Spiritual Direction: How Much Focus on Prayer vs Sin & Virtue?

Spiritual Directors

spiritual direction should focusDear Father John, How much of a discussion in spiritual direction should focus on moral issues, such as habitual sin and possibly that of grave matter which may not necessarily be mortal sin? So much discussion here is only about how to pray well, making a program for life, finding a spiritual director and things of that nature. What about living life every day? It seems to me that talking to a spiritual director about lofty things like praying wonderfully is great, but that seems secondary to getting habitual sin eradicated. Please address how dealing with morality factors into spiritual direction, and how it differs from discussion about it within the Sacrament of Confession. I hope I’m not the only sinner here!

Thank you for asking this question so directly. I will try to be as direct in my answer.

Spiritual direction, in its essence, is merely one means (though a powerful one) to help us know, love, and follow God more deeply. And so, the guidance received in spiritual direction should touch on those activities and experiences most directly related to our communion with God. Without a doubt, sin is one of these, and so the topic of sin will be part of spiritual direction. But before we look at how, let’s remind ourselves of what sin, that disobedience to God’s eternal law, really is.

Sketching a Profile of Sin

Sin is rebellion against God. It is an echo of Satan’s refrain, “I will not serve!” It is a denial of our status as God’s creations and his children, dependent on him for our existence at every single moment. It is a repudiation of his goodness, love, and wisdom. It is the prodigal son wishing his father were already dead so that he could get his inheritance and abandon home. When we sin, we cut ourselves off from the very source of meaning, virtue, and happiness, both temporal and eternal. When we sin, we become absurd and self-destructive, like trees uprooting themselves from the soil because they feel constrained by their roots. Sin is turning our backs on our Creator, Redeemer, and Savior. (For a more detailed discussion of sin, and its different types, see our entries on scrupulosity.)

The Throes of Repentance

Usually, when someone is at the point in their spiritual life where they are seeking regular spiritual direction, they are repentant. This means they have received the grace to turn away from their sins and to sincerely desire to come back to the Father’s house. Otherwise, why would they be wanting spiritual direction? But repentance from past sins rarely includes the total banishment of sinful habits, actions, tendencies, and attitudes. Repentance is the first step of a difficult journey along the path of holiness, a journey fraught with temptations to fall back into old sins or dive into new ones.

For this reason, spiritual direction has to involve a frank discussion of our most common temptations and falls (usually, this forms part of the “program of life”). In the sacrament of confession, we confess our sins, receiving forgiveness and the grace of renewed strength to resist temptation. But in spiritual direction, we analyze and discuss our sinful patterns and tendencies, trying to understand their roots and identifying ways to overcome them. This discussion and analysis has to do at least two things:

  1. First, it should help us, gradually, get to know ourselves better and better. Sometimes a particular habit of sin is actually just a branch of a deeper selfish tendency. If we keep trying to cut off the branch, it just grows more vigorously, as when we prune a tree. We need to find the roots if we want to overcome definitively those habits that stifle our spiritual growth.
  2. Second, it should help us identify things we can do to strengthen ourselves against temptation. Our greatest allies in the battle against sin are prayer and the sacraments, so spiritual direction has to be a place where we receive guidance about how to live those more fruitfully. But spiritual direction also gives us the advantage of being accountable to someone, so we should discuss lifestyle choices (how we use our time, what kind of entertainment we engage in, which relationships hinder our growth in virtue…) that are connected to our moral and spiritual integrity. We should identify faith-damaging habits that we need to break, as well as faith-encouraging habits that we can form, and hold ourselves accountable to our spiritual director for the consistency of our efforts. For example, we should talk about situations we keep putting ourselves in that lead us into sin (traditionally called “occasions of sin”) and how we can avoid them in the future.

Stages of Growth

At the earlier stages of the spiritual life, the emphasis falls on weeding out the sinful and self-centered habits that are constricting the action of God’s grace in our lives. As we grow, the emphasis changes. There are fewer weeds in the garden, and we begin to focus more on how to make the good plants (the Christian virtues) grow and bear more fruit. We also become more sensitive to less dramatic sins, to more subtle manifestations of selfishness (which is why we never grow out of confession: the more we love our Lord, the more sensitive we will be to even the smallest offenses to his friendship).

A tendency to anger, for example, may lead to frequent, violent explosions early on, but to less visible spats of impatience later. In both cases, however, these are weeds; they are obstructing our friendship with Christ, and we need to work intelligently to uproot them by growing in the virtue of fortitude. Spiritual direction should help us in that effort, by providing both spiritual encouragement and tactical advice.

Moral integrity (avoiding the big, obvious sins, like those alluded to in the Ten Commandments) is the foundation of the building called holiness. But the building really begins to soar once we establish that foundation firmly and become free to focus our spiritual energies on the active loving of God and neighbor, not simply the avoidance of offending them. Thus, our prayer, our program of life, and everything else associated with spiritual direction is not meant to be divorced from daily life, but actually should enable us to live each day more deeply and fully, by helping us plug even the most mundane activities into the great adventure of seeking, finding, and following our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, may his name be praised forever!

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC


Art for this post on spiritual direction: Garden of Eden (Paradise) graphic, unknown provenance, provided by Dan Burke. Feature Image: Ein ernstes Gespräch (A Serious Conversation), Ludwig Johann Passini, by 1902, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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