Sunday, October 6, 2019

What Should Happen, and Not Happen, in Spiritual Direction

A spiritual director can be an incredible help to a man or woman who is working to grow in holiness and knowledge of the spiritual life.  Particularly in critical junctures or moments of trial, spiritual direction can provide important support and guidance to sustain us and help us to not lose our bearings.

Yet it is also the case that spiritual direction can go wrong and actually complicate and compromise the faith of the directee.  Not all who promote themselves as spiritual directors are actually capable of offering good spiritual direction.  

There is no list of "approved" spiritual directors, no accrediting organization, no professional association, and no real accountability process that exists within the Catholic church for those offering spiritual direction.  The most common way that a person connects with a spiritual director outside of a seminary or religious institution of formation is through personal referral or by encountering the director in a parish, retreat, or other pastoral setting.  This referral and encounter system means that the individual seeking direction must be able to discern for themselves whether a given spiritual leader is a competent director and a good fit for them.  And this is where I think we are not providing adequate guidance.  Because it is not always easy to tell whether someone is capable of providing helpful spiritual direction.  

In this brief post I will go over the following considerations:
     - Should I have a Spiritual Director?
     - What Qualities Should I look for in a Spiritual Director?
     - What Should Happen in Spiritual Direction?
     - What Should Not Happen in Spiritual Direction?

Should I have a Spiritual Director?

This is really the first question.  And the answer is that for most Catholic men and women, while they will need spiritual guidance and support throughout life, only a few will need a formal spiritual director, and usually during brief and temporary circumstances.  In a healthy Catholic community there are many sources of spiritual guidance and support that are available throughout life.  Parents, grandparents, spouses, Catholic friends and relatives, parish priests, religious, and other wise and virtuous people are usually more than capable of providing us with the guidance and support that we need throughout life.  The regular life of the parish is meant to provides us with spiritual guidance and support, as we are nourished each week at Mass through the scripture and preaching and the reception of the Eucharist, and as we are given counsel and strength in the Sacrament of Confession.  Retreats and small faith sharing groups can augment these foundations, along with online, radio, and print resources.  Particularly helpful are one on one conversations with trusted relatives and friends of deep faith with whom we can freely discuss what is going on in our lives and receive counsel and support.

These normal ways that we receive spiritual guidance and support from our Catholic community are usually more than adequate in sustaining us in our journey toward holiness.  Yet there are some circumstances where additional guidance makes sense for a lay person in the more formalized setting of spiritual direction for a given period of time.  Normally, such guidance would be sought when navigating circumstances or decisions that would require special expertise and knowledge of the spiritual life.  There is no clear list of such circumstances or decisions, but they could include:
     - Guidance after being received into the Church as an adult (mystagogy).
     - Assistance in the discernment of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.
     - Help in navigating engagement, marriage and family dynamics involving matters of faith.
     - Assistance with questions and crises regarding faith.
     - Spiritual support when employed by the Church.
     - Guidance for those seeking growth in contemplative prayer.
In the above circumstances, the support of regular spiritual direction can be of great assistance.  Meetings with the director should be scheduled at regular intervals (usually monthly), in a pastoral setting, of a determined length, and focused on the particular circumstances the directee is seeking guidance in navigating.  If the reason for spiritual direction involves a personal or family crisis, the spiritual director will often also refer the directee for counseling - individual, marital, or family.  

Generally speaking, the normal mode of growth in holiness and the spiritual life for a Catholic does not involve a formal director - directee relationship; however, there are a number of circumstances where formal spiritual direction can be helpful.  

What Qualities Should I Look for in a Spiritual Director?

As mentioned above, there is no formal qualification for one to offer spiritual direction in the Catholic Church.  This lack of formalized designation of spiritual directors points to the central truth that holiness and pastoral competence cannot be measured on a standardized test.  Even ordination to the priesthood or consecration to religious life does not guarantee that one is suited to provide spiritual direction to others.  

So what should one look for in a spiritual director?  What qualities are necessary in a man or woman in order for them to provide formalized spiritual direction to others?  Again, there is no defined list, but in general a Catholic should look for the following qualities in any spiritual director:
     - Faithfulness in prayer and reception of the sacraments.
     - Maturity and stability of life.  
     - Wisdom and insight about the world, human nature, and social dynamics.
     - Knowledge and full acceptance of the teachings of the Catholic Church.
     - General knowledge of the Catholic mystic and spiritual tradition and great saints. 
     - Experience and understanding of spiritual direction.
     - Basic pastoral counseling and listening skills.
     - A desire for holiness and manner of life that does not contradict Church teaching.

A spiritual director does not need to be a saint, though certainly the saintlier the better!  Neither does the spiritual director need to be an ancient, wise person, though the more wisdom the better.  Spiritual directors can be priests, religious, deacons and lay persons.  Priests are required to do extensive study and engage in pastoral ministry in preparation for ordination.  It is important that any religious or lay persons offering spiritual direction have extensive study in theology and pastoral experience as well.  There are various courses and other kinds of training that sometimes claim to give degrees or certificates in spiritual direction, but these carry little weight with regard to how capable a person is of providing helpful and faithful spiritual direction.  The main thing to seek out is someone who has a thorough knowledge and understanding of the Catholic faith, lives according to it themselves,  and has experience in helping others to live it.

It is not enough for a spiritual director to be holy or devout.  Just because a person is able to walk their own path to Christ well does not mean that they will know how to guide others.  For this reason, I would advise against seeking out a spiritual director who has had very limited experience in working with others in a pastoral or spiritual setting.  Generally for priests and/or religious I think it is a good idea for them to wait a few years after ordination/final profession before directing others.  For lay persons it may be even later in life before they are able to gain the needed theological, spiritual and pastoral experience required to direct others.

In the case where a person is discerning the priesthood or religious life, I would highly recommend a spiritual director who has personal experience of this process of discernment.  Someone discerning the priesthood should find a priest for a spiritual director.  One who is discerning religious life, a religious from the community that they are considering, if possible, and if not, a religious of a different order.  

I would also recommend staying as locally as you can.  There will be less explaining, less assuming, and less confusion if the spiritual director is familiar with the area and culture where you live.  It can be difficult to find capable spiritual directors, but generally a director is more likely to agree if it is clear from the outset that the direction will not be for an indefinite period of time. 

That being said, it is better to drive further than to settle for spiritual direction that is not helpful.  If you are meeting once a month, which is the common practice, a drive of even over an hour may be worth it if you are able to benefit from good spiritual direction.

What Should Happen In Spiritual Direction?

It is important for a person seeking out spiritual direction to have an understanding of what to expect.  While certainly there is a lot of variation among spiritual directors as to how they engage those they are directing, there are also certain standards and practices that anyone seeking formal spiritual direction within the Catholic Church can and should expect.

Initial inquiry.  After referral or encountering a possible spiritual director, the person seeking direction should email or call the public number of the potential director to set up a meeting to discuss their state in life and the possibility of spiritual direction.  In some cases, it may be that the first number of potential directors you reach out to are unwilling or unable to meet, or simply don't return calls or emails.  This may indicate that they are simply disorganized, but it may also indicate that providing spiritual direction is not a particularly important priority.  A busy pastor or religious superior may be difficult to schedule.  It is up to you to discern whether it is worth working around their busy lives.  If they are particularly insightful and prayerful, it might be worth it.  Don't settle.  Wide open availability may not always be a good sign.  Those who are capable are often in high demand.  The main thing is to try to nail down a first meeting.  

First meeting(s).  The first meeting with a potential director is very important.  Meetings should last no more than an hour - maybe an hour and a half at most.  During the initial meeting, one can expect to discuss what is happening in his or her life that has prompted the request for spiritual direction and  expectations for such spiritual direction.  This discussion should happen without any expectation of future meetings, so that both the directee and director can decide together if spiritual direction makes sense.  If both agree that they seem to be able to communicate well and that spiritual direction could be fruitful, rather than set up an indeterminate meeting schedule in the first meeting, such as the first ____ of every ____, I would highly recommend setting a specific number of meetings concluded with an evaluative discussion about next steps.  For example, if a person were seeking out spiritual direction because of a crisis in faith, it would be reasonable to agree to meet monthly for three months and then to evaluate how things were going and if spiritual direction were still needed.  In the case of potential longer-term spiritual direction, such as of a person discerning the priesthood or religious life, it would be wise to agree to meet for a couple months and then to have a discussion as to whether both director and directee were comfortable with how things were going.  It is very important that spiritual direction begin and end naturally and transparently, without the awkwardness of one party or the other wondering what is going on.  A director should be able to communicate with you clearly about his or her expectations and goals in spiritual direction.    

