St. Gregory the Great writes that a spiritual father should be both gentle and meek.
If reproving a person who unintentionally sins, this is especially true. If a person is filled with malice and has sinned willfully, it’s a different story. But if a person has sinned out of “ignorance or infirmity,” then the priest is duty-bound to be gentle in offering correction.
St. Gregory describes the importance of gentleness at length:
Some things, however, ought to be gently reproved: for, when fault is committed, not of malice, but only from ignorance or infirmity, it is certainly necessary that the very censure of it be tempered with great moderation. For it is true that all of us, so long as we subsist in this mortal flesh, are subject to the infirmities of our corruption. Every one, therefore, ought to gather from himself how it behooves him to pity another’s weakness, lest, if he be too fervently hurried to words of reprehension against a neighbour’s infirmity, he should seem to be forgetful of his own. Whence Paul admonishes well, when he says, “If a man be overtaken in any fault, you which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering yourself, lest you also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1); as if to say plainly, When what you see of the infirmity of another displeases you, consider what you are; that so the spirit may moderate itself in the zeal of reprehension, while for itself also it fears what it reprehends.1
Later in the same work, St. Gregory explains the spiritual dangers involved if a spiritual father is hasty to offer harsh correction:
And for the most part it happens that, when the faults of subordinates are reprehended with severe invective, the tongue of the master is betrayed into excess of language. And, when rebuke is immoderately hot, the hearts of the delinquents are depressed to despair. Wherefore it is necessary for the exasperated ruler, when he considers that he has wounded more than he should have done the feelings of his subordinates, to have recourse in his own mind to penitence, so as by lamentations to obtain pardon in the sight of the Truth; and even for this cause, that it is through the ardour of his zeal for it that he sins.
This is what the Lord in a figure enjoins through Moses, saying, “If a man go in simplicity of heart with his friend into the wood to hew wood, and the wood of the axe fly from his hand, and the iron slip from the handle and smite his friend and slay him, he shall flee unto one of the aforesaid cities and live; lest haply the next of kin to him whose blood has been shed, while his heart is hot, pursue him, and overtake him, and smite him mortally” (Deut. 19:4–5).
For indeed we go with a friend into the wood as often as we betake ourselves to look into the delinquencies of subordinates. And we hew wood in simplicity of heart, when with pious intention we cut off the vices of delinquents. But the axe flies from the hand, when rebuke is drawn on to asperity more than need requires. And the iron leaps from the handle, when out of reproof issues speech too hard. And he smites and slays his friend, because over-strained contumely cuts him off from the spirit of love. For the mind of one who is reproved suddenly breaks out into hatred, if immoderate reproof charges it beyond its due. But he who smites wood incautiously and destroys his neighbour must needs fly to three cities, that in one of them he may live protected; since if, betaking himself to the laments of penitence, he is hidden under hope and charity in sacramental unity, he is not held guilty of the perpetrated homicide.2
His words are striking. When a spiritual father is overzealous with reproof, many dangers arise:
- The hearts of his spiritual children may be driven to depression, despair, and even hatred.
- By unnecessarily wounding the feelings of his spiritual children, the spiritual father has sinned, and now himself must show penitence and seek pardon.
- By being needlessly harsh, “he smites and slays his friend,” “destroys his neighbour,” and has perpetrated a spiritual “homicide.”
- By behaving thus toward his spiritual child, the erring spiritual father “cuts him off from the spirit of love.”
These are serious dangers, and they are not to be taken lightly.
A doctor’s scalpel has the power to save, but it also has the power to kill—so it is with the reproof of a spiritual father. If administered with wisdom, reproof can help bring spiritual children to both repentance and healing. But if reproof is administered too harshly—and without proper care—it can cause damage that is potentially irreparable.
Indeed, there are times when the surgeon needs to use the scalpel, cutting away cancer, performing drastic, invasive surgery so that a patient’s life may be saved. And according to St. Gregory, there are times when it is appropriate for a spiritual father to speak even harshly to his children, so they might be roused from slumber, freed from the jaws of death. And because of the dangers involved, such occasions should be identified with care. In most cases, a spiritual father should exhaust every form of gentle reproof first before reaching for their scalpel. A faithful spiritual father will turn to reproof, but only when absolutely necessary.
St. Gregory’s work on pastoral care been a standard text for well over a thousand years, and I highly recommend it for all readers.
For bishops, priests, and deacons, it outlines time-tested principles for providing spiritual direction in a way that is beneficial to everyone involved. And for laymen who are currently seeking a spiritual father, this book provides helpful guidelines. Either way, St. Gregory has much to offer.