Spiritual direction isn’t just for the saints — it’s for us sinners.
The age-old practice of spiritual direction is known among the saints — St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, St. Augustine, St. Padre Pio and St. Faustina — who sought to grow in their relationship with the Lord. And perhaps their saintliness is one reason why the concept of spiritual direction might seem intimidating to some.
But in the modern age, the practice of spiritual direction has gained popularity among Catholics of all vocations and walks of life, evidenced through increasing demand for spiritual directors. Programs aimed at training priests, religious and laypeople to become spiritual directors, including one recently launched in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, seek to make it more accessible to others.
But what exactly is spiritual direction? And why do we need it?
Charlie Backer has received spiritual direction for several years and said it has helped him to peel back the layers of his life and strengthen his prayer life, ultimately helping him to grow in his relationship with God.
Backer said he’s learned how to have faith in God “when you don’t know what’s going to happen in life. … People get trapped into the idea of thanking God when amazing things happen, but it’s important to see that He is just as present in those hardest moments as He is in the good moments.”
A spiritual director provides guidance along the path with God, “and as you build a stronger relationship with God, you become more aware of His presence in your life,” said the member of Queen of All Saints Parish in Oakville.
“You don’t go to a spiritual director because you have everything figured out,” he said. “You seek someone out because God is calling you to grow closer to Him.”
Father Craig Holway, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish in St. Louis, has been offering spiritual direction for about nine years. He said it’s rewarding to help people see where the Lord is calling them through their prayer lives. Spiritual direction is a long-term commitment, he said, in which a person discerns the path God is inviting them to walk in their daily lives and how to pray along with that invitation from God.
“We enter into a relationship where the director walks with the directee to discern and to know and to follow where the Lord is calling them in their life through their prayer,” he said. “The subject of spiritual direction is their prayer life and it’s helping them to see the fruit of their spiritual life.”
Father Holway received training as a spiritual director through a three-year intensive program with the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska. The program is rooted in Ignatian spirituality and forms diocesan priests to deepen their personal rootedness in communion with Christ and to equip them to nurture a communion with the Lord in the lives of others through spiritual direction.
Typically, a person meets with a spiritual director about once a month. Generally it takes several months for the two to get to know one another, Father Holway said. It can be challenging to know when a person needs spiritual direction, rather than seeking the sacrament of confession, pastoral counseling or the help of a licensed professional counselor, but he said that a good spiritual director will be able to discern a person’s needs.
Father Holway said his attrition rate of spiritual directees is about 50%, which is not out of the norm. He stressed that with any relationship, both individuals have to understand they have to put in the work, and that prayer has to be a part of that. They also have to find that their personalities work well together, and a good spiritual director will make it clear that it’s OK to move on to someone else if it’s not a good fit.
He added that spiritual direction can be fruitful for anyone — no matter where they are in their faith journey — as long as they have a desire to take their prayer life more seriously and that they’re open to being challenged.
“You need to be prepared to take your spiritual and prayer life more seriously,” he said. “Spiritual direction is more about coming to know Jesus more and less about (a person) trying to solve my own problems. Coming to know Jesus and His ways is primary.”
Spiritual direction also is a form of self-care, Father Holway said, which often leads a person to give to others. “There’s an expression that (you) cannot give what you do not have,” he said. “Those who are filled with the Lord want to give. This is one way to be replenished and to give to others.”
Ann Allman started receiving spiritual direction after attending an ACTS retreat in 2003. Several of her friends were seeing Jane Guenther, director of the archdiocesan Catholic Renewal Center, so a few years after the retreat, she sought out Guenther, too.
When she first started going, Allman had an awareness of God, and was active in her parish, Holy Spirit in Maryland Heights. But that was by and large the extent of her faith. She didn’t have a personal relationship with God, not to mention she had no inkling of who the Holy Spirit was.
One of the first challenges Allman received in spiritual direction was to “pray for holy boldness. All of the things I held in my heart, I didn’t share those with other people, because I was worried about what others might think.”
Allman said her prayer life has grown “tremendously,” thanks to what she described as her personal “triathalon” — spiritual direction, her involvement in ACTS, as well as Cornerstone, a Scripture study program.
She admitted to being “clueless” when she started with spiritual direction, preferring a more practical-minded approach, rather than seeking to being an expert in theology.
“I am pretty simple-minded,” she said in jest. “If I can get it, anyone can get it. I am not a theologian, but (Guenther) guides me to my best relationship with God. My prayer life has grown a lot over the years. I ask God to be at the center of all I am doing. Even if I am not thinking about Him at the moment, I know He is in the middle of it all.”
