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Posted March 17, 2003

An Excellent Article for Spiritual Directors and those Seeking Spiritual Direction


Spiritual Direction and the Experience of Healing

by Fr. Paul Wachdorf
University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL
Taken from the Bridge


I have been serving as a spiritual director at Mundelein Seminary for the past 21 years. In the course of those years I have seen students begin to experience the healing of some of the emotional, mental and spiritual wounds that they have carried within them for much of their lives. In this article, I would like to reflect on three different Spirit-guided moments that take place in the context of spiritual direction that help bring a student to an experience of healing.

The first and perhaps the most important movement is one in which the Holy Spirit moves the student to bring to the light various thoughts, feelings, actions and life experiences that up until that point in time had been hidden in the dark.

In 12 step programs, there is a slogan which states that we are only as sick as our secrets. Step Four of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous states: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Step Five states: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. The genius of these two steps is that they allow those who are addicts to name and claim the character defects of their lives and the destructive consequences of their actions and to bring them into the light of day. It allows them to take responsibility for their own lives and actions. This process of honestly sharing secrets initiates a process of healing. A similar process happens in spiritual direction through the invitations and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Further insight about this comes from St. Ignatius of Loyola. In his spiritual exercises, he spells out guidelines for the discernment of good and evil spirits. In rule thirteen (#326), St. Ignatius talks about one of the tactics of the evil spirit. One of the tactics of an evil spirit is to have us keep secret what is going on inside of us, to believe that whatever we have done or experienced is too shameful or too embarrassing to bring to the light of day. The insight of St. Ignatius is that what we keep secret becomes demonic. It takes on a life of its own. It eats away at our self-esteem, our self-worth and our capacity to live a good and moral life. It becomes a psychological and spiritual cancer within us. But when we bring to light what has been hidden in the dark, we experience the freedom to claim responsibility for our lives and actions. We allow the Holy Spirit of God to bring us healing and forgiveness. We experience God loving us just the way we are through the mediation of another person. And we experience the grace and guidance we need to amend our lives and move on.

This Spirit-guided movement of bringing into the light what had been hidden in the dark is one that is common to all people. We all know the experience carrying within us things that we have felt, thought, fantasized about, said or done which we feel guilty, ashamed and embarrassed about and which we have never shared with anyone. Many times we have kept things about our lives in the dark for years and years. We have suffered in silence fearing that we will be found out and then judged or condemned. We have all also felt interior movements of the Holy Spirit to bring these things into the light so that they can be faced, dealt with and healed.

In spiritual direction, a student is given a safe and non-judgmental forum in which to explore his life in an honest and open way. Over the course of time in the faith-filled and Spirit-guided relationship of spiritual direction, students many times come to a point where they are willing to trust their director and to share with him that which has been kept in the dark. This can only happen through the initiative and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

There is great relief and freedom for a student in having no secrets and in being loved and accepted by a spiritual director. Sometimes it takes a long time before a student develops sufficient trust in his spiritual director to share in this way. But when the student responds to this movement of the Holy Spirit, it is an experience of great grace for him and for the spiritual director. Something profoundly holy, spiritual and healing takes place in these moments of self-revelation. The great fear of the student is rejection, the fear that his director will judge, criticize, be shocked or scandalized by what was just shared. Yet when the student experiences his director listening to him with non-judgmental compassion, he begins to have the hope and courage he needs to move into the next step in the healing process which is dialogue.

The next moment is the movement of dialogue. It is a time when the student begins to explore what has been kept secret. In this ongoing dialogue, he is able to receive support, affirmation and perspective. Often the student feels that he is the only person in the world who has experienced or done what is brought up. It is often a great relief to know that he is not alone. He can begin to see his thoughts, feelings and actions in a larger context.

The movement of dialogue is seldom smooth, easy or linear. There are a lot of starts and stops, times of taking one step forward or two steps backward. The student often feels like a stranger in a strange land. When a student has brought something of great significance to the light, he feels vulnerable and may regret his honesty and openness. He may regress and want to return back to silence, secrecy and denial. The director needs to continue to gently invite the student into the light and to offer continued non-judgmental compassion, encouragement, perspective and accountability.

This process of dialogue needs to have prayer woven within it. Spiritual direction is not a psychological process. It is a Spirit-guided process. The director must pray with and for the student. The director can suggest to the student ways for him to pray into his experiences, ways to talk to God or to Jesus the Healer about what he has experienced, ways to turn to the scriptures for guidance and direction. The director may pray with the student a prayer for the healing of memories. It is important that both the student and director keep God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in their ongoing dialogue.

The final movement is helping the student to develop an action plan for the future. At this point, the director depending on his qualifications and competence, may offer the student referrals to other sources of healing both psychological and physical. The secrets we keep damage us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Healing at all levels is called for.

When the healing process begins to unfold, the student often feels an inner void. Letting go of a secret, a sinful attitude or behavior or a psychological wound is a very scary experience. Questions arise: where do I go from here; what will take the place of this in my life: how will I cope; what will I do? It takes a great act of faith to believe that God will fill up the void, that God will lead the student to a new way of living and loving. The role of the director at this point is not to give the student new direction, to give too much advice or too many suggestions. Over time, the director helps the student to discover his own "spiritual direction: and to listen for the clues, hints, inspirations an guidance that God will offer him about a new life direction, new ways of thinking and new attitudes, values and behaviors that will take the place of what has been given up. This process allows the healing that has begun to take place to deepen and to be lived out in a new life in God, free of secrecy an denial.

It has been a great joy for me as a spiritual director to witness the healing that has taken place in the lives of students that I have worked with over the years. It has been a privileged and graced experience for me to see the Holy Spirit working in the lives of these students inspiring them to bring their life stories into the light of day. It has been my experience again and again as a spiritual director that I have been a channel of this healing and not the cause of it. I am grateful for the privilege that I have been granted over the past 21 years to be a spiritual director for our students. I am humbled and awed by what the Holy Spirit can accomplish in and through me in terms of being an instrument of healing for those who have been entrusted to my care.