by Father David Watt, STL (Gregorian), PhD (Cambridge)
The following article does not purport to be comprehensive but merely to give some points which, in my experience of eleven years as a priest, are widely overlooked regarding spiritual direction. In everything I say I submit to the judgment of the Church, not wishing to be ‘pertinacious in error’.
A. The choosing of a spiritual director
Knowing from my own experience, my observation, & Church tradition how much more progress in the spiritual life is made under a director, I have always lamented the fact that so few Catholics – even the more devout – seem to have one. Why this lack? Partly no doubt through ignorance – people have not been told of the importance of spiritual direction. Sometimes too specious arguments are offered against spiritual direction, eg that it is an abdication of one’s reason. It is, on the contrary, supremely reasonable to acknowledge humbly, with the Church, that ‘no one is a good judge in his own case’, & hence to seek another to whom one submits one’s own ideas, however holy they may appear. According to masters of the spiritual life, eg St Louis Marie de Montfort, even inspirations received before the Blessed Sacrament are better subjected to one’s superiors than acted on immediately.
Besides opposition to spiritual direction, sometimes one meets with the opposite error – making out that spiritual direction is obligatory. It is not. For the attaining of Heaven, all that is required is the grace of obeying the commandments, & there is no commandment to have a spiritual director. Some groups within the Church impose on their members the obligation of having a spiritual director, but the obligation arises from membership of the group, not merely from being Catholic.
In my judgment, however, spiritual direction, while not necessary to enter Heaven, is generally necessary to reach the degree of glory God wishes an individual to obtain. In theory God could lead someone to the maximum sanctity possible for him, without a director. In practice, however, I do not know of any instance where this has occurred – unless perhaps in the case of someone who died before a spiritual director could be found. Certainly if one reads the lives of
the Saints one is struck by how, for all their holiness, they were the first to admit with great humility their need for a guide in the spiritual life. Where they were forced to manage without one for a certain time, they constantly bemoaned the fact to God. Not only that; they were prepared to embark on an arduous search for a spiritual director suitable for them. The difficulty of finding a director who suits a particular individual is no doubt why many, even among the devout, take the seemingly* easier option, so deleterious to their spiritual growth, of being their own spiritual director, not as a temporary & unavoidable measure while searching for someone, but indefinitely.
* In reality harder, as we shall see.
The different kinds of spiritual direction
Before we proceed any further we need to clarify the different types of spiritual direction. They may be divided into old style & new; all life & directly spiritual. This gives us four kinds of spiritual direction based on the combination of these two types: old style – all life, old style – directly spiritual, new style – all life, new style – directly spiritual.
New style spiritual direction means that the direction is confined to advice, whereas old style can also make use of orders. Directly spiritual means such questions as how much one prays & how, what penances one does, what spiritual exercises in general. All life means that one does not wish the direction restricted to such questions, but wants even “nonspiritual” matters such as whether it is time for a haircut subjected to the director. As St Paul says ‘whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do; do all things for the glory of God’ (1 Cor. 10:31). (Thus ‘all life’ means every aspect of one’s current life, not the time till death. How this works out in practice will depend upon how much contact it is possible to have with the spiritual director. The more contact, the more day-to-day decisions it will be practical for him to make.)
Obviously it is vital to clarify with the director at the start of the spiritual relationship, what type of direction is sought.
Which type of spiritual direction is best, & why? Let us say at the outset that any type of direction is greatly preferable to none. Regarding the type which is best, the modern Church would generally plump for new style – directly spiritual as leaving more scope for individual freedom. The irony is that this is actually a weakness in that type of direction! If we follow the tradition of the Church, it is precisely because we wish to subject our freedom to the security of obedience that we seek spiritual direction. Knowing ourselves to be surrounded by myriads of rebel angels – beings far greater than ourselves in power & intelligence – who are constantly plotting our destruction, we want to be led by the hand like a little child. We know that we will never go wrong in obeying even the mistaken order of a superior, assuming of course it is not an order to do something we know to be sinful. But there is no such security regarding the advice of a superior. Humility dictates being open to suggestions from anyone, & of course superiors are entitled to special respect. At the end of the day, however, we may prayerfully discern that it is God’s Will not to follow a superior’s advice. So the modern style of spiritual direction is inferior through unnecessary complexity – it gives the directee no guarantee of knowing God’s Will after direction, but leaves him with the chore of having to determine this himself – a task in which he may or may not be successful.
