Why Not Spiritual Direction?

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Considering all the other problems the Catholic Church faces in the United States – from plummeting rates of Mass attendance, of Catholic marriages, and of infant baptisms to increasing government encroachment on individual and institutional religious liberty – the dearth of spiritual direction for the laity may look like a trivial matter.

I’m here to tell you it’s not.

The Second Vatican Council solemnly taught that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love” – they are called, that is, to holiness (Lumen Gentium 40). Yet half a century later, it appears that only a handful of laywomen and men make use of this standard tool of the interior life, spiritual direction.

This is, among other things, a symptom of a bigger problem that’s long plagued American Catholicism and now is growing worse in the face of a rising tide of cultural assimilation sweeping Catholics into a secular culture radically hostile to Catholic beliefs and practices. The problem is spiritual shallowness.

Catholicism in this country has always been an activist enterprise, good at organization and building things but lagging in interiority. In Testem Benevolentiae, his 1899 letter to Cardinal Gibbons condemning Americanism, Pope Leo XIII deplored the American tendency to “extol the natural virtues” at the expense of supernatural ones. If anything that tendency has intensified since then.

When Pope St. John Paul II’s second pastoral visit to America was approaching in 1987, I recommended to my employers at the U.S. bishops’ conference that its thematic focus be the sacraments. After all, I noted, the sacramental system is a beautiful and distinctive feature of the Catholic Church. But the powers-that-be opted for institutions instead—schools, hospitals, charities. Perhaps they were right. Institutions arguably were then and continue to be the distinctive feature of American Catholicism.

But, you ask, supposing all that’s so, what has it got to do with spiritual direction for the laity?

Just this.

In Christifideles Laici, his landmark 1989 document on the laity, Pope John Paul put “recourse to a wise and loving spiritual guide” – spiritual direction, that is – on his list of necessary elements in the formation of lay people. And in another crucial contribution to the discussion, he stated clearly what the formation of the laity, with direction a key part of it, is intended to do: “The fundamental objective. . .is an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live it so as to fulfill one’s mission.” (Christifideles Laici, 58)

Vocation is the key word here. The central purpose of lay formation, John Paul is saying, is to help lay women and men discern, accept, and live out their personal vocations. In this discernment process, spiritual direction, if not indispensable, is at least highly desirable.

"The Prodigal Son in Modern Life: The Return," by J.J. Tissot, c. 1882 [Musèe de Nantes, France]

“The Prodigal Son in Modern Life: The Return,” by J.J. Tissot, c. 1882 [Musèe de Nantes, France]

Like the neglect of spiritual direction by the laity, failure to grasp that lay people have vocations – a general vocation to live the life of a Christian lay person in the world together with unique personal vocations, those irreplaceable personal roles in God’s redemptive work to which each of them is called – is part of the legacy of clericalism. It is high time and then some that all of us got over it.

And it’s hardly less important to put aside the idea that discerning a vocation is a once-in-a-lifetime activity or at least something to be done only rarely (when choosing a profession, for instance). On the contrary, since the unfolding of personal vocation happens throughout the course of one’s life, so also discernment must be continuing and ongoing.

“We are not called once only, but many times; all through our life Christ is calling us,” Newman says in a sermon titled Divine Calls. But Christ’s call comes ordinarily through the people and events of everyday life. The purpose of spiritual direction is to help us hear clearly and respond faithfully to this day-in day-out summons to the following of Christ.

Taking it as fundamental, then, that the purpose of direction is to assist people in discerning and responding to their vocations as they come to them day by day, what specifically is spiritual direction about – what’s the subject matter?

In truth, it could be just about anything, but a few typical possibilities do stand out: establishing and maintaining a plan of life, a program of regular activities aimed at maintaining and deepening one’s friendship with God; acknowledging and taking steps to eradicate some deep-rooted personal fault; spiritual reading; concrete elements of the apostolate – participation in the mission of the Church, that is; and, of course, specific issues of faith and morals when and as these arise.

Spiritual direction is help, assistance. It does not take the place of free choice. A director may offer suggestions and point out options, but the right of those receiving direction to make their own free choices must always be respected. In this sense, spiritual direction is an adjunct to, not a substitute for, the responsible exercise of freedom of self-determination.

I’m not so naïve as to imagine that there’s a large multitude of American Catholics out there yearning for spiritual direction who will leap at the opportunity if it is offered. But as matters now stand, most people never hear a word about it, much less have it recommended to them. Speaking about spiritual direction, providing realistic ways of receiving it, and pointing to its benefits could produce surprisingly positive results over time. It’s worth a try.

