by St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Doctor of the Church ("Doctor Zelantissimus")
"Whither goest thou ?" JOHN xiii. 16.
+To gain heaven we must walk in the path that leads to Paradise. Many Christians, who have faith, but not works, live in sin, intent only on the pleasures and goods of this world. If you say to one of them: you are a Christian; you believe that there is an eternity, a heaven, and a hell: tell me, do you wish to save your soul? If you do, I will ask you, in the words of this day’s gospel, "whither goest thou?" He will answer: I do not know, but I hope to be saved. You know not whither you are going. How can you hope for salvation from God, if you live in a state of perdition? How can you expect heaven, if you walk in the way that leads to hell? It is necessary, then, to change the road; and for this purpose you must put yourself in the hands of a good confessor, who will point out to you the way to heaven, and you must obey him punctually. "My sheep," said Jesus Christ, “hear my voice." (John x. 27.) We have not Jesus Christ on earth to make us sensibly hear his voice; but, in his stead, he has left us his priests, and has told us, that he who hears them hears him, and he who despises them despises him. "He that heareth you heareth me, and he that despiseth you despiseth me." (Luke x. 16.) Happy they who are obedient to their spiritual father: unhappy they who do not obey him; for, by their disobedience, they give a proof that they are not among the sheep of Jesus Christ. I intend this day to show, in the first point, how secure of salvation are all who obey their confessor; and, in the second point, how great the danger of perdition to which they who do not obey him are exposed.
+First Point. How secure of salvation are they who obey their confessor.
+1. In leaving us spiritual fathers to guide us in the way of salvation Jesus Christ has bestowed upon us a great benefit. To obtain salvation we must follow the will of God in all things. What, I ask, is necessary in order to save our souls and to become saints? Some imagine that sanctity consists in performing many works of penance; but were a sick man to perform mortifications which would expose him to the proximate danger of death, he would, instead of becoming a saint, be guilty of a very grievous sin. Others think that perfection consists in long and frequent prayers; but should the father of a family neglect the education of his children and go into the desert to pray, he, too, would commit sin; because, although prayer is good, a parent is bound to take care of his children, and he can fulfil the precept of prayer and attention to their instruction without going into the desert. Others believe that holiness consists in frequent communion; but if, in spite of a just command of her husband, and to the injury of her family, a married woman wished to communicate every morning, she would act improperly, and would have to render an account of her conduct to God. In what, then, does sanctity consist? It consists in the perfect fulfilment of the will of God. All the sins which brings souls to hell proceed from self-will; let us, then, says St. Bernard, cease to do our own will; let us follow the will of God, and for us there shall be no hell. ”Cesset propria voluntas, et infernus non erit." (St. Bern. serm. iii., de Resur.)
+2. But some of you will ask: How shall we know what God wills us to do? This is a matter which, ac cording to David, is involved in great doubts and obscurity. “Of the business that walketh about in the dark." (Ps. xc. 6.) Many deceive themselves; for passion often makes them believe that they do the will of God, when, in reality, they do their own will. Let us thank without ceasing the goodness of Jesus Christ, who has taught us the secure means of ascertaining the will of God in our regard, by telling us that, if we obey our confessor, we obey himself. “He that heareth you, heareth me." In the book of the foundations, chapter x., St. Teresa says: "Let a soul take a confessor with a determination to think no more of herself, but to trust in the words of our Lord: “He that heareth you, heareth me." She adds, that this is the secure way of finding the will of God. Hence the saint acknowledged that it was by obedience to the voice of her director that she attained to the knowledge and love of God. Hence, speaking of obedience to one’s confessor, St. Francis de Sales adopts the words of Father M. Avila. How much soever you seek, you shall never find the will of God so securely, as by this way of humble obedience so much recommended and practised by the ancient saints. (Introd., etc., cap. iv.)
+3. He that acts according to the advice of his confessor, always pleases God when, through obedience, he either practises or omits prayer, mortifications, or communions. He even merits a reward before God when, to obey his confessor, he takes recreation, when he eats or drinks, because he does the will of God. Hence the Scripture says that”much better is obedience than the victories of fools." (Eccl. iv. 17.) Obedience is more pleasing to God than all the sacrifices of penitential works, or of alms-deeds, which we can offer to him, he that sacrifices to God his property by alms-deeds, his honour by bearing insults, or his body by mortifications, by fasts and penitential rigours, offers to him a part of himself and of what belongs to him; but he that sacrifices to God his will, by obedience, gives to him all that he has, and can say: Lord, having given you my will, I have nothing more to give you.
