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Can someone be their own spiritual director? I have not been able to find a director… what should I do in the mean time?

Q: Dear Father John, I haven’t been able to find a spiritual director yet (which is kind of frustrating). I am still looking, but what should I do in the meantime? Can someone be their own spiritual director?

A: This is a deeper question than you might think. First, continue to ask God to put you in touch with someone who can be your spiritual director. (If you haven’t read the post about how to find a spiritual director, you may find it helpful.) Judging by the surveys we have done on this blog, you are not alone. You can count on my prayers for this intention.

The second part of your question opens up some critical issues. Can someone be their own spiritual director? On the surface, the answer is obvious: of course not. The main point of spiritual direction is providing oneself with an objective point of view. As the old proverb puts it: no one is a good judge in their own case. When a quarterback is leading his team on the field, he can see a lot of what’s going on, but his coaches up in the box have a bird’s eye view of the whole field, and their input will usually mean the difference between victory and defeat. We all tend to favor our strong suits and ignore our weaknesses. This is true for musicians, athletes, actors… It’s a human thing. That’s why in all areas of expertise and growth, a good coach, instructor, or teacher is so necessary. They shed light on our blind-spots and encourage us to pay attention not only to what we want to work on, but to what we really need to work on. This objective point of view is all the more valuable because of the director’s larger share of wisdom and experience. In the 1981 Academy Award winning film, Chariots of Fire, based on a true story, the Olympic runner Harold Abrahams realizes that if he wants to win a medal, he can’t depend solely on his extraordinary natural talent and exemplary dedication. He has to find a coach. He does, and it pays off.

But there is another side to this issue. Even if we have a good spiritual director, that is no guarantee of spiritual growth. A medical doctor can prescribe a certain medicine to cure an ailment, but the patient then needs to take that medicine. A spiritual director can point out a path to greater spiritual maturity, but it’s up to each one of us to generously, perseveringly, and enthusiastically pursue that path. Spiritual direction is one of the tools the Holy Spirit uses to shape us into the saints he created us to be, but it’s only one of the tools, and its effectiveness depends primarily on our own sincerity, docility, and determination to seek an ever greater friendship with Christ.

So, if you are having trouble finding a spiritual director, you don’t need to worry about it. If you are making a reasonable effort to look for one, God will honor that, even if the search is a long one (God has his reasons). In the meantime, the Lord isn’t just twiddling his thumbs and checking his watch. Not at all! He is still the Lord, and he can direct you and guide you closer to his heart, if that’s what you really want. He offers us so many other means of spiritual growth – some might say too many! Here are a few questions you can ask yourself as you continue to pray for and seek a spiritual director:

  • Are you going regularly (every 15 days is a good rule of thumb) to confession and preparing well for it?
  • Is your Eucharistic life (frequent communion, Mass, and adoration) robust or anemic?
  • Are you spending time daily in mental prayer?
  • Are you reading good spiritual books (here’s a list just for those who have yet to find a director) and cultivating healthy friendships with other people who are also seeking to follow Christ more closely?
  • Do you choose entertainment and relaxation activities that ennoble your soul instead of merely distracting your mind (good literature and art, contact with nature, rich music and intelligent films…)?
  • Are you putting a respectable effort into finding ways to bring others closer to Christ, to build up your local Church?

All of these activities will build your friendship with Christ, and the Holy Spirit will speak to you and guide you as you pursue them, whether or not you have been able to find a good spiritual director or confessor.

So, in short, don’t give in to those feelings of frustration. They are a sign that you are eager to seek Christ, an eagerness that can come only from God. But they also may be a sign that you are a bit impatient, wanting God to go at your preferred pace, instead of patiently and trustingly following along at his (much wiser, even if more uncomfortable) pace.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC

PS from Dan: You can also find great tips for finding a spiritual director in our Spiritual Direction Index and in Father Thomas Dubay’s excellent book, “Seeking Spiritual Direction.”

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published two other titles: "Meditations for Mothers" and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently resides in his Order’s General Directorate in Rome, where he is continuing his writing apostolate. His blog contains questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. His online retreats are available at www.RCSpirituality.org.

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  • sandy

    I know not whether I progress,or whether I am treading water in a great sea of doubt.I have looked for a spiritual director,but this is such a barren place for such a thing.I am not a part of my local church community,because of my rather orthodox views.I do not miss Mass,but sometimes it fills me with sorrow at what has been lost.I do not understand the reason for my conversion of two years ago after 40 years of being lapsed.I pray for help,I do not understand why I cannot be more liberal in my views as the rest of my parish.I feel very alone in the faith which I hold to be precious,and unchanging.I search for the Holy Face ,even though my outward life is seemingly unchanged.I try to live in the presence of Almighty God every minute of the day,but I know not whether I succeed or whether I am deluded.The Little office of Our Lady upholds me.Pray for me.

