The Catholic Thing
Help Wanted: Spiritual Direction Print E-mail
By Father C. John McCloskey   
Thursday, 20 February 2014

The only question truly worth asking is that of the rich young man of the Gospel: “What must I do to gain eternal life?” This question naturally leads to others, such as “How can I achieve holiness in this life?” or “What is God’s will for me?” God answers these questions for us in many ways.

Simply following the Ten Commandments is a good start, as Jesus himself advised the rich young man. We can also look to God’s Revelation to us through Sacred Scripture and Tradition – the guidance of the Church through its teaching authority and sacraments. We can then consider our present state in life and our past life experiences for good clues as to what God wants for us in any present moment.

Beyond these useful strategies, however, the best way for Catholics to find trustworthy answers to the crucial questions is to have a spiritual director. As Saint Josemaria Escriva put it, “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?” This is true for everybody, whether simple or uneducated, or complacently successful.

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.”

Each person is a unique child of God with a particular genetic code, temperament, and set of life experiences. God has a specific plan for each. To discern this plan should be the continuing goal of any serious Christian. As God normally prefers to work through secondary causes, right from apostolic times the practice arose of seeking personal spiritual direction from a wise and prudent person who could guide one along the path to holiness with all its twists and turns. Although there have been canonized saints who did not receive regular spiritual direction, the norm for the great majority throughout history has been: regular spiritual direction.

          Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hoffmann (c. 1889)

How then do you go about finding a spiritual director? One very simple method is to ask friends who clearly take their interior and apostolic life seriously for a referral. A second way is to look for someone, whether a priest or a lay person, exemplifying deep piety, wisdom, experience, maturity, zeal for souls, and unquestionable faithfulness to the Church’s teaching.

He or she need not have formal training in spiritual direction. The traits listed above more than make up for class hours or a degree. After all, Karol Wojtyla’s first spiritual director was a tailor – a very holy and insightful tailor! Then try to get your choice to free up some time for you. I guarantee he or she has a long line of clients.

Some Catholics choose to take advantage of the formation provided for lay people by religious congregations and by the various lay institutes that are dedicated to the formation of lay people. There you may find a well-defined spirituality complete with formational and liturgical activities, both personal and collective, tailor-made to your particular situation.

We Catholics now number more than 1.2 billion, but too many of us, as Thomas Merton described himself in The Seven Storey Mountain, have “slipped into the ranks of tepid and dull and sluggish, indifferent Christians who live a life that is still half animal, and who barely put up a struggle to keep the breath of grace alive in their souls.” Merton’s response was: “I should have sought constant and complete spiritual direction.”

Such spiritual direction is an important step in conforming our lives to Christ so that we can help construct through our prayer and sacrifice that “civilization of love and truth” foreseen by John Paul II in the decades ahead. It is also a means of preparing us for the joyful sharing of the gospel that Pope Francis exhorts us to. 

In the centuries ahead we are likely to see a great number of lay people canonized by the Church. These will be lay people who have cooperated with God’s graces to grow in holiness, without (unlike most examples of lay holiness up to this point) necessarily ending their lives as martyrs. One of the best ways for you to be numbered among them is to seek regular spiritual direction.

Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Research Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.
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Comments (16)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, February 20, 2014
Simply Fantastic Article Thx Fr
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, February 20, 2014
Well done, as usual, Father.

It could be helpful for dioceses to set up centers for spiritual direction, offer informational material on their websites about the value of spiritual direction and how to go about choosing a director, and organizing conferences about same. This would be helpful for someone like myself who will be relocating to the Northern Virginia area in the coming months and will be seeking a spiritual director in that locale.
written by Mack Hall, HSG, February 20, 2014
You mean that Oprah and Phil aren't enough?
written by Sue, February 20, 2014
My parish bulletin lists several "spiritual directors" (lay) who have ticked all the checks and dinged all the bells of diocesan certification, but who I believe to be oriented in the negative direction. I feel sorry for those who, impelled by a blind need for spiritual direction, fall into their hands. Let the directee beware.
written by grump, February 20, 2014
Every time I read this old bromide, "God has a plan for you..." it gives me pause. I say to myself, "well, how do I discern that and how does that square with free will?" I mean, if He has a plan for me it would be nice to get the blueprints and go to work. Otherwise, I don't have a clue.