+4. Thus, obedience to a confessor is the most acceptable offering which we can make to God, and the most secure way of doing the divine will. Blessed Henry Suson says, that God does not demand an account of what we do through obedience. Obey, says the Apostle, your spiritual fathers; and fear not anything which you do through obedience; for they, and not you, shall have to render an account of your conduct. ”Obey your prelates, and be subject to them; for they watch, as being to render an account of your souls; that they may do this with joy and not with grief." (Heb. xiii. 17.) Mark the last words: they signify, that penitents should obey without reply, and without causing pain and sorrow to their confessor. Oh! what grief do confessors feel when penitents endeavour, by certain pretexts and unjust complaints, to excuse themselves from obedience! Let us, then, obey our spiritual father without reply, and let us fear not that we shall have to account for any act which we do through obedience. ”They," says St. Philip Neri, ”who desire to advance in the way of God, should place themselves under a learned confessor, whom they will obey in the place of God. They who do so may be assured that they shall not have to render to God an account of their actions." Hence, if you practice obedience, and if Jesus Christ should ask you on the day of judgment why you have chosen such a state of life? why you have communicated so frequently? why you have omitted certain works of penance? you will answer: Lord, I have done all in obedience to my confessor: and Jesus Christ cannot but approve of what you have done.
+5. Father Marchese relates, that St. Dominic once felt a scruple in obeying his confessor, and that our Lord said to him: “Why do you hesitate to obey your director? All that he directs will be useful to you." Hence St. Bernard says, that "whatever a man, holding the place of God commands, provided it be not certainly sinful, should be received as if the command came from God himself" (de Præcep. et Discep., cap. xi.). Gerson relates, that the same St. Bernard ordered one of his disciples, who, through scruples, was afraid to say Mass, to go, and trusting in his advice, to offer the holy sacrifices. The disciple obeyed, and was cured of scruples. Some, adds Gerson, will say: ”Would to God that I had a St. Bernard for my director: my confessor is not a St. Bernard." Whosoever you are that speak in this manner, you err; for you have not put yourself under the care of man because he is learned, but because he is placed over you. Obey him, then, not as a man, but as God. (Tract, de Prsop. ad Miss.) You have intrusted the care of your soul to a confessor, not because he is a man of learning, but because God has given him to you as a guide; and, therefore, you ought to obey him, not as a man, but as God.
+6. ”An obedient man shall speak of victory." (Prov. xxi. 28.) Justly, says St. Gregory, has the Wise Man asserted, that they who are obedient shall overcome the temptations of hell: because, as by their obedience, they subject their own will to men, so they make themselves superior to the devils, who fell through disobedience. "The obedient are conquerors; because, whilst they subject their will to others, they rule over the angels that have fallen through disobedience" (in lib. Beg., cap. x.) Cassian teaches, that he who mortifies self-will beats down all vices; because all vices proceed from self-will. “By the mortification of the will all vices are dried up." He who obeys his confessor, overcomes all the illusions of the devil, who sometimes makes us expose ourselves to dangerous occasions under pretext of doing good, and makes us engage in certain undertakings which appear holy, but which may prove very injurious to us. Thus, for example, the enemy induces certain devout persons to practise immoderate austerities, which impair their health; they then give up all mortifications, and return to their former irregularities. This happens to those who direct themselves; but they who are guided by their confessor are not in danger of falling into such an illusion.
+7. The devil labours to make scrupulous persons afraid that they will commit sin if they follow the advice of their confessor. We must be careful to overcome these vain fears. All theologians and spiritual writers commonly teach, that it is our duty to obey the directions of our confessors, and conquer our scruples. Natalis Alexander says, that we must act against scruples; and in support of this doctrine, he adduces the doctrine of St. Antonine, who, along with Gerson, censures scrupulous persons for refusing, through vain fears, to obey their confessor, and to overcome scruples. ”Beware, lest, while you seek security, you rush into a pit." Be careful not, through an excess of fear, to fall into the illusions of the devil, by disobeying your director. Hence all the spiritual masters exhort us to obey our confessors in everything which is not manifestly sinful. B. Hubert, of the order of St. Dominic, says that, ”unless what is commanded is evidently bad, it ought to be received as if it were commanded by God" (lib. de Erud. llcl., cap. 1). Blessed Denis the Carthusian teaches, that”in doubtful matters we must obey the precept of a superior; because, though it may be against God, a subject is excused from sin on account of obedience" (in 2, dis. xxxix., qu. 3). According to Gerson (tr. de consc. et scrup.), to act against a conscience formed with deliberation, and to act against a fear of sinning in some doubtful matter, are very different things. He adds, that we should banish this fear, and obey our confessor. ”Iste timor, quam fieri potest adjiciendus." In a word, he who obeys his spiritual father is always secure. St. Francis de Sales used to say, that”a truly obedient soul has never been lost ;" and that we should be satisfied to know from our confessor that we are going on well in the way of God, without seeking further certainty of it.