The most important reason for the inferiority of modern-style spiritual direction however concerns the will, not the mind. Our heritage from rebellious Adam & Eve is a tendency to follow them; to repeat with Satan ‘Non serviam’ – I will not serve! This pride is in everyone – even the greatest saint – as long as we have not ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’. We can however make it weaker by performing acts of humility. The greater these are – the more we abase ourselves – the more our pride is lessened. And obviously there is more abasement in submitting to another, than in merely listening to him which is all that modern-style spiritual direction involves.
The same considerations which prove the superiority of old style spiritual direction also prove that the best option of all – where it can be found – is all life old-style spiritual direction. Why do things by halves? Why have the light & security of obedience, just for matters which are directly spiritual, when we can have it for the rest of our life as well? Only through pride, ignorance or a lack of trust in the spiritual director.
Who can be spiritual director?
I sometimes see lists of qualities supposedly necessary in a spiritual director which make me wonder if there are five such people in the world. I think these lists can do much harm. If people take them seriously, it means the vast majority will have to do without spiritual direction – which really means being their own director, & they may not have these qualities either!
The other thing one notices regarding the qualities supposedly necessary in a spiritual director is how widely the opinions differ from person to person. One will restrict all spiritual direction to priests; another will allow it also from religious. Another will place the emphasis more on academic qualifications, allowing even lay-people to give spiritual direction if they have degrees in counselling &/or spiritual theology. Still another will prefer to emphasize holiness – the spiritual director must be more holy than the directee.
The reason there are so many opinions on this is that people are going by subjective criteria rather than Church teaching, which issues no decrees regarding qualities needed in a spiritual director. And for a very good reason – she wants everyone to have a director, which is impossible if one excludes whole categories of people a priori.
In the above lists of qualities, the best try was the one referring to holiness. Spiritual direction is about advancing in the spiritual life, so we would expect that someone more advanced would often be able to help someone less advanced. Nonetheless to require that the director must be more holy than the directee means it is mathematically impossible for everyone to have a spiritual director – contrary to the encouragement of the Church. For if A must be more holy than B, & A in turn must have a director more holy than himself, sooner or later one of the directors must himself be without direction. (On a more personal note, I believe that some – perhaps all – of my own spiritual children are actually more advanced than I in the spiritual life.)
The error in believing superior holiness to be needed in a spiritual director comes from thinking one’s own opinion is sufficient without proof. That is something one notices in discussions concerning spiritual direction & in particular about qualities supposedly necessary in a director – everyone has his own opinion, but very rarely is the opinion supported by argument.
One factor that seems almost invariably overlooked in the different opinions on who can or cannot give spiritual direction, is the issue of openness. If there is any fact about himself too intimate for the prospective directee to share with the prospective director, that immediately militates against the effectiveness of the possible spiritual relationship. It is not necessarily a question of sins. Objectively
of course there should be nothing we are more ashamed of than our sins, but because of our human imperfection it sometimes happens that there are facts about ourselves that we find more difficult & embarrassing to reveal than our sins. And in the search for a person to whom we can reveal these things, academic qualifications are not necessarily paramount. There may be someone who on paper is an excellent spiritual director; perhaps even is so in reality, but to whom for one reason or another a given person cannot fully open up. Spiritual direction is a very personal thing & a director who enables full openness in one person may – perhaps through no fault of his own – fail to do so in another.