You say find a "spiritual director" by either asking for a reference or, most liberally interpreted, looking up "piety" in the Yellow Pages. How are we to know if a person, be he lay or priest, exemplifies "deep piety, wisdom, experience, maturity, zeal for souls, and unquestionable faithfulness to the Church’s teaching"?

A quote from Emerson comes to mind: "What goes on around you... compares little with what goes on inside you." Can we know what is inside the heart of a person? Many leave double lives, even priests, as we have sadly come to learn.

I do not mean to be flippant but didn't Jesus say that the Holy Spirit would be our ONLY guide while He was away? That He would send a "Comforter," as I recall.

If there is one on earth who has helped me most to get back to my Catholic roots it has been Bishop Sheen, whose telecasts and tapes I regularly watch. In my view, Sheen projected sincerity like no other person, his brilliant eyes reflecting the love of Christ, his humility always on display. I have yet to meet a priest like him since he died in 1979. Thank God for celluloid film and EWTN. I've read and re-read his autobiography, "Treasure in Clay," and always feel refreshed and hopeful after absorbing his wisdom, deep faith and, yes, humor. Sheen was funnier than Milton Berle. The world could use a lot more humor these days. The Church and its spokesmen seem much too solemn these days and that's why I appreciate Pope Francis, his gaffes notwithstanding, for his spontaneous gift of making jokes, usually at himself.

As for "simply following the Ten Commandments," good luck with that. Is there anyone who ever could? I'm still "working out my salvation," as Paul suggested, and until a better spiritual guru comes along, Bishop Sheen will have to do. Meanwhile, paging the Holy Spirit.

written by Robert Royal, February 20, 2014
Sue - and others - be sure to click on today's "Notable."
written by debby, February 20, 2014
Both this and the Notable today are much needed. I think it was St. Faustina (but maybe it was Theresa of Avila or Catherine of Sienna)who said she made a great deal more progress in her spiritual life when she was under direction. Since both Robert & Sue are correct (as usual!), great care should be taken. And as much as St. Francis de Sales is to be trusted, someone like me might not ever settle on a SD if all the qualities listed were not met to MY understanding. So here is my humble and simple solution that has carried me: Consecrate yourself to our Lady and ask Her to provide you with a Spiritual Director, and then Trust Her to bring the people into your life that you in particular need at that very moment in time....It is quite remarkable how looking in the rear-view mirror what was once puzzling darkness is obviously "God At Work".
Otherwise, I would venture to guess that in wanting the Perfect SD, many would forgo any at all and lose ground in the long run.
Hey Grump,
God has a plan for your life! (ha-ha, just had to...) AND you have FREE WILL to respond to His beautiful plan: the revealing of His infinite love for you and His desire for you to be united to Him. That's it. That's His PLAN for Your Life (and mine, and Jack, and Layman Tom, and Aramis, Athenesus, and Sue, and Louise, and Manfred, etc, la la la laaa). It's not like some Protestant preachers make out: as if it's a crazy mystery that you have to figure out--if you possibly can--and if you don't, well, Too Bad, Bud, you blew it! Nope. Real Simple. God loves you. You. He wants you. He made the way for you to know Him (the Church is the Sure Guide here). Now and Forever. He opened His heart and invites you in. So now what? You, with your Free Will say either "No" or "Yes. Today I want to deny myself, my plan, my will, my way, pick up my cross, (whatever it is You lay before me today: annoying people, annoying bills, annoying self) and follow You. Respond to life as You did, with acceptance and abandoning love. Today maybe it's the Garden of Gethsemane for me, (I know somewhere it WILL BE the Garden of Eden because I have that choice everyday) or maybe today it will be asking to be healed of my deafness or blindness, maybe today I will be hungry and need to be fed, or maybe today will be a wonderfully fun Wedding at Cana or Transfiguration or Resurrection day. How ever You choose to reveal Your love for me today, I accept it, with all my heart, mind & strength. I will follow You."
And then tomorrow, with your Free Will, you do the same thing. And before you know it Grump, you are working out your salvation, you are being conformed in His image, you are growing in grace and virtue. You are becoming all He created you to be. You will be adorable! We will have to change your NAME - like the companion Gospel for today's reading - Simon becomes Peter! (of course he promptly screws up! LOVE that! it takes some time.) i love you, Grump. Can't wait to hug you on the other side!
written by DeGaulle, February 20, 2014
Good post, grump. Bishop Sheen would be hard to top, I would think.
written by Dave, February 20, 2014
There's an old saying that when the pupil is ready, the teacher appears. Fr. McCloskey's two indications are really good, and time-proven. To them I would add that a person seeking a director should pray to the Holy Spirit, asking that one be sent. That is to say, as we ask and consult with friends, we ask and consult with our soul's greatest Friend, the Paraclete. God will provide.
written by Gina Nakagawa, February 20, 2014
I have searched for a number of years for a spiritual director. It has been to no avail. No priest seems to want to act as an adviser to a woman, not that I can blame them. Please pray for me that God send me guide for my soul.
written by Chris, February 20, 2014
I have been Catholic for 4 years now and have had 4 different spiritual directors, for a total of about 10 meetings. All good and holy priests, but what their Bishops ask of them ultimately has led to their inability to meet and few and far between communication.

