Spiritual Direction from a Mediocre Homilist

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This is a post about a Spanish Jesuit priest, who, according to his superior, “is a mediocre preacher and hears confessions and is fit for nothing more” (Walsh 123). Now we have to add a caveat: he was a second-generation Jesuit who lived at a time when the Jesuits were the prized order in many areas. He was a contemporary of the likes of St. Peter Canisius, St. Francis Borgia, and Blessed Edmund Campion.

There is not much else written or known about this priest who has seemingly fallen away from history, another forgotten name only known to people who read about that era. He died young, at age thirty-six, and while he enjoyed preaching about Christ, the above quote from his superior indicates that few others liked his homilies. At the tender age of twenty-three, just three years after he professed his vows, this priest was sent to examine the holiness of a nun in her mid-forties who was having extraordinary mystical experiences. When this nun was examined by a few of the local priests, they didn’t seem to fully understand just where these experiences could be coming from. One felt that her favors “belonged to persons very far advanced, and very mortified” (121). There was thought that these experiences, instead of being the fruits of her prayer, were the product of some evil spirits. This assessment was devastating to the nun; the two holiest people she knew suspected her of being duped by the devil. When she pleaded for their help and asked whether she should give up mental prayer altogether, the authorities, convinced of the demonic roots of these experiences, requested she speak to a priest in the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Finally able to arrange a confession and spiritual direction, the nun met the hero of our story: a twenty-three-year-old who, according to himself, had “half his health” (123).

After listening to her general confession and mystical experiences, he told her that she was on the right path and not to fret about being possessed by any demons. Her experiences were rooted in God, but what she needed to do was to renew her mental prayer, not abandon it and turn to mortifications. In this first meeting, this spiritual confirmation and advice became a focal point of the nun’s mission and purpose. Rather than abandon her progress, she became determined to go further. She now had confirmation of the validity of what she was experiencing and was able to deepen her mental prayer without worry that Satan was fooling her. This nun was a little-known mystic; she would later reform her order, forming her own monastery of contemplatives, and produce some of the most important literature and guidance on the devout life. This nun, whose mental prayer would have ended that day if this mediocre priest had advised otherwise, is a Doctor of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila.

While we all know what would follow with Teresa, not much is known about the priest, Fr. Diego de Cetina. He was only her spiritual director for about six months; many other Jesuits would follow in his steps afterward. And that is the point of my reflection. He was not necessarily gifted with great talents (like the 3 Jesuits listed above), but he was devoted to Christ in prayer and was therefore able to communicate with a misunderstood nun. This man, who gave mediocre homilies, served at a major turning point in St. Teresa’s life while he was only twenty-three and just barely ordained. Without his advice and approval, we may never have known of St. Teresa, nor been gifted with her writings and spiritual directions, nor see the reforms she brought about.

He, in many ways, serves as a model for most if not all of us. He lacked great gifts and was not the first man sought for any type of spiritual direction. It almost seemed an afterthought for the authorities to send him to this nun, as though he was the only one available. God, however, had a role for him, and possibly the most important role was to help pave the way for someone else’s talents. In many ways, he echoes those who work tirelessly without worldly recognition for their labor but without whose efforts, churches, orders, businesses, and governments fail. And what about those who, while serving a purpose, never reach any great heights, yet still do the necessary work for others to function? This is discipleship: to serve others and form each other to grow closer with Christ. In a world obsessed with celebrity (which we, too, can get caught up in), it is good to stop and reflect on the “foot soldiers” who ultimately win the battle and sacrifice for the greater good. While we are all destined for “greatness,” we must remember that this greatness does not imply great gifts, nor great notoriety; rather, like Fr. Diego de Cetina shows, it comes with growing closer to Christ and, from this, sharing Him with all we encounter. Maybe then we can pass on the faith to someone who will leave a permanent impact on the world.

Even if we are mediocre at what we do, our deeds, when done in love, can allow His greatness to take charge. As God revealed to Paul through Paul’s own thorns, God’s “power is made perfect in weakness…For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9–10). As a biographer of St. Teresa of Avila mentions, “Yet this same poor Jesuit, humble and self-effacing, was able through his own experience with mental prayer to understand the soul of the great saint who knelt in Confession beside him, and to give her the exact and intelligent direction she had sought in vain from more famous clergymen” (124). We should not grow tired of preaching Christ, nor should we be intimidated by others’ supposed superiority. Rather, we must recognize that we too have been given the gift of faith, and what may seem to be of little to no significance can play a vital role in the conquering of the world by Christ.

Source: William Thomas Walsh, St. Teresa of Avila (Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 1987).

Russell Brewer

Russell Brewer

Russell Brewer received his BA in theology and philosophy and also holds an MA and MTS in Theology from different institutions. He is presently married to the woman of his dreams Rachelle, living in St. Louis with his 5 boys.

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