Frequency of meetings.  As mentioned above, a common frequency of spiritual direction meetings would be once a month.  In crisis circumstances, there may be a temptation to meet more frequently, but my contention would be that often in such circumstances what is needed is the addition of counseling, rather than additional spiritual direction.  Monthly is a general guide - it may be three weeks some months, and five others.  It is important that meetings are scheduled and that both director and directee are faithful to meeting times.  The easiest method is to schedule the next meeting time at the end of each meeting.  If progress has been made and both agree that meetings are not needed or possible with as much frequency, a meeting could be set two or even three months distant to check in.  I would make sure, however, that meetings don't just peter out.  If it is determined by both that there is no longer need for formal spiritual direction - for example, after six months of meeting following a directee's entrance into the Church at Easter - it is important that both acknowledge the conclusion of spiritual direction so that no one is left wondering.  I have seen many cases where director or directee misses a scheduled meeting, and then both spend the next year in passing discussions promising to set up another meeting, before letting the arrangement awkwardly fade away.  This is not a good way to end direction.  Far better to have a concluding meeting, say what needs to be said, exchange thank yous and move on without vague expectations hanging over anyone.

Confidentiality and transparency.  The spiritual direction relationship is predicated on the expectation of both transparency and confidentiality.  The most rigorous level of confidentiality in the Church is the seal of the confessional.  The confidentiality of spiritual direction is a close second to the confidentiality of the confessional, as what is shared is considered "internal forum."  The director is expected to keep everything divulged within spiritual direction confidential, although some important qualifications are necessary.  Unlike the confessional, the director can and often should make reference to previous spiritual direction discussions and revelations during subsequent meetings with the directee.  Also unlike the confessional, the spiritual director is not bound to confidentiality with regard to mandatory reporting laws that would involve the abuse of minors or threat of harm to others or to oneself.  Finally, the spiritual director can acknowledge being a particular person's spiritual director, when and where meetings having taken place, and whether he or she has ended the spiritual direction relationship.  Beyond this information, strict confidentiality is expected by the Church of spiritual directors.

Prayerfulness.  The expectation of any spiritual direction relationship in the Church is that it is led by the Holy Spirit and proceeds under his guidance.  It should therefore be the clear expectation of anyone seeking spiritual direction that their meetings begin and end in prayer and are focused primarily on the experiences that the directee has had in prayer.  Prayer is the grist required for the "mill" of spiritual direction.  Without active prayer lives in both the director and directee, there will be no life of the Spirit to discuss in their meetings.  It is therefore critical that one seeking spiritual direction be committed to living an intentional, active prayer life.

Active vs. Passive Spiritual Direction.  Spiritual direction unfolds in various ways and modes, often between the same director and directee, depending on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  There are various traditions of direction and methods that are often associated with particular spiritual traditions and religious orders in the Church.  Some are more formal, others less formal.  Some are more directive, others more responsive.  Among all of these traditions and methods of direction, a good spiritual director will avoid the extremes: either of an overly directive and authoritative approach, or an overly passive and responsive approach.  A wise director will know when to listen and when to speak, when to challenge and when to console, when to clarify and define and when to leave room for mystery and questions.  It is important for the directee to have adequate trust in his or her spiritual director, transparently relating what is going on in his or her life of faith and being open and receptive to the guidance and suggestions offered by their director.  It can be tempting for the directee to try to compromise the role of the director by deciding that he or she is most aware of how what kinds of discussion, steps, or progress should be happening.  Certainly feedback and clear discussion of how things are going is critical, but it is also important for the directee to recognize that spiritual direction is not a relationship of equals.  The spiritual director is sought out because of his or her knowledge of the faith, experience, and prudence in walking the path to holiness.  In choosing a spiritual director, one humbly asks to be led and guided along the path of faith, trusting that the Lord is at work in the guidance offered by a faithful spiritual director.  If a directee cannot trust that the Lord Jesus is at work in guiding them through spiritual direction, it is time to find a new director.

What Should Not Happen In Spiritual Direction?

The aim of this post is to provide those who are seeking or receiving spiritual direction with a basic knowledge of how spiritual direction should and should not happen.  Unfortunately, there are too many in the Church who claim to offer spiritual direction but who are unqualified or unfit to direct others in the spiritual life.  Except in egregious cases, the leadership of the Church rarely makes any public indication regarding the fitness of particular priests, religious, or lay people to offer spiritual direction.  Even when rumors fly, priests or religious in a diocese would be hesitant to criticize the direction being offered by others, given that their knowledge is very limited because of the confidentiality of the relationship.  Furthermore, many dysfunctional modes of spiritual direction do not fall into clear boundary violations or immoral behavior, but instead provide the directee with an impoverished and unhelpful experience that does not help them grow in the spiritual life.  It is therefore very important that those who are seeking spiritual direction or who are in spiritual direction have clear expectations.  

