7.2 Dear Master: Letters on Spiritual Direction


Critical Response to
Letters on Spiritual Direction:

Inspired by Saint John of the Cross

By Susan Muto

Contribution to my understanding of spiritual direction

This book provides an example of how to act as a spiritual director in a one-on-one situation through correspondence. The directee has made progress and is interested in how to proceed in the more advanced or deeper stages of the spiritual journey. The director, St. John of the Cross admits that he is trying to “explain things ultimately unexplainable.” 2 The topic under discussion is about how to achieve union with God that is part of the purgation, illumination and transformation experience. Some of the language and terms that both writers used to describe their experience differ considerably from my own experience (such as our intellect “becomes a mind-divine” 50). I was very challenged by intimate experiences of God’s love that Ana and St. John experienced. Speaking of God’s love that one experiences in the deeper stages, John describes the intensity of it as unable to be contained by one’s heart (2), as a “wound of love” that “is not distasteful but delightful” (35) , as the enjoyment of God that overflows “into every one of your faculties and senses.” (39)

John advised that directees (and myself), experiencing the burning of the “Living Flame of Christ”, need not fear these experiences even though they may be painful, even oppressive, and events that we do not fully understand. (3,4,12, 27) These union experiences come gradually (11), are not able to be understood by logic alone (13, 17), may be of an ecstatic nature (20, 27) and are but a glimpse of the total experience of being united with Christ that will not come until the veil of death is removed. (22) The role of the directee is to make oneself available to the fullness of God since love never bypasses our freedom. (7, 25, 26, 31, 38, 69) We must desire this union with God and our surrender and obedience even in the light of suffering demonstrates our longings. That is not to say that God is not in control and setting the pace of our union development according to what we can handle. (39, 83) Yet, it seems that not all will experience this deeper union during this life and not all to the same extent. (31, 33, 43, 87) Thus, to those granted this experience, a deep humility should be seen. If we are granted this purifying fire of God’s love, it will by necessity flow out to others in acts of love and kindness. (9, 31, 77)

John mentions that directors and directees will experience the “the joy of spiritual friendship” and will learn from one another. I wonder if that is always the case.

A number of warnings come out clearly in this book. First of all, we should beware pure human longing for God. John writes, “Any desire that comes soley from us ought to be suspect.” (76) It is possible that we may take pride in spiritual exercises and our spiritual development becomes another attachment to overcome. In other words, says John, “no effort of our own can affect this movement of mutual seeing: us of God and God of us.” (83)

Another warning comes about various ways in which directors can actually bring harm to their directees. Muto says that one-on-one direction is “not meant to last more than a relatively short time.” 104 As Muto says, “The harm an unprepared director can do is immense.” (91) Therefore, codependent relationships (89) should be avoided and directees must not be led to believe that they must follow the model of their director. (91) Directors should avoid the use of many “shoulds”. (96) A director may be wrong for the directee if he/she does respect what God is already doing in a person’s life. An example of this is when the director tells someone on the way to maturity to go back to the basics. (91) Again, Muto says that sometimes it is better to be quiet and “don’t disturb what God is doing.” (94)

The most encouraging and yet sobering statement in the book was the following about who should NOT be a spiritual director:

One is perhaps highly educated but inexperienced, or one full of clever answers but indiscreet, not a listener but a controller, not a humble person but one proud of being so accomplished, not an experienced guide in spiritual matters but a counselor mainly trained in psychological techniques and personality analysis. 90

Impact on my present call and commitment to shepherd others

I want to continue my progress in dealing with the “veil of temporal detachments” (which Ana says, “hinder longing for transcendence 23) and natural affections that block the soul from union with God. (21, 65) Yet, I realize how easily I fall back into old habits and especially the big three: appetites for power, pleasure and possessions. A sad and sobering reminder to me was the statement made by John about many people, “Called for much more, they settle for much less.” 72

I have a tendency to compare and after reading a book like this, it would be easy for me to think how unlike John and Ana is my own experience. Yet, I must remember as John says, “Your delight in him is the delight he feels in you.” 51

I am more committed than ever in being available to people as they begin to feel an empty life apart from God, which John describes as “a thirst that is unquenchable, a hunger that is never satisfied.” 67 At the same time, I realize that this spiritual awakening is not something I can bring about, “It is humbling to realize that we could neither raise our eyes to the divine light nor desire it if God were not turning our eyes in the right direction.” 72

Strengths and weaknesses

This book provides a positive example of the honesty that can and should happen in a directee and director relationship. I do wonder about the wisdom of experiencing such an intimate spiritual direction with a member of the opposite sex as occurs in this book. Since both parties often provide personal and intimate disclosures about their inner life, a dangerous sense of intimacy could be developed which is not appropriate outside of marriage. Perhaps, spiritual direction can be carried on today via email?

At first, in his discussion about people as “beings in a body”, I wondered if there was a dualism expressed in which the spirit is good and body is evil and thus the state of union cannot be achieved until one’s body is gone. (25) This contradicts the fact that we will have a physical resurrected body for eternity. However, John does say that our appetites and faculties will be transformed, not destroyed in this process (50), that there will be an experience of sheer joy that draws together soul and body in an harmonious composite” (57) and that the whole person is involved in this transformation. (61) Therefore, he may have a orthodox understanding of the relationship between the body and spirit.

When John mentioned that some people in this deeper union experience stigmata (33), I wondered about the reality and danger of this kind of teaching.

Scriptural and use of the masters

Only a few references to Scripture were given. References to a number of John’s writings were scattered throughout the book.

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