On Counseling the Doubtful

The King of the Golden Hall


The dangers of false counsel (Source)

Théoden dwells in doubt. “Dark have been my dreams of late,” he declares, and demurs his declaration to Gandalf because he fears “that already you have come too late.” The state of doubt is one of hesitation or fear between two options or outcomes. To doubt evokes uncertainty and hesitation, an anxiety about roads that lie ahead. As Théoden describes, “Alas, that these evil days should be mine.”

Counsel counters doubt, and the second spiritual work of mercy calls upon Christians to counsel the doubtful. Counselors have long been a staple of human society, and whether in the halls of kings, behind the doors of schools, or in the offices of sprawling cities, they perform a timeless service: offering advice to the troubled. The burden of action never falls upon the one who counsels: that remains with the one in doubt. Instead, the counselor seeks to offer wisdom and encouragement to the leader, student, or individual to choose the better path. Whether one depends on Ignatian discernment, extensive experience, or meticulous research to offer counsel, nevertheless the object is clear: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life” (Dt 30:19).

The problem depends on the nature of the advice, for both true and wicked counsel exist. Wormtongue and Gandalf stand in clear contrast to each other. Whereas Wormtongue brings gloom and hopelessness into the Golden Hall, Gandalf distinguishes that, “No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you.” Whereas Wormtongue’s words burden the body and darken the mind, when Gandalf speaks, “the light shone brighter in Théoden’s eye, and at the last he rose from his seat to his full height.” Whereas Wormtounge’s self-serving counsel contends against common sense and the common good, Gandalf’s wide-reaching counsel encourages human action and friendship: as Gandalf notes to Théoden on his counsel, “You have yourself already taken it.” The challenge for the one burdened with doubt comes in the discernment between right and wrong counsel.

The act of counseling the doubtful is not an easy mercy, for the path to wisdom is arduous, and many do not complete its journey. The Catholic Church, for example, has long argued that extensive counseling of the doubtful requires intensive training and clear authority, lest people fall under the spells of the Sarumans in the world today. With doubts about the construction of a home one would seek the counsel of an architect; with doubts about the maintenance of one’s health one would seek the counsel of a doctor. So too when one has doubts about the matters of morality, the features of faith, or the very things of life itself, one should seek an expert who invokes trust, clarity, and magnanimity.

Yet these times seem as evil as Rohan’s, and many of our dreams have been as dark as Théoden’s. While the primary service of counsel rests upon the Gandalfs of the world, nevertheless we must still harken to the act of mercy. In our homes, in our communities, amongst those we love, we must offer what wisdom we have. More importantly, to counsel the doubtful is to transform despair into hope. In times of uncertainty, let us open the doors of our halls and breathe in the fresh air so that all who trust in us might, like Théoden, say, “It is not so dark here.”

2015’s Reflection: “On Halls, Horsemen, and Horns


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