Another issue regarding openness is that of familiarity. People may sometimes find it easier to open up to someone they have known for a long time, than to a complete stranger – however well qualified he may be in other respects. Of course, sometimes the reverse is true – the complete stranger, precisely as such, is more likely to elicit complete openness, because the person does not wish to damage any existing relationships through his or her disclosures. A complete stranger may also seem more impartial. More commonly though, a person opens up more readily to one who is already a friend – the closer the better. If so, this factor is worth ten degrees when deciding whom to ask for spiritual direction.
A further reason degrees are not the be all & end all when choosing a spiritual director is that people with more academic qualifications – especially in theology! – often tend to be more modern in their thinking about the faith, & so could well refuse to offer the best form of spiritual direction: old style. Not only that; they may offer only new style – directly spiritual: the least beneficial form of spiritual direction, though still infinitely better than nothing.
Another question which I never see handled in people’s preconceptions about who can & cannot give spiritual direction is that of availability. Someone may be an excellent director but have so little time that one will actually make more progress under a less skilful director. Generally speaking, the more spiritual direction one can obtain, the quicker one’s progress in the spiritual life. The ideal – very rarely obtainable, of course – would be an old style, all life spiritual director with whom one lives & who is therefore able to oversee & where need be correct one’s every action. Religious may be able to obtain this if they can find a sufficiently sympathetic soul in the house where they live.
Although we cannot insist that the spiritual director be a priest, if one can find a suitable priest (perhaps a retired one as having more time) there can be a great practical advantage in that one need not embark on a separate search for a confessor. Going by the tradition of the Church it is advantageous to have the same regular confessor, rather than going to one priest or another at random. That way the priest can get to know an individual & provide advice based on his particular circumstances rather than just on general considerations. In this way he becomes at least a minispiritual director.
This bears on the question of whether a person can have more than one director. I know a man who has seven! This is easier if it is just a question of modern-style spiritual direction because at the end of the day one does whatever one wants anyway. Even then, however, it seems more in accordance with the tradition of the Church that there be one main spiritual director. And certainly if it is a question of old-style spiritual directors & there is more than one, there must be a hierarchy. No lower- level director must be able to give any order contradicting those given by a higher level director. There seems more point to multiple spiritual directors when the principal one can never or all too rarely be seen in person – perhaps on account of living at too great a distance.
Returning to the subject of our discussion – qualities needed in a spiritual director – when the number of my own spiritual children had begun to grow I asked a friend of mine, a much more experienced priest than myself, with spiritual children of his own, if there was any book he could recommend on spiritual direction. Though possessing an enormous number of
spiritual books he did not mention a single one! In his view, giving spiritual direction is like riding a bicycle – it’s something that you learn by doing it. Which is not to deny that books may help but it is to say that experience is paramount. A corollary is that ceteris paribus the better spiritual director will tend to be the one with more experience. However, if none but experienced directors are ever approached, how will new ones ever be trained!
Though training is important we must bear in mind that spiritual direction is an area in which some have greater natural aptitude than others. Just as some priests have more talent in preaching, others in the confessional etc., so too some priests – or non-priests – will by nature have more skill than others in spiritual direction. An ability for extensive dealing with a person one on one is not something which can be acquired by academic study, though it may in some cases to a limited degree be assisted by it. So too in the secular world – eg business – the best managers are not necessarily those with most academic qualifications.
Particularly if it is a question of old-style spiritual direction, some who actually have a talent for managing others may experience scruples because it seems to them that they are taking pleasure in the sensation of control. This is understandable because in the secular world probably more often than not those with authority over others – eg in a firm – if they enjoy this, would not do so in exactly the right way. However, as Aristotle says, the pleasure perfects the act. If it is right for some to have authority over others – even to the extent of all-life old-style spiritual direction – it is also right to enjoy this authority, provided one does so ‘in the Lord’, recognizing that all authority comes from Him & that one day we will have to account to Him for how we exercised it.
