How to Choose the Right Spiritual Guide

Two weeks ago I wrote about Saruman and Gandalf as the spiritual guides of our day trying to show how Saruman had come to put his trust in the exercise of power through things that are made for indeed the thing he desired most was the Ring, the ultimate expression of power and Sauron’s greatest work. If our spirituality is a description of that which we desire most and that which we make the ground of our being then Saruman and those like him are indeed spiritual guides.

Saruman sees all reality as an expression either of power or weakness. Only that which enables the expression of power has any validity. And those he considers weaker than he is only have validity in so far as they may further his own ends. The problem for him as we have seen is that his estimate of strength and weakness is desperately flawed. He has no respect for hobbits or for Rohan and until this point of the story he has not even considered the Ents of Fangorn forest. This tendency to ignore that which he has no use for is the cause of his downfall.

“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?” he screams in fury when Théoden rejects his offer of peace.

In other words Saruman is a spiritual guide who seeks to convince us that we need his power and that without him we can do nothing of any significance. It is a guidance that seeks to convince us that we are not worth very much. It is a guidance that plays upon our lack of self-worth and our sense of unworthiness. It is a guidance that works with the Dunlendings who are his allies in the war against Rohan. The Dunlendings, near neighbours of Rohan, have long nursed a sense of grievance against the Rohirrim and grievance is another fuel that spiritual guides like Saruman use.

Gandalf plays no such games. Often his friends express their conviction that they can do no nothing without him but he does nothing to encourage them in that belief. He is the pilgrim who has spent long years journeying from place to place among the free peoples of the Middle-earth seeking to help those who live there find courage within themselves to resist evil that they might not believe even exists. He does this with Frodo, helping him find the courage to take the journey to Rivendell bearing the Ring. He does this with Théoden, helping him to emerge from his inner darkness and confront the danger that threatens his people. If Saruman seeks to make others dependent upon him, Gandalf seeks to help others find strength within themselves.

We would do well to consider our own spiritual guides and make the right choice of them. On one hand there are the experts, the gurus, who “know” what we need and who “know” that we need them. They believe in their own expertise and also our weakness and our need of them. Such a culture of the “expert” shapes a certain kind of education and a certain kind of religion. On the other hand there are those who challenge us to think for ourselves and help us to take responsibility for our own lives. They do not try to hide the price that we will have to pay if we do seek to live the responsible life but they also demonstrate that the truly responsible life is also the truly joyous life and that the truly joyous life is also the truly responsible life.  And this life is the life that is truly free!