Conventional wisdom has it that the future of Catholicism in America can be summed up as smaller but better. If so, there is a need to get to work now forming a body faith-filled lay Catholics committed to the ideal of holiness as proposed by Vatican II and to the smaller but spiritually stronger Church of the future. Spiritual direction for the laity has an important part to play in that.


Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of Nothing to Hide and also To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity, and his most recent book is American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (2013).

  • Manfred

    Thank you for an excellent article, Mr. Shaw. Perhaps I missed it, but did you intentionally avoid suggesting that one take spiritual direction from a sound, orthodox priest/confessor? In light of all the confusion in the last half century, I could see why; but I still believe that direction from a trained, sound priesrt with frequent Confession has to be the key. So much of catholiism(sic) today is man-made as the 2014 Synod on the Family demonstrated. A self directed layman might be confused.

  • MartinK

    I agree wholeheartedly with the author’s view on the importance of spiritual direction and, having received it in the past, I can attest to the benefits. However, from a practical perspective it would help to know how one can go about finding a spiritual director in today’s day and age. My spiritual director was a great parish priest who started as a confessor, helped get me into a 12-step program to deal with the self destruction of my addiction and, later, my growth in the Catholic faith. Alas, he has moved on from parish ministry to a priestly mission in a different city. I have since struggled with finding a good confessor let alone a spiritual director. In my experience, effective spiritual direction requires total openness, honesty, vulnerability and, frankly, a certain level intimacy. Personally, I find it difficult to find those qualities amongst men outside the 12-step program I’m in (which is great but lacking a Catholic Christian dimension). In today’s culture it seems that those words themselves take on a disordered sexual connotation amongst men. Most of my experience with male relationships is rooted in the world of sports, automobiles and other such shallow and superficial things. Any practical suggestions?

  • Michael Dowd

    Thanks Mr. Shaw. No question about what you say but it is most problematic. First, you have to find a spiritual adviser and, from my experience, most priests are not interested and, secondly, if one is found one must determine if the direction he provides is orthodox. But not to give up. Opus Dei and Regnum Christi are organizations that make available spiritual direction. I am sure there must be others. But the main thing is that the spiritual direction must be clearly orthodox Catholicism as found in the excellent writings of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., e.g., ‘The Three Ages of the Interior Life’ in two volumes.

    • Adrian Johnson

      Although the book in 2 volumes is expensive and out of print, “The Mystical Evolution in the Development and Vitality of the Church” by Fr John G Arintero, OP, is a treasure of guidance to anyone experiencing “extraordinary ways” in their interior life, and who have desperately sought a spritual advisor who will keep them from the perils of deception and the need for sound discernment to deal with their experience. These books are a God-send to those who have been pushed away by priests who are terrified by mystical theology (which is rarely taught in seminary) and wish to send all who have “mystical experiences” to a psychiatrist.
      One his deathbed, Fr Arintero, who died in the odor of sanctity, said that he had received assurances from Heaven that his book was a trustworthy guide to those who need it. I also see the scarcity and expense of this book as Providential, as only those highly motivated will be able to obtain it– it could be dangerous in the hands of those for whom it is not intended.

  • Dave

    This is a great article! Russell Shaw does right to point to clericalism as a root cause for the dearth of lay people in spiritual direction, but the term is a bit of a shibboleth and the problem goes deeper than that. Lay people — all people, actually — turn to those, clerical or lay, who seem to have answers for life’s perplexities, whose faces radiate joy, confidence, peace, kindness, and welcome. We Christians — clerical and lay — don’t seem to have those kinds of faces, nor do we characteristically generate the kind of peaceful confidence that would cause others to wonder, “what does s/he know that I need to know?” Put another way, if so few people are seeking spiritual direction, it may be because there are so few who are qualified, by means of their own victories in the interior life, to offer it. So as we encourage others, rightly, to seek direction, let us pray to the Lord of the harvest that he raise up many men and women, clerical and lay, who are capable of offering direction — and hope — to so many who need it. And while we pray it, we can also pray that God raise us up to do the work, if it be his will: the crisis of the world is a crisis of saints, said St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, and so we ought to be praying for the massive increase in sanctity, in our own lives and those of others, that the world so desperately needs at this time.