So then if various opinions on qualities needed in a spiritual director cannot be proven from Church teaching, what are the criteria in choosing a director? I submit the answer is: one criterion & one criterion only – the person one should approach for spiritual direction is the one discerned in prayer to offer most prospects, here & now, for advancing in the spiritual life. Other criteria, eg academic qualifications, should be introduced only in so far as they bear on the above criterion, eg by breaking a deadlock between two candidates who otherwise seem equally well suited.
Here it may be objected that if some err by listing too many qualities as needed in a spiritual director, I have erred in the opposite direction. Do not authorities on the spiritual life such as St Teresa of Avila & St John of the Cross issue stringent criteria for a spiritual director, & speak of the harm which can be done if he is incompetent?
I cannot give a definitive answer to this objection because, though I have some acquaintance with the writings of St Teresa of Avila & St John of the Cross, I am far from expert. Could it be that their criteria are for an ideal spiritual director, & that they were prepared to put up with one who was less than ideal (which in a sense is everyone; even if the director is a saint, he is still flawed because born in Original Sin) for the sake of avoiding a situation which is even less ideal – being one’s own spiritual director? Actions speak louder than words, & if we read the Autobiography of St Teresa of Avila, we do not find her sitting around for years being her own spiritual director while she waited for ‘Father Right’ to come along. On the contrary, she went to great trouble to search for spiritual direction, & was prepared to suffer much under various directors, rather than acquiesce in being her own spiritual director.
Yes an incompetent director can cause pain, but like the devil he cannot cause harm in the truest deepest sense of the word unless we let him. If we follow his mistaken orders or advice for love of God, whose place he holds, God will reward our humility & obedience. And the pain endured under a director, competent or not, will also redound to our spiritual growth.
We saw above that the one to approach for spiritual direction should be the one who, here & now, is prayerfully discerned to offer most prospects for advancing in the spiritual life. Later someone else might offer more prospects, so as we shall now see this possibility should be dealt with at the earliest opportunity.
B. The beginning of spiritual direction.
Once someone has been approached for spiritual direction & has agreed, what then? One of the first things to be discussed, I believe, should be the ‘exit clauses’. To operate on ‘crisis management’ is no more laudable in spiritual matters than in any other walk of life. I know one splendid priest who had a spiritual daughter living in the same city; they had many meetings for direction but eventually he “sacked” her over the phone! Perhaps it was an emergency but in general modern means of communication are not an appropriate way of terminating any relationship, let alone a spiritual one.
One way of dealing with the question of exit clauses is by initially agreeing on a ‘trial run’ of spiritual direction for, say, one month, or maybe a few months. This may also be a means by which a prospective directee may succeed in overcoming hesitation from the prospective director, who sees that if things don’t work out the difficulties will be for a limited time only.
Another method is to have something analogous to ‘giving notice’ in paid employment. Either side can terminate the relationship, but the decision will not take immediate effect. This allows the directee time to search for a new director without being in the unenviable situation of being his own director.
Still another method is to require that before any severance of the relationship there is thorough discussion on request. Either side has the right to withdraw but if the other party is not agreeable he has the right to have all his objections heard before the decision takes effect. One might further specify that such discussion take place before the Blessed Sacrament.
It is not possible for me to say that one of the above methods is the best. Some may be better for one person; others for another. One might also combine some of these clauses, or even have something entirely different. The crucial thing, for me, is that there be exit clauses*. Besides the above reasons, there is another which applies in the case of old-style spiritual direction. Exercising oneself in obedience becomes a complete farce if one can “sack” the director as soon as one receives an unwelcome order.
* I remember reading about one directee who as a condition of being accepted as spiritual daughter had to agree that she would not change directors! Well, at least the question was broached. But was there any agreement to stop him from “sacking” her hastily, eg in a fit of pique?
