The goal of a spiritual director is to help you recognize how the Holy Spirit is working in your life. The emphasis is deepening one’s relationship, not with the spiritual director but with God, by developing an active, vital prayer life. While a spiritual director can and should offer advice, you are always free to make your own decisions and choices.
Spiritual direction has been a part of Christianity from its inception. In the Acts of the Apostles, Timothy clearly depends on Paul for advice as he matures in his faith, and St. Philip offered guidance to the Ethiopian (see Acts 8:31). Many of the great saints have benefited from spiritual directors who were themselves often saints. For instance, St. Augustine was as-sisted by St. Ambrose, and St. Jane Frances de Chantal was guided by St. Francis de Sales.
Why Have a Spiritual Director?
If you wanted to become a mountain climber, you could go to a sports store, purchase some equipment, read a book and head out to ascend the nearest slope. However, the odds are pretty good that you would have problems that might easily be avoided if you had consulted someone who had actually climbed mountains. In the same way, a spiritual director is able to give you advice that can assist you through some common pitfalls on the spiritual journey. For instance, he or she might recommend valuable readings, suggest ways of prayer and encourage participation in different devotions — activities you might not ever think of on your own.
While having a spiritual director isn’t a necessity (if it were, the Church would require it), the outside help and advice a spiritual director offers can often help you both deepen and mature your faith much more quickly than if you were doing it all alone.
First and foremost, a spiritual director has to be personally walking the path of holiness. You’ll want to look for someone who exhibits the fruits of the Spirit such as joy, peace and self-control. He or she doesn’t have to be perfect — no one is — but evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit should be evident in his or her speech and actions.
Second, the person you choose should have a spiritual philosophy compatible with your own.
Ask the person what spiritual tradition they follow — for instance, Ignatian, Franciscan, Opus Dei, Dominican, etc. This will give you a good idea of where they place their emphasis and draw their inspiration. Knowing this is important because, to continue the mountain-climbing analogy, if you wanted to climb Mount Everest, you’d do best with a guide from that part of the world. While someone who had climbed the Andes would understand about altitude and climbing, they wouldn’t be familiar with the particular challenges of the Himalayas. In the same way, if your spiritual path tends toward the mystical, you’ll want a guide who understands mysticism. If you are a “worker” type, someone with practical hands-on experience will be better suited to your ideals.
Finally, a spiritual director should be in alignment with the fundamental teachings of the Faith. Without that reassurance, you can never be completely certain that their advice will be in accord with the teachings of the magisterium. Second-guessing your spiritual director’s theology will almost certainly guarantee difficulties.
If all of this sounds rather daunting, remember the words of St. Teresa of Ávila about spiritual directors: “Not one in a thousand is capable.” But that great saint also said, “The Lord will give you a director if you are really humble and desire to meet with the right person.”
Other Important Factors
While a priest can often be a sure-footed spiritual guide, ordination isn’t necessary for successful spiritual direction. Many laypeople are as good, or even better, than many priests. In addition, most priests are so overworked that they often don’t have the time to spend with you that is needed for genuine spiritual growth. St. Catherine of Siena is one example of a layperson who frequently served as a spiritual director, even to the pope. Pope John Paul II’s first spiritual director was a tailor!
If the person you are approaching attempts to control your free will, end the relationship. The same goes for cost. If you are expected to pay for spiritual direction, that should be a warning sign.
Don’t expect your spiritual director to help you with psychological or emotional issues. While those challenges may have a spiritual component and a good spiritual director may be able to help you with that aspect, spiritual direction is not therapy. If you need counseling, find a counselor; don’t expect your spiritual director to fulfill that role.
Don’t limit your director by age or gender. While age can bring wisdom, it doesn’t always. Some young people are both insightful and holy beyond their years. Again, look for evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The same is true for gender. Although some people prefer a spiritual director of their own sex, both men and women can provide sound spiritual direction. St. Teresa of Ávila, for instance, served as a spiritual director for many priests.
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.
All too often, the pressures of daily life tempt us to relegate our faith to church on Sunday. But, as the angel says in the Book of Revelation: “I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (3:15-16). Finding and working with a spiritual director is one way that we can free ourselves from the temptation to become a lukewarm Catholic. With our director’s guidance, assistance and encouragement, we can, in the words of Father James Keegan, S.J., of the editorial review panel of Spiritual Directors International, “awaken to the mystery called God in all of life, and to respond to that discovery in a growing relationship of freedom and commitment.” TCA
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker is a best-selling author and served as editor for many years of Catholic Parent magazine. She writes from Eugene, Ore.
“The virtuous soul that is alone and without a master (a spiritual director) is like a burning coal; it will grow colder rather than hotter.”
— St. John of the Cross
“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?... You think you are really somebody: your studies — your research, your publications, your social position, your name, your political accomplishments — the offices you hold, your wealth, your age ... no longer a child. Precisely because of all of this, you — more than others — need a director for your soul.”
— St. Josemaria Escrivà
“Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home. Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go join up with that chariot.’ Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone instructs me?’ So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him.”
— Acts 8:27-31