Have you ever wanted to get into better shape? Perhaps you’ve always dreamed of hiking the West Coast Trail or cycling the Icefields Parkway. Or maybe you just want to enjoy the improved health and psychological benefits that come with increased physical fitness. Even if you’re in reasonable shape, the bottom line is that the more ambitious your goal, the more likely it is that you’ll need to step up your training a notch. You might hook up with a personal trainer to assess your overall fitness level and diet – to help put together a plan for success. Or maybe you’ll decide to sign up for a class with like-minded people, enjoying the camaraderie that comes from shared goals and aspirations. If funds are tight, you might even decide to just invest in a new pair of runners.
But have you ever taken the time to consider what kind of spiritual shape you’re in? Do you think it’s also important to have goals in your faith life? Maybe you’re primarily interested in experiencing the peace and joy that comes from a closer relationship with Our Lord. Or perhaps you’ve always dreamed about what it will be like when you get to heaven. But have you seriously considered what you need to do to actually get there?
We all need a plan …
It’s easy to become complacent – to wander through life without making any kind of a concrete plan. It’s easy to think that – somehow or another – eternity will just take care of itself. Even when we know we need to change, it’s easy to put it off. I’m reminded of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind who, faced with the departure of her husband, Rhett, still didn’t see the need for change. “I’ll think of it all tomorrow,” she said. “I can stand it then. … After all, tomorrow is another day.”1 But tomorrow doesn’t always come.
We spend hours at the gym working up a sweat, but we don’t always set aside time to nourish our spiritual health. We worry about how we look to others, but we don’t think about how we look to God – the One who looks not on our outward appearance, but on our heart (cf. 1 Sam 16:7). We might carefully weigh and measure what we put in our bodies, but we don’t stop to consider what we are feeding our souls. Even if we’re interested in growing spiritually, many of us don’t know where to start.
That’s where spiritual direction – a time-honoured tradition within the Catholic Church – can be a big help. A lot of us have heard about spiritual direction, but we may have some misconceptions about it. We mix it up with psychological or pastoral counselling. Some assume that ‘spiritual conversation’ or sympathetic listening is the same thing. But though spiritual direction has certain things in common with these activities, there are important, fundamental differences.
What is spiritual direction?
Fr. William A. Barry, SJ defines Christian spiritual direction as “help given by one believer to another that enables the latter to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”2 In human friendships, it’s through conversation and time spent together that we get to know one another and come to understand each other on a deeper, more intimate level. In a similar way, when we spend time with God – when we talk to Him in prayer – we have the opportunity to discover what He is asking of us. While spiritual direction helps us be attentive to God’s voice and discern what He is asking us, we are the ones who decide how we will respond – who determine what place friendship with God will have in our lives.
What happens in spiritual direction?
Spiritual direction is a three-way conversation that takes place between yourself, your spiritual director, and the Holy Spirit. Through meditative reflection and attentive listening, we seek to discover the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the circumstances of our daily lives – to discern whether our inspirations are leading us towards God, or away from Him. Meeting with a spiritual director doesn’t mean that we have given up personal responsibility for our spiritual life, nor does it mean that we have given someone else the authority to tell us what we should do or how we should act. The role of spiritual directors is simply to help us become aware of those underlying spiritual movements within ourselves – to help us discern who is behind them: whether they come from God, from ourselves, or from Satan.
Once we have prayerfully discerned these movements, we can decide whose ‘voice’ we want to listen to. Though spiritual direction is meant to lead us to a deeper faith and a desire to give of ourselves more generously in God’s service, God respects our freedom. It’s up to us whether we will say “yes” to His invitation.
Who gives spiritual direction?
Spiritual direction was once considered the domain of priests and religious. But today, more and more lay people are being trained as spiritual directors. As Pope Francis pointed out, “ ‘Spiritual direction is not a charism exclusive to priests. It’s a charism of the laity.’ The pope said he was reading a book on obedience by St. Silouan of Mount Athos, who was a carpenter. ‘He wasn’t even a deacon, but he was a great spiritual director.’ ”3
Does spiritual direction have a connection with the Sacrament of Reconciliation?
Although spiritual direction can flow into the Sacrament of Reconciliation (when the spiritual director is also a priest), Pope Francis was careful to distinguish between the two practices. “A spiritual director is one thing and a confessor is another. I go to a confessor, say what my sins are, feel condemned, then he forgives everything and I go forward. But with a spiritual director, I have to talk about what is in my heart. The examination of conscience isn’t the same for confession and for spiritual direction,’ he said. ‘For confession, I have to look at where I was lacking, where I lost patience, if I was greedy — that kind of thing, those concrete things that are sinful. But in spiritual direction, I must examine what is happening in my heart, where the Spirit is moving, if I felt desolation or consolation, if I am tired, why I am sad: These are things to talk about with the man or woman who is my spiritual director.’ ”4
What distinguishes spiritual direction from counselling?
Spiritual direction also differs from counselling in several important aspects. The goal of spiritual direction is not to solve problems, but to deepen our relationship with God. In counselling, insight and healing take place through the relationship and dialogue between the counsellor and client. In spiritual direction, insight and healing occur primarily through the relationship and dialogue between God and the directee. While it is true that in counselling we may be aware of God’s presence in the background, it is not brought into the session in a conscious way. In spiritual direction, however, God’s presence is the reason to be there: we foster a contemplative attitude in which we notice, savour, relive, and enter into the experience of God. In counselling we reflect upon (and talk about) feelings and issues, trying to make connections between the two. But in spiritual direction, we are helped to share our feelings with God and be attentive to God’s presence; we share from our feelings and from our heart; it’s not only about feelings.5 Check out this link, Comparison of Helping Relationships, for more information on the purpose and methodology of different helping relationships.6
Is spiritual direction for you?
Spiritual directors are “interested in what happens when people become aware of the presence of God. … The focus of interest is the directee’s experience of God or of something that points to God.”7 Their role is not to teach or to counsel, but to simply help a person respond to God’s invitation to a deeper relationship. While it’s true that a spiritual director may help point us in the right direction, the real Spiritual Director is God himself. “The ministering person helps the other to address God directly and to listen to what God has to communicate. The focus … is the relationship itself between God and the person. The person is helped not so much to understand that relationship better, but to engage in it, to enter into dialogue with God. Spiritual direction … focuses on what happens when a person listens to and responds to a self-communicating God.”8
If you are interested in spiritual direction, there are several questions you might want to consider. For example, are you a Christian who is committed to your faith? Do you have a strong desire to know and be more closely united with God? Are you prepared to make a commitment to setting aside a period of time for daily prayer? If you answered “yes” to all these questions, consider speaking to your pastor to ask whether he might be able to recommend a good director for you.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (London, England: Pan Books, 1974), 1011.
2 William A. Barry & William J. Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, 2nd ed., rev. (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 8.
3 Cindy Wooden, “Church needs women’s voices, input, experiences, pope tells religious,” National Catholic Reporter (May 18, 2015); available from http://ncronline.org/blogs/francis-chronicles/church-needs-womens-voices-input-experiences-pope-tells-religious; Internet; accessed 27 October 2015.
5 Cf. Maureen Conroy, RSM, Growing in Love and Freedom (Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1987).
6 See http://www.sdiworld.org/comparison-helping-relationships.
7 Barry & Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, 9.
8 Ibid., 7.