Spiritual direction for dummies (and other smart people who don’t know where to start)

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Image: Going to the Yellow Pages in search of a spiritual director may not be much help. So where do I turn?

One of the first things I recommend to a man considering joining my religious order, the Jesuits, is that he get a spiritual director and get into spiritual direction. But spiritual direction isn’t only for people considering a religious vocation. It can help just about anyone who is serious about their spiritual journey. 

As valuable as it is, spiritual direction is a relatively new practice for many Catholics, and a lot of the time people are mystified by it. Put simply, spiritual direction is an ongoing process of nurturing your spiritual life. Although it is not counseling or therapy, it may have the benefits of healing and spiritual and emotional growth. Here’s a basic overview of how it works.

Imagine that I’m the one seeking spiritual direction. First, I must find and ask someone to be my spiritual director. Going to the Yellow Pages in search of a spiritual director will likely turn up a list of psychics under the heading Spiritualists. So where do I turn?

Spiritual Direction for Dummies coverI might ask for a referral from a vocation director, campus minister, priest, sister, lay minister, or another person whose judgment I trust. If you’re considering a particular religious order, you might want a spiritual director from that order because he or she would be familiar with its approach to spirituality. Another option would be to contact a Catholic retreat house and ask the director there if he or she can suggest any spiritual directors in the area. Retreat houses often have websites, as do religious orders and most dioceses. So you can even take your search for contacts into cyberspace.

You could seek referrals through Spiritual Directors International, an association of more than 4,000 spiritual directors who “tend the holy around the world and across traditions”. Work up a list of possible directors. Consider each, and try to determine the one with whom you think you’d be most comfortable sharing all aspects of your life. (Spiritual directors are required to keep their conversations with you confidential.)

The ins and outs of spiritual direction
Once I’ve found a director, we meet regularly, perhaps monthly, for about an hour each time. It’s possible there could be a fee involved, although this is often not an expectation, particularly with those discerning religious life. I tell my director what has been going on in my spiritual life. This includes talking about my prayer life, how I’ve been praying, what’s been going on in my prayer, and whether I’ve felt drawn by the Lord in any particular way.

I might also talk about how I’ve been finding God—or perhaps not finding God—in my daily experiences, such as in my relationships, work, studies, leisure, and other areas. I might talk about my temptations. (Actually, as I recall my earliest foray into spiritual direction, I could have talked about my temptations a lot.) I might talk about what’s going well and what’s not going so well for me. Or about my moral life, how I’ve been living out my faith in practice through volunteer work, being helpful to others, and so forth.

If I were in a vocational discernment process, my spiritual direction would include telling my director how I feel regarding my vocation.

My spiritual director then gives me feedback about what I’ve shared. We might discuss movements or patterns that are appearing in our dialog—what seems to be coming from God and, conversely, what seems to grow out of negative sources.

Contacts for finding a spiritual director

While looking for a spiritual director, try asking for a referral from your pastor, the director of an area retreat house, or another trusted friend in the church. Retreat houses may also have websites that can help you contact them.

There’s also Spiritual Directors International (SDI), which can put you in touch with a regional contact, who would then ask you about the type of spiritual direction you are seeking. Based on what you tell the regional contact, he or she would give you a list of prospective spiritual directors in your area for you to interview. SDI does not recommend or refer people to specific spiritual directors.

“We encourage people to interview at least three spiritual directors to determine who seems to be the ‘right fit,’” says Liz Budd Ellmann, executive director of SDI.

The group encourages people to ask prospective spiritual directors about their training, ongoing education, and supervision before selecting someone. SDI also publishes “Guidelines for Ethical Conduct,” a booklet that provides a framework for a healthy spiritual direction relationship.

Spiritual Directors
1329 Seventh Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94122-2507
(415) 566-1560
e-mail: office@sdiworld.org
website: www.sdiworld.org

The director is like a spiritual guide. Experienced in the spiritual life, he or she ushers and mentors me down new and unfamiliar paths, enriching my ability to observe and absorb what is going on around and within me. A spiritual director in the Jesuit or Ignatian tradition will use Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s guide-lines from his Spiritual Exercises to help interpret my experiences.

Why do it?
Why is spiritual direction important?

If I’m trying to discern (“figure out”) God’s call to me, I must pay attention to what God is saying to me. For that to happen, I must pray regularly—preferably daily—for an extended period, say a half hour. If that sounds like a lot of time, consider the anecdote in which a spiritual director is asked, “How long should I pray each day?”

“About a half hour,” the director replies.

“A half hour!” comes the surprised response. “I’m not sure I have 30 minutes to pray each day.”

“Then you better pray for an hour,” advises the director.

In prayer, I must pay attention to the patterns I hear in my prayer, the various spiritual movements within me. The guidance of a spiritual director helps me to do these things in several ways.

  • Regular meetings add accountability to the discernment process. When I know I will be talking shortly to my spiritual director, I’m challenged to look more carefully at my experiences so that I can articulate to my director what’s been going on in my life.
  • In describing my experiences to my director, in a sense I “put my experiences out there” to be looked at together. This helps me more clearly explore my inner experiences, detecting patterns, themes, and movements in my spiritual life.
  • My director serves as a companion in my spiritual life and offers support. This is important, because in our secular culture, trying to hear God’s call and lead a life of prayer and faith can be difficult.
  • Spiritual direction can also greatly reduce the possibility of self-deception. Saint Teresa of Ávila is alleged to have said: “The person who has himself as a spiritual director has a fool for director! In going it alone, it becomes too easy to misinterpret our inner experiences. Unconscious biases can lure us away from listening to God’s voice. Instead we can end up paying more attention to voices other than God’s, such as the values of our secular culture, family, or friends. Not that family and friends can’t be helpful—it’s just that with spiritual issues, we cannot assume that they will understand us as well or want the same things that God wants for us or that we need for ourselves.
  • Finally, a willingness to enter spiritual direction can be a kind of vocation litmus test. Committing myself to these initial basic practices shows I am serious about determining God’s will for me.
Regardless of whether you think you might have a religious vocation, undertaking a journey to determine God’s will in your life can lead to extraordinary opportunities. Unexpected horizons await you. And having a spiritual director for a guide can help you discover paths to some amazing places you didn’t know you had in you.
Father Warren Sazama, S.J. is the Jesuit vocation director for the Upper Midwest and Great Plains states.




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