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What are the key characteristics of good spiritual direction?

July 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Spiritual Direction

Trinity_iconDear Father John, What are the key characteristics of good spiritual direction?

There are three ways to answer this question, depending on the point of view.

From the point of view of the person receiving it, spiritual direction is an extremely useful (many would say essential) help for growing in holiness, which is the same thing as growing in one’s communion with God, which is the same thing as growing in authentic wisdom and happiness.  Having a spiritual director is like having a coach: they keep us objective and accountable, warn us of pitfalls, encourage us when we feel weak or discouraged, help clarify confusions and doubts, and make sure we are working intelligently in our efforts to know, love, and follow Jesus Christ more each day.

However, spiritual direction is no substitute for grace and faith.  God’s grace, which normally reaches us through the sacraments and through prayer, is the source and nourishment of the Christian’s new and amazing life in Christ.  Faith is our docile and active acceptance of, and collaboration with, God’s grace.  Grace is supernatural nourishment, but faith is the exercise that turns that nourishment into growth.  From this, we can infer the key characteristics of good spiritual direction:

  • Regularity: We should meet or communicate with our spiritual director on a regular basis, not just when we are in a crisis, or when we feel like talking.  Monthly spiritual direction is a good periodicity, though for some seasons a short spiritual direction every fifteen days is useful.
  • Sincerity: A patient going to the doctor because of stomach problems would be foolish to talk only about his headaches and backaches. Just so, by holding back from the spiritual director our moral, emotional, relational, and spiritual struggles or failures, we are handcuffing the director and wasting everyone’s time.
  • Docility: We need to work hard to follow the spiritual director’s guidance.  Otherwise, again, we are wasting everybody’s time.

From the point of view of the spiritual director, this interaction is an opportunity to share the experience and wisdom that their own walk with Christ has given them.  It is also a chance to marvel at God’s work in the lives of authentic Christians.  The spiritual director is not just a consultant, but a brother or sister in Christ, a fellow saint-in-the-making.  The joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures of the directee are felt deeply by the director, but at the same time, the director knows that he is only an assistant coach – the Holy Spirit is the primary protagonist in everyone’s spiritual growth.

Good spiritual directors see their work as helping identify obstacles – behavioral or mental habits, confused ideas, undetected temptations – that are keeping the directee from moving more quickly towards greater love for God and neighbor.  But the director cannot remove the obstacles.  Only God and the directee can do that.   This is one of the reasons that it is not necessary for our spiritual directors to be perfect.  They just have to be good instruments.

From the point of view of the Holy Spirit, spiritual direction is a cause of great joy, because it gives him more room to work. God understands human nature – after all, he invented it.  And so he understands how much we need human companionship in our spiritual journey.  When St Paul had his life-changing vision on the road to Damascus, the Lord said to him, “Get up now and go into the city, and you will be told what you have to do” (Acts 9:6).  Sure enough, God sent Ananias to visit St Paul on Straight Street, and Ananias began to help St. Paul understand what God was doing in his life and how he should respond.  That’s how Jesus does things, because that’s how we need him to do things.  And so, when someone takes the humble step of faith to receive guidance from a spiritual director, the Holy Spirit rolls up his sleeves and gets to work.

This third dimension is what makes spiritual direction so much more than mere personal coaching.  If self-help is like running laps around an indoor track, growth in holiness is like hiking through the Alps.  Jesus has a lot more he wants us to see and do than we can imagine.  By deciding to let ourselves be guided in spiritual direction, we are telling Jesus that we really do want to want what he wants.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC

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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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  • cnovena

    How does one become a spiritual director if God is calling him/her to that vocation?

    • danburke

      Dear Friend. There are many schools around the country that provide training. There are also books available on the topic. I don't know of a school that I can recommend because many of them teach New Age forms of spirituality rather than authentic Catholic spirituality. However, I can confidently refer you to any of the books on this topic available through Aquinas and More on this site. Have you discussed this calling with your spiritual director?

  • rtshiel

    I have been going to a new spiritual director for about 7 months now, once a month. At the last visit she solicited feedback. when i offered some suggestions ie. maybe starting off a session with a prayer, and do lectio or contemplation as a beginning she said I was wanting a teacher and that was not her role…and also that I needed to discover my way of prayer and did not want to show her's

    I found this rather strange since I have had spiritual direction before with another director and we always started or ended with a prayer.

    I am considering not going back. And using some of your web site's direction instead. Another comment she made was I had been reading Caussaudes Abandonment to Divine Providence and she had not read it and I got the impression that reading was not good that I had to focus more on the experience….I believe it is a blend of both and I try to let God lead.

    Appreciate your advice.

    • danburke

      Dear Friend,

      Well, it is not likely that I will understand all that you are asking perfectly, but I will take a shot at it…

      It is a reasonable request to allow for a brief opening and closing prayer. The other forms of prayer you mentioned would require far more time than a typical session provides. If you are looking for instruction in these forms of prayer, a spiritual director should be able to provide guidance but not necessarily a long session on the topic.

      It seems that communication between you and your director is incomplete – that you might not have been clear with her in a manner that allows for a clear response (or vice versa). If you continue the relationship, a healthy remedy would be to prepare your thoughts and questions beforehand (in writing) and ask them in your next meeting. That way you avoid the guessing game regarding her thoughts.

      With respect to ending the relationship… the key question is, have you grown in virtue and relationship with Christ as a result of the relationship? If the answer is “yes” – you might want to invest in communication efforts. If the answer is “no” then it might be time to make a change. Prayer about a decision like this is always very important. The danger is that the relationship might be a challenge that God desires you to work through. It could be the primary reason he brought you together. Don't be surprised as frustration arises in the relationship. If you are making progress towards Christ, the enemy will seek to disrupt that progress. As well, good spiritual direction is a process of healing and growth that is often challenging and painful. These struggles and bleed into the relationship if both parties are not cautious.

      Regardless of your decisions – don't make them lightly.

      Pax Christi,

      Dan

  • Richard

    Hello,

    In my reading about spiritual direction and its importance, I see that a foundational need for spiritual direction is confirmation of what God is specifically speaking to a person. Reality that we are a fallen creature that can be deceived or scared off from fulfilling God’s will. Doing acts of faith presupposes a certain “darkness” that must be worked through. Spiritual direction helps us discern if “darkness” is from God or the evil one. Thus allowing us to move in confidence of faith.

    In Christ, Richard

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