success stories

Posted August 31, 2003

What About Spirirtual Direction?

Joseph G. Bachand, M.S., Th.D.
Vol. V No. 5, November/December 2001

Taken From St. Luke Institute Web Page

As I interview people coming to Saint Luke Institute for evaluation, I discover that their experience of spiritual direction is often limited to their time in novitiate or seminary. "Tell me about your experience of spiritual direction," I invite a brother priest. "Oh, I have not had a spiritual director since seminary," I hear more often than not. Our Church's ministers are often on the "giving" end of ministry; infrequently are they on the "receiving" end. Their lives and focus are often about what they need to do for others and how they can be of help in any given situation. This may mean that they do not spend their time focused on their own needs. However, it may also mean that our official ministers are often bad at taking care of themselves. We all need to be ministered to. We do not lose that need when we take on a role of ministry any more than a person gives up the need for regular medical checkups just because they become a doctor. Spiritual direction is one such ministerial relationship of support. It is a forum where the minister is ministered to and an opportunity to put an often-busy life into perspective; a time to notice what is happening "in the midst of it all."

Not About Friendship or Confession

I am surprised how often someone's spiritual director turns up on their short list of friends. Why is this a concern? As a rule, your best friend will not be good for you as a spiritual director. You "pour out your heart" to a friend differently than you do to your spiritual director. What we expect in each case by way of a response differs. Your friend's primary concern for you is in the context of your friendship; he /she is intimately involved in and has something at stake in that regard. Your spiritual director's primary concern for you is in the context of your relationship with God. She definitely has a stake in what happens, but it is not as immediate as it is for your friend. You want objectivity from your spiritual director; that's usually the last thing you expect from a friend. I have found myself telling people who pass through in evaluation, "True friends are hard to find; keep all the ones you have. You can find another spiritual director!"

A number of people have told me that their confessor is also their spiritual director. This can certainly happen. When it does, however, it's important to be aware of the difference between the two relationships. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is part of the sacramental life of the Church. As such, it is described and circumscribed canonically and ritually. Moreover, the focus in confession is on sin and the ways in which relationships (with God and others) have been hurtful or broken. This is not the case in spiritual direction where one has the time (usually an hour every month or two) to look at how God has been present in the whole of life, not just in the area of sin. Furthermore, one would even look at sin differently. In the sacrament one would confess sins, but in spiritual direction, one might explore the pattern of sin and brokenness. Why does this particular sin have such a pull in your life? What is it saying in terms of your relationship with God? Finally, it needs to be said that naming something "sin" often narrows the experience. One might confess sins of lust or anger, but what about the deeper dimensions of these feelings? In spiritual direction one might explore the energy around anger or sexual attraction. How might one pray fruitfully with these energies so that sin does not have the final word?

It Is About God and About UsThe focus of the spiritual direction relationship is on God. "How is/was God present in that experience?"and "What happened when you brought that to prayer?" are two questions frequently asked in spiritual direction to help us to notice how we experience God in the ebb and flow of life. I sometimes hear objections voiced about engaging in spiritual direction because it's considered the purview of "holy people," as if "holy people" were some separate breed, or as if God wouldn't be active in my life. The underlying assumptions bespeak a faulty theology and low self-esteem - a potent combination for disaster among Church ministers! Each of us has a unique relationship with God. Often that's a big part of what attracted us to ministry in the first place, and often it gets lost in the busy-ness of doing ministry. Meeting regularly with a spiritual director helps keep us aware of that relationship, helps us notice ways of nourishing or fostering that relationship, and keeps us attuned to its importance in our lives.

When I see someone for spiritual direction the first time, they sometimes say a few words about their prayer, or lack thereof, and then find themselves at a loss for words. They feel they have to find things to say about God, and just can't seem to do it. Although the focus of spiritual direction is relationship with God, God is a part of everything. God cannot be relegated to certain times and places in our lives and left out of the rest. Because God is passionately concerned about what passionately concerns us, spiritual direction may be about important relationships in our lives, our hopes and dreams, our sorrows and failures, tragedy in our ministry or in our family, the discernment necessary for an impending decision, our sexual desires and our struggles with celibacy, and the fears we face in our own mortality. All of these areas are looked at in light of God's presence. A spiritual director eventually becomes someone who knows all there is to know about me, helps me to know God's presence and assures me that God loves me unconditionally.