Spiritual Direction: What Is It Good For?
I heard you speak at Maryland earlier this fall. I went to talk to my priest and kind of fell into spiritual direction, which I know is incredibly important for me to figure out a lot of things with my faith. I know that there are things that I want and need to work on, but whenever I'm sitting in the office talking to my spiritual director, I kind of feel like I run out of words. I think part of my issue is prioritizing the things to bring up, and even recognizing the things that I need to work on. Could you do a post on how to really get the most out of spiritual direction? I know it has the possibility to be really incredible for my relationship with Christ, I just don't know how to get to that point!
Thanks so much for your question, MQ! Before I answer it, though, it might be helpful to do a little Q-and-A on spiritual direction in general, especially for those who aren't familiar with the concept. Here goes:
Why go to spiritual direction?
-If you want someone to walk with you closely in your journey toward heaven.
-If you struggle with trusting in God's love for you and plan for your life.
-If you need guidance/help discerning your vocation.
-If you want your prayer life to become deeper and richer but aren't sure how to go about it.
-If you're having a spiritual crisis and need someone to help you see the Truth.
...or a myriad of other unique reasons. I'm of the opinion that any mature Christian should be open to going to spiritual direction. For me, it is simply an acknowledgment that I can't be a Christian alone and that in this season of my life, one-on-one guidance is especially important.
What's the difference between spiritual direction and therapy?
As I've said before: a therapist is someone who is trained to get to the bottom of psychological and emotional problems, and to give you the tools to manage them. A spiritual director is trained to help you in your prayer life, struggles with sin, and overall relationship with Christ. A good therapist and a good spiritual director will overlap in terms of the issues they address in your sessions with them, butthey are not interchangeable.
In any case, you need both a spiritual director and a therapist, in order to avoid spiritualizing psychological issues and/or dismissing spiritual problems as psychological issues beyond your control. Both attitudes are dangerous.
What's the difference between spiritual direction and Confession?
Sometimes, spiritual direction is a part of Confession. I've received some of my best direction in the confessional, and some Catholics choose to consistently go to the same priest for confession so that a spiritual director-directee relationship develops. In this case, the priest gets to know you and your spiritual struggles well and can advise you in a particular way (which isn't always possible when you go to a new priest every time or always go behind the screen).
Of course, if your spiritual director is a lay person, then the major differences are 1) it's not a Sacrament and 2) you don't leave a spiritual direction session absolved from all of your sins. If you have to choose, Confession is definitely more important for the health of your soul than spiritual direction.
How do I find a spiritual director?
First, you should pray about it. The Lord really will lead you to the right person! He's always lead me to the right director through the counsel of friends who are also in spiritual direction. My first spiritual director was recommended to me by a friend in college, my second by a friend in my hometown, my third by a friend here in DC, and my current spiritual director was recommended by my dear friend and blogger/missionary extraordinaire, Meg. You can also call your diocesan office and ask for a list of available spiritual directors. If you go to Confession and have an amazing experience, be bold and ask the priest (the worst thing he can say is that he's too busy)!
Should I look for a man or a woman? Does state of life matter?
At various times over the past decade, I've had three priests and one married lay woman as spiritual directors. My current spiritual director is a priest. I think that the state of life and gender of your director is something that is given to you when the Lord leads you to the right person. If you're not comfortable going to a priest or religious, then look for a lay director. If you want to be able to confess to your spiritual director, you obviously need a priest.
Ladies, one word of caution on male spiritual directors: I don't recommend going to someone to whom you are (romantically) attracted or could potentially be attracted to, for obvious reasons.
How do I know if the spiritual director I find is the "right" one?
You really can't know until you meet with the person! If you and the director really click, great. If not, or if he/she seems theologically wacky to you, it's TOTALLY fine to not schedule another meeting. Most directors recommend meeting once a month or so, which leaves you a good chunk of time to discern whether or not you should continue with that person.
And now, to my reader's actual question: How can I get the most out of spiritual direction?
This is a tough question to answer because the content of a spiritual direction session is so deeply personal, but the main thing to keep in mind at all times is the purpose of spiritual direction: learning how to love Christ more fully. Since that's a bit vague, here are some questions to consider before meeting with your spiritual director:
What are the areas where you really struggle in loving Christ? Others? Yourself?
How's your prayer life? Do you want to make more time to pray but find yourself at a loss for words when you do? Do you talk in prayer more than you listen?
What virtues do you lack? Do you need guidance as to how to go about cultivating those virtues?
If you take the time to answer these questions thoroughly and honestly (I often have to beg for the grace to be honest with myself, the Lord, and my spiritual director), you will no doubt have plenty to bring to your director.
That's all I have for now--I'd love to hear any and all advice y'all have on spiritual direction from your own experience. Please share in the comments!
PS It's my 30th (!) birthday week, which means that on Thursday or Friday (my actual birthday), I'll be posting some reflections on my twenties and sharing with y'all why I'm so incredibly pumped to be turning 30. Stay tuned!
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