Little Văn’s Ideas on Spiritual Direction

Van, his sister, his spiritual director

The letters of Marcel Văn CSsR give insight into his ideas on spiritual direction. Although he himself was not an official spiritual director and was certainly not a confessor, being a lay brother, Little Văn nonetheless was a sort of de facto spiritual guide to those who knew him. He must have engendered trust in those he knew. Or perhaps he just offered ideas, anyway. Or, more likely, both occurred under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Good was probably just happening around him without noise and without agitation. People saw. Stuff happened.

What were Little Văn’s ideas on spiritual direction?

They largely echo themes of Saint John of the Cross.

Here’s a first and common one: Marcel wanted a particular way of life for a friend, he says in a letter dated 18 May 1950 and addressed to his mother, but it didn’t seem to come;

… but I was patient, waiting for God himself to guide her soul, in such a way that she could acquire her own experience; because in basing our guidance on our own ideas and our own existence, it often happens that they are unable to understand, that they are troubled, that they finish by forgetting the whole work.

Like John of the Cross, Marcel says in effect: If you don’t know what you’re doing, close your mouth and open your ears. True, Văn says this in part because he was hurt by those who tried to offer him spiritual direction and forced such direction on him. He’s seen the hurt for himself (and also for his sister). There’s a personal side to Marcel’s reproach. But there’s also a universal truth: you must know, with moral certainty before the throne of God, what is happening before you give direct spiritual advice. This is the first and primary rule of spiritual direction.


The negative reason, which Marcel clearly gives in this letter to his mother, is that you will destroy the edifice already built. You will likely introduce great obstacles, for the spiritual life, while aiming at simplicity, begins from a great deal of angles and with a great deal of baggage. You can topple the edifice already built. You can discourage the sinner earnest in his faith. Don’t risk it. You do not want to cause such serious damage.

But why is it safer not to risk it? Why should spiritual directors speak only when they know what they’re doing? If they are trusting in not speaking, what is that trust founded upon?

Marcel, again following Saint John of the Cross and also Saint Teresa even more closely, gives the clear answer to this question in other letters:

The spiritual director closest to us is Jesus himself present in the tabernacle. (to a friend, 16 July 1950)

Bam! That is why it’s better to keep silence. Jesus is the closest and most intimate spiritual director, and he will work out what’s going on – indeed, it is his providence which has constructed and permitted whatever is going on – and he, the risen Lord dwelling in our hearts and in the nearest tabernacle, will take control and protect his little ones when their directors are lost for words and lost for understanding (and, indeed, when there is no director at all).

So what is the one directed to do? First to listen to the director he can see with his bodily eyes and hear with his bodily ears. But when that one is silent, either for a time or throughout the length of the days, we are to go to the closest director in the tabernacle and ask; and if not at the tabernacle, in our heart, where all three Persons of the Trinity set up their tent, their tabernacle, too.

Although Little Văn calls his spiritual director bearded Jesus, he knows full well that it is only by virtue of Jesus himself that any of this has any meaning. And that is the water into which he throws himself and encourages all his correspondents to throw themselves into, too.

God Chooses Weakness

In today’s readings at Mass in the Latin Rite, we have 1 Corinthians 1:26 and surrounding verses. What does Saint Paul teach us? God chooses weakness. Absolutely. Contemplatives know it, if for no other reason than that they know what it is to receive prayer form God. And that is no strength. It’s a lack. It’s a weakness. It’s a passivity on our part, in our own beginnings of actions, so that we become more active and alive in God’s activity within us. God chooses weakness. Absolutely.

One of my favourite commentaries on this passage is in connection with Marcel Văn and his life and message. In an article, Dominique Joly CSsR writes,

Quel est ton secret, petit Van?At the heart of his fragility, Văn reveals the evangelical force of the beatitudes. He announces the all-powerfulness of love deployed in weakness. In the face of power, Văn announces the “strength” of the little ones. In the face of violence, Văn announces redemptive suffering. In the face of all idols, Văn announces the offering of empty hands. “What is weak in the world, what is without birth… God chose to confound the strong” (in 1 Cor 1).

That’s the Gospel.

To Put in Love and Light

Charles JournetBy work  I take the word ‘work’ in a broad sense  man goes beyond his own individuality; finally, in it, he finds the communication of one spiritual soul with other spiritual souls… Even in the most material tasks that could have been done by a mere animal, his action carries with it his spirituality, to be joined to that of his fellow men…  What is at play is putting into the temporal the love and light of the spiritual.
Charles Cardinal Journet (18911975)

Bitterness Changed into Joy

VanToday a cold north-west wind blows… My heart is exhausted, beats slowly and closes itself… all under the effect of an extreme aridity… My heart was just a leaf in the wind… But when the night comes and I lie on my bed, before closing my eyes, my heart overflows with joy, because a day has been given to me to live to console Jesus. And this joy doesn’t come from the fact that I’ve been given a lot of consolations throughout the day, but uniquely because I met with a lot of bitterness.
Little Brother Marcel Văn CSsR (1928–1959)