  • I may be testing what you opined, “I’m not so naïve as to imagine that there’s a large multitude of American Catholics out there yearning for spiritual direction who will leap at the opportunity if it is offered.” My apostolate, Families for Families (look for us online) offers “spiritual” retreats for laypeople. The problem I encounter is many do not recognize their spiritual state, soul and foundation of their faith. I’ve read and highly recommend Russell Shaw’s book on the “American Church . . . “.

  • Nancy lynne

    And who is out there to do this spiritual direction? I’ve thought about it often but haven’t seen it offered generally.

    • Bereishis

      Latin Mass priests, FSSP, Opus Dei, among others.

    • Joyfully

      Exactly. And what does it cost? I have great desire for spiritual direction, even an occasional hour every 6 mos. or so just to get some reassurance or re-direction if I’m headed towards choppy waters unawares.

      About 18 years ago I looked up “Spiritual Direction” in the yellow pages and made an appointment with a Catholic nun. Turns out it was at a worn-down office strip and the nun was wearing polyester pants. First question, “What’s your idea of God.” When it got to the money part (always awkward) she said they accepted donations and $30 would cover the hour.

      Reta, above, has the right idea I guess, our saints have given us much to aide us on our journey.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    It’s a wonderful idea, but facing the reality is something different. Living in a rural diocese, finding daily Mass within 10 miles of one’s home is a challenge, to say the least. Finding a qualified spiritual director is even more difficult that looking for a needle in a haystack.

  • Howard Kainz

    I think the ordinary way of getting spiritual direction is in confession, with priests who are willing to go beyond the “3 Our Fathers and Hail Marys.” Another means is retreats — especially Jesuit retreat houses, which encourage retreatants to get spiritual directors. On the other hand, I think many of us hesitate to go to a priest and ask him to put us into his possibly busy schedule for regular spiritual direction.

    • Fr Kloster

      This a often a problem and a misunderstanding. Confession can only rarely coincide with spiritual direction. There’s just not enough time when other people are waiting to confess their sins. In my parish, I offer 5 hours of confession a week and the lines can get long. A confession should normally only last 3-5 minutes (for children more like 2 minutes). Spiritual Direction normally takes much longer and therefore, properly speaking, is not and cannot be a part of the sacrament of confession. When people come with weighty problems beyond confessing their sins, I ask them to be considerate of those waiting in the confession line. I then ask them to see me after confessions or a convenient time to schedule some spiritual direction.

      Good spiritual advice in the confessional yes; a short exhortation is always needed. Combining the two is really not an option. The real solution is more priestly vocations. The priests we do have usually cannot bi-locate.

      • Howard Kainz

        St. Theresa of Avila mentions the difficulty she had with spiritual directors who were holy but not learned, or vice versa. Eventually she thought being learned was more important. Other saints have had similar problems. If saints and nuns have that difficulty, think of laypersons rummaging around parishes. When in my twenties I lived in Los Angeles, and I had the opportunity of going to a spiritual director who is now a candidate for sainthood — Fr. Aloysius CMF, but I unfortunately had to move elsewhere. So there’s a certain element of chance here; or should I say “providence”?

      • Aqua

        “Five hours per week, and the lines can get quite long”.

        THANK YOU Father! I know we ask much of our Priests, but allow me to say how important it is for lost souls to have many opportunities to reconcile with their Lord.

        I have seen this in my travels, that the more Confession is emphasized and offered, the longer the lines. The less, the shorter. 30 minutes, one day a week, will have no one but crickets waiting to go in. Regular schedule on multiple days during a week will lead to constant streams of faithful waiting to unburden their souls.

        The key to Catholic revival is in the Confession Box.

        It is also, in second place, in a solid pervasive culture of Spiritual Direction.

  • Reta

    All good thoughts and good advice, however, it concerns me that no one has mentioned doing a search for guidance from great spiritual authors…….Scupoli for one, Father Caussade, Brother Lawrence (Practice of the Presence of God), On the Love of God by St.Francis de Sales as well as Christian Perfection by Fenelon, although I understand he wasn’t favored by the Church he has some marvelous things to say;
    ‘The Way of a Pilgrim’ by an unknown Russian author of the Orthodox, Abandonment to Divine Providence, Cloud of Unknowing, Confessions of St. Augustine, Imitation of Christ, A Kempis’ Introduction to the Devout Life, Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius…..gee, just can’t get any better for direction of all kinds! And as you say private direction from a priest is almost impossible because of the shortage of priests now as well as most of them just don’t know what to tell you……
    I return to these over and over again…..there are so so many others as well……I would hope you will look into this private way of helping grow in the spiritual life!

