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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Is it normal to feel apprehension about submitting to the spiritual direction process?

Dear Father John, I am a new Catholic. I found your blog after searching for information on Catholic Spiritual Direction. My parish priest has found a director for me, a lady, whom I have not met yet. To be honest, I am somewhat terrified of sharing my thoughts and (things I learn) in person. I’m more of a writer. I don’t mind writing about that which I have learned as a result of overcoming trials-sorry to be vague here-it is embarrassing for me.

I don’t know if I can verbally sit in front of someone and talk about these things-though. Is it normal to feel apprehension about submitting to the direction process?

Totally, absolutely, positively normal. Let me get personal here for a moment. I have been a member of a religious order for almost seventeen years. In my first four years, I had weekly spiritual direction. Then every other week for the next six years. Since my ordination, I have been receiving spiritual direction monthly. Still, even after seventeen years, every time I prepare for spiritual direction, I have to battle apprehension, anxiety, and feelings of downright distaste. I have to overcome temptations to procrastinate or even to concoct some kind of vapid excuse not to go. This happens every time. And yet, I know from experience that it is ALWAYS well worth it to overcome those feelings. The results of spiritual direction, even when the direction simply consists of a spiritual report and a simple “you’re on the right track, keep going” from my director, never fails to boost my soul and strengthen me for life’s battle.

It may help you to reflect on some of the reasons behind this apprehension, and then look at some ways to avoid letting it paralyze you.

What’s Going On?

  1. First, there are natural reasons. Certain people are somewhat shy or non-verbal by temperament – if you are a writer, this may be your case. And everyone, regardless of temperament, is nervous about being judged or misunderstood. When we open our interior nooks and crannies to someone, when we speak about our shortcomings and sinful tendencies, for example, we make ourselves vulnerable to ridicule or condemnation. Also, when we venture into conversation about these spiritual things, we come into contact with our own ignorance – not a pleasant aspect of ourselves to expose to others. Finally, if we are just starting, or if we are switching spiritual directors, all these reasons are exacerbated by the reality that our spiritual director is, basically, a stranger. (This last factor will lessen over time, if the director really is someone seeking to help you grow in your friendship with Christ.)
  2. Second, there are supernatural reasons. We must never, ever, forget that we are not alone in our spiritual journey. God and his saints and angels are interested and on our side, but the devil and his minions are also interested, and they are not on our side. They are motivated by hatred for God. They express that hatred by trying to draw us away from his friendship. They know how valuable spiritual direction can be for our growth in that friendship. And so, their logical conclusion: “Keep those humans away from spiritual direction!” The tempter, therefore, will try to confuse us, try to stir up all kinds of ideas (e.g. I know more than my spiritual director, anyway, so why do I need to talk to her?…) and emotions (e.g. I am just so afraid of actually saying this about myself!…) that deflect us from following through on this worthy commitment. If we forget about this, we simply won’t understand half of what happens inside our heads as we prepare for spiritual direction (or any other time, for that matter).
  3. There may be other reasons too, subjective ones, maybe deeper ones. Sometimes we have some subconscious fears or issues, specific to our own personality and upbringing, that can add to the apprehension. All the more reason to persevere, so as to allow spiritual direction to help us discover what’s really going on in there. In your particular case, a subjective factor may be the newness of Catholic spirituality. If you converted from Protestantism, you are used to a very private spirituality, a relationship with Christ that is just “me and God.” If you converted from Orthodoxy, you are used to an extremely public spirituality, one that often doesn’t dig too far into the depths of self-analysis, preferring to bask in the glory of liturgy and tradition. In either case, the kind of interpersonal dynamic that happens in spiritual direction would be new, and therefore uncomfortable.

Brass Tacks

So, what to do about all these obstacles?

  • The most helpful thing is to have a simple, firm structure that you follow, both in preparing and then in having spiritual direction. You should work this structure out together with your director, but we have made some suggestions here.
  • Then, don’t forget that your spiritual director is only one-third of the ingredients. You and the Holy Spirit together constitute the other two-thirds. The Holy Spirit will always do his part, so if you do your part, you are two-thirds covered, regardless of how well you may or may not connect, humanly, with your director. The mere act of preparing for and going to spiritual direction exercises all the great Christian virtues – humility, faith, hope, courage, charity… So, even if no mighty insights emerge, you will be a better Christian after each direction than your were before.
  • Finally, keep looking for ways to improve your spiritual direction. For example, you mentioned that you express yourself well in writing. Well, you can discuss with your director the possibility of sending a kind of spiritual report a couple days before your direction, summarizing the previous month. Then the director can use that as the outline for what you talk about during direction. Or, to take another example, you can agree to start every direction by speaking about the good things that have happened in your spiritual life over the past month – this can help get the ball rolling. In short, keep adjusting, keep looking for ways to maximize the effectiveness of this longstanding means for spiritual growth. This will help you be proactive, thereby lessening the apprehension that can assail you as you seek to follow the Lord more closely.

God bless you!

Fr John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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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 four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • JoFlemings

    I think as a rule what Father Bartunek writes in this blog and the way he expresses himself make even the most challenging aspects of the spiritual life appealing and desireable! (Mortify your pride?, set aside every distraction for total focus on love of God?, die to self and take up your cross?- yea! this is going to be GREAT!)
    (He should write a book about the martyrs with experiences that you can translate into what we grapple with today- if that is possible- and thereby inspire us to move more wholeheartedly into those sacrifices we are stumbling on or are imobilized into inaction over. Maybe that is just me, though.)
    Wait, Dan, didn’t he already write something like that with the Uncle Eddie letters to college students? Do you know if/where can we find those? Are they in a book?
    Dan, between this post (which I think, for me, applies to so much more than just discomfort in the SD scenario) and your post on a postmortem fall back for a habit of mediocre commitment to life in Christ- I fee like I am getting that Gatorade pre-workout ‘juice’- thanks!

