Q: Dear Father John, what is the best way to find a Spiritual Director? Should it be your pastor? A friend? Or someone whom you do not know when you begin?
A. Finding a spiritual director usually follows four steps:
First, you need to remember what spiritual direction is all about. The role of a spiritual director is not to tell you what to do, the way a boss or a military drill sergeant does. Rather, a spiritual director helps you discover and accept what God is doing in your life and what God is asking you to do. Spiritual direction is an ongoing conversation between you, the director, and the Holy Spirit about how you can know, love, and follow Christ more fully.
Second, you need to understand the necessary qualities of a good spiritual director. Objectively, the person needs to be prudent, practical, knowledgeable (about the faith and the spiritual life), and balanced. This is the kind of person who is an excellent listener, and who is not afraid to be honest and demanding with you, and to make sure you are being honest with yourself. The person doesn’t need to be a genius. They should tend to be optimistic without being a polyanna. They should in some way show enthusiasm for the things of God. They need to be someone energetically engaged in their own pursuit of holiness, so that they speak not only from theory, but also from experience. Subjectively, it needs to be someone you can trust – either someone you already trust, or someone who easily and naturally wins your trust during the first few times you meet.
Third, pray. Remember that your Father in heaven “already knows what you need before you ask him.” Your heartfelt desire to go deeper in your spiritual life is already a gift from God. He will guide you towards someone who can help satisfy it.
Fourth, start looking. Usually it is a good idea to start by looking for a priest. The most common way is to come across someone by reference: the recommendation of someone you know, the substantial and helpful preaching that you have consistently heard from him, his written material that has helped you considerably, the priest who spends a lot of time hearing confessions and has shown a pastor’s heart to you in the confessional… By now you are probably already thinking of someone you could ask (it may be your pastor, or a priest friend, or someone you have heard about). If not, try asking around or looking around for a respected retreat director in your area, or an esteemed chaplain at a school. Sometimes retired priests are good candidates.
If someone who is not a priest comes immediately to mind as you think about who to ask (an older lay person, a religious, a professor you once had…), that is fine. John Paul II’s first spiritual director (when he was a college student) was a layman. Generally, a priest will have more spiritual experience himself and a more in-depth theological training, but that is not always the case. If you find a lay person of the same gender as yourself who fits the above description and is willing to mentor you spiritually, great.
Once you find someone (it may take some time), ask them if they would be willing to be your spiritual director, or at least to help guide you in your pursuit of holiness. But remember, even when you have found a spiritual director, you are still the person in charge of your life-project. Sometimes we expect (or want) the spiritual director to do everything for us – all the thinking and all the deciding. Not so. The director is like a consultant. Unless you are taking the initiative, being open and sincere, and responding to the director’s guidance and suggestions with healthy docility, you will end up finding yourself hopping around from director to director in a vain effort to grasp holiness without stepping outside your comfort zone.