Why Having a Spiritual Director Is Important
Ten years ago, I’d stumbled upon a crossroads in my spiritual growth. I tried everything: weekly Eucharistic Adoration, daily Mass, reading Scripture, meditating on the Passion of Christ, prayer journaling, novenas, and rosaries and chaplets. Still, I felt stuck, stagnant. That’s when I knew I needed a spiritual director.
Most of us hit plateaus in our prayer life, and we wonder how to move forward or discern God’s will. This is especially difficult when we experience spiritual aridity and feel more absence from God than His obvious presence. Our questions echo back to us as if from the hollow of an empty well, and we are desperate for answers, for connection.
Spiritual directors bring us back to ourselves by way of fidelity to God. There are seasons in life when we need an objective person trained in pastoral counseling to reflect honestly on our human frailties, our weaknesses, our absolute need to depend on God for everything. Ideally, this person will enter into your spiritual journey and gently accompany you, however long or short the road may be.
Some people have spiritual directors for a short stint, perhaps to discern a big calling, like a religious vocation or whether to make a major career move, while others will forge lasting relationships with a spiritual director for years. Many, but not all, of the canonized saints had spiritual directors of all flavors. Some, like St. Faustina, longed to have one priest to whom she could confide for the rest of her life, yet she obediently shifted directors when asked to do so. Others, like St. Therese of Lisieux, did not seek a human spiritual director and instead channeled her infinite thirst for God into God Himself, choosing Him alone.
Discerning whether you need a spiritual director is just as important as selecting one. The general belief is that spiritual directors are scarce, but the truth is that you can find the right person to offer guidance. Much of it relies on Divine Providence. The timing and the right fit must align, so it’s imperative to begin by asking God, “Do I need a spiritual director? If so, please help me find one.”
This is where many people find themselves feeling anxious or restless. It’s the waiting that creeps in doubts and fears and questions. Be patient. Keep asking God, and wait for His reply.
I’ve met people from time to time who are stuck on the idea that their spiritual director must be a priest or must be from a particular religious order or must also be their confessor. This can be ideal and work out in some circumstances. But the reality is that most priests have neither the time nor the training to offer spiritual direction. Some do, but it’ll be like finding that proverbial needle in a haystack.
What to do, then? There was a point in time when I was in between spiritual directors. My former pastor had been reassigned to a parish in another city, and I wanted to find another priest. I contacted our diocesan Office of Evangelization and inquired through them. They referred me to an ordered priest who was quite upfront about only seeing directees once or twice and then sending them on their way.
Eventually, a couple of years later, I was listening to a talk given by a lay woman at our parish, and she mentioned at the end that she was trained in spiritual direction. Until that point, I’d never considered finding a lay woman, but the Holy Spirit nudged my heart to talk to her about it. Turned out she lived thousands of miles away on the West coast, but that didn’t deter her from offering her gifts through this ministry. After a phone consultation, I decided to give the long-distance direction a try. And that was four years ago. She has been my spiritual director ever since.
It’s important, once you find a director with whom you have established a comfortable rapport, to enter into your sessions without expectation of a particular answer or outcome. It’s good to go into your conversation with thoughts or frustrations or roadblocks in your prayer life. Vulnerability and honesty will actually benefit you in the long run. I have had sessions in which I openly wept and explained that I felt as if God had duped or abandoned me. A good director will not shame you for this, but rather walk you toward the merciful Heart of Jesus.
A good spiritual director will not only listen to your qualms, but s/he will also leave you with important questions that you can – and should – take to prayer and confession. You will feel validated but challenged, uplifted but stirred to change. I tend to take my prayer journal into my sessions and jot down comments, questions, or thoughts that arise during our conversation. Then I am equipped with verses from Scripture, a holy image or icon, or a need that I can bring to God unabashedly.
Spiritual direction brings clarity to your life, not comfort and consolation. If you want to find a director who will validate every aspect of your life, you won’t advance in ways that lead you to greater holiness. Ideally, a director will get to know you in such a way that s/he is able to offer feedback and further devotional reading or prayer that will buoy you in between sessions. When you return to spiritual direction month after month and realize that you are gaining greater insight, self-knowledge, or acquiring virtues for which you have striven, then you are likely doing well in taking your conversations to your relationship with God.
A final point is that spiritual direction should not replace your growing love for God. People are always flawed, and you may discover that you will have moments in which your director does not guide you in ways that are helpful. What’s best is to surrender each session to the Holy Spirit. Even mistakes are made new through God’s grace. Often, we learn the most when we are feeling lost, lonely, and afraid.
Fidelity to God is key in spiritual advancement. Pray for detachment, so that if you find yourself in a situation where your spiritual director moves away or you must find a new one, you are not lamenting the loss more than opening your heart to the next invitation from God.