It strikes me as funny that we Americans often take a “do it yourself” attitude to spiritual development. By contrast, we are willing to pay vast sums of money to small armies of consultants, advisors, and coaches.
When Cathy and I remodeled our home, we hired professionals to hang the cabinets, update the wiring and connect the plumbing. (Safety pro tip: Never – EVER – enter a building where I have personally done any of the wiring or plumbing.)
When we remodeled, we were concentrating on the interior of our house — taking what we already had and improving it. We wanted a more functional space and a more comfortable life. I guess you could say that we wanted our house to be more of what we knew it could be.
It would be a mistake to reduce the work of a spiritual director to a mere remodeling of the soul, but there are some useful similarities. As St. Josemaria Escriva said, “You wouldn’t think of building a good house to live in here on earth without an architect. How can you ever hope, without a director, to build the castle of your sanctification in order to live forever in heaven?”
William A. Barry, SJ, clarifies a bit in his book The Practice of Spiritual Direction when he notes that spiritual direction is “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person 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.”
The work of a spiritual director is done in a series of private meetings between the individual seeking direction (sometimes called a “directee”) and the the director. An article on the OSV website explains the process this way:
Since the goal of spiritual direction is to deepen your connection and commitment to Our Lord, sessions are always deeply personal. In general, you will meet with your spiritual director on a regular basis, be it weekly or monthly, but not less frequently than every two months. In your session, you will talk about your desires and struggles in the spiritual life — not confessing sin per se, unless your spiritual director also happens to be your confessor — and trends and tendencies in such areas as prayer and self-control. Your director will make suggestions for reading or devotional exercises, and help you find answers to your spiritual questions. Often you will end the session by praying together.
A spiritual director is a guide to interior growth and renewal, not counselor or therapist. The discussions center on the relationship between the directee and God. The Ignatian Spirituality website lays out four key points about spiritual direction:
Spiritual direction focuses on religious experience. It is concerned with a person’s actual experience of a relationship with God.
Spiritual direction is about a relationship. The religious experience is not isolated, nor does it consist of extraordinary events. It is what happens in an ongoing relationship between the person and God. Most often this is a relationship that is experienced in prayer.
Spiritual direction is a relationship that is going somewhere. God is leading the person to deeper faith and more generous service. The spiritual director asks not just “what is happening?” but “what is moving forward?””
The real spiritual director is God. God touches the human heart directly. The human spiritual director does not “direct” in the sense of giving advice and solving problems. Rather, the director helps a person respond to God’s invitation to a deeper relationship.
All seminarians — in fact all religious — are required to have a spiritual director. All of the Paulist Novices and Students have one. As do all sisters, brothers, priests and deacons. Interestingly, while all religious are obliged to have a spiritual director, spiritual directors themselves are not obliged to be religious. In fact, Saint Pope John Paul II’s first spiritual director was a tailor by the name of Jan Tyranowski.
More importantly, anyone can have a spiritual director. Anyone who is seeking to improve their relationship with God, to better carry out the mission of their Baptismal call, or to deepen their spirituality can engage the assistance of a spiritual director. Fr. John C. McCloskey reminds us:
During his pontificate, Benedict XVI several times urged faithful Catholics who desired to pursue holiness and grow closer to God to make use of a spiritual director: “We always need a guide, dialogue, to go to the Lord. . . .We cannot do it with our reflections alone. And this is also the meaning of the ecclesiality of our faith, of finding this guide.” By this means, he explained, we can avoid being limited by our own subjectivist interpretations of God and what he might be calling us to do, as well as benefiting from our guide’s “own supply of knowledge and experiences in following Jesus.”
If you are interested in finding a spiritual director, a good place to start is with your parish priest. Not that he would necessarily become your director, but he probably knows you well enough to steer you in the right director and he should be familiar with the resources available in your parish and your diocese. Once you’ve identified a director, you’ll begin to meet with them to pray and discuss. You may have a defined “trial” period to see if the relationship is a good fit for both of you. You will certainly be introduced to new readings and (possibly) new devotions.
Along the way — if you are open — God will be speaking to you and helping you grow to become more of what He knew you could be.