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Disciple of a Fool

May 19, 2015 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Self Knowledge, Spiritual Direction

CourtJesterStockholm for post on disciple of a foolSt. Bernard of Clairvaux is famous for saying that “Anyone who takes himself for his own spiritual director is the disciple of a fool.”

This simply means that in matters that matter most in life, it is dangerous and foolish to fail to habitually seek counsel from others. Why?

The simple fact is that the human person has an infinite capacity for self-delusion. To make matters worse, intelligence, drive, and good-will can all be accelerants for self-delusion. Yes, you heard that right. The desire to do good, and the desire for good, can be used by the enemy to convince us that we are on the right track. After all, it is clear that we mean well right?

Because of my executive role in Christian non-profits for decades, I have had the unfortunate, and always gut wrenching experience, of watching many good men fall. In fact, I have been the fool myself at times.

The beginning of the end emerges when a destructive pattern within a leader becomes clear to those around them.

Those who love them begin to gently work to help them back on track.

The fool’s disciple responds by conferring with his spiritual director (himself) and, after the meeting with himself, he emerges with… surprise surprise – a clean bill of health!

To make matters worse, these folks usually have followers. The next step they take then is to confer with them or lament to them. What do they get in response? Praise and affirmation!

At this point the path to hell is now set in concrete, and only a profound crash and humiliation will get these poor self-deluded souls back on track.

StainedGlassStBernardOfClairvauxMNMA_Cl3273How does this happen to good people? The answer is revealed by St. Bernard’s observation. He, too, witnessed many of the good and faithful fall.

These good folks begin down this path to destruction with a poor understanding of the effect of sin and concupiscence on the soul and the power of self-deception that emerges from these sources.

Because they don’t understand these factors, or because of their self-perceived goodness, or sometimes because of psychological trauma that causes a kind of self-protection, they never develop a habit of seeking counsel from others, especially from those who are willing to confront them and tell them the truths they most need to hear about themselves.

If we look to the wisdom of the spiritual doctors of the Church we would find them replete with warnings against self-trust. St. Teresa, in the Interior Castle, even notes that the further along one travels into the castle (a metaphor for progressive union with God) the more one needs an external voice to help them navigate the narrow path!

Of all the good men that I have seen fall, not a single one, even the religious and priests, had a spiritual director. Not a single one allowed anyone to speak hard truths to their souls.

Said another way, they were all disciples of fools.

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Art:  The Laughing Jester, anonymous, 15th century; Stained glass representing St. Bernard of Clairvaux, unknown artist, ca 1450; both PD-US copyright expired.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Judy Silhan

    The scenario of becoming the disciple of fools can also befall someone newly transformed in their faith. As this person grows in their love for Christ and takes on more roles in the Church, without external spiritual guidance, they will fail in their new-found mission to do good just as the long-committed Christian will. As a new student of yours last year, and also as someone who came to Avila in search of a meaningful relationship with Our Lord, thanks for sharing with me, then, the importance of Spiritual Direction, and hopefully, preventing me from becoming a disciple of fools.

  • Caroline Mills Lawry

    Oh so true! Without a spiritual director I am deluded. Unfortunately I have been told by someone who should be in the know that my spiritual growth didn’t qualify for one. I never asked why, but I knew I wasn’t trustworthy. The enemy is a competent and effective distracter from the truth. I have been down that path many times and still go even with help. My pride kicks in. Then I am off and running. Thanks be to God that I have someone who leads me back.

  • John

    Great post! We have a dearth of qualified spiritual directors in our area (none that we have been able to find). Can anybody provide some suggestions about where to turn when our parish priests are unwilling or unable to provide competent spiritual direction? Thanks and God bless!

  • Patricia

    So true for Spiritual Directors and Novice Mistresses too!