Gossip and worldliness.  One of the great temptations in spiritual direction is for the very limited time of the conversation to be overtaken with gossip and discussion of worldly concerns.  This is especially a danger when the director and directee are overly familiar with one another and share many common relationships and experiences together.  While it is certainly true that the spiritual life cannot and should never be divorced from the practical realities of life, far too often these realities can entirely overshadow the workings of the Holy Spirit.  Particularly when we are feeling dry or distant from God and when our prayer life is weak, there is a great temptation to flee into the comfortable discussions of inter-personal dynamics, politics, and day-to-day concerns.  These areas of life may need to be briefly discussed in order to give context to a fruitful spiritual direction session, but always in reference to where the Lord is at work in our lives, how he is leading us and guiding us, and how we are responding to him.  Far too many spiritual direction sessions descend into gripe sessions or litanies of shared worldly concern, filled with gossip, hearsay, and detraction.  The transparency made possible by the confidential setting can sometimes lead the directee to feel that direction is where he or she can "spill their guts," giving voice to all frustrations, fears, anger, and resentment.  While such venting may occasionally be appropriate and needed in spiritual direction, if it becomes the major, defining part of it, we can be sure that such sessions are not being led by the Spirit.  Both director and directee have a responsibility to ensure that they focus their time together on God's grace at work - yes, sometimes looking at the obstacles - but focusing most intently on the path to holiness that is walked through personal sacrifice and prayer.

Counseling.  Another danger for spiritual direction lies in a confusion between the spiritual life and the mental health of the directee.  The goal of spiritual direction is to know, love, and serve the Lord in this world and the next. The goal of counseling is much more subdued: mental health.  Mental health is required for spiritual direction and can be improved by it, but it is a far cry from holiness of life. While it is certainly true that the spiritual and psychological are intimately connected, the kind of conversation and guidance needed for each is very distinct.  Spiritual direction is inherently relational in its orientation, having to do with the relationship between the directee and the Holy Trinity, the angels and saints, and the people who he or she interacts with each day.  These spiritual relationships and realities relate to and are heavily affected by our mental states, but are far more extensive than mere psychological phenomenon.  For this reason, spiritual direction sessions should not be dominated by the analysis of introspective experience divorced of reference to the transcendent.  It is important to give proper due to our interior states and emotional responses to what is happening around us, but spiritual direction must not remain on this psychological plain forever.  The goal of spiritual direction is not to better understand ourselves, but to better understand God and grow in union with him.  In doing so we will necessarily come to understand ourselves more fully, but this is secondary and a byproduct of the primary focus of the spiritual life: union with Christ.  Director and directee must pour their conversation through the sieve of our Lord's command: "Seek first the kingdom of God."  

