoxically, these doubts and difficulties prove that the choice is good and should be confirmed. The temptation is important because it measures and verifies the value of what has been started, testing its consistency, like a fire shows the difference between gold and straw (cf. 1 Cor 3:10-15). For this reason the Bible invites the believer to wait for this moment, so that he is not unprepared (cf. Sir 2:1). It is not an exceptional situation; all have been through this moment: Jesus, the saints and all believers. Remaining ignorant of it can be very dangerous for one’s life.
What Ignatius suggests is rooted in the spirit of modernity. He uses doubt appropriately when faced with thoughts and reasoning that present themselves in a vague and ambiguous manner, and tend to generate confusion and to distract from a good work already started. Even temptation can speak of God and present apparently efficacious and conclusive suggestions. From this comes the necessity to discern what is moving in the heart, giving a name to what is perceived and its “narrative path,” its origin and above all its destination. Thus it is necessary to know oneself and especially one’s own fragility, weak points, the things that are important, and those to which one is more sensitive.
These aspects are the authentic passwords of our soul, which the tempter knows well, and they risk opening the door to the enemy who “enters yours and leaves by his.” It is a tiring but valuable work, a decisive help not only for discernment but also for the general maturity of the person. In fact, it refines your mind, helps you not to take things for granted, allows you to analyze in depth a given experience, noticing details and nuances that often are the real decisive criteria to recognize what you really want. This hard work frees us from the coarseness and superficiality that Ignatius recognizes as peculiar characteristics of the period before his conversion that led him to waste his time on vain and futile things.
The next phase
The narrative dimension of discernment helps us to understand that spiritual counsel is not a mere work of rhetorical persuasion but requires a patient reading of one’s self and life. For this reason, such a work of mercy is not exhausted in dialogue with the doubtful but sees a further moment of examination in the concrete life and its possible goodness. This aspect, which is often neglected by someone looking for counsel, is instead fundamental for its success. Ignatius decides, for example, not to follow any more the doubts that led him to confess repeatedly the sins of the past. And he underlines that after making that decision, he was “free from those scruples.” The real answer comes in the moment following the decision: as Thomas Aquinas observed, the strength of the will is part of the process of counsel, as asking for help means already having made a decision.
Another significant episode that illustrates the importance of this aspect occurs when Ignatius begins basic studies to become a priest: an arduous task because his schooling was long behind him and because of the dryness of such studies. However, in that very situation he would entertain kind, gentle thoughts that distracted him to the point that he could not continue his studies. He was feeling trapped by these thoughts yet he was able to identify in them some strange disharmonious elements: “Reflecting on this fact, I said to myself: ‘Not even when I am in prayer or listening to the Mass do I have such deep illuminations.’ But slowly he understood even this was temptation.”
These are important observations: these suggestions are out of place, occur at the wrong moment (always when he begins to study) and are an obstacle to God’s service. Hence the conclusion: they are a temptation. And, as in the case of every temptation, one should act in an opposite way to what is suggested. After praying, Ignatius goes to his teacher and reconfirms the determination to continue studying with all his strength. And in the end he notices the consequences of such decisions: “After such a resolution, he did not experience those temptations anymore.”
In both situations the decisive element that makes the difference is the point of arrival of those thoughts in contrast to his story of life. God’s plan is animated by continuity and perseverance: the good Spirit, when you decide for good, makes things easy and communicates peace and serenity even after the fact, because only God is Lord of time and stability.
Knowing how to live complexity
Learning to consider the period following discernment and deliberation is an important aspect and moment of examination that deserves to be put (again) at the center of the work of counseling the doubtful, be that an individual or community, an association or a religious order, or an assembly of the faithful that is deliberating together on the good to be chosen. Cardinal Martini writes, “If the conclusion of so many discourses and reasoning about pastoral life is bitterness, frustration, closure, this means that it is not the work of the Spirit of God; maybe there will be a richness of sociological data and reflections, but not the action of the Spirit. When on the contrary we have a discussion with the will to work and to take action, to take again in our hands a problem to consider it in a better way, this is the work of God’s Spirit…. The enemy is careful in making us notice things that do not work, that nothing is working, and he does that through various forms of reason that we find convincing. But in the end, what remains is bitterness, a lack of trust, and a sense of darkness, a kind of frustration.”
Therefore, we should not be afraid of complexity, nor seek absolute certainty or “final solutions” (infamous through the horrors of the mid-20th century). Rather, we should remain in this complex and mobile moment that allows us to bring fruit into our own lives. We should not think that the time in which we live is so dark and hostile as to make difficulties and doubts impossible to overcome, so that we are destined to fail at every attempt to bring clarity. “The world in which the Lord allowed us to live is the same in which Jesus lived among Romans and Palestinians, scribes and Pharisees, Herodians and Essenes,” writes Martini. “A world full of darkness, deceit and tricks, in which Jesus has been present with serenity. He suffered, and therefore we should not give up on suffering, but we have the chance to live with truth, honesty, honor and a certainty that God does not abandon us.” We are always called to look upon him with the faith of Peter, as he will be beside us and will raise us up from the tempest of doubt (Mt 14:30-33).