Questions to ask yourself when seeking a spiritual director
-> What are you truly seeking from spiritual direction? (For example, are
you actively discerning a vocation? Thinking about the details is
-> Are you looking for a priest or a lay person?
-> If you are open to a lay person, are you looking for a woman, or a man, or does it make no difference?
-> Are you looking for a director who is more “directive” (like a teacher)
or more “contemplative” (like a blood-hound for the Holy Spirit)?
-> Can you describe how you pray? (such as images, feelings, Scripture texts, words, memories, meditation, contemplation, etc.)
Catholic Renewal Center
archdiocesan Catholic Renewal Center facilitates the awakening of the
Holy Spirit in others’ lives through prayer, conferences, spiritual
direction, Life in the Spirit seminars, teaching, retreats and
witnessing to the spiritual gifts that come from surrendering to the
Holy Spirit. These spiritual gifts are for the building up of the
Church, and bring forth wholeness for the body of Christ.
center, located in Crestwood, includes private rooms for spiritual
direction, prayer rooms, small meeting facilities, an extensive library
of books, audio tapes and other resources for promoting the Holy Spirit
and the Catholic faith. The Catholic Renewal Center also offers
recommendations of spiritual directors. For more information, email
email@example.com. To learn more about the center, see www.archstl.org/catholic-renewal-center.
New training offered through Catholic Renewal Center seeks to make spiritual direction more accessible in parishes
Cyndi Barclay believes that when you open up your heart to God, He places you right where you need to be.
recently began her studies to earn a certificate in spiritual
direction. The new program, offered through the archdiocesan Catholic
Renewal Center, helps equip parishes with trained individuals to help
others in their spiritual journey. A special grant from the Annual
Catholic Appeal helped launch the program.
Barclay, who serves as
stewardship director at St. Patrick Parish in Wentzville and recently
was commissioned as part of the second cohort of the archdiocesan Lay
Formation Program, said she hopes that her training will make spiritual
direction more accessible in her parish. “Working at a parish, I see the
demands that are put on a priest and how limited their time is, but
they want to help everyone.”
She said she often hears from others
who feel they are “unworthy” of seeking spiritual direction; some tend
to compare themselves to others, saying that they don’t have it all
“figured out” when it comes to matters of faith. But Barclay said that
kind of reasoning inhibits us in growing in our relationship with God.
has called each of us to a unique relationship with Him, and we need a
little help in seeing that and seeing how much God loves us — exactly
who we are and where we are,” she said. “Having someone to talk to helps
Jane Guenther, director of the Catholic Renewal Center, reiterated the need for more spiritual directors in the archdiocese.
the diminishing number of priests available in a parish, we knew lay
people needed to be able to be trained to be spiritual directors at
their parishes,” she said. “The program needed to be attainable and
affordable. There are many good people who are steeped in their faith
that have a desire to help other people on the journey, but couldn’t
leave town to acquire a direction certificate at a three-year intensive
Spiritual direction is not the same as seeking the
guidance of a professional counselor, Guenther said, but rather it’s “an
exercise in contemplation with the Lord.” A spiritual director, she
said, “journeys with others who are seeking to deepen their relationship
with the Lord. If the person coming (for direction) is not bringing the
Lord and themselves and the transparency to you as the director into
the conversation, they were probably not seeking spiritual direction.”
training includes a closer look at the elements of spiritual direction,
psychological aspects (including when to refer to someone to the help
of a professional counselor), healing, tapping into gifts of the Holy
Spirit, and discernment. Part of the training also looks at the use of
sacred Scripture and how to use it as a tool to interface with the way
in which God speaks to us. “If someone is wanting to deepen their
journey with the Lord, you need the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and
to see how the Scriptures are an inspired text to help them hear the
Lord better,” Guenther said.
Barclay didn’t understand the
benefits of spiritual direction until she became introduced to it
unbeknownst to her while attending an ACTS retreat years ago. She had a
conversation with a lay spiritual companion on a retreat, later
recognizing the elements of spiritual direction she’d received. Several
years ago, she became a spiritual companion for an ACTS retreat, and
realized how much she enjoyed being there for others.
”I thought, maybe this is a gift,” she said.
said there is a clear benefit to seeking spiritual direction, in that
it helps a person to work on their relationship with the Lord. “It
changes the way you pray,” she said. “It changes everything. I hope that
people realize how important it is to find Jesus in their lives.
Spiritual direction helps to open our eyes to everything that God has
surrounded us with, and we can hear Him speaking to us.”