Q: Dear Father John, What are the key characteristics of good spiritual direction?
A: There are three ways to answer this question, depending on the point of view.
From the point of view of the person receiving it, spiritual direction is an extremely useful (many would say essential) help for growing in holiness, which is the same thing as growing in one’s communion with God, which is the same thing as growing in authentic wisdom and happiness. Having a spiritual director is like having a coach: they keep us objective and accountable, warn us of pitfalls, encourage us when we feel weak or discouraged, help clarify confusions and doubts, and make sure we are working intelligently in our efforts to know, love, and follow Jesus Christ more each day.
However, spiritual direction is no substitute for grace and faith. God’s grace, which normally reaches us through the sacraments and through prayer, is the source and nourishment of the Christian’s new and amazing life in Christ. Faith is our docile and active acceptance of, and collaboration with, God’s grace. Grace is supernatural nourishment, but faith is the exercise that turns that nourishment into growth. From this, we can infer the key characteristics of good spiritual direction:
- Regularity: We should meet or communicate with our spiritual director on a regular basis, not just when we are in a crisis, or when we feel like talking. Monthly spiritual direction is a good periodicity, though for some seasons a short spiritual direction every fifteen days is useful.
- Sincerity: A patient going to the doctor because of stomach problems would be foolish to talk only about his headaches and backaches. Just so, by holding back from the spiritual director our moral, emotional, relational, and spiritual struggles or failures, we are handcuffing the director and wasting everyone’s time.
- Docility: We need to work hard to follow the spiritual director’s guidance. Otherwise, again, we are wasting everybody’s time.
From the point of view of the spiritual director, this interaction is an opportunity to share the experience and wisdom that their own walk with Christ has given them. It is also a chance to marvel at God’s work in the lives of authentic Christians. The spiritual director is not just a consultant, but a brother or sister in Christ, a fellow saint-in-the-making. The joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures of the directee are felt deeply by the director, but at the same time, the director knows that he is only an assistant coach – the Holy Spirit is the primary protagonist in everyone’s spiritual growth.
Good spiritual directors see their work as helping identify obstacles – behavioral or mental habits, confused ideas, undetected temptations – that are keeping the directee from moving more quickly towards greater love for God and neighbor. But the director cannot remove the obstacles. Only God and the directee can do that. This is one of the reasons that it is not necessary for our spiritual directors to be perfect. They just have to be good instruments.
From the point of view of the Holy Spirit, spiritual direction is a cause of great joy, because it gives him more room to work. God understands human nature – after all, he invented it. And so he understands how much we need human companionship in our spiritual journey. When St Paul had his life-changing vision on the road to Damascus, the Lord said to him, “Get up now and go into the city, and you will be told what you have to do” (Acts 9:6). Sure enough, God sent Ananias to visit St Paul on Straight Street, and Ananias began to help St. Paul understand what God was doing in his life and how he should respond. That’s how Jesus does things, because that’s how we need him to do things. And so, when someone takes the humble step of faith to receive guidance from a spiritual director, the Holy Spirit rolls up his sleeves and gets to work.
This third dimension is what makes spiritual direction so much more than mere personal coaching. If self-help is like running laps around an indoor track, growth in holiness is like hiking through the Alps. Jesus has a lot more he wants us to see and do than we can imagine. By deciding to let ourselves be guided in spiritual direction, we are telling Jesus that we really do want to want what he wants.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC