What happens in spiritual direction?

By Thomas Hart What is spiritual direction, how do you do it, and what is supposed to come of it? A spiritual director sheds some light on those questions.

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You begin to think you might really have a vocation to be a sister, brother, or priest. You inquire with a diocese or religious congregation and are invited to come meet the vocation director. The meeting goes well. At the end, you are told that if you really want to pursue this direction in your life, you should keep praying about it and begin spiritual direction. All kinds of people participate in spiritual direction, not only those discerning a vocation, but it can be very helpful for those who are. You are willing, but you wonder, what is spiritual direction, how do you do it, and what is supposed to come of it? As a spiritual director myself—as well as a teacher and supervisor of spiritual directors—I hope to shed some light on those questions.

Your spiritual director

I, your spiritual director, am like you. I’m a spiritual seeker, still on the way. I seek a livelier sense of God in my life, and a closer alignment with God. I would like to be God’s instrument in the world and help to build God’s reign. I pray, but would like to pray better. I try to follow God’s leadings as best I can discern them, but would like to follow them more generously. I have some virtues, my friends tell me, but I am still working on stubborn behaviors I would much rather be without. A few people have ventured to call me wise, but I am not so sure, and in any case I am certainly fallible. In our meetings, I am not going to tell you all this, but you can presume it.

How did I become a spiritual director? I suppose it is something like discovering you have a good voice or a good sense of humor. People tell you. From way back, it seems, people have been sharing their personal stories with me, asking for my feedback about this or that. They know I take the spiritual life seriously; they feel I have something for them. And helping others in this way is satisfying to me. So I went back to school, studied more theology and spirituality, and got further training in counseling skills. Mainly, what I have to offer you is this: By my own journey, and through all the people I have talked with or read, I have learned something of the ways of God.

Think of me as a companion, an older brother or sister, walking with you on a journey of discovery and growth. It helps. We can so easily get caught in the tangle of our own minds, keep going over the same ground without any resolution, miss whole sides of the matter, imagine things that are not there. I will help you sort it all out, and give you feedback. I will offer suggestions. I will care about you, support you, and, as best I can, help you find what you are seeking.

You will find me above all a careful listener. You will do much more of the talking than I do. This is, after all, about you and your life, not about me. And just as I listen for the voice of God in my own life, I will be listening for it in yours.

No instructions offered

I will not tell you what you ought to do. I do not know what you should do. And it is not my role to lead to that extent. Your real spiritual director is the Holy Spirit. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Saint Ignatius Loyola, who created the great retreat format known as the Spiritual Exercises, was particularly insistent that the person guiding someone through a retreat should “remain in equilibrium, to allow the Creator to act immediately with the creature, and the creature with its Creator and Lord.” That is my operative principle. So if you ever feel that I am pushing you, for example, either into or away from religious life or priesthood, please tell me, because I am overplaying my part.

This is an instance of a larger point, which is very important. You and I are both responsible for how our time together goes. If you are unhappy about anything, please let me know. If you think I misunderstood, if I am not giving enough feedback, if I made a poor suggestion, if you feel we are not connecting, please tell me so we can look at it together. We will both learn, and we can probably adjust. Or we might conclude that we are just not a good match, and you need to move on.

What happens when we meet?

The process of spiritual direction unfolds gradually over time. It is a series of conversations, each usually an hour or so, perhaps once a month. You have to give it time. I need to get to know you and your world. You need to get to know me, too, so you can develop trust and open up more. When a good relationship develops, people often go to the same spiritual director for years for open-ended spiritual growth. They find it helpful to take stock month-to-month of what is going on in their lives and what God may be quietly up to with them. They value a sounding board and whatever feedback a caring listener might have for them.

Your situation has a more specific focus than this open-ended growth, though it certainly fits within it. You want help making a major decision about your life direction. So how do we proceed? Well, I will lead the way. I will ask you questions. Tell me what brings you in, what you are hoping for. How do you feel about being here? If you mention a possible calling to religious life or priesthood, I will want to know how the idea first came to you, how long it has been there, and how specific your thoughts about it are.

Then, I will suggest we pull back a bit and put it in a larger context. Tell me more about your spiritual journey from the beginning until now. And tell me more about your present life. What sort of family do you come from? Whom do you live with now? How are your studies or your work going? What else do you do? Who are your friends?

