The second spiritual work of mercy is to “counsel the doubtful.” We find this work of mercy throughout the New Testament, particularly in Saint Paul’s epistles. Generally speaking, each of Saint Paul’s letters are aimed at “counseling the doubtful,” for he gives sound wisdom and advice to Christians on the road to Salvation.

This corresponds to the basic definition of “counsel,” which usually means “giving instruction or advice to direct the judgment of another.” To “counsel” in the spiritual realm then refers to helping someone with a difficult spiritual decision they are about to make.

However, what makes this an even trickier situation is that the person receiving counsel is “doubtful.” This means that the person is “uncertain” about the outcome and questions the possibility of a resolution.

Putting it all together, to “counsel the doubtful” is to give an unsettled person wise advice concerning a spiritual decision.

Now that we have a definition to work from, what does that look like in the real world?

Spiritual Direction

Most commonly those involved with spiritual direction perform this work of mercy. In such cases, a priest, religious, deacon or even a lay person are charged with the task of leading troubled souls to spiritual solutions. It requires a very holy and devout person to sift through the muddy waters of life to give consoling words to someone in need.

Numerous saints recognized the importance of spiritual direction and never made a major decision without consulting their trusted advisor. One such example can be found in the life of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who deeply desired to receive Holy Communion on a frequent basis, but felt weighed down by her sins (she suffered from great scrupulosity). She made a resolution to only receive the Eucharist as much as her spiritual director allowed and never to ask for more. Saint Thérèse was uncertain about her worthiness and would not make a decision on her own. By God’s intervention, she was granted the ability to approach the altar rail much more frequently than she imagined. She writes,

“I had made it my practice to go to Communion as often as my confessor allowed me, but never to ask for leave to go more frequently. Now, however, I should act differently, for I am convinced that a soul ought to disclose to her director the longing she has to receive her God…

Our Lord, Who knew my desire, inspired my confessor to allow me to go to Communion several times a week, and this permission, coming as it did straight from Him, filled me with joy….I compared directors to mirrors who faithfully reflect Our Saviour to the souls under their care.”

Spiritual direction is a great service to the soul, clearing the constant fog that clouds our judgments. God often uses spiritual directors to speak to us and is why they are so important in life’s major decisions.

Unfortunately, very few of us are able to have a reliable and consistent spiritual director. As lay people, we do not have the luxury of a superior appointing to us a spiritual director. This is due to many factors, all of which boil down to the shortage of priests.

Most Dioceses in the United States are very generous to their priests. They give them not only one parish, but often two, three or four separate parishes to govern. This creates a great strain on the pastor, which makes them less likely to take on spiritual direction. They simply do not have the time to sit-down with every parishioner one hour each month to sort out their spiritual problems.

In addition to this unfortunate situation is the fact that many priests do not know how to be a spiritual director. They simply were not taught in seminary what to do when someone asks them spiritual advice. Thankfully many bishops noticed this reality and have been sending their seminarians to The Institute for Priestly Formation to be taught the inner workings of the soul. After a summer spent at IPF, a seminarian not only feels more confident about spiritual direction, but more importantly they experience a profound inner transformation that gives them a strong spiritual foundation.

IPF operates under the inspiration of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, whose insights have helped numerous souls discern the inner workings of the Spirit. It is unfortunate that there are not similar institutions in every Diocese that are geared at the laity. This work of mercy is not meant to be performed only by qualified priests, but should be much more common among lay men and women. The reason being that our friends and family come to us on a regular basis for guidance in spiritual matters. Often they do not even think of talking to a priest, or are uncomfortable or embarrassed to do so. They may not even be Catholic and are struggling in the spiritual life and have no one to turn to except us. One aid that has been proven helpful to the laity is the book The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living, which helps a person understand God’s action in their soul.

In the end, “counseling the doubtful” is an important work of mercy that is especially revealed in spiritual direction, but should also be taught to the average Catholic who seeks to bring peace of mind to a friend or family member.

Next week we will  cover the third spiritual work of mercy, “to admonish sinners.”