My spiritual director, Father John King, S.J., died June 13, 2008 while I was in Lebanon. He suffered from a brain tumor that took him in two months. I visited him in the hospital and finally in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University. Two weeks before he died, during my last visit to him, I asked if his right hand still worked: “Are there any more blessings and pardon to be found there?” I placed his hand on my head; he smiled and thanked me “for being there” for him. John’s death was one more opportunity to “review my life”, as he would say each time he would give me absolution.
Beyond that of my parents, family and friends; along with the Ministry of Peter and the Church’s spiritual heritage; spiritual direction is the most defining influence in my life. All during my seminary, priesthood and service as bishop, I have seen my spiritual director on a consistent basis each month. Wise priests were my confessors and confidants. I hid nothing from them and in each session I was challenged, comforted, advised and by the grace of God, absolved of my sins.
“Spiritual direction is not necessary for the ordinary Christian. But where there is a special mission or vocation a certain minimum of direction is implied by the very nature of the vocation itself.” These are the thoughts of Father Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, in his superb little book Spiritual Direction and Meditation. For those called to priesthood or religious life, spiritual direction is essential, but I would add it is also essential for those who want to be more accountable, more honest with themselves, more generous with God and others, and more at peace with God and themselves. It may “not be necessary for the ordinary Christian,” but anyone who loves God and desires to do His will can benefit from this ancient discipline.
The idea of spiritual direction is a monastic idea; it began with the desert fathers and continues in the Church as a spiritual form of mentoring. It is not a magic pill to make all discernment easy, but rather an important element to be joined to a life of prayer, devotion, liturgy, and friendship. Its main goal is to help one discern and live the will of God as generously as possible. Father Merton writes that if spiritual direction is to be genuine it requires a “normal and spontaneous human relationship.” (Page 19) Likewise, spiritual direction assumes freedom and generous trust on the part of both the director and the directee.
Father Merton defines spiritual direction as “a continuous process of formation and guidance, in which a Christian is led and encouraged in his special vocation, so that by faithful correspondence to the graces of the Holy Spirit he may attain to the particular end of his vocation and to union with God.” (Page 13)
A spiritual director is not a figure of authority that one is obliged to obey. Nor does he take the place of our superiors. The virtue to be exercised in spiritual direction is not obedience, but rather docility. The person seeking direction ought to see his director as a spiritual father and as a special gift from Christ to guide and assist him.
The director does not have to be an expert. Some people waste their time and make excuses because the “right director” has not yet appeared. Good spiritual directors do not have to be experts, because most of the help one receives from spiritual direction comes through God’s grace and one’s own efforts at being honest with himself and his director.
Again, Father Merton: “some who lament the fact that they cannot find a director actually have all the opportunities for direction they really need, but they are not pleased with the available director because he does not flatter their self-esteem or cater to their illusions about themselves.”(Page 30) It takes courage to face oneself in the presence of another person. But this is needed to advance in the spiritual life.
In an attempt to encourage me to be more honest with myself, one of my spiritual directors once told me, “there is only one difference between you and me; I have been in the woods longer than you searching for my own way.” This was quite helpful, and it is true. The true spiritual director of every soul is the Holy Spirit, who “guides us in all truth.” (John 16:13) Yet since we believe that grace builds on nature, we know that divine assistance needs human effort. As Father Merton writes: “we are encouraged to develop our natural simplicity, sincerity and forthright spiritual honesty.” (Page 6) Spiritual direction, more than anything else, except annual silent retreats, and close personal friends, helps us to “be ourselves,” that is, the person God created us to be.
Spiritual direction is not psychological counseling. Counseling is at times needed for matters that go deep into our personal history. Such matters would be our experience of the authority of our parents growing up; personal traumas and/or difficulties we have faced; hurts, losses or disappointments that are hard to heal within us. Those who seek spiritual direction may also need counseling at one time or another.
The purpose of spiritual direction is the same as the purpose for personal prayer and liturgy: to develop within ourselves a more generous and free union with Christ and a lively eagerness to do the will of the Father.
Below are some different scenarios that a spiritual director may face. By reflecting on each scenario from the point of view of the spiritual director, but also from the point of view of the one seeking direction, we will better understand how we may receive and give spiritual direction.
Someone calls to ask for spiritual direction, he/she was referred to you.
First, ask a few questions, such as what exactly is this person looking for? Do they know what spiritual direction entails? Why were they referred to me? Do I have the time to give an hour a month to this person? Can I commit myself?
A trained and qualified spiritual director, who is busy with his/her own personal commitments, should not accept more than 8 directees. They should be selected by one simple criterion: can I be helpful to them? We ought to discern carefully and prayerfully before saying yes. It may be good to have a variety of directees (i.e., not all women or men or priests or religious). Once we say yes, we should commit to that person by prayer and availability.
Someone who has been with you in spiritual direction for one year says that he/she may want to find someone new.
This may be the result of something on the side of the director or that of the directee. It is a cause for discernment for both. It may simply be that it is not a good fit. Nonetheless, the director must leave the directee free for this decision. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the directee to pursue his/her own spiritual health and well being.
Someone comes to talk about “spiritual dryness” in prayer.
The director should be careful not to make a hasty analysis. It is good to listen. Spiritual direction is about helping one respond to God’s movement in the soul. There may be obstacles to sensing this movement. Such obstacles can be discerned by direction, a retreat, some counseling, or by time set aside for leisure and prayer. The topic of discussion for spiritual direction ought to be the prayer life of the directee, that is, how, when, why, what helps, and what hinders prayer. This is the “stuff” of the conversations of spiritual direction.
