Help Wanted: Spiritual Direction

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 (1953-2023) was a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.