In order that your solitude may not appall you and that you may dwell the more safely in your cell three guardians have been assigned to you: God, your conscience, and your spiritual father. To God you owe devotion and the entire gift of self; to your conscience the respect which will make you ashamed to sin in its presence; to your spiritual father the obedience of charity and recourse in everything.
William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1971), pp. 45-46.
This section of William’s Golden Epistle concerns advice to novice monks. It has to do with three guardians to which a novice is entrusted as he enters his cell. Those of us who do not share a monastic vocation may nonetheless profit from these three guardians, each of whom is given a distinct, authoritative role.
It should be noted that to God alone belongs “devotion and the entire gift of self.” Nevertheless, our conscience is our guide in everything, and we should be ashamed to consent to sin in its presence. Also needed is the wisdom and guidance of a spiritual elder to whom we owe obedience and to whom we are turn for counsel in every necessity.
There are other voices that we need to hear and heed: (1) the Scriptures and traditions of the Church, some more venerable and authoritative than others; (2) every brother and sister God gives us, especially poor and marginalized persons whom God loves with a preferential love; (3) bishops and others holding office in the Church, and the various structures that order our common life for the common good. But none of these, important as they are, can stand in the place of God, to whom belongs the entire gift of self.
There is a circle here. We seldom or never hear the voice of God in an unmediated fashion. We ordinarily recognize the voice of God through conscience. And that conscience is formed by the counsel of experienced elders, in dialogue with each other in community, and by authoritative documents and persons that represent, however imperfectly, apostolic authority and tradition. And yet, sometimes the very voice of God that we discern will cause us to challenge on or more of these lesser authorities—but without ever escaping the circle.