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!

16 thoughts on “How to Choose the Right Spiritual Guide

  1. “On the other hand there are those who challenge us to think for ourselves and help us to take responsibility for our own lives.”

    Hi there. I’m currently studying pastoral counselling, and I think what you describe here defines the discipline (or at least what it should be) better than any textbook ever can. Looking at it from the other side, it’s incredibly hard to be this kind of guide. Being an expert is easy by comparison, which is probably why so many people (including many counsellors) just become experts instead.

    • I agree so very much with you here! In some ways, trying to “solve” things for people is often easier for both the ‘solver’ and the recipient. It’s tempting therefore for both parties.

      It is a truly special person that can take the harder journey to the so much more worthwhile end of giving someone the confidence from within themselves. It is, I believe, an all too rare gift.

      To me it’s about a combination of risk and trust. Gandalf, like all who have this gift, risks friendships and failure (that most scary of risks), but his trust and faith win through. Sometimes having trust in someone that they can overcome a situation themselves, and showing that trust, alongside compassion, steadfastness and fellowship, is worth more than words.

      • I think that is why, as our relationship to God deepens and matures, that we are not rescued in the way that we were in the early days. God intends us to find the way forward within ourselves and it can take years before that happens. But God never abandons us, walking with us as a friend, sharing our weakness but holding us in his unending love until that day comes.

      • But is it really a gift? I’d rather say it is a choice, born out of calling. To continue with the Middle Earth analogy, Gandalf and Saruman were both sent to help the peoples of Middle Earth. But Saruman (considering also our host’s comment further down) chose to focus on power and the difference between him and Gandalf rather than on the people he was sent to serve.

        Another aspect is what one is exposed to. The Silmarillion tells us Gandalf himself had a “spritual guide” (Nienna) who taught him pity and patience. Perhaps if Saruman also had a guide like that he would have turned out differently.

        Likewise, many of us (in fact, I’d argue, all of us) are called by God to be guides to one another. Some of us choose to ignore that calling. Some of us choose to become fixers, because we truly believe that’s what we’re supposed to be, what the world needs. And the few who do become true guides only do so because that’s what was modelled to them by someone else in the first place, and having someone like that, I think, is the true gift.

  2. Thank you so much for dropping by to leave your first comment on my blog. I think in my early years as a pastor I had a passion (not all bad) for getting folk sorted out.I felt it was my God given duty. I hope that I am now more ready to trust God.
    Gandalf is prepared to risk friendships in his passion to wake people up. Denethor hates him & so did Theoden until Gandalf broke Wormtongue’s hold over him. But he always gives them freedom to make their own choices. He knows that dependent slaves cannot truly resist evil.

  3. Point well made. About half way through, my eyebrows were drawing together (something that happens when I concentrate or think hard) because I was trying to reconcile the fact that we really DO need the power of God, and that “without him we can do nothing of any significance” with your picture of Saruman and Gandalf. But then, I came to realize that you were speaking about human teachers and spiritual leaders, and it all began to make sense. Since all humans are fallen, we have to remember that even the best spiritual guide may be wrong, but that warning sign… that desire for superiority, and the assumption of such, is a big warning sign! A teacher who does not want to teach us to not need him is not a teacher we should want to have…

    I wonder, some, how Saruman came to the state we find him in in LotR. It’s said that he was not always so, but the journey is not traced. Perhaps it shouldn’t be traced. Yet, still, I wonder! Gollum’s original peril is one I share, the desire to see and understand roots and beginnings… not a bad thing, perhaps, in itself, but perilous.

    • In “Unfinished Tales” p.349 we read that “Saruman soon became jealous of Gandalf, and this rivalry turned at last to a hatred, the deeper for being concealed, and the more bitter in that Saruman knew in his heart that the Grey Wanderer had the greater strength, and the greater influence upon the dwellers in Middle-earth, even though he hid his power and desired neither fear nor reverence.” We are not told when this happened but we can imagine that it took place over some time and that as Saruman jealousy grew so too did his entrenchment in Isengard, his growing reliance on the tools that he made and his plots to make himself a power. My own guess also, is that when his use of the Palantir brought him into the orbit of Sauron, the Dark Lord soon perceived Saruman’s desire for the Ring and his hatred of Gandalf and was able to twist both to his own purposes. Sauron understood lust being possessed by it himself. He could never understand the desire for freedom unaccompanied by the desire to subjugate others so Gandalf was beyond him and and as Saruman fell into Sauron’s grip Gandalf became beyond Saruman also. That is why I believe that we need spiritual guides who seek our freedom above all things even at cost to themselves.

