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.