+Second Point. How great is the danger of perdition to which they who do not obey their confessor are exposed.
+8. Jesus Christ has said, that he who hears his priest, hears him; and that he who despises them, despises him. "Qui vos spernit, me spernit." (Luc. x. 15.) "When the Prophet Eliseus complained of the contempt which he had received from the people, after God had charged him with the direction of them, the Lord said to him: ”They have not rejected thee, but me, that I should not reign over them." (1 Kings viii. 7.) They, then, who despise the advice of their confessors, despise God himself, who has made confessors his own representatives.
+9. ”Obey your prelates," says St. Paul, "and be subject to them; for they watch, as being to render an account of your souls: that they may do this with joy and not with grief; for, this is not expedient for you." (Heb. xiii. 17.) Some penitents contend with their confessor, and endeavour to make him adopt their own opinion. This is the cause of grief to spiritual directors. But the apostle says, ”this is not expedient for you ;" because, when the confessor finds that you do not obey him, and that it is only with difficulty he can induce you to walk in the straight path, he will give up the direction of your soul. How deplorable the condition of a vessel which a pilot refuses to steer! How miserable the state of a sick man who is abandoned by his physician! When a patient refuses to obey, or to take the medicine which has been prescribed when he eats and drinks what he pleases the physician abandons him, and allows him to follow his own caprice. But, what hope can be entertained of the recovery of such a patient? "Woe to him that is alone, .. .he hath none to lift him up." (Eccl. iv. 10.) Woe to the penitent who wishes to direct himself: he shall have no one to enlighten or correct him, he will therefore rush into an abyss.
+10. To every one that comes into this world the Holy Ghost says: "Thou art going in the midst of snares." (Eccl. ix. 20.) We all, on this earth, walk in the midst of a thousand snares; that is, in the midst of the temptations of the devil, dangerous occasions, bad companions, and our own passions, which frequently deceive us. Who shall be saved in the midst of so many dangers? The Wise Man says: “He that is aware of the snares shall be secure." (Prov. xi. 15.) They only who avoid these snares shall be saved. How shall we avoid them? If you had to pass by night through a wood full of precipices, without a guide to give you light, and to point out to you the dangerous passages, you would certainly run a great risk of losing your life. You wish to direct yourself: "Take heed, therefore, that the light which is in thee be not darkness." (Luke xi. 45.) The light which you think you possess will be your ruin; it will lead you into a pit.
+11. God wills that, in the way of salvation, we all submit to the guidance of our director. Such has been the practice of even the most learned among the saints. In spiritual things the Lord wishes us to humble ourselves, and to put ourselves under a confessor, who will be our guide. Gerson teaches, that he who neglects the advice of his director, and directs himself, does not require a devil to tempt him: he becomes a devil to himself. ”Qui spreto duce, sibi dux esse vult, non indiget dromone tentante, quia factus est sibi ipse dæmon." (Cons, de Lib. Reg.) And when God sees that he will not obey his minister, he allows him to follow his own caprice. “So I let them go according to the desires of their own hearts." (Ps. lxxx. 13.)
+12. ”It is like the sin of witchcraft to rebel: and like the crime of idolatry to refuse to obey." (1 Kings xv. 23.) In explaining this text, St. Gregory says, that the sin of idolatry consists in abandoning God and adoring an idol. This a penitent does when he disobeys his confessor to do his own will: he refuses to do the will of God, who has spoken to him by means of his minister; he adores the idol of self-will, and does what he pleases. Hence St. John of the Cross says that, "not to follow the advice of our confessor is pride and a want of faith." (Tratt. delle spine, tom, iii., col. 4, 2, n. 8); for it appears to proceed from a want of faith in the Gospel, in which Jesus Christ has said: "He that heareth you, heareth me."
+13. If, then, you wish to save your souls, obey your confessor punctually. Be careful to have a fixed confessor, to whom you will ordinarily make your confession; and avoid going about from one confessor to another. Make choice of a learned priest; and, in the beginning, make to him a general confession, which, as we know by experience, is a great help to a true change of life. After having made choice of a confessor, you should not leave him without a just and manifest cause. ”Every time," says St. Teresa, ”That I resolved to leave my confessor, I felt within me a reproof more painful than that which I received from him."