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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Should I be looking for another spiritual director?

Dear Father John, I was wondering if you could give me a bit of perspective. I recently asked a director 411px Sexstant Wikimediato help me in my discernment of religious life.  After he agreed I wrote out a summary of the context for my perceived call along with a list of my vices/faults, graces/strengths, etc. The arrangement was that after reading the letter, we would talk, with the idea that I would write emails every week or two, and we would talk on the phone at longer intervals. I was confused and disappointed by our first meeting… I think he may really not know how to proceed… I was puzzled that he did not talk about anything I had written, except to say that it moved him. I guess my expectation was that he would ask ME questions, about my spiritual life, and that in answering them I would be more aware of what I needed to work on or think about. What should I do? I feel a bit strange about telling my director what to do, and I feel that this would affect his authority. If I tell him everything I want him to do, why I am going to him in the first place? I actually do want someone with some authority to guide me. Maybe I just need to find someone else?

There must have been a reason why you asked this priest in particular to guide you. You must have seen in him something of the spiritual wisdom that you believe can help you in your own spiritual journey. So I would not recommend that you look for someone else quite yet. Here are some thoughts that may help you move towards a more satisfying spiritual guidance relationship. These ideas, I think, would be relevant for any spiritual direction relationship, not only for someone discerning a religious vocation. (By the way, you may find valuable discernment insights at www.vocation.com and www.imaginesisters.org.

Spiritual Direction as a Means not an End

First of all, remember that spiritual direction is not the only source of input for your spiritual life. It is not meant to be the only source of guidance. The Holy Spirit will continue to be your primary director. Your prayer, your spiritual reading, your participation in the sacraments, your personal reflection, your efforts to love your neighbor and fulfill God’s will in your life – all these are still major channels of God’s grace for you. You can still listen to God’s voice through these channels, find his light there, and move towards greater intimacy.

Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that our spiritual director is supposed to be in charge of our spiritual growth. Not true. Spiritual direction is a valuable, and perhaps necessary, element in the pursuit of spiritual maturity. But each one of us is still in charge of our own lives – even God himself will never seize our freedom, and neither should a spiritual director (even though sometimes we feel like it would be a lot easier if they did!). God wants us to make use of spiritual direction, but he doesn’t want our spiritual directors to replace our own freedom and creativity. Our friendship with Christ is still our friendship with Christ.

Patience Matters

Second, I would encourage you to be patient. You mention that this priest, though experienced and knowledgeable in the spiritual life, has not been habitually involved in the ministry of spiritual direction. So there will be a learning curve for him. That’s okay. That’s natural. And, by the way, he will never be the perfect spiritual director. And you should be perfectly at ease with that!

Remember, the main protagonist in the spiritual direction relationship is actually the Holy Spirit. So, if you are doing your part to prepare and communicate, the Holy Spirit will be sure to act through the instrument of spiritual direction even if your Director is a bit clumsy. God can handle that. The mere fact of communicating our spiritual experiences to a director exercises a number of key virtues – like faith, humility, and prudence – and sometimes that’s all the Holy Spirit needs to keep us moving along the path of spiritual progress, regardless of the specific advice that the Director may or may not offer.

Suggesting vs Controlling

Third, you should feel completely free to make suggestions to your Director about the structure of your conversations and the topics to be covered. You making suggestions is not in and of itself controlling. And you can phrase your suggestions in a completely non-controlling way. For example, “Father, thank you for our conversation – your comment about X was very helpful for me. After we talked, I was reflecting, and I think it would help me next time if we maybe start with a prayer. Would that be okay? And then, to help me stay focused, I would like to make sure that even if a lot of subjects come up, we talk specifically about my prayer life, my apostolate, and my constant battle with discouragement. Do you think it would be okay to keep those three topics on our “list” every time we connect by phone? And I will be sure to update you on what I am experiencing in those areas on my email updates every couple weeks.” So you see, you can make suggestions that will be helpful for you, and they will not be threatening to your Director. Your taking the initiative in this way is not contrary to your wanting your Director to direct you. Your Director will surely give you specific recommendations as you continue developing your relationship, and as he continues to get to know you.

Looking Elsewhere

Fourth, what should you do if after a period of months you feel like no progress is being made? There is no obligation to continue receiving Direction from someone whose direction is not helping you. But I wouldn’t rush to a decision here. You will experience awkwardness, and so will your Director, at the beginning – especially since you are trying to have spiritual direction from a distance. But the awkwardness should diminish gradually. If a number of months pass and it doesn’t, then you should feel free to graciously conclude that the long-distance direction is not working. In that case, you could ask your Director what he would recommend, or simply thank him for trying to help, and then look for someone else.

Above all, however, I think the most important thing to remember is that spiritual direction is a means for growth; it is not meant to involve handing over to your Spiritual Director the responsibility for your spiritual life. Keeping that in mind will, I believe, help you have realistic expectations and take intelligent advantage of everything God’s Providence offers you.

PS: You might both benefit from reading Navigating the Interior Life – Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God.

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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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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000069315293 FrRamil E. Fajardo

    Thank you, Fr: absolutely spot on!