    Each time I needed food for the souls in my charge, I always found my hands filled. Had I relied on my own strength, I should very soon have been forced to surrender.
    -St. Therese of Lisieux

  • Barbara Parrish

    It seems to me that self-delusion is like a disease that plagues the minds of many. I have witnessed this countless times – every day really. The best thing that ever happened to me in my life ( as a so-called “do gooder” myself) was to have the Truth , in all it’s ugly reality, revealed to me by a most excellent counselor. It changed the course of my life – a gift from God that I truly cherish. Husbands and wives can provide counsel to each other, if both are willing to listen – God provides this grace through their marital sacrament, but each should seek counsel for themselves as well- and get down on our knees each and every day.

  • Patricia

    We have to trust in the Lord, not ourselves. We have to be careful and prayfully discern God’s will for our actions. People are people and God is God. His ways are not our ways and others may not understand, but are asked to do what He wants anyway. Sometimes the Holy Spirit puts something in our heart that another person would not comprehend. Think of Joan of Arc who was burned at the stake for being a heretic and even Teresa of Avila, whose Spiritual Director told her that her inner promptings were the work of the devil. Her own sisters from a monastery she founded voted to remove her. Some of St. Therese’s cloistered sisters thought there was nothing special about her, and yet she has been called the greatest saint of modern timtes. St. Padre Pio was not allowed to say Mass publically for some time. St. John Vianny, was considered too incompetent to run a parish by his brother priests who started a petition to remove him as he was unfit to serve. (He signed it himself in agreement 🙂 He is now the Patron Saint of Parish Priests. St. John of the Cross was imprisioned by his own brothers and beaten regularly because here wanted to reform the Carmelite order. Almost every saint has had some such obstacle from others around him/her.
    So we have to be careful in allowing others to keep us from doing the will of God in our lives. Prayer, discernment, and patient endurance are necessary. If it is the will of God, it will happen

    • Patricia – thanks for your comments. How long have you been in spiritual direction? Do you go monthly?

    • wendyjoseph

      I think this discussion points to the axiom “By their fruits shall ye know them.” Some charismatic religious leaders, like Jim Jones in the 1970’s, apparently started out as well intentioned true believers who then went terribly wrong.

      I knew such a man back then who was instrumental in bringing me into the Church. He was full of love for his prayer group and for one of my friends who became his wife. He then got an inflated ego and wanted to start his own religious commune named after himself, much like Jonestown. I asked him if he had heard about the Jonestown massacre and he hadn’t.

      Fast forward a few years and he’s doing time for spousal and child abuse. To this day he doesn’t think he did anything wrong.

      One should always be “testing the spirits” (1 John 4:1) to see where they come from, and relying only on yourself to determine whether something is from the Holy Spirit is wrong, for the reasons mentioned earlier in this thread.

      I find Confession a good source of spiritual direction and try to go several times a month. Daily Bible reading also helps, as does checking sites like this and reading the Pope’s (someday to be St. Francis of Argentina if I have a ghost of any perception) weekly prayer intentions. One should always be searching for more clarifications of one’s beliefs, and whether they are illuminated by God or darkened by the Devil. “And what I say to you I say to all; watch.” (Mark 13:37)

      • LizEst

        Wow! Your story about the charismatic religious leader you knew long ago sounds scary. How is your friend coping with the aftermath?

        • wendyjoseph

          If you mean his ex wife, she got an annulment and spent years getting her life back together and raising two kids alone. Today she teaches and coaches high school tennis. If you mean him, he bounced from job to job and was in poor health the last I heard.

  • Patricia

    You asked the question, so I am compelled to answer:
    I think that It is the Holy Spirit that has really guided me all along. I always felt that, but I really saw it laid out when I was writing a reflection for my class in Transformationin in Christ. I have had much spiritual direction from my associates and friends in Catholic schools and working environments-others around me who are priests, sisters, vocation directors, third order formation directors, confessors etc. I have also sought spiritual direction formally with others I do not know on a personal basis. The first was a Catholic Doctor Spiritual Director/ Psychologist who does Catholic Spiritual direction for an order of sisters that was stationed in a previous parish about twelve years ago. They invited me to go with them and we each had our own hour every month. After I moved, I sought Spiritual Direction from several reliable directors- monks or priests who have been trained in spiritual direction. It is more ongoing than monthly. I am fortunate to had found real feedback and guidance, which I have followed. The responses have been pretty consistent from each of them. Still, the Holy Spirit is prime and I just now remembered that Pentecost is coming!!!