    • Spiritual reading is good but it is not a good substitute for spiritual direction. St. Bernard once said that “He who constitutes himself as his own spiritual director is the disciple of a fool.”

      • Reta

        Gee, thanks Dan for responding to my comment!! Yes, I certainly agree with you that trying to ‘fix’ our own selves is a fool’s errand…..what I was getting at is that keeping ourselves close to thoughts of saintly people along with any spiritual guidance we can get from directors….helps us in the interim. God bless!

    • kathleen

      And I would add the late Fr. Dubay’s book on Spiritual Direction.

  • givelifeachance2

    Which came first the spiritual director or the discernment needed to choose a good spiritual director?

  • James

    There are woefully few priests or religious one could turn to for spiritual direction. From my perspective a director need be faithful to prayer, emotionally fairly well adjusted, cognitively grounded in common sense with a few extra wits to boot, attentive to the human condition,
    orthodox in theological perspective and practice. Frankly, the current pontiff could not serve as my spiritual director. Even during my time among the Trappists, I never came across one monk who I would have really given my confidence for direction, although there were, by God’s grace, always some to walk as faithful companions on the journey. In a Church such as ours today, with those immersed in malarkey of all sorts, and two generations without catechesis, the idea of authentic spiritual direction seems rather a fantasy. I am fortunate to have a faithful, inarticulate shy pastor to offer a word of support. His faithfulness and devotion serve quietly as my “direction,” of a sort.

  • Manfred

    Bereishis’ comment below triggered a memory. Some years ago, one of my sons was engineering in Calgary and he found an FSSP priest his age who said the TLM every Sunday noon in the Novus Ordo Cathedral, He also sat in the confessional every Saturday for three hours with at first few penitents.
    One day a man began to confess homosexual acts that he had committed. He asked the priest if these actions were sinful. The priest very patiently “walked” the penitent through the full teachings of Christ through His Church and then said these acts were mortally sinful. There was silence. Finally the man said: I have confessed my actions to six priests before you and you are the only priest who told me what I already knew-my actions were indeed mortally sinful.

    • Bereishis

      The situation is bleak, and yet speaking the truth is powerful. Many acknowledge it upon hearing it, others upon hearing it repeatedly. The important thing is, above all, to speak it. This the FSSP seems willing and able to do.

  • Aqua

    I’m a Catholic convert of 6+ years. I have been asking for spiritual direction off and on ever since I came into the Church but there is no one qualifed to provide it and my Priest is certainly too busy. I know how badly I need it, and I have expressed this desire many times and always get a closed door, a big fat no, so I don’t even think about it any more. Until your article.

    I think the Hierarchy is 100% wrong in at least this one regard: instead of heading out to the “peripheries”, we need to return to the core bare basics of the Faith and catechize the Faithful right here at boring ol’ home. We should evangelize by training an army of Spiritual Directors and begin the process of building up the Faith through relationships of mutual accountability in prayer and spiritual discovery.

    I really believe the Faith is being lost right now through neglect, top to bottom. We have no business engaging the “world” when we are increasingly lost ourselves within the Faith’s heart.

    I believe the problem is not on the “demand side”; it’s the supply side. Turn your suggestion into an organized program of Directors and Directed, and …. They will come.

    • grapplinpt

      As I mentioned above, Daniel Burke’s “Navigating the Interior Life” is to spiritual direction what the US Marine Corps Field Guide is to being a Marine. He even devotes space in the book to the process of searching for a good director, vetting candidates, and what to do if they don’t cut the mustard (which, sadly, is more possible than we may want to think). Basically, the book tells you how to not waste time spiritually just because you aren’t able to find someone now. God bless you on your search.

      • Aqua

        Thank you. I purchased the book on Kindle and it does look like a good one.

        Still, this being the Church, this will only work if the idea comes from our Bishops into their Dioscese. I agree that ideas can flow up before they come back down, (which is the proposal here), but they must eventually come back down to the Church as a Body.

        God ordered His Church that way and it is essential that our Pastors see this. Their focus is all wrong (peripheries and all that) and the Ship is thus foundering. Maybe individuals can find their way, and this book is a great resource, but the Bishops must pastor their flock before revival can come.

        The Faith is withering up and they just don’t see it. If they do, their prescription is precisely wrong. Mr. Shaw’s is a very good start.