All if my pastors have told me that spiritual direction is a must, refer me out to one of their trusted colleagues, but it just doesn't become a regular thing.

I pray for a good director, modeling my desires off of the lives of Saints I've read (Therese of Lisieux, Faustina) so that I may flower in the spiritual life. But when it comes down to it it's the Trinity and the Saints who've lead me and helped me progress forward. I'd like to be able to rely on a good director but with being young and traveling for work Jesus has to be the one to take me forward, illuminating my mind and inspiring my will, if anyone outside of me is going to speak into my spiritual life outside of the Sacraments and Church Tradition.

My direction has been more mystical, which is a huge grace in the first place. If only I could build a good enough relationship with a director to share my spiritual life then I'd be more confident. Are there any stories of a Saint who relied on another Saint for spiritual direction?
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, February 21, 2014
Chris and Gina: Perhaps if you indicate the general area where you live, someone among the large number of people who frequent this site might be able to give you the name of a person who could direct you in the faith.
written by Eric, February 21, 2014
Interesting if you look up Benedict's catechesis on Symeon the New Theologian: actually mostly says the opposite of the way it is summarized in this article. He does say at the end that the "counsel" of a spiritual "father" is helpful. But one should be careful about quoting popes out of context and then claiming that they say exactly what your institute wishes they would have said. Opus Dei likes spiritual direction. But Pope Benedict was not in Opus Dei.

Similarly, it just isn't true that most saints have had spiritual directors. (Can anyone name John Paul's -- I mean, other than the leader of the group he was in in college? Therese is explicit that she did not have a spiritual director.) It is a very common practice after the rise of the Jesuits, but not before. According to Benedict's summary of Symeon (a) he made most progress without a director, (b) the "father" he alludes to was his religious superior, not what we mean by a director, and (c) when he died he was, apparently, not replaced.

I'm not saying a "spiritual father" isn't helpful. I have one! Just saying that there are some exaggerations that I think are unhelpful. It is not "indispensable." It is helpful.
written by Deb, February 21, 2014
Upon my conversion seven years ago, I wanted to find a Spiritual Director. Priests are taken up with each other and seminarians. Religious orders and retreat centers offer direction, but based on what else they offer, that is barely still Catholic, I passed. I was told that no direction is preferable to bad direction. I would pray and pray and pray that the Lord would send me someone. What I discovered is that The Lord directed me to a very holy priest and fashioned my work schedule so that I could go to daily Mass. Between daily homilies and frequent confession, I was receiving excellent direction. The rest was up to me. Concentrated prayer daily, the Bible and spiritual readings provides me with an ongoing amount of direction. I still pray daily for a holy and spiritual one on one director, and I am sure that if that is the Lord's plan for me, He will provide.
written by Arden, February 22, 2014
Fr. McCloskey wrote the foreword to a great book on Spiritual Direction (what it is, how to find a director, how to grow spiritually) that was voted the best Catholic book of 2012 - Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God.
written by Sam, February 22, 2014
I too like many have attempted to find someone to guide me down the oft confusing roads of life without success. I believe it was St John of the Cross (the Master of Spiritual Direction) who said that a good spiritual director is so rare as to be nearly impossible to find. That being said, I believe that best attitude to have is to be always open and searching for one, but with inner peace so that even if you do not find one you will not be too anxious about it. After all, we have many many good writings left to us by the Saints. And if God wants to provide us with a spiritual director, He will.

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