I am enjoying your Aleteia column immensely. I am relatively new to being a Catholic, not yet two years since I was confirmed, and I see people mention spiritual direction from time to time, and in the column I read today, you suggested the subject of the letter seek out a spiritual director.
So, first, what’s a spiritual director? Is it always a priest? What does he do? How do you know if you need one? How on earth do priests have time to do this? Anything else you want to add on the subject? This has never come up at RCIA so I don’t even know if they do this at my parish.
Thanks for your help.
Anonymous in Seattle
A spiritual director is any person — priest, deacon, religious, and even lay person — who has received special training to offer spiritual direction to someone who seeks to grow in holiness and discern God’s will in their lives. While a spiritual director doesn’t always have to be a priest, personally, I recommend using only ordained men or a member of a religious community. I share Patrick Madrid’s general misgivings about receiving direction from a lay person.
“Over the last 25 years or so, I’ve noticed with bemusement an unfortunate trend in the United States in which an increasing number of lay people arrogate to themselves the title of ‘spiritual director.’ I regard this as unfortunate because, except in certain rare exceptions, lay people are simply not qualified or competent to serve as spiritual directors.
Even lay people who have some formal training in theology do not, by virtue of that fact, have the requisite qualities necessary to be spiritual directors.” [emphasis mine]
While I have my own personal apprehensions about lay people, it’s important not to completely rule them out. You also can’t assume every priest and member of a religious community will make an excellent spiritual director; make sure you do your research and find out their credentials. Enter into your search prayerfully and well informed.
I think it’s also important to note the difference between true spiritual direction and the need for general spiritual counsel. New Advent defines spiritual direction as;
“…that function of the sacred ministry by which the Church guides the faithful to the attainment of eternal happiness. It is part of the commission given to her in the words of Christ: ‘Going, therefore, teach ye all nations . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19 sq.). She exercises this function both in her public teaching, whether in word or writing, and in the private guidance of souls according to their individual needs; but it is the private guidance that is generally understood by the term ‘spiritual direction.’”
When I suggest someone speak to a priest, they usually just need guidance, or counsel, on a particular matter. One visit with a priest is typically all that is required. Spiritual direction is usually reserved for individuals discerning a vocation, which can make it difficult for anyone not discerning religious life to find a good spiritual director. This is simply because for most of us a spiritual director isn’t needed. The typical layperson can use some good counsel from a priest once or twice, as the need arises.
I recommend spiritual directors only for folks who need regular direction to stay on the path to holiness because without it they might be in danger of wandering off the path. Individuals who desire to grow in holiness and wish to live as perfectly as their station in life allows may also wish to seek regular direction. Basically, if it’s a persistent area in your spiritual life that needs addressing then it’s time to consider a spiritual director.
If you think a spiritual director might be something you need, start by calling your parish priest. My experience is that they typically have a short list of names he can refer you to, because you’re right, they typically don’t have the time to offer this type of extensive long-term direction but they almost certainly know someone else who can. You can also call your local diocese for references or call a local retreat center and any area religious communities, especially if you lean toward a certain charism.
For further reading, I think Jennifer Fulwiler wrote a great piece a few years back that you might enjoy. In it she discusses how to find a good fit and some of things you can discuss with a spiritual director. I also like Our Sunday Visitor’s informative take on spiritual direction.