I am mostly listening, inquiring further, inviting you to unfold. It will be a while before feedback begins to take shape in me. But you are probably noticing that you are becoming clearer in your own mind just by having to put your experience into words for me. I hope you are also feeling my respect for you, my interest, and my support. Because it is ultimately to God that you want to open yourself more, I will probably check to make sure that you have a nourishing spiritual environment for the development of that relationship. I will want to make sure you are part of a worshiping community, that you practice personal prayer or meditation, that you read books and articles that foster spiritual growth, and, if possible, that you have a smaller Christian group that speaks directly to your current needs. We can pray together in our sessions if you wish.

Looking at life as a whole

No part of your life is irrelevant to this vocation question of yours. Your whole life is your spiritual life; God is in every aspect of it. We will be circling back again and again to the decision you need to make, but it would be a mistake to confine our exchange too strictly to the topics of prayer, church, vocation, ministry.

What do you most enjoy in life? What are your struggles? What gets you down? What do you think about during the day? What do you dream about at night? How do you feel about yourself? How do you experience your sexuality? How do you see the world? God is in all of this, leading, delighting, challenging you, giving you opportunities to mature, deepen, and broaden. God is constantly creating you, and you are the cocreator. All of this constitutes the context from which your life-direction will flow.

Let me suggest a guiding principle. Wherever the action is in your life, that is where God is most involved with you. That is where you are making the responses that determine your development as a person. So that is what we should talk about. Are you struggling, for example, with a relationship? Do you have an addiction? Are you discontented? Are you lonely? What do you think about a lot? This is where the action is, and so this is where God is, and so this is what we need to look at.

Discover your deepest desire
In the course of our work, I might suggest you do something to get more data for your decision. When a man I was working with recently had narrowed his concrete options to the diocesan clergy, the Paulists, or the Jesuits, I suggested he go visit each to see how they live and work, meet and talk with them, and notice what he felt in each setting. In each case, they were happy to receive him, share their life experience, and answer his questions. Before we got to that point, we had spent a good deal of time trying to discern whether he wanted married, single, or celibate life. That involved a look at his relationship history and his sexuality, and where he wanted to go from here. Which brings us to a very important point.

Some might see this question in terms of “God’s will,” of what they should do, not of what they want to do. But for me, the two dovetail. Yes, God has a will for us, but the divine purpose for us never violates who we are. Just the opposite, in fact. It flows out of who we are. God wants us to become most fully ourselves. God does not create us one way and then ask us to be something else. What sense would that make? That is why I encourage you to listen closely to your own deepest self. What do you most deeply want to do with the rest of your life?

Wholehearted wanting is the only sound basis of motivation. It is the only thing that can sustain a demanding project over time. People get college degrees because they really want them. Those who don’t might drift or dream or drink or drop out, even if all the while they are thinking they really should get this degree. Some join the military, undergoing a painful course of training and a difficult career, because they want it.

You can so easily neglect what goes on inside you, looking instead for signs, or just listening to your mind, which gives you all kinds of reasons, or going by what others are doing or would have you do. That may work for a while, but in time your own real selfhood will begin to assert itself, and you will have to get on the path that is yours.

Saint Ignatius, that master discerner, paid very close attention to feelings as well as reasons when he was trying to make an important choice in the service of God. Today, in the same interest, we say listen to your body. Your body knows things your conscious mind does not yet know. Its inner excitement or deep contentment confirm the rightness of a choice. Its disquiet, tension, or inner groaning indicate the opposite. We ignore this data at our peril.

I hope all this gives you a better idea of what happens during spiritual direction. It comes down to this: You are a social being—we all are—and it is not good for you to be alone. You grow, and even find yourself, only in relationship. A spiritual director is a companion and listener who walks with you on the spiritual journey, assisting and supporting you in your quest. With this person’s help, you will more easily find what your own heart most deeply desires—which is the same as what God wants for you.
Thomas Hart is a spiritual director and psychotherapist in Seattle. His books most relevant to spiritual direction and discernment are The Art of Christian Listening, Coming Down the Mountain, and Spiritual Quest (all from Paulist Press).

2006 © TrueQuest Communications

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