  4. “My own guess also, is that when his use of the Palantir brought him into the orbit of Sauron, the Dark Lord soon perceived Saruman’s desire for the Ring and his hatred of Gandalf and was able to twist both to his own purposes.” I think so, too. Some of the despair that was used to destroy Denethor was used, too, as I think Saruman came to believe that Sauron could not be defeated by the power of the free peoples.

    • Isn’t that temptation to despair so pernicious? And we seem so prone to despair at the present time. The 7th century teacher of the faith, John Climacus taught that repentance, metanoia, that great ‘turning round’ of the mind and heart in faith to God is “the daughter of hope; the renunciation of despair”. In many ways I believe “The Lord of the Rings” to be a story of this greatest renunciation.

      • As a recovering cynic, I can’t help but agree. I find that, seeing the world, my only alternative to faith is despair. Some might say that makes God my “crutch,” but that is, I think, because they haven’t taken a deep, honest look at the world they live in and followed the implications of atheism home. Either that, or they have found some way not to care.
        I wouldn’t be able to have hope in God if I didn’t truly believe that He is true, if He didn’t make sense, but I am glad that I do believe, because otherwise I would be out to destroy either myself, or the rest of the world. …in a way, that brings me a lot closer to Saruman and Denethor than I like. I understand that despair. But unlike them, I’ve managed to let myself be rescued from it.

        I see an understanding of that despair in Tolkien, too. The eucatastrophe can only exist in the face of despair, and against all foreseeable odds.

      • “The eucatastrophe can only exist in the face of despair.” What a wonderful statement! I was in two separate conversations with two different people today in which that conviction was the place we reached. Let’s hang on in there!

  5. Reblogged this on Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings and commented:

    On Monday I want to write about Saruman’s tragic end and as I began to think about it realised that I had touched upon the main themes in a post that I wrote over three years ago that I am reblogging here. It didn’t get many readers the first time round so I hope that it will get many more this time. The main thing that I seek to achieve here is to contrast Saruman and Gandalf. When you do read it I hope that you will let me know if I have succeeded in getting them right.

  6. I think Saruman also tries hard to bring out individual characters. So, if they both do, what is the difference? Doesn’t Gandalf work to bring out a world, in the old northern sense, a whole, a whirl, a well, that speaks a body as a middle earth, whereas Saruman seeks to bring out a line, a thought, an arrow, a clear sight, that cuts through a world to end it and bring light? Ironically, Gandalf is also Odin, Gangleri, the walker, whereas Saruman is the one who stays and distrusts the vision that is walking, which is presence. Saruman is not present in the whole that is the well of voice but is its echo, the voice that is already cut off when spoken. The other word for that is death. He is dead already and keeping himself magically alive through drawing on the energy of others, taking things in, whereas Gandalf is alive because he goes out to others. His walking is his important characteristic? Notably, the ents do both.

    • Thank you so much for leaving your first comment on this blog, Harold. As you know, I have been reading, admiring and trying in a stumbling kind of a way to practice what I have read in your blog for a while now.
      In a way it is your description of Gandalf as the walker, the one who goes out to others, or the other, that I feel myself drawn to in your work. You are also a walker, usually in the Okanagan, and your seeing, participating, speaking, writing are all done at walking pace. Even as I wrote those words, three motorcycles rushed past my open window along the Roman road that runs past my home. It is a summer weekend and so rushing as fast as possible feeling the wind on their faces will be normal practice. I blame the Romans who constructed the road to transport salt from my local town. If they could have done it faster than by cart they surely would.
      I am chilled by your words about Saruman, “he is dead already and keeping himself magically alive”. That feels like a description of so much of modernity. I can hear Blake saying this about Newton and the Romantics at their best see “the world” in much the same way. Saruman’s end seems to reveal the truth of this insight.

  7. Years ago, I read one Jewish admirer comment that Gandalf was his rabbi and the LOTR was his Torah. You can’t go wrong with learning from all the richness within the Red Book. Love the comment linking the wisdom of St. John Climacus with LOTR – so true!

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

    • Thank you for sending me back to the comments on this post to be enriched by them once more. I needed to check the quote from St John Climacus. The renunciation of despair is surely the foundation of all true life. And as we get older and are increasingly burdened by human failure (not least our own!) we need to practice this renunciation daily. From Melkor onwards the unhappy rebellion is surely driven by despair and an unwillingness to trust God. And, of course, despair and pride are close companions as are trust and humility also.
      God bless you Anne Marie 😊

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