Have you ever sat down for coffee with a good friend and found yourself sharing a problem with her? This friend is a good listener and suddenly you find her showing you your own problem, perhaps in your own words, but in a new light.
She’s not telling you what to do. But she’s looked at the prism of your life from a different angle than you have, and she turns it gently toward you so that you see the light from that side, too.
In a very real sense, that is what spiritual direction can be.
Spiritual direction is an ancient practice, but for years it was mainly used by priests and religious. After the Second Vatican Council, the laity became more aware that God was calling them to a deep and active life of faith and prayer. So it became important that they find help and guidance in listening to how God was speaking in their lives.
It’s important to know what spiritual direction is not. A spiritual director is not a psychologist or a therapist, although you might find a few who are also trained in those practices. And, although this is a little contradictory, a good spiritual director not does actually “direct” you, in the sense that they tell you what you must do.
Rather, by conversation and questioning, a good spiritual director may help you make your own decisions and discernments. For this reason, many directors prefer the title “spiritual companion.”
Some people believe they aren’t prayerful enough or far enough along in spiritual practices to seek spiritual direction. No one should feel this way. If you are reading this article or thinking about spiritual direction, you are obviously a person who wants a relationship with God.
If you are beginning to realize that the Jesuit maxim of “finding God in all things” is what you want for your life, but life is messy and sometimes unclear and you’d like some help, you’re ready to seek spiritual direction.
So what should you expect from direction? You may meet for about an hour, perhaps every four to six weeks. You will meet in a quiet, prayerful environment and your session will begin with quieting and prayer.
Then, you can expect your director, at your first meeting, to ask you what’s going on in your life, how you pray, where you find God — or where you feel God’s absence. Although you want to be honest with your director, direction is not confession.
A good spiritual director is an active listener. You do most of the talking; the spiritual director listens closely and asks insightful questions. It becomes a sacred conversation about your whole life — you begin to see God in decisions both great and small.
Where to send your child to school? How to resist returning rudeness at the grocery store and react with kindness? The struggle you’re having with weight and cholesterol and those doughnuts you can’t resist.
As you grow in a deepening friendship with God, you know God cares about all aspects of your life, and your director is ready to talk to you about them.
Good directors talk about themselves very little and don’t compare you to others or their experiences. Good directors employ complete confidentiality and discretion. They may make suggestions for you about prayer or about a helpful book.
Sometimes, they may call your bluff if they sense you’re being dishonest with yourself. Eventually, you will feel you’re in conversation with a good friend, and you leave feeling you’ve glimpsed the other side of that prism.
How do you find a spiritual director? It’s best to find someone who has trained for spiritual direction. It may surprise you to know that not all priests and religious have been trained in this practice. Some of them, like your friend over coffee, may have a natural gift for listening and engaging in spiritual conversation, but for the most part it’s good to find a trained director.
Ask your pastor if he can recommend a director or call the pastoral center or chancery of your diocese for a list. Many Catholic universities offer courses in spiritual direction, and you might contact a theology department or the campus ministry office in your area.
Or ask any religious sister you know, as most religious communities have many trained directors in their ranks and sisters all have experience with directors themselves.
You might wish to inquire about fees or donations up front.
Don’t worry that if you find someone isn’t a good fit, you’re stuck. Any director worth their salt will offer to spend a couple of sessions getting acquainted and will understand if you choose to keep looking.
Why is spiritual direction a good thing? Often we become bound up in false preconceptions about our lives. We navel-gaze and don’t see the big picture.
We can’t stand back and see the God who is right in our midst. We procrastinate about moving ahead with our spiritual lives and forget how fleeting life is.
A spiritual director helps us see and listen and move forward. That’s a good thing.
Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.