Another issue that needs clarification at the outset of a spiritual relationship is that of confidentiality. This might seem to go without saying, but sadly that is not the case. The confidentiality should be akin to that of the confessional seal, even if not guarded by such severe censures.
It needs to be said at the start of the relationship that this confidentiality will continue even if the relationship ceases, at least until the death of the directee, & preferably till that of the director, since some may squirm at the thought of their private matters being discussed even after their death.
A related matter is that unless one has a special relationship with a particular individual it is too intrusive a question to enquire if he has a spiritual director, let alone who that director is. Such information should be divulged only at his initiative & if he sees fit.
Another issue which should be discussed at the start of spiritual direction is that of the offering. Unfortunately my experience is that this is generally neglected – so much so that a priest may be embarrassed to raise the matter through fear of seeming mercenary. The fact is, however, that even if he is the parish priest of the one seeking direction, what is put in the collection-plate is not intended to cover spiritual direction, but only more basic provision of spiritual services. As we have seen, there is no general obligation to seek spiritual direction, & a corollary is that there is no general obligation to provide it. Someone who agrees to provide direction is therefore doing the requester a favour – one involving a considerable investment of time & trouble. So it is only right there be an offering for this. It is not payment because spiritual services cannot be bought or sold – that would be simony. Nor is it essential that the offering always be material. Perhaps a purely spiritual one would be acceptable, eg over & above the normal prayer commitment, a ‘bouquet’ of Holy Hours, Rosaries etc. for the sanctification of the director, in some proportion to the amount of time he spends. (This time may be much more than meets the eye, because of contact outside of formal sessions for direction; also the reading of spiritual journals etc.) Or the offering could be partly spiritual & partly material. Another possibility is that the offering be wholly or partially via services rendered. But to omit the question of an offering via embarrassment is to neglect this immemorial tradition & to risk cultivating ingratitude. If something does not cost, sadly it is often not appreciated.
Openness & respect
We have seen earlier that openness is paramount in spiritual direction, & this should include the directee being able to tell the director about perceived deficiencies in the way he or she gives direction. It would be terrible if, through fear of reprisals, the directee were to bottle up such opinions. However this freedom should be combined with the greatest respect for the office of spiritual director.
One essential sign of respect is by honouring time-limits regarding the amount of contact with the director. Also, particularly if it is a question of old-style spiritual direction, physical expressions of respect may be appropriate, especially those hallowed by the tradition of the Church, eg addressing the spiritual director by a title; also kneeling & prostration. We should not too readily excuse ourselves from these by saying ‘My great respect for my spiritual director does not need expression in outward signs’. Chances are we are fooling ourselves & making excuses for our pride which, because of Original Sin, even the greatest saint bears till his dying day. If the respect is really so great it should naturally spill over to the bodily realm. We are men, not angels.
Particularly if the director has a considerable number of spiritual children, it may be useful to put the initial agreement in writing so that both parties have a copy. The director may also find it aids his memory to have a notebook for each spiritual child where he can jot something down after each session. Likewise, the directee may be assisted by keeping a spiritual journal & by handing this to the director from time to time. Both director & directee, however, should exercise foresight regarding any sensitive material on paper which it is deemed better to store than to destroy immediately. In this connection it is useful to make a Will & appoint a sufficiently discreet executor who can be trusted to return or destroy such material.
I would like to finish with a word of encouragement to those for whom it seems too difficult to look for spiritual direction. Without a single exception that I have found, those whose desire for a spiritual director is stronger than a velleity, invariably succeed in finding one. The search may be long and arduous but is infinitely worthwhile, since it increases the glory we can give to God once we are in Heaven!
* * * * *
Fr. Watt’s article is most timely considering that Pope Benedict XVI recently encouraged everyone to have a spiritual director.
VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 16, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Everyone — priests, religious, laypeople — and especially youth, should have a spiritual director to help them in the Christian life, says Benedict XVI.