The Perils of Good Advice

We all love to give others the benefit of our advice. That hard-won wisdom, that special insight, the experience we, and we alone, have gained, how wonderful to share it all with others! The trouble is, anyone whose advice is worth having will probably wait to be asked but far too many of us proffer our advice unasked. Take social media, for example. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned something, the planting of a new hedge say (species already decided upon), and received in return masses of alternative suggestions, including plans so vast and expensive that I’m left wondering whether Twitter or Facebook or whatever is inhabited solely by multi-millionaires. As nuns, I think we often come in for more than our fair share of this kind of advice, especially from those who assume we know nothing and need to be guided. There is, however, a more perilous form of good advice, and I’m sorry to say nuns can be just as guilty of giving it as anyone else: spiritual advice.

Spiritual Advice

I come from a community that has always been chary of giving spiritual advice and expressly rejects the role of spiritual director for any of its members. The reason for that is partly historical, partly a recognition that none of us has the qualities required of a spiritual director. Others do; we don’t. Occasionally, I ask myself whether some of the posts in this blog overstep the mark, but as any advice given is general, not particular, and is closely linked to scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict, I can quieten my conscience. Please note, however, that the three things I have cited — scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict — all have an objective character. We may try to put a personal interpretation on them but they are independent entities, so to say, to be respected and understood, not forced into a mould that is inherently untruthful.

Classical Monasticism

Earlier this week I wrote a short post about what I called classical monasticism. Discussion, both online and off, has been interesting. Those who live in traditional monasteries have, by and large, shared some of my concerns about attempts to call ‘monastic’ anything anyone chooses to think monastic. Others have argued that my understanding of monasticism is too narrow and given me quite a lot of advice about how we should change things here at Howton Grove. Oddly enough, these suggestions have come from those who’ve never actually been here or, as far as I know, lived in the kind of monastery I’ve lived in for almost 40 years. I have thanked them for their advice, thought and prayed about it (the Holy Spirit, after all, has a way of shaking up our ideas) and then dismissed it as being based on some serious misconceptions about what monastic life is and what it is intended to achieve in the lives of those who live it. I hope that is not arrogant of me, but what is a caution to me may be to you as well.

A Warning

Do not trust every spiritual guide. Do not take all advice as being good, especially as we draw closer to Holy Week. The devil still masquerades as an angel of light, by which I mean that what appears good on the surface may not be as good underneath. I believe that if we cling to the scriptures, the sacraments, the tradition of the Church (and I mean the Church’s tradition, not the different versions of it some have concocted for themselves), we cannot go far wrong. And that, my friends, is my good advice for you!

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Of the Dragon’s Party: St George’s Day 2020

Jost Haller - Saint George slaying the dragon, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar
Unterlinden Museum / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Audio version at the end.

Although I love England, I have never subscribed to the kind of nationalism that wraps itself in the flag or becomes misty-eyed whenever confronted with a member of the Royal Family. Still less would I assert that ‘my country is the best/greatest/most important in the world’. Love can be clear-eyed and is at its truest when most humble. On St George’s Day, therefore, my patriotism is of the low-key kind that delights in the beauty of landscape and seascape, the basic decency of the English people, and makes no absurd claims about ‘greatness’. We are not in competition with one another. We are all God’s children, and I have no difficulty acknowledging that many bad things have been done in the name of England as well as many good ones.

St George has not always been our patron saint. He usurped St Edmund in the Middle Ages. As a result, we have some splendidly dynamic art – and a few problems. Take the legend, for example. Our Syrian hero comes upon a young woman being held captive by a dragon, so he decides to free her by slaying the dragon. Cue general applause. Rescuing damsels in distress is unobjectionable, surely. But is there something more to consider? Deep in the male psyche I suspect there lurks the desire to do deeds of derring-do, and rescuing those weaker than oneself is an excellent excuse for feats of arms. It has been the pretext for countless wars almost since time began. But did St George stop to ask the damsel whether she wanted to be rescued? And did he have to kill the dragon to achieve his aim? That is where the applause becomes a little uncertain and a dilemma appears.