    “Your prayer, your spiritual reading, your participation in the sacraments, your personal reflection, your efforts to love your neighbor and fulfill God’s will in your life – all these are still major channels of God’s grace for you. You can still listen to God’s voice through these channels, find his light there, and move towards greater intimacy.
    “Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that our spiritual director is supposed to be in charge of our spiritual growth. Not true. Spiritual direction is a valuable, and perhaps necessary, element in the pursuit of spiritual maturity. But each one of us is still in charge of our own lives – even God himself will never seize our freedom, and neither should a spiritual director…”

    A spiritual director will guide and direct, but never dictate or directly intervene. He helps us to speak to God by hopefully introducing us to Him, then as John the Baptist said, “He must increase, I must decrease.”

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

      Thank you for your encouragement Father.

    • Becky313

      Amen!

  • Mari Muldoon

    Thank you Father. This is an excellent reminder, not only for directees, but for directors as well: The Holy Spirit is the Spiritual Director. In order for the process of spiritual direction to be life-giving and beneficial, it must encourage us to be open to recognizing the movement of the Holy Spirit. For this to happen, our personal freedom is key. Unfortunately, like any action of free will, one is also free to resist what the Holy Spirit is revealing. Sometimes when this resistance sets in, it may be a temptation then to blame the spiritual director as well. Could you perhaps address the issue of resistance in a later post for us?

  • Judy

    It sounds as though the writer is very structured and prepared. Perhaps the director is taking an approach of general conversation that the writer hasn’t pondered and organized (and controlled) in advance in order to get a better idea of the spontaneous self, which may reveal a bit more (or confirm) about the actual spiritual state.

  • Wretched Sinner

    Hip hip hooray! Can you hear my cheer?! Dan’s comment at the end is great! “PS: you might both benefit from reading Navigating the Interior Life – Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God.” (It might sound Dan is paying me to advertise – he’s not!) But just last week I had a meeting with my (2 year) spiritual director and I presented him my rule of life developed while reading this book. He liked it so much he said he was going to order the book. It helped to say it was voted one of the best catholic books of the year, runner up with Pope Benedict’s book. His eye brow went up and he said “oh really?!” I can’t explain how exciting this is, because even though I have tried putting something like this together in the past, having read the book it gives both directee and director the same game plan, the same language, the same tools to work with. You both get on the same page and move forward from their. It gives you point of references that you can talk and troubleshoot. It really is great.

    Tip. I took my rule of life AND my book. I presented the rule of life and then I offered my book as a gift. He looked at the book (completely full of sticky notes, highlights, underlines, question marks, exclamation marks etc..) you could just see his face and I could read his thoughts… “nah…I’ll order my new crisp version!”…. I even said “you will really, right?!” “yes, he said” “because, otherwise I’ll order one for you”….at this point his eye brow was sort of saying “who’s bright idea was to have me be your director?!?!” – He’s a cute little deacon and I love him very much, so he knows my nudging was a good one!

    • LizEst

      WS – This is great testimony to Dan’s book. And, I believe the key words are “it gives both directee and director the same game plan, the same language, the same tools to work with. You both get on the same page and move forward from [there].” If either or both director and directee are unclear on, or fail to communicate, what the goal of direction is, this journey and relationship can become difficult. This book is wonderful in bringing this about.

  • Christina Solt

    I had the some of the same concerns when I began Spiritual Direction with my current director. However, I have been deeply humbled by how much he understood and how much I didn’t. Progress can be slow and we aren’t used to it. We want answers right now and it doesn’t always happen that way. Several times, I asked him to take a firmer stance but he just told me that I was doing what I was supposed to. I didn’t believe him completely but after almost 2 years, I trust that the Lord is working through him. Judging from what is happening in my life currently, he helped me to follow the Lord’s plan not my own. Perhaps you are being asked to practice trust. It is a necessary element of Spiritual Direction and a difficult task for most of us. God Bless you, our family offers prayers for religious vocations nightly. You will be included in those prayers.

    • LizEst

      You hit the nail on the head, Christina. When we begin the spiritual life in earnest, we are so not used to waiting and especially not on waiting on the Lord whose ways are not our ways and are, in fact, much higher than ours. Scripture itself tells us, “Wait for the Lord, take courage; be stouthearted, wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14). God bless you and all your family! May He richly bless your nightly prayers for religious vocations.

  • Sarah Crowe

    For anyone who is searching for Spiritual Direction, should know themselves enough to discern what is needed in their life. To fulfill the Scripture “Be Holy because I am Holy”, we need to begin to perform “self examinations” and learn to identify the issues that you need to sacrifice to GOD. If you can’t find any, ask GOD, He will bring issues up for you to see and take care of.

    I agree with the Priest, that you must be patient, but not only that. You must also drop any expectations you may have regarding anything on your Spiritual journey, because it’s like tying GOD’S hands behind His back. You must remain open minded, question everything, discern where it’s coming from, and how it would apply to your life, and your relationship with Christ.

    Last, Never, Never Give up. No matter how difficult it may get, keep moving forward.

    GOD Bless

  • Ana

    When I first contacted my spiritual director (a priest) he asked that I pray a Novena and he would do the same to discern if he was the right spiritual director for me. After the Novena we met again, and he asked what was revealed to me. He is currently my spiritual director. Blessings.

    • LizEst

      Beautiful testimony…and you are blessed to have such a wise director.

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

    Dear Notarebel: What is the purpose of spiritual direction in your view?

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

    What school did you attend?