The Terrifying Gift

It was good to read Sister Lou Ella Hickman’s piece in this issue (Pages 22-24), because even though spiritual direction, as she notes, is an ancient gift and practice of the Church, it is not much talked about.

Often people have no idea what to think of “spiritual direction.” The very phrase prompts questions of us, interiorly, some of which amply demonstrate how much we may be in need of it.

Speaking for myself, every time I have been urged to “seek out a spiritual director” I’ve experienced an interior wince. The suggestion has always had the immediate effect of jangling the rusty pipes of my psyche, bringing forth an unstoppable gusher of old bugaboos, including a basic fear of intimacy that I suspect some readers may recognize.

While there is no denying that our relativistic culture has lost much of its sense of what is sinful — as popes have said in succession these past decades — it has nevertheless long been my contention that putting aside confessionals for face-to-face encounters at reconciliation has rendered the sacrament inaccessible for people who have intimacy issues and who are not at all comfortable disclosing their sins while someone’s eyes are on them. For example, I know people who simply will not go to confession unless they have a screen and a secure sense of privacy in which to do so, and I don’t judge them for it, because I had such issues once.

I have always known that there was nothing I could tell a priest that he had not heard before, but when the choice of a screened, anonymous confession was unavailable to me, I would still blanch at having to make my confession in a way that is so visual and visible — where I was not only seen, but could also see all the small, nonverbal tics and reactions of my confessor (who may not have realized that he rolled his eyes or seemed bored, disgusted or amused), all of which would throw me off. I’d see a facial expression that might have meant nothing more than the fact that my priest was hungry, and my thought process would churn up further insecurities about myself, my words and his judgments.

My face-to-face confessions were rarely thorough, because I would become so distracted by my surroundings (“there is a box of tissues, there; does he make people cry?”) that I would hurry things along, just to get it done with.

And this was why, for much of my life, I resisted the suggestion to find a spiritual director. If a simple confession could be so fraught with peril for me, how terrified might regular meetings with someone — perhaps not even a priest! — make me feel about being seen, and about being known? I had resisted for years.

That changed last May, when I treated myself to a five-day retreat that emphasized Eucharistic Adoration. Fully spent, physically, emotionally and spiritually, I had entered the retreat vowing to do whatever I was told while there. I would eat what was put before me, read what was given me and simply let the Holy Spirit lead. Because God has a sense of humor, this ultimately meant I would make a three-and-a-half-hour general confession, face-to-face with a priest who had never done one before.

We were both flying blind, but in that long encounter I found myself able to dredge up painful episodes of my past in which I had failed, or where others had failed me, and the examination led to the confession of sins I had either forgotten about or failed to see properly as the sins they were.

The gentle, open exchange of thoughts, the spontaneous reminder of a scriptural passage, or a saint’s observations — part and parcel of good, Holy Spirit-led spiritual direction — finally led me to a place of real healing. Two hours or so into discussing faults and injuries I had held on to and nurtured for twenty-some years, I could literally feel their weight leave my chest, replaced by a new lightness that I recognized as grace.

It was a face-to-face moment with the miraculous, re-creative love of Christ, and fear had no place, there. Amen.

Elizabeth Scalia is a Benedictine Oblate, and the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she also blogs as The Anchoress. She is also a weekly columnist at First Things and a regular panelist on the the Brooklyn-diocese-produced current events program, In the Arena, seen at NETNY.net. Contact Elizabeth at theanchoress@gmail.com.