Ancient practice is gaining in popularity, says Fr. Timothy Gallagher.
Does your list of New Year’s 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 currently holds the St. Ignatius Chair for Spiritual Formation at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.
What is spiritual direction?
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.
You can 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 it something every Catholic should have?
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.