    • Adrian Johnson

      What you ask for is being “fulfilled” by the “New-Agey” religious of the Cenacle in Houston who run a course to train and certify spiritual directors. I am suspicious of their “graduates” because most of them appear to be women who really want to be priests. If you correspond — even by e-mail to a monastery noted for its rigor, you will be better off for spiritual direction. You will probably not be able to find any good spiritual director without a long period of prayer beseeching the Holy Spirit to give you one — if you persevere, He will indeed guide you to the right spiritual director.

  • grapplinpt

    Thank you, Mr.Shaw, for your wise words. As a 34-year-old husband and father of five, I have come to the point in which one-on-one spiritual direction is a must in order to break through the noise of life and hear what God is telling me. I reached out to a holy priest a little while back and he was open to the idea. He wanted me to read Daniel Burke’s “Navigating the Interior Life,” pray about it, and get back with him. Your article was very timely. I think I’ll email him now. Peace.

  • OutsideTheGate

    I think this is great in theory.
    Sadly, I know too few who go to seriously competent Spiritual Directors. Most go to incompetent priests they like and with whom they happen to agree, and so merely mirror their own worldview with little challenge. At worst, one, or both, get wrapped up in some form of transference, self-deception, or some other pathological relationship. Seen it happen too many times, particularly with women who end up having affairs with their ‘Director’.

  • bernie

    The key to that daunting, off-putting phrase “Spiritual Direction”, particularly in the context to today’s often bewildered and disheartened Church, I feel sure, is apostolic friendship. If being friends was necessarily part of an official “ministry” of some sort, it would have frustrated the very nature of being a Christian. From the very beginning it has always been about confidence and friendship. As Christ is our friend, so must we be to others. Certainly, there are many faithful people who understand this. We can and should easily open ourselves to them. Someone who is bereft of a true Catholic friend is poor indeed. Pray for one, look for one, speak to one. We all know that God answers prayer in his own time, so persevere. What are the marks of such a friend? – A person who prays, is faithful to the truth,
    lives a Sacramental life, loves Jesus Christ, practices what St. Paul says in I Cor. 13, is objective, trustworthy and willing to share his experience. There can be no doubt we need more priests and that will be part of God’s response to our prayer, but not every impulse from God comes just thru an official minister. Perhaps most importantly,practice Christian friendship yourself so you can be God’s instrument in whatever way He wishes. Lastly, one needs to be patient and pray to the Holy Spirit.

  • Robert A Rowland

    When it appears that75 percent of those who say they are Catholic are actually apostate because they no longer believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, the renewal Good Pope Intended for the Second Vatican Council has gone seriously awry in the last 50 years.


    I grieve for the church I once knew before Vatican II,

    when the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist was true.

    Evangelization was at the greatest peak ever.

    Thanks mostly to Fulton J. Sheen’s most ardent endeavor.

    The Holy Eucharist was kept in consecrated hands.

    The divine nature of Jesus engendered these demands.

    Familiarity led to contempt and rejection.

    Indifference at Mass has now become an infection.

    Mary was given the power to crush the serpent’s head.

    Now her Son, Jesus, has been given the mission instead.

    Downgrading the Mother of God is unpardonable.

    God sends everything through hands that are fully

    Evangelizing was almost slain by ecumenism.

    Without doctrine, three generations almost faced schism.

    Courage of Humanae Vitae saved the Church from reverse.

    Without it, errors of marriage and life would be perverse.

    What must we do to again get Catholics back on track?

    We must work to get firm belief in the real presence

    The debacle in our nation by apostates must end.

    Getting back what our founders intended must be the

    Bob Rowland


  • aprolifer

    I’ve been looking for a competent spiritual director off and on for all my almost-54 years as a Catholic. And I live in a diocese which has more priests than the average. No luck. Anyone who does that kind of thing is already full up with directees. What would you suggest?

  • Judith Allsaints

    I have recently started receiving spiritual direction from an Opus Dei center here in Uganda and the priests are great. My spiritual director has quite a number of people in line but the activities at the center are organized in such a way that everything is meticulously scheduled. When you feel the confession time will not be adequate to smuggle in direction since there is a long line of people waiting, then the director and you can suggest and decide on a separate day when you can have just direction….that has helped me a lot. I know that I can meet Fr. Charles for direction every Thursday without having to rush and yet I can also go the center on Wednesday or Saturday and have confession. Every time I feel very privileged to have a priest/priests that I can talk just about anytime. This is rare, and I keep praying and inviting my catholic friends and other friends to tap into this treasure. The Church truly needs committed spiritual directors.