Counseling the doubtful means recognizing such complexity without fear, sure that good is not absent. In awareness of this situation, we are called to evaluate and decide, being certain that we are offered sufficient capacity to carry it out concretely. Accepting this challenge is the adventure that makes life beautiful and worthy to be lived, because we act until the very end, with the opportunity to spend our lives on that which is worthy.
.Consider the final exhortation of the Letter of James: “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (5:19-20)
.Augustine of Hippo, Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, Ch. XIX, Para. 72. Trans. Albert C. Outler. Amazon Digital, 2010.
.Rabano Mauro, La formazione dei chierici, II, 28, Roma, Città Nuova, 2002, 105.
.James F. Keenan, SJ, The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism. 3rd ed. Rowan & Littlefield, 2017.
.On the extreme consequences of systematic doubt or the illusion of absolute certainty, cf. G. Cucci, “Il dubbio: insidia o opportunità,” in Civ. Catt. 2017 III, 29-38; “Doubt: Threat or Opportunity,” in Civ. Catt. (English edition) 0817.
.L. Manicardi, La fatica della carità, Magnano (Bi), Qiqajon, 2010, 143.
.T. H. Green, SJ, Weeds Among the Wheat. Discernment: Where Prayer and Action Meet. Ave Maria Press, 1984, 22.
.Cf. Sum. Theol. I-II, q. 68, a. 1-3; II-II, q. 52, a. 1, ad 3; q. 71, a. 3.
.A. Tanqueray, The Spiritual Life: A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology, Desclee & Co, 1930.
.Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 8, a. 7, ad 1; cf q. 52, a. 4.
.Cf. C. Marmion, Cristo vita dell’anima, Milan, Vita e Pensiero, 1943, 155.
.L. Lallemant, Spiritual Doctrine. Trans. Peter Champion. Lecoffre & Co., 1846, 144.
.Summa contra Gentiles, l. III, c. 51; Sum. Theol. I-II, q. 30, a. 4; G. Cucci, La forza dalla debolezza. Aspetti psicologici della vita spirituale, Rome, AdP, 2011, 33-73.
.Cited in A. Louf, Generati dallo Spirito. L’ accompagnamento spirituale oggi, Magnano (Bi), Qiqajon, 1994, 66.
.Cf. G. Cucci, “Il dubbio: insidia o opportunità?” op cit.
.Sum. Theol. II-II, q. 52, a. 3, ad 2.
.C. M. Martini, Uomini e donne dello Spirito, Milan, Piemme, 1998, 107.
.This caution is clear from the earliest writings of Christianity. In The Shepherd of Hermas, it is stated that the false prophet complacently “ruins the minds of the servants of God. It is the doubters, not the faithful, that he ruins. These doubters then go to him as to a soothsayer, and inquire of him what will happen to them; and he, the false prophet, not having the power of a Divine Spirit in him, answers them according to their inquiries, and according to their wicked desires, and fills their souls with expectations, according to their own wishes… As many, then, as are strong in the faith of the Lord, and are clothed with truth, have no connection with such spirits, but keep away from them.”
.Literally, “respect for God” (cf. Ps 111:10; Pr 1:7; Sir 1; Jm 28): it is the true sense of distance, which allows us to see ourselves and the world in which we live in its actual context. Such fear is not spontaneous, but it must be learned (cf. Ps 34:11); the school of fear allows us to enter into life, into the bliss of God (cf. Ps 1). It is this fear that drives out every other fear. When this wisdom is lacking, there remains a void that leads to all sorts of vices. It is to know that everybody’s life, like the fate of history, is in God’s hands.
.Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Collected Works of Bernard Lonergn, Vol. 3), 5th Ed. University of Toronto, 1992.
.Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, no. 314. Cf. D. J. Fares, “Aiuti per crescere nella capacità di discernere,” in Civ. Catt. 2017 I 377-389.
.Sum. Theol. I, q. 79, a. 12.
.Ignatius of Loyola, Autobiography, Ed. J.F.X. O’Conor. Benzinger Bros., 1900, 26.
.Ignatius “felt as if he heard someone whispering to him, ‘How can you keep up for seventy years of your life these practices which you have begun?’ Knowing that this thought was a temptation of the evil one, he expelled it by this answer: ‘Can you, wretched one, promise me one hour of life?’ In this manner he overcame the temptation, and his soul was restored to peace” (Ibid., 20).
.Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises, no. 333.
.Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises, no. 332.
.Ignatius, Autobiography, 25.
.Ignatius, Autobiography, 55.
.C. M. Martini, Uomini e donne dello Spirito, cit., 114.