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Is spiritual direction on your resolutions list?


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John Burger - published on 01/01/21

The ancient practice is gaining in popularity, says Fr. Timothy Gallagher. Here's what it is, why you need it, and how to get it.

This article was originally published on January 1, 2021.

Does your list of resolutions include anything about working on your spiritual life, deepening your relationship with God, or improving your prayer habits? If so, you might want to consider spiritual direction.

To gain some insight into what spiritual direction is and why it’s important for those seeking a closer relationship with God, we posed a few questions to Fr. Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V.

Fr. Gallagher, a priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, has a doctorate from the Gregorian University in Rome. He has dedicated many years to an extensive international ministry of retreats, spiritual direction, and teaching about the spiritual life. He is a frequent speaker on EWTN, and has written eight books on Ignatian discernment and prayer. He is chairman of Spiritual Formation at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.

What is spiritual direction?

Fr. Gallagher: Spiritual direction is help that one person — and presumably this person is competently prepared and trained and wise and experienced — offers to another in that person’s relationship with God. So the focus of spiritual direction is the individual’s relationship with God. That’s the primary relationship that’s at work. That’s going to involve the person’s prayer and life. Prayer is going to be at the center of it, obviously, but it’s going to reach into anything that pertains to the person’s relationship with God, living one’s vocation and so forth.

A person approaches a spiritual director because the person seeks accompaniment or help in growing in that relationship and understanding what’s happening as that relationship unfolds, in getting greater clarity on where God is leading, through what the person experiences in prayer and in life … and also for help in avoiding any pitfalls that may come from the Evil One, the one that St. Ignatius commonly calls the Enemy.

So the focus is that person’s relationship with God. The spiritual director does not make decisions for the directee, does not discern for the directee, but is there as one who accompanies and helps that person in that person’s relationship with God.

Youcan contrast this with something like counseling, where the focus is the person’s emotional health. That’s on the natural level, which is a wonderful thing, presuming you have a good solid Christian anthropology and the counselor is competent.

Is this something every Catholic should have?

Fr. Gallagher: You get different answers on that, depending on who you approach with that question. If you look for example at a number of the things Pope Benedict XVI said, the answer to that would be yes. He spoke repeatedly and quite strongly about this. I’m going to quote from a Wednesday audience talk he gave in 2009:“To go towards the Lord we always need a guide, a dialogue. We cannot do it with our thoughts alone.”

You couldn’t say it more strongly than that. He was reflecting on St. Symeon the New Theologian, an 11th-century figure of holiness in the Eastern tradition, and how St. Symeon found his path in life with the help of a wise spiritual father.

Also, spiritual direction is a pretty solidly attested piece of our tradition from very early on. It’s just common wisdom that we don’t want to be alone in the spiritual life.

Formal spiritual direction generally would be a meeting roughly of an hour once a month — and that might vary in times of special intensity and so forth. If  a person can find that, you really can’t recommend that too much. It’s worth the effort it may take.

One thing the pandemic has done is to amplify this a little bit more, because a lot of spiritual direction right now is being done by video meetings, and what people are finding out is that for more than we might have guessed, that can work. So it may be that the pandemic is opening up some avenues of access to spiritual direction that we might not have thought of so readily before.

What is possible for everyone and what is underused today is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The counsel there would be to find a confessor whom you find helpful and who would be willing, even if it’s only a couple of sentences, who could reflect back to you something given what you’ve shared in confession. And that is available to everyone.

Now, the sacrament of confession is distinct from spiritual direction; it’s a sacrament to heal us from the wound of sin and to bring God’s forgiveness and mercy. But very often it is a setting in which many people will find at least a minimum of some spiritual counsel — something reflected back on the basis of what the person has shared. And I think we’ve all had the experience of good confessors to whom we’re very grateful who have said things to us that have even been life-changing, who have helped us a great deal with prayer. That’s something I warmly encourage everyone to do.

Then, on a level that is not spiritual direction but which can be very helpful in terms of not being alone in the spiritual life and being accompanied, would be just spiritual friends, with whom we’re able to talk about spiritual things. I remember a woman telling me that she and a group of her friends — they were all young mothers at that time — every Saturday would get together for brunch. They all knew that at a certain point the conversation would become a sharing about spiritual things and where things were for them. Nobody was trying to be the other person’s spiritual director, but it was enormously strengthening to be accompanied by other spiritual friends, on the spiritual way. The possibilities there are wide, especially with phone and video conversations these days as well.