    • danburke

      Dear Sandy – I am grateful to hear of your recent conversion but distressed that you are struggling so deeply. Be sure of one thing, it is a ploy of the enemy to isolate those whom God is calling to him. It is not possible (unless you are called to be a hermit) for you to grow spiritually when you are disconnected from his body – from his means of Grace. Have you checked in the the diocese or your parish priest to see if they can refer you to a spiritual director?

      • sandy

        Dear Dan,
        Thank you for replying.Am I disconnected from His Body?Is this is what has happenned?The people in the parish are good people,they are a spirited,caring community,somewhat “charismatic”if you understand what I mean.I am worried that if I accept their kind overtures I might say something that will offend them…In fact I think I already did.When asked if I wanted a “Name Badge”to wear at Mass,I replied that I thought God knew my name…I wish I hadnt said that.Mass is more like a social occasion ,there is unbearable noise before and after and other things that happen that I feel too deeply about to mention here.I am frightened of my own arrogance,my own pride.Is this then a “Holier than thou”attitude.?I do not know.My diocese is notoriously liberal,not sure how to proceed in asking for a spiritual Director.The parish priest is elderly,devoted to his people,but full of the “spirit of Vat.2″for want of a better description.I understand ,I think the enemy.He often sits on my shoulder.I am not sure whether this self inflicted isolation comes from him,or from the Loving Christ.

        • fran

          Sandy,
          I can understand how uncomfortable you must feel in this community. In our lifelong journey to God it is important to stay connected-to the Body of Christ – the Eucharist. And pray.
          When at Mass, continue to model what is appropriate -others will witness your prayerfulness and love for Christ. And as others see Christ in You, you will see Him in others.
          In the Eucharist(in receiving Christ) you become part of that Body of Christ – the community/Church. We are all chosen, blessed, broken, to be given — “Life of the Beloved” by Henri Nouwen. If we believe that we are chosen, that we are blessed, that we are broken, to be given, then we can trust that our life will bear fruit. It will multiply. Not only in this life, but beyond it.

          • sandy

            Thank you Fran for your wise and helpful words,and also for your interest.In spite of everything I know that my feelings are not important,also that I cannot live without the Mass and the reception of The Body of Christ ,however externally uncomfortable I feel.It is the Mass and the worship of God that has become the most important thing in my life.Thank you again.

  • Manuel

    I don't know how unique my situation is, but I can't seem to find many Christian (let alone Catholic) friends, my own age. (let alone a spritual director). I had a very wonderful friend who is actually a priest now, who tried to persuade me to to get one. I am probably looking for a friend, more than a director, but I know a director would probably be a great benefit in finding my calling. I know without any doubt, that I have a calling the likes of which few can even imagine, but the problem is, that I don't have a clue as to what it is, and have been puzzled for years about it. I actually did investigate the priesthood, but the sister who gave me my initial interview reminded me of TV personna “Anne Robinson” right down to her famous catchphrase “You ARE the weakest link…. Goodbye!” Needless to say, she wasn't entirely wrong, as she gave me a laundry list of things I could work on. I managed to accomplish the more important ones, and many others are currently “in progess”, but she did imply that I should have already known what my calling is. I attend mass weekly, I read scripture and pray daily, I could probably go to confession a bit more often, but that's currently on my “to do list” As far as my social life…. I live practically isolated from others except the people I work with who are all much older than I am with kids/grandkids. I think the scriptural character I can best compare myself to is King David, although I don't think I'm being called to any kind of high profile royalty. The most significant hurdle I've overcome, is that I am just a few months away from being “out of debt”, but dispite the significant freedom that alone brings, It just seems like I should have something more to “look forward to than just a dead end job to go to day in and day out.(although I'm making some tentative plans to retire ASAP, with a little luck in about 5-10 years time).
    Anyways, I much as I like to write, (I've tried that as well, but I seem to spend more time listening to myself type than not) I guess what I'm asking for is at least a fingerpoint in the right direction by anyone who may feel inspired to comment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kristinannie Kristin Pimentel Choate

    Can you repost the books you suggest for those who do not currently have a spiritual director?  I have had to stop seeing my spiritual director and would love some recommendations in the meantime.  I am currently reading The Fire Within and it has been very helpful.  Thanks and God bless.

  • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

    Dear Kristin, I can do even better. The “Resources” tab at the top of the page includes all the books we recommend by topic. Enjoy!