  • Joan

    Also see the words of Jesus to St. Faustina Divine Mercy in My Soul section 1561 notebook V for dealing w/ one’s spiritual director. I’ve found this very helpful.

  • Teresa

    I find that this depicts my general feelings toward confession as well. As often as I go to confession, I still manage to get nervous beyond belief before going.

    I found that it helped if I were distracted with something directly prior to spiritual direction. I would do my prayer and preparation say in the morning, and then have something that distracted me up until it was time for direction. That way I had adequately prepared for our meeting, but at the same time, I didn’t have a lot of time to get nervous. I found that if I tried to prepare right before direction, I couldn’t prepare very well because the nervousness tended to take over and I couldn’t focus.

  • http://livingwater-rcmom.blogspot.com/ Tima

    Thank you Fr. John for this awesome post. I have been receiving SD for 5 years now on a monthly basis and only recently realized that I was allowing pride to manifest itself in SD by not being completely open/hosest about what was happening in my prayer life.
    This post provided affirmation for me as I am sure it has for so many others.
    God Bless you!

  • Wendy

    Hi, Fr. Bartunek,
    Just a suggestion: Any way the e-mail could include the title of the post in the Subject? It would make it much more attractive to readers…
    And thanks for your efforts -and results!- with your postings! Great work!
    Wendy

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

      Thanks Wendy – can you elaborate?

  • MB

    Thank you for posting this. I do look forward to the times I get to go to spiritual direction, but, being part introvert, find that preparing for a meeting elicits apprehension from me, as well. How true, that we fear being misunderstood or judged! I know that if I ‘put it all out there,’ my director can/will see how imperfect I am. For a recovering perfectionist, that’s tough!

    I have asked the Lord to help me get over this anxiety/apprehension, as I find it distracting, and a real pain to have to struggle with *during* a meeting. A few months ago, He asked me to open up more than I usually do w/ my director, and I suddenly felt that I could, indeed do that. So at the next meeting, I did this — there was definitely grace there for me to follow through on doing that! — and saw that no ill consequences resulted. Those illogical fears that held me back did not come true; I had evidence against them!

    So I have learned that it is well worth it to continue opening up more and more to my director. Of course, I know this (again!) in my head, but the heart is more convinced — to the point that I am asking for the grace to ‘go deeper’ in my spiritual direction meetings.

  • Cara

    Adding my two cents of suggestions – newbie as I am – if that’s OK.

    I find it much easier to write as well. I have only been receiving direction for less than a year, but I find that sometimes, rather than spitting out the words which never seem to come out the way I need them to, I just put post-it flags in my journal (writer, like I said, and my prayer is almost all written) and then if I can’t find the right the words, I just hand over my journal and ask him to read to “point x”. I know that’s a leap of trust, but I’m fortunate enough to have a director I can trust implicitly. My SD has gotten used to my writing style so much, he even knows when my writing is sincere or “melodramatic”. Much I wish he couldn’t do that sometimes, it does help in the direction process too. Perhaps a similar approach might help you a bit?

    We also usually schedule our meetings for right after a weekday mass, which I also finds helps to calm me and let the Holy Spirit do his work without me putting up (as many) walls. Maybe mass first would help you, too?

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

      Cara – very good advice and insights!

  • Irma

    How much are you supposed to reveal to your Spiritual Director on your first visit? Are you supposed to go back to your first sin, like a general confession? I have found a priest who is willing to be my SD and I just want to know how much and how far back should I discuss with him on my first meeting.

    thank you,
    Irma

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

      When is your meeting?

  • Anna

    Wow, brilliant advice.

    I’ve recently been seeking regular spiritual direction. I spend the first half of the week looking forward to spiritual direction, because I’m still in awe of how beneficial the last session was, then spend the next half procrastinating, because I remember how honest I had to be with my self, God and the priest to get that result!

    It’s worth every bit of struggle and anxiety….I’m hoping though the anxiety will lessen with time.

    Now to got through the rest of the posts on this topic!

  • JK

    I came across this site quite by accident, and am happy that I did.  I started spiritual direction as a “pilot program” every week for about 6 ir 7 weeks this past summer.  Fortunately, my director made it relatively easy to talk about where God is in my life.  Some meetings seemed to be more stressful to prepare than others simply because I was often in a state of “nothingness” in between our meetings.

    When the program was over we continued our meetings about every 2 or three weeks.  I finally began to feel more comfortable when I learned that he is moving across the country.  I didn’t want to share my feelings of disappointment and abandonment because I didn’t want him to feel badly.  He suggested that we continue via telephone.  I want to continue, and I thought I was fine with the telephone venue (and perhaps even Skype).  However, I guess I’m not fine with the idea and apprehension is setting in all over again. 

    I appreciate the suggestion about sharing my journal. Although I really don’t know how to journal properly, I have written down some thoughts.  I’ve never shared it before, but perhaps copying pages from it will help to set the stage for our first telephone call.  I’m afraid that if I send it I will be adding to his already long list of things to do.

    Does anyone have experience with Spiritual Direction solely through the telephone?

     

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

      Dear Friend – glad you found us. Another post you might find helpful is Skype and Spiritual Direction. http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog/2009/11/30/skype-and-remote-spiritual-direction-is-this-ok Beyond that, I have received and provided direction over the phone and via email etc. Remember that there was a time when a significant amount of direction was done through the written word via very unreliable mail carriers who could often take months to travel the same geography we can now cover in seconds. It can be done, it is just a matter of understanding that it is slower and takes a bit more effort to communicate clearly. However, be assured, it can be done and very effectively with a little work. Regardless – He is pleased with your pursuit and will reward you for your efforts.