Then, an annual retreat, for example, with the chance to speak with the retreat director once or twice during the weekend or whatever it might be. That too is a classic piece in the Church’s understanding of the spiritual life.

For those who are married — and I want to acknowledge that this is not always easily possible — but a lot more than perhaps we might think, what the Church calls conjugal spirituality. And only in that vocation is a companion in the spiritual life built right into one’s own home, in that kind of close relationship. Without trying to be one another’s spiritual directors, they can be spiritual companions, in a way that only spouses can accompany each other on the spiritual life. I just published a book called Discernment of Spirits in Marriage: Ignatian Wisdom for Husbands and Wives.

So my recommendation for people when this question comes up is to employ a number of these strategies or avenues simultaneously. And even if you have formal spiritual direction, to have a good confessor or have spiritual friends, and if you have not yet found a spiritual director, find a good confessor, meet with spiritual friends, or parish groups.

That’s my recommendation to people: Don’t be alone in the spiritual life. Multiply the ways of being accompanied, respecting the nature of each one. And if you have a few of these in place, you’re in a pretty good place in the spiritual life.

Can a lay person be a formal spiritual director?

Fr. Gallagher: If you look at the practice in the Church today, the answer is very clear. No vocation is excluded from the role of spiritual director. What matters is that this be a competent and properly prepared and wise person. The way St. Ignatius describes it in his rules for discernment of spirits, when he is indicating that when we feel the enemy’s burdens or temptations and don’t go along with them but find the proper person to speak to about them, the way he says it is, “When one speaks to one’s good confessor or to another spiritual person who knows the enemy’s deceits.” So you have two profiles there. The first one obviously is the priest — and not just any priest but, as he says, a good priest. And as what follows immediately indicates, by good he means you’re not simply devout or holy, which is obviously a very good thing, but that this is a knowledgeable person who knows, so that when you share your spiritual experience, this person will be competent to understand it and to help you properly. He says “to one’s good confessor or to another spiritual person,” and that is obviously open to any vocation: it could be a religious or a lay person. But again, immediately he specifies “who knows,” and that’s what spiritual means here: not just devout or holy person, as good as that is, but that this person is competent.

If you look at Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross — John of the Cross, especially — they have very severe strictures against people who offer spiritual direction without the proper competence and the harm that that can do.

So if you look at our tradition, it can be a person of any vocation, but what is absolutely essential to this is that the person have the proper competence, be knowledgeable about the spiritual life and therefore be able to help the person.

There’s a reason why spiritual direction has tended to be identified more with the priest, and that’s because the priest has the training. Of course, there’s the sacrament of Orders and a grace there. Priests also have some seven years of study in theology and spiritual things and scripture and so forth, which other people may not have in the same way. So there’s a reason why people tend to think of the priest in the first place, but there’s nothing exclusive about that.

And, you can have a priest who’s done the studies and has the sacrament of Orders, and may be a less effective spiritual director than a lay person, for example, who has the requisite training and learning and wisdom.

A good spiritual director has to be knowledgeable. Good will, holiness of life — nothing can replace that. That’s what St. John of the Cross speaks about so strongly. So it’s quite a responsibility to offer yourself for spiritual direction, and no one should do that who is not properly competent and knowledgeable.

A good spiritual director is him- or herself also receiving direction, is a person of solid, faithful prayer, of good life, a person who doesn’t need to be professionally competent, like a professional counselor in psychology, but needs at least not to be naive about psychological things, and to recognize that if there are psychological issues, it should be referred to someone who is competent.

It should be a person who is living a good, sound spiritual life.

Normally, a spiritual director doesn’t just set up shop, but what normally happens is it’s the children who seek the parent. People begin to approach somebody because they have a sense that this is someone who can help me spiritually.

If one is interested in finding a spiritual director, how should he or she go about it?

Fr. Gallagher: What I would suggest is that the person cast a wide net at first. As we live in the Church, we all have contact with various priests, possibly religious or even lay spiritual directors. But I’ll begin with a priest. Maybe as a person goes to confession or is at Mass and watches the priest pray the Mass and so forth, the person will get a sense — and maybe you can ask other people who know people who are available for spiritual direction — you kind of cast a wide net, and as you do that, you get a sense that maybe this person seems to be, as far as I can tell, perhaps the best choice for me.

What I would suggest the person do at this point is not ask that priest, let’s say, for spiritual direction, but maybe after Mass approach the priest and say, “Father, there’s something in my spiritual life I really would appreciate help with. Could I speak with you?” And if the priest is too busy, he’ll say so, and if he can say yes to that, he will.

And this is another thing: you don’t have the responsibility for the spiritual director’s time. You might think that person could really help but he or she is so busy I don’t know if I should ask for that person’s time. Let that person manage his or her own time. You only honor a spiritual director by asking.

When you do speak, share whatever the issue is. Have that conversation. If the conversation didn’t really prove to be all that you’d hoped for, it’s very simple to just say “Thank you Father,” and that’s it.

If it did seem helpful, even then I would not yet ask for spiritual direction. What I would do then is say, “Father, this has been really helpful. If I ever needed to speak to you again, would that be possible?” Chances are, he’ll say yes to that. And when the time seems right, you’ll meet again in the same way. If the second meeting seems very helpful and confirms your sense that this is a person who could really help me and whom I’d like to ask for spiritual direction, at that point you could ask for it. And it’s different now because you’re not just a person who said hello in the parking lot after Mass, but you’re somebody that he knows now. You’re more likely — if he can do it — to get a yes in this case, rather than from a first contact.

If that doesn’t work — the person is too busy or just can’t do it — you just continue the process with the next person who seems hopeful.

And do this without losing hope. We actually have a promise from the Lord: Seek and you will find. And what better a thing could you seek than help in the spiritual life?

There have been more and more instances of “professional” spiritual directors showing up online, and they charge for their services. What are your thoughts on that?

Fr. Gallagher: I’m actually speaking with you from our Oblate Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality, where we train spiritual directors. There are people from all vocations: priests, religious, seminarians and lay people, and some of them are on staff here. Two of our own priests run the place, but there are some lay women who are very fine spiritual directors who also teach in the program and also offer spiritual direction, very competently.

I’m ordained 41 years now and have been doing spiritual direction for much of that time, and I’ve never asked anyone for anything for spiritual direction, and I’m really happy about that. But I also have to say that it’s easier for me to do that because my financial support comes through my religious community: whatever comes through my ministry goes to the community, and whatever I need comes from the community. I’m not dependent for my livelihood on the spiritual direction that I offer. I’m very happy that that’s the case, and I’m very happy that the people who come to me don’t even have to think about that. So it’s purely a spiritual relationship without anything else involved.

You do have other people, though, especially because lay people are now doing spiritual direction. And it’s really important, I think, that lay people be available for spiritual direction, because there are fewer and fewer priests available for it. There are priests who have three parishes now, or a parish and a position in the chancery, and so on. And the interest in and demand for spiritual direction has almost been exploding in the last few decades and we have fewer priests to do it. Which is why programs like we have here have sprung up, because they are meeting a real need, and the only way that it can be still very partially met now.

The liability there is that you have to be sure that the lay people are properly trained. It can’t be just a quick thing. People do the whole program here — it’s a five-year program or a three summer intensive program. So it’s not quick; it’s quite demanding. And it needs to be, because there’s such a responsibility involved in spiritual direction.

There are lay people who are very fine spiritual directors and are really dedicating their lives to that, and they can only do that if they get some kind of remuneration for it. They would have to find some kind of job in the secular sphere and just not be able to do spiritual direction.

So I share with you the feeling that it’s a little distasteful to bring finances into spiritual direction. I’m very happy that I don’t have to do it personally, and I think it’s praiseworthy that people, wherever they can avoid that, do avoid it, but I recognize that there are situations in which it‘s the only way spiritual direction can be offered is in that way.

And I would add that normally lay people who do ask for that kind of remuneration are not well-to-do people. They’re only asking for it because they really do need it. And they’re doing spiritual direction out of a sense of mission, because they could certainly find better remuneration in different kinds of work.

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