Someone comes to talk about visions or locutions he/she has been having.
“I prefer the monotony of sacrifice to the ecstasy of spiritual experience,” said Saint Theresa the “Little Flower.” This reminds us that the little acts of love and sacrifice are a great benefit to the soul. Locutions, visions, etc. must be discerned prayerfully. However, attention should be paid to the prayer life, personal morality and developing virtues of the directee, rather than focusing too much on those matters.
Someone who has been in spiritual direction with you for two years says that his/her prayer is leading him/her out of a traditional vocation.
This is cause for special attention and discernment. This discernment should be made over a year of retreats, monthly spiritual direction and counseling (if needed). The spiritual director is important in guiding this process, but not in making the decisions for the directee. The process may take many different turns along the way. The spiritual director may need to confide in another person trained in spiritual direction to be sure he is giving the best possible guidance. Likewise, the directee must take every precaution against self deception, which is easy to fall into and hard to detect by oneself.
Someone comes to you asking help to discern a call to a religious, priestly or diaconal vocation.
If a person comes seeking this help, a spiritual director ought to give this his top priority. As mentioned above, he ought to guide the process, make recommendations and help the directee to hear God’s voice through this process but not make the decision. The spiritual director may have his own preconceived ideas of what the directee should do, but it is so very important to listen and encourage the directee to be as generous as possible with whatever God is asking.
Someone with whom you have entered into a spiritual director relationship asks if he/she could see you more often, even socially if possible.
This crosses emotional boundaries, and should not be done unless the directee finds another director. Only then is it prudent to develop a spiritual friendship. The spiritual director must be the one to protect the boundaries. He is always father, never a peer. The relationship should not be one in which the director benefits from the directee in any way other than the spiritual satisfaction of knowing he is of some help to the directee. Spiritual direction should be a free gift offered and a free gift received without strings attached.
Someone who has come to you during the past year for spiritual direction talks only about work, relationships, problems he/she faces, or dryness, and little about prayer.
As mentioned above, prayer is the “stuff” of the conversation between director and directee. Perhaps a discernment of the usefulness of spiritual direction should be made if very little time is devoted to talking about prayer. Perhaps counseling, retreat work, better family or work relationships, new friendships or something else can be suggested to the directee. The spiritual director should ask himself and the directee why so little talk about prayer.
Someone with whom you have entered into spiritual direction for two years complains about too much or too little direction.
Direction is more an art than a science. Too much advice is not good. Too little is not good. The art of direction is very much a gift of the Holy Spirit and is a gift that ought to be eagerly sought by both director and directee. Beginning every session with a prayer to the Holy Spirit is a good discipline. The director ought to always be improving his art. This can be done by talking to other directors or by some continuing education in the art of spiritual direction.
The spiritual director finds himself attracted to a certain person who comes for spiritual direction.
This is natural, but one must always remain alert. Spiritual direction is one of the most intimate of experiences. The director himself, and no one else, is always responsible for the boundaries – especially emotional boundaries. If the director feels something is inappropriate on the part of the directee he should say so clearly to help the directee go deeper in the issue.
The spiritual director himself ought to be aware of his own flirting or suggestive talk and should have the courage to look at himself soberly. If he needs help, he should ask his own spiritual director. No one should be doing spiritual director for others if he does not frequent every month his own spiritual director. He may have to terminate the arrangement of serving as this person’s spiritual director if he cannot serve that person well or if his own weaknesses get in the way.
Someone comes asking for help in deciding what to do in a marital situation that has gone bad.
It is difficult to counsel one side of a marriage, but unfortunately it is hard to get both sides to agree to see someone together. Spiritual direction in itself is always helpful; it may also be so for a spouse whose marriage is in need of help. Nonetheless, marital counseling may also be needed to compliment this. A good spiritual director knows how and when to guide a person in seeking a good counselor, a retreat, time away for prayer, or some other spiritual discipline that may be helpful.
A friend comes to you asking help in discerning a vocational/personal crisis.
Friends are a special gift. There is naturally much spiritual direction that takes place in good friendships. Nonetheless, in this case, spiritual direction per se should be temporary and always with the suggestion that finding a spiritual director that is removed from the friendship side of things, is a better option.
From this brief reflection on spiritual direction one can see that it is different from counseling, although there may be elements of this at times. It is also different from occasional advice given here and there. Spiritual direction is a consistent monthly relationship of support for the directee and is an art in itself. Spiritual direction is different from occasional or frequent confession. A priest spiritual director may choose to hear the confession of the directee if asked, but if the directee wants to discuss this in spiritual direction, he must give explicit permission for the spiritual director to do so. The seal of confession must never be violated.
Discussions between a spiritual director and directee must always remain confidential. This should be understood by both director and directee from the very beginning. Good spiritual directors have learned the art of keeping confidences.
Spiritual direction is a special grace for both the one receiving and the one giving. The lived experience of those who have benefited from direction and those who serve as spiritual directors confirms this truth. The art of spiritual direction is much like prayer; it can only be learned by doing. Nonetheless, there is no substitute for reading and educating ourselves on this important matter. It is my hope that this brief introduction will serve to encourage us to do just that.
Bishop Gregory John Mansour,
Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn,
(Reprinted with permission.)