The Desirable Indescribable

Only three days after ordination, I was asked to be a spiritual director. The request was not based on my holiness or wisdom, but rather on the fact that there was no one else available to Spanish speakers and the presumption that simply by virtue of ordination I would make a good spiritual director. Despite 10 years of obligatory spiritual direction in seminary, I could not have defined at the time what I meant by spiritual direction, and I doubt that those asking me could have either.

Before entering into a spiritual direction relationship, it is helpful for both parties to discuss what each intends by spiritual direction. Such a conversation may uncover that actually what is needed is marriage counseling, parenting skills, catechetical clarification, or friendship. These are all helpful ministries, but not central to spiritual direction. Thus a frank discussion between a priest and prospective directee may avoid unnecessary misunderstanding, but also open both to a greater appreciation of what the other means when speaking of spiritual direction.

As an aid to other priests, I offer a description of spiritual direction in the next paragraph, followed by an explanation of its four essential attributes  (tripartite, asymmetrical, covenantal and helping) by exploring the story of the Apostle Philip and Ethiopian eunuch.

Spiritual direction is a tripartite, asymmetrical, covenantal relationship between one believer who helps another reflect and respond to his relationship with God. This rather technical description is better explained using Acts 8:26-30 which illustrates just such a relationship.


The Spirit is the active agent in this encounter. The Spirit had already prompted the Ethiopian to journey to Jerusalem, inspired him with Isaiah, and sparked his desire for someone to help him “grasp” his experience of God. Philip, too, obviously acts under the inspiration of the Spirit. Finally, the Spirit who initiated this encounter also ends it by snatching Philip away before the rejoicing Ethiopian.

In spiritual direction, therefore, the director is the Holy Spirit! Focus on God distinguishes this from other helping relationships. Tripartite, therefore, simply means that there are always three persons in this relationship, namely, the Spirit, the directee and the director.

This is not the shared and necessary assumption of other helping relationships. One can receive effective, professional help from a therapist, doctor or professor without such a shared assumption. However, in spiritual direction the relationship is never only bilateral between a professional and a client, but always between and among two Christians consciously guided by the same Spirit.


Both director and directee confess that they are created by the same God, redeemed by the same Savior, and sustained by the same Spirit who takes the initiative to reveal himself to them, and to whom they cannot respond except by the gracious freedom God grants. Therefore, this tripartite relationship is always asymmetrical since, although by God’s own initiative, God is always immanent, always transcendent. In other words, there is no symmetry between the Creator and creatures.

This is exactly what is related in the Acts of the Apostles: the Spirit, initiates, sustains and enables all the action. However, Christians believe that God acts through human agency in an unrepeatable way through the Incarnation, but also through human cooperation. Hence, while it was the Spirit who led Philip to catch up with the chariot, it may have been the sincerity on Philip’s sweaty face, the patience he demonstrated as he jogged in rhythm with the chariot, the careful listening, and the respectful tone with which he questioned that drew the Ethiopian to express his passion and to invite this strange but spirited companion to accompany him on his journey.

When the Eunuch invites Philip to accompany him, listen to him and help him to better grasp his own experience of God, they enter into a relationship of director and directee. This relationship also is asymmetrical. Not only is Philip already a baptized member of the Christian community, he also holds authority as an apostle.

Therefore, while he is accountable to the directee, he is also always accountable to Christ and the Christian community. It is this professional accountability that makes possible the trust necessary between a director and directee.

Since trust is necessary, professional boundaries of confidentiality are essential. Hence, while the asymmetry between director and directee is different in kind rather than only in quality from the asymmetry that exists between them as creatures and God as Creator, nonetheless on a human scale the relationship between director and directee is also asymmetrical.

The director is accountable for this relationship not only in terms of confidentiality and professional boundaries, but also in terms of intent. The intent of the relationship is not mainly friendship (which is symmetrical) or therapy (only bilateral between two humans) or instruction (based on a contract, not a covenant); rather the intent is for the director to lean into the experience the directee has of God in such a way that this posture will help the directee become increasingly sensitive to the movements of the Spirit, more willing to revel in that revelation through reflection, and more confident in his or her ability to respond faithfully to that God movement.


The context of spiritual direction is the Church. It is that context that makes possible the privileging of Scripture for illustration. Any personal experience of God is never private, that is, it is always part of the covenant God made with a people rather than with any lone individual.

Hence, this covenant is an indispensable resource for discerning the experience of any directee. This covenant revealed by God through Scripture and Tradition helps us sift the directee’s subjective experience to discover the nuggets of revelation from the dross of ambiguity.

Just as astronomers deduce through the laws of physics the existence of celestial bodies they cannot directly observe based on what they can detect (e.g., light, radiation, heat), so too we discern through Scripture and Tradition the action of the God we cannot directly observe based on what the directee detects (e.g., consolation and desolation).

Helping Relationship

The intent of this relationship is confirmed at the end of the story. Now it is the Ethiopian who initiates the questions (“What is to prevent my being baptized?”), takes responsibility for his own relationship to God, (by ordering the chariot to halt), and confirms his experience of the Spirit (through Baptism). Finally Philip is whisked away by the Spirit in an act reemphasizing who is the source of this experience and confirming the Ethiopian’s mature faith.

The fruit of a healthy and helpful relationship between and among God, the spiritual director, and the directee is one in which the directee matures toward habitually acting in ways that are free, informed, inflamed and in service. The intent, therefore, of the director is that the directee increasingly depends more on the Spirit and less on the director as the Spirit draws the directee into an ever more full, active and responsible relationship so transformative that it is as if the director is “seen no more.”


Acts illustrates spiritual direction as a tripartite (between and among God, the director, and the directee), asymmetrical (no symmetry between Creator and creatures but professional responsibilities incumbent upon the director), covenant (personal but not private since it is received through the Church), and helpful (demonstrated by the growing spiritual maturity of the directee) relationship. Although the description may seem technical, this unique relationship is powerful.

The castrated Ethiopian had been alone in his religious search. He does not even bear a personal name, only a cultural label: “eunuch.” He is a mutilated, social outcast who has no progeny and no resources of his own though he is steward of a treasure. He is literate, but uninstructed; he begs to understand, and the Spirit is willing.

Through spiritual direction, he comes to appreciate his pain through the Scripture of the suffering servant. Both he and the servant were led against their will to an unkind cut; both suffered consequent humiliation due to this injustice; both have no posterity or anyone who could empathize.

Now baptized, however, this unnamed Ethiopian joins a community and bears the most important name: “Christian.” Now he rejoices in a treasure that is truly his own, his relationship with Christ. And now, like the celibate Apostle Paul, he can father many sons in the faith.

Spiritual direction did not resolve his difficulties, but helped reveal God within those difficulties. Spiritual direction revealed the direction or movement of the Spirit through the relationship of Philip and the Ethiopian which began in a desert of suffering, but ended in those waters that give life.

FATHER DAVIS, O.F.M. Conv., is Associate Director of Spiritual Formation, Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, Hales Corners, Wisconsin.