One of the most difficult forms of loving is the often-necessary practice of admonishment. This is, admittedly, a difficult and unfamiliar word; but it often comes up in spiritual literature as a necessary form of correction of the individual learner. For it often happens that someone, without realizing it, is doing something in a wrong way.
In the usual fields of learning, this is a welcome thing. When, for instance, I was learning to golf, I welcomed the teacher’s corrections and suggestions since I was a learner and happy to be so. Even a professional athlete will be happy to receive a correction of their mechanics so that they can perform better. Obviously, this requires a good dose of humility. If one pretends to know it all, they will never improve since they don’t think they need to.
When this same type of situation is brought into the spiritual realm, we find many of the same dynamics.
The experience of the Holy, the interior perception of God within us and in the outward experiences of life, is one of the most moving and delightful situations that we can ever be in. One who has been ‘there’ can feel that he or she has ‘arrived’ and that no further progress is necessary. In such an unfortunate person, the great engine of humility is shut down and they languish, immobile in the unreal world of pride and arrogance. The suggestion to someone in this state that they are only beginning the journey is profoundly demoralizing. The devil can make great use of someone in this dead-end of the spiritual life.
The great mystics and saints of the Church, in contrast, were painfully aware of how far they had to go and welcomed advice, counsel, and even correction (especially correction!) so that they could come closer to the “Summum Bonum” (God, the Highest Good). Admonishment and correction are positive things for the truly humble person who embodies the psalm, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the stalwart one who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:9).
Often in dealing with spiritual directees or others that, as Pastor, I have some spiritual responsibility for, I can see what they are fighting (though they cannot) and I know what they are doing wrong. I sometimes know what they can do to correct this impasse of the Spirit, but they are so closed to the Truth and so fragile that they cannot bear the words of admonishment and correction. They take things personally and get all bent out of shape since they think they have arrived when they have just embarked on the journey to God. This derives from a lack of humility. Truly great people, accomplished in their field of endeavor, are always eager to find out what they are doing wrong. If someone suggests a factor that they have not seen yet, they are thankful and try it to see if there is any truth in the suggestion. True greatness is based on humility and this helps to develop a person’s character.
Unfortunately, I have encountered too many people who, while just beginning their journey to the Lord, bristle at anything negative that I say about what they are doing or not doing. They think my words are unfair and uncalled for when I am just trying to help them see what is clearly a mistaken attitude or action. It is lamentable since a word that they may judge to be ‘negative’, which I use to help them grow and be better at what they are doing, could, in actuality, be very positive. This fragility has terrible consequences: “Let a righteous person strike me; it is mercy if he reproves me” says Psalm 141.
Of course, I have to apply the same standard of humility to myself. It is entirely possible that I am wrong about correcting someone! I have to proceed with care and not manifest a doctrinaire, know-it-all attitude that can only distance the person I am trying to help all the more.
If correction comes from a humble, loving heart, then it can have tremendous and life-giving results. Furthermore, when it is received with humility and an honest desire to improve one’s life, it can be a truly win-win situation.