    • LizEst

      Patricia– I’m puzzled by the way you answered the question. You seem to be avoiding giving a clear, straightforward answer. Are you currently receiving spiritual direction from an actual living human being who you get together with on a regular basis? If the answer is yes, then how often to you see him or her?

      • Patricia

        In response to your comment, “You seem to be avoiding giving a clear, straightforward answer.” I would answer I am not avoiding an answer.
        (A statement that says someone is avoiding a clear straightforward answer creates a negative perception about someone.)

        I got this message from Dan:
        Patricia – thanks for your comments. How long have you been in spiritual direction? Do you go monthly?

        I responded directly to this personal question and have copied out the answers from my more detailed response:

        Q. How long have you been in spiritual direction?
        A. twelve years ago – hour – every month

        Q. Do you go monthly?
        A. more ongoing than monthly now

        This site is not about me and my personal spiritual life. I took pause before answering because this is a public internet site, not a personal e-mail from a close friend….so I was somewhat more general because it is personal. I do have long term experience with Spiritual Direction, both from the receiving and offering sides. My life is lived in spiritual circles and I have plenty of conversations with people who are spiritual directors who are my friends and colleagues. Responses from non-personally known Spiritual Direction has indicated positive perception, growth, direction, and experiences.

        And yes, any/all of the people who have I have spoken with are real life, breathing, practicing, ministering Catholic Spiritual Directors!

        As I mentioned earlier this is not about me. I wrote a response to todays posting of things that came to mind after reading it and thinking about it. I was expressing the concept that Spiritual Direction is a good thing for people, but there have been many examples as I mentioned above that are not correctly perceived by the human mind at the time, and later are seen as promptings of the Holy Spirit.

        God is the initiator of desires of the heart and giver of gifts. If He gives them, He has been a purpose for doing so, that cannot be thwarted by man.

        • LizEst

          Thanks Patricia…that’s much clearer. God bless you!

        • Cathy

          God is the initiator of all desires of the Heart..SO TRUE !! AMEN

  • DianeVa

    After playing the fool for so many years, I am so blessed to have found a spiritual director that I go to every 4-5 weeks through the encouragement of this website! Yet, I believe the devil still works within me by hinting to me that “this might not be the right spiritual director for me”. Has anyone else had that experience? I am sure this is my own fear coming out and lack of trust in God and the Holy Spirit. I have read your book Dan and in grad studies at the Avila Inst but there sometimes seems that nagging feeling that I need someone more to be more firm with me.

    • Dear Diane, for folks like you who are fervent and have a deep desire to grow, this is a common sentiment. I remember struggling with the same thing years ago. Unless there is a problem, I would assume this temptation is not from a good source. Good directors are hard to find and perfect directors don’t exist. Stick with it for a while and if you are growing, then all is well.

      • DianeVa

        Thank you for your advice and sharing Dan. Yes, i plan to stick with it because i know directors are hard to find. I am indeed like an infant and the Holy Spirit is allowing me to perhaps just “be held in His arms” via my director till I am mature enough to “chew on solid food”

  • Patti Knudsen

    Wow!! This is really a great piece. I do not “officially” have a spiritual director, although I seek direction often in the confessional, and I have good discussions with our parish priest. I’ve known for some time, I really need one. Guess I’d better get busy!!

  • Thank you, Dan. You sure know how to wake some somnolent souls. I went to this Year’s Carmelite Holy Week Residential Retreat which was the “Retreat of a Lifetime” for me. A good Priest there who guided us, agreed to become my Spiritual Director (just what I have been tormenting Jesus and His Holy Mother to give me!!!!). Yet to-date I haven’t contacted him as we agreed.

    You are an Angel Dan for sure.

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