Dear Father John, I am new to spiritual direction. After asking a newly ordained priest if he would be my spiritual director, he graciously accepted…thanks be to God. We have met several times over the past eight months, however, at our last meeting he caught me off guard. It had been four months since our previous meeting (due to his transfer to a new assignment). In reviewing our last meeting, I probably walked in some what “unprepared”. Is there usually a format or framework for a spiritual direction meeting?
Does the upcoming appointment usually focus on the question, “what is the Holy Spirit leading you to focus on at this time?” To avoid feeling inadequate or to avoid wasting his time, should I always be prepared to bring to him two or three situations/topics to discuss? He also offered to give me my freedom and asked that I spend time in prayer before Our Blessed Lord to discern whether he should continue as my director. He also asked that I pray for clarity to understand what I am seeking from spiritual direction. I am feeling confused because for over ten years I was hoping to find someone to provide direction. Could it be that we just don’t know each other well enough?
Your confusion is perfectly understandable. I think it has three sources. First, the specific indication given by our spiritual director seemed to come from left field – it just threw you for a loop. Second, this last experience of spiritual direction, and maybe some of your first meetings as well, hasn’t completely fit in with your previous hopes and expectations for what spiritual direction would be like. So it’s natural for you to wonder, “Am I doing something wrong?” Third, you have a sneaking suspicion that the actual unfolding of a meeting for spiritual direction should probably follow some kind of objective structure or outline, instead of being left up entirely to spontaneity. Let’s look at these one by one, in reverse order.
Preparing for Spiritual Direction
The third issue is the easiest to deal with. Yes, we should always take time to prepare for our spiritual direction – not only to avoid feeling inadequate or to avoid wasting the director’s time, but also, and mainly, in order to gain the benefits that spiritual direction is designed to give us. In an earlier post, we went into detail on this topic, and I am sure you will find it helpful to read that entry: “How should I prepare for a meeting with my spiritual director?” But here I want to emphasize a key principle. There are three persons involved in every spiritual direction: you, your director, and the Holy Spirit. Each one has a responsibility to do their part to make spiritual direction fruitful. The Holy Spirit will always do his part perfectly; you have no control over whether the director will be responsible or irresponsible; but you do have direct control over your own role. And so, if you prepare well (it’s not that hard – you just need a structure), you can rest assured that two out of three, at the very least, will be in full gear, and the direction will be fruitful.
The Right Expectations
The second issue is a bit harder to pin down. What are you hoping for from spiritual direction? Sometimes our expectations are unrealistic. Sometimes we are hoping that our director will unfurl a brilliant insight that will solve our difficulties like magic. Other times we are hoping for comfort and encouragement on a merely human level. These are not bad things, and it is not a sin to hope for them. But they are not the primary purpose of spiritual direction, and so they should not be our primary expectation. Rather, spiritual direction is meant to provide objective feedback, guidance, and evaluation as regards our personal efforts to know, love, and follow Christ more closely. It cannot take the place of those efforts, and it will not always be able to give us solutions – sometimes our director can merely say, “Well, that’s definitely not working for you, so I think you’ll have to try something else.” Often, a spiritual director will simply be asked by the Holy Spirit to affirm that what we are doing (our prayer, our efforts to grow in virtue, our moral decisions) is on the right track. In other words, the director should never become the driver of our spiritual life. Rather, the director is a kind of spiritual consultant; we utilize their expertise in order to improve our Christian living. This is one reason why regularity is so essential for effective spiritual direction. If we only meet in times of crisis, for instance, the director will have to be in emergency mode, taking a more active role (guiding decisions more closely, for instance) than under normal conditions. So it is possible that you may need to adjust some of your expectations. Remember, spiritual direction is only one of the many means our Lord has put at your disposal to draw you closer to himself.
The Challenge of Discernment
The third issue is more difficult still. I cannot say why the priest invited you to discern whether to continue with him as your director. Perhaps he is feeling overwhelmed with his new pastoral responsibilities and is himself discerning whether he should continue as a spiritual director. Perhaps he felt that your expectations have been a bit unrealistic. Perhaps he wants you to spend some time reflecting on those expectations, so as to go deeper in your spiritual work. Perhaps he too is sensing that your meetings could benefit from a more structured approach, but he doesn’t know how to move in that direction (after all, spiritual directors grow and change too – they aren’t a perfect breed!). In short, without asking him, you cannot know the reason behind the instruction he gave you. In light of that, I would recommend a great spirit of simplicity and confidence in God. Remember, God is the one who is leading you towards holiness. So, simply go ahead and do what your director asked: pray for light, asking God to let you know if it is his will to look for a new director. He may not give you an answer right away, but if you add this to your daily prayers between now and your next spiritual direction, he will, I think guide your heart aright.
I would recommend that you go ahead and schedule another spiritual direction meeting with this same director, if only so that you can speak with him about the results of that prayer for discernment. Also, in that next meeting, you prepare and follow the structure we have provided, and see what happens. Finally, do not be afraid to ask your director, during your next meeting, what he thinks. It is not strictly necessary for a director and a directee to know each other extremely well in order for spiritual direction to be effective. But it is absolutely necessary that there be mutual confidence, openness, and clear communication. This is why I recommend that you ask him directly about the instruction that has caused you (understandably, I think) such confusion. There may be many different reasons behind his instruction (as mentioned above). Maybe he has discerned that he needs to cut down on his spiritual directions and would prefer to recommend another director for you. Maybe not. In either case, if you simply continue to make a decent effort to do your part, you can peacefully, with great simplicity and confidence in God, trust that the Lord who knows your name and is always thinking of you will use this experience to guide you further along the path of everlasting wisdom and imperturbable joy.
I will say a prayer for you. God bless you!
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC
Art for this post on being new to spiritual direction: Icon of Jesus and Peter, unknown provenance, provided by Dan Burke. Ein ernstes Gespräch (A Serious Conversation), Ludwig Johann Passini, by 1902, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.