So many misunderstandings begin with good intentions and a failure to see another’s point of view. We make assumptions and forget that others do not share them. We may not be in a position to start a war or arrange a ‘regime change,’ but most of us can give others the benefit of our advice, blithely unaware that it may not be as necessary or useful as we think. I did so myself yesterday and was justly rewarded by being treated as an old ‘has been’. Those who know and love Paradise Lost will agree that Milton was of the devil’s party without realising it. Today, as I celebrate St George, I think I’ll try to be one of the dragon’s party — more modest in my assumptions, more honest about my own fallibility and vulnerability . . . more English perhaps.

Note
St George’s nationality is much debated, although the concept of national identity was fluid at the time of his supposed birth. He is often said to have been born in Cappadocia, but was he Greek? Was he Syrian? Did the dragon he killed live in Libya? The different stories serve to remind us that the Church is bigger than national identities. In calling him Syrian, I am simply following the martyrology we use here — a reminder of our country’s involvement overseas and the complex issues that stem from it.

Audio Version

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The Problem with Good Advice

The problem with good advice is that most of us are better at dispensing it than receiving it, and almost none of us is any good at putting it into practice. That explains, for example, why preachers are often disappointed that their most eloquent sermons seem to fall on deaf ears; spouses, that advising their better halves ‘for their own good’ seems to have no effect; and the rest of us are mildly surprised that world leaders are not beating a path to our door when we so obviously have the solution to every problem under the sun. It’s unfortunate, isn’t it?

To listen to good advice, weigh it and put it intelligently into practice requires not only intellectual humility (I may not be right about everything) but also intellectual daring (I will think this through and follow the logic of my conclusions), plus some stamina and steadfastness of purpose (good advice rarely provides a quick fix for anything).

For anyone serious about living the Christian life, there is no shortage of good advice to draw on. We have the scriptures and centuries of reflection on them, especially the early Christian writings known collectively as the Fathers. Do we need anything more? I think we do.

It has become fashionable to have a spiritual director, not so fashionable to have a confessor (a priest to whom one goes for sacramental confession). As you might expect of someone coming from my particular monastic tradition, I’m slightly ‘iffy’ about spiritual direction* but wholly in favour of confession. We all need to confront the fact of sin and failure in our lives as honestly as we can, but it isn’t always helpful to pick over our ‘spiritual lives’. A confessor who apparently has nothing to say is as valuable as one who seems extremely insightful, though we may think otherwise. In the sacrament of confession we can be quite sure that our wounds are placed before God for healing and, provided we fulfil the necessary conditions of the sacrament, we can be equally sure that grace will flow.

Of course, there are situations in which we seek the advice of others, and we’d be fools if we didn’t. The trouble is, many of us blunder into things and only realise too late how unwise we’ve been. Perhaps the biggest problem with good advice is that there is very little of it around when we need it most. The only solution is to cultivate a thoughtful, prayerful way of living, open to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and humble enough to embrace it when we find it.

* I don’t mean to knock spiritual direction as such, but in the Cambrai tradition there is a certain wariness of spiritual direction as commonly understood — historically, it caused some very grave difficulties.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Good Advice

Have you noticed how often Twitter users give each other good advice? Quotations from the Bible jostle for place with pithy aperçus de nos jours, most of them worth thinking about and all of them producing, in me at least, a vague sense of failure. There are times when I want to shriek, ‘Enough!’ It is not that I don’t know what to do (usually), but the fact that I am clumsy/got out of bed on the wrong side today/am counting pennies/just plain cantankerous that makes it impossible for me to follow all that counsel so freely given. Perhaps we could declare a holiday from good advice, just for today, and only tweet what we ourselves would like to receive. It won’t change the world, but it might change us. It might make us gentler, kinder, more thoughtful people, quicker to listen than to speak. It might.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail