An excerpt from a memoir of Dom John Chapman, Order of Saint Benedictine, Abbot of Downside Abbey, by Dom Roger Hudleston, O.S.B., in the paperback, “Spiritual Letters”, first published 1934, current pubs., 2003 and 2004 by Burns & Oates, London, New York:

“A good Director, he held, must be a nurse, no more. He should confine himself to the task of teaching his penitent how to walk alone and unaided. That done, he should be ready to retire into the background; only emerging on rare occasions when unusual circumstances or some particular crisis called for his attention. Directors of this kind would be of no danger to simplicity or humility, while an over dogmatic or too eager Director, giving unsuitable or unnecessary advice with relish and impressiveness, would harm both his penitent and himself.”

First published in 1935, the timeless spirituality of these letters are straightforward expressions of a committed truth seeker impatient of religious cant and “stupidity”, steeped in “omnivorous” scholastic reading and analysis.

As a notable Church establishment figure, Dom Chapman’s knowledge of and acceptance of mysticism is a surprising discovery.


  1. “Spiritual teachers” cannot ‘teach’ mysticism. They can only guide you along the path.

    A Buddhist monk said to his Zen master, “I am confused. Yesterday you told me the path I should follow and today you told another monk a different way. Which is correct?”

    His teacher replied, “Some people veer off the path to the left and I tell them ‘move right.’ Others stray to the right and I say ‘move left.’ Students don’t always follow the same way to enlightenment.”


  2. Yes, I think this is a very important lesson for those on the spiritual way, that what we hear said by a “director” or guru doesn’t axiomatically apply to everyone or anyone else. The Mystical Experience of Reality is essentially about individual awakening, not any collective human development, in my experience.

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  3. I read several of Cardinal Hume’s books a few years ago and they gave me much pleasure. He had been Abbot of Ampleforth and was much liked there. The Rules of St Benedict also make for good reading. Or so I found.

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  4. The trouble with religious teachers is their feet seem encased in the clay of their manmade religious mythologies to which they constantly refer, thus disqualifying the very reason for the existence of what they’re extolling …

    Nevertheless a Jesuit spiritual director did wistfully express to me an envy for the experiences of the mystics. “I am just a priest doing my duty” he said. This moved me sadly for years. I hadn’t and didn’t tell him of my MERs and was conscious stricken for a long time for not at least trying to help. Then recently when still thinking about him I was moved by the familiar quietness that reassured me by saying in effect: “He hadn’t realised then how close he was becoming.”


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