Boundary violations.  A spiritual director who does not have the maturity or prudence to adequately direct another within proper boundaries can cause spiritual and emotional confusion and errors in those he or she directs, and in some cases cause spiritual and psychological trauma.  Reviewing appropriate ministerial boundaries in spiritual direction assists a directee to recognize if a spiritual director is acting inappropriately and placing them in compromised or damaging situation.  Common boundary violations in ministerial settings, including spiritual direction, are as follows:
  •  Violations of confidentiality.  A spiritual director is bound to keep the content of each session in confidence and should never reference it outside of the bounds of spiritual direction unless it represents a serious threat to you or to another or involves abuse of a minor.  If your spiritual director publicly references things that you have discussed in direction, positive or negative, they have crossed this boundary and you should find another director.  It is critical that spiritual direction happen in the context of trust, allowing you to work through what is going on in your relationship with God and those around you without concern for where that information may end up.
  • Inappropriate locations and times.  Spiritual direction should generally take place during business hours and in a professional or spiritual space.  Normally meetings should happen in a parish office or some part of a church complex.  Others should be around and, if possible, there should be windows or doors that open into a public space from the room where you meet.  It is not appropriate to meet for spiritual direction in a private home or late in the evening.  Nor is it appropriate to meet for spiritual direction in an informal setting like a restaurant or park.  If you would not meet for counseling in the setting, you should not meet for spiritual direction there either.  
  • Inappropriate personal sharing by a spiritual director.  A spiritual director should never divulge his or her own intimate, personal struggles or issues in the context of spiritual direction, seeking counsel or support from his or her directee.  This is entirely inappropriate.  There may be circumstances when relating previous experiences or difficulties in a general manner can be helpful in providing guidance, but the spiritual director should always be very careful about volunteering personal information.  Is such information necessary or helpful to the directee?  Unfit spiritual directors can sometimes divulge personal information in an effort to establish a sense of vulnerability and trust with the directee, but this is a form of manipulation and places the directee in the very compromised position of feeling that they owe the director a similar vulnerability and trust that they may not be ready to give.  If a spiritual director demonstrates a pattern of disclosing personal information during sessions, he or she is not ready to direct others and it is important to end direction and find someone else.
  • Speaking with inappropriate authority.  It is expected, as I noted above, that a directee will humbly receive the guidance and recommendations of a good and trustworthy spiritual director.  However, the authority of the spiritual director must remain within strict limits.  A spiritual director can never claim to know God's will for certain, or to be speaking on behalf of God.  He or she should never order or require a directee to take a particular course of action.  Examples of this misuse of authority would include ordering a directee to: enter the seminary, enter the convent, get married, not get married, get divorced, not get divorced, kick children out of the home, go avoid a wedding outside of the church, receive communion on the tongue, receive communion in the hand, etc...  A spiritual director should likewise never claim to know for certain who or what is influencing the interior life of his or her directee, or claim to have insight into his or her motives beyond what the directee has indicated.  He or she should refrain from definitive pronouncements and judgements about the character, nature, or future possibilities for a directee.  Any violations of these boundaries by a spiritual director are red flags and should result in ending spiritual direction.
  • Manipulation by the spiritual director.  It is likewise a violation of proper boundaries for a spiritual director to in any way manipulate a directee.  Manipulation within the spiritual direction relationship can sometimes be quite subtle and difficult for a directee to identify.  The directee should become concerned if at any point the relationship begins to feel oppressive, obligated, exclusive, or all-encompassing.  A spiritual director should never use language of personal request, disappointment or gratitude regarding the spiritual life of a directee, for example "Promise me that you will not go there again."  "I must be a horrible spiritual director if you are making so little progress on this."  "I'm so grateful to God that you have come into my life and given me so much consolation!" These are examples of boundary violations that indicate a lack of maturity and prudence in the director.  They result when someone is consciously or unconsciously trying to meet their own needs through their ministry, rendering them unable to serve the needs of the directee.  These can be difficult director/directee relationships to break free of, because manipulation has caused the directee to feel a sense of obligation to the director, who will likely protest and resent any attempt to end direction.  They may also fear that the director could divulge confidential information or injure them in some other way.  If you find yourself in a manipulative spiritual relationship, it is important to seek out a good friend or guide who can help support you and guide you in finding your way out.  It may also be important to report the manipulative behavior to those with pastoral responsibility in the church, since manipulation is often the beginning of more serious forms of abuse.
  •  Physical contact.  It should go without saying, but any intimate physical contact whatsoever in the context of spiritual direction should result in the immediate ending of direction.  In the case of emotional sharing by the directee, this is all the more true.  A weeping or emotional directee is vulnerable and fragile.  The desire to reach out in an embrace or to hold on to someone in this state is natural, but is exactly what a mature and prudent spiritual director realizes they should not do.  It is very easy for such gestures to be misinterpreted or to cause confusion.  What the directee needs in that moment is a compassionate and loving, stable presence with them, reassuring them with clear and healthy boundaries and helping them to turn to God for the healing and consolation they desire.  A hand on the shoulder or sideways hug on the way out the door may be appropriate in some cases, after the point of extreme vulnerability has passed.  But it is never appropriate to for the spiritual director to initiate physical contact in a one on one setting, particularly when the directee is disclosing things that are troubling or embarrassing.  If such contact happens, the directee should immediately let the spiritual director know that the contact is not welcome, should leave, and should consult a local priest or the diocese about whether the incident needs to be reported or not.  


The above reflections are meant to be a guide for those who are seeking spiritual direction in the Catholic Church today, both in terms of what they should expect to happen in spiritual direction and in terms of what they should not expect to happen.  These reflections are drawn from my own personal experience of spiritual direction and my experience as a priest for the last 12 years helping others to find the spiritual support that they need.  Certainly there is much that could be added and probably subtracted too.  I have tried to steer clear of giving my own personal preferences and to instead give the larger, more universal framework that should apply to all spiritual direction offered in the Catholic Church.  I am still learning, as I'm sure is the case for every priest, religious, or lay person who offers spiritual support to others.  We are not perfect, but we trust that our Lord can work through us despite our weakness.

Spiritual direction is a beautiful and fruitful gift that has been lived in the Church from the beginning.  Christ taught us that wherever two or more are gathered in his name he is in our midst.  As followers of Christ, it is critical that we safeguard and teach each generation about the treasure of spiritual direction and encourage and train good and capable spiritual directors.  Please feel free to email or comment if you have any thoughts about where adjustments or additions can be made to the above.  God bless you!

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