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In the meantime a spiritual director must know him- or herself

· Women’s voices ·

“Prudence for a spiritual director is above all knowing how to listen and when to speak, but it is self-knowledge even more: if we do not know ourselves and thus cannot be honest with ourselves, how can we know and direct someone else?”. For Sr Gemma Simmonds – lecturer in Dogmatic Theology at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge, President Emeritus of the Catholic Theological Association of England, Director of the Institute for Consecrated Life of Great Britain, and above all formator of future spiritual directors – prudence is a very personal subject, indispensable in the practice of discernment, a central element both of her teaching and of the charism of the Congregatio Iesu, the Ignatian congregation to which she belongs. “A prudent spiritual director”, Sr Gemma resumes, is in contact with his or her own needs and vulnerabilities, and is attentive to them before being attentive to those of others. This is why I recommend to my students that they be merciful and listen untiringly to the people of God. “If you are in doubt”, she reminds them and reminds me myself, “pray, and a part of this prayer must be to ask yourselves how you are feeling and where your thoughts are coming from, Then look at Jesus and ask him how he responded in similar situations. Asking him to be our guide is indispensable for every prudent spiritual director”. “A prudent person”, she continues, is the one who sees first, who looks beyond contingent things with hope and with courage. For which reason the virtue of prudence is not fear, circumspection or being frightened of deciding, but rather the opposite: that is, an attentive interpretation of the present time, reflection and discernment to act well. I try to communicate this to my students. Moreover, discernment is not something which can be taught as an abstract subject. It must be connected to real contexts. I teach what St Ignatius himself taught and practised on discernment, but I then make my students reflect on their real lives: how they took a decision in a given situation; what factors contributed to that decision. Prudence, I tell them, is weighing up the various elements of a situation and finding a balance between moral theory and the living context”. It is a practice that puts at stake one’s critical capacity and one’s heart. “Undoubtedly it is not easy to be prudent. Pope Francis encourages us always to consider the rules and guidelines within the framework of the pastoral situations. St Ignatius, in the Jesuit Constitutions, often gives clear and detailed orders, but he then adds: “Or according to the people and places”. He presumes that his followers must find a prudent balance between the norms and the requirements of the real situation, which might not be the same as the one he had foreseen when he wrote the Constitutions. And he also speaks of the “law of love written in the heart”. This does not mean that the law of the Church lacks importance but, as the Gospel says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. “People often ask me if a female specific exists in spiritual formation. And also if I am always diffident in saying “women do this”; in general I have found that men like solving problems, in the sense that they listen, but often with only one ear, because their minds are involved in finding a solution. Women instead like to speak of problems because they claim that talking about them brings relief, and they let the solution emerge slowly. Perhaps, therefore, a special female gift in spiritual formation might be that of listening attentively without feeling the need to impose an external solution immediately. This is a natural prudence which is certainly a gift of the Spirit.

Elisa Storace




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 22, 2019