How do I Deal with Psychological Issues Surfaced in Spiritual Direction?

Dear Father John, when a major issue (in this case, abuse) that surfaces with the help of my spiritual director bleeds over from the psychological realm into the spiritual, how (and when) do I get away from it in my spiritual direction so I can get to the spiritual issues of prayer, discernment, etc.?

It is difficult to answer this question, because the timing involved in any healing process like the kind you mention isn’t fixed. It depends on factors that are highly personal and often impossible to identify fully. Nevertheless, the question is an excellent one, so I will try to share some thoughts, hoping that you find them helpful.

First off, even from the few sentences you have written, it is abundantly clear to me that the Holy Spirit is very close to you, and that you have learned to hear and follow his promptings (those promptings are usually little more than a good idea that pops onto your internal radar screen). You are discovering, I think, that God is faithful, even when others are not. From God’s perspective, what matters most is that we come to know, love, and follow him more and more closely every day, so that we can enjoy him more fully in heaven forever. Because of his infinite goodness, wisdom, and power, he can make that happen even in the aftermath of evil. As St Augustine said, “For almighty God. . ., because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.” But at the same time, as the Catechism reminds us, “Faith gives us the certainty that God would not permit an evil if he did not cause a good to come from that very evil, by ways that we shall fully know only in eternal life” (#324). I sense that you are learning this wisdom, that God is teaching it to you. As you continue to learn it, he will also give you chances and put you into situations where you can help others learn it too (get ready).

Now, onto the question: What will help you keep a balance in your spiritual work as the psycho-emotional healing process continues moving forward? I think the key factor in this period will be your program of life. This is what keeps us objective. It identifies our root sin, and also the concrete virtues that we personally most need to develop in our pursuit of holiness. In other words, it enables and empowers proactive spiritual work. This helps us move away from a primarily reactive or subjective spiritual environment. How can you (personally, in the here-and-now of your unique life-situation) be more Christ-like in your relationships, in the carrying out of your responsibilities, in your efforts to build the Church? How can you (you personally) live the sacraments more deeply, learn to hear the Holy Spirit better and better in your contemplation and meditation on God’s Word? How can you (you personally) divide and conquer for Christ the territory of your heart… As you identify the areas of virtue where you need to grow, the emotional and psychological issues will begin to re-dimension themselves, and you will see them as obstacles and opportunities in your proactive spiritual effort (though depending on their intensity, you may need to get specific psychological help as well – nothing to be afraid of). And so you will be able to face them as you would face any obstacles and opportunities: in the bright and attractive light of God’s personal (to you specifically) call to holiness, lasting happiness, and Christian fruitfulness. The program of life is a tool that can help you make that happen, though it will take time to transition from reactive to proactive. Be patient. God’s grace will be the driving force.

If you are already using a program of life, go over it again, read over our blog entry on how to use it, and make a point of speaking with your spiritual director about polishing it up and turning it into a more practical and living document. Then use it as the blueprint for your spiritual direction, as well as the themes of your personal prayer. If you’re not using one yet, you have a treat in store! If possible, I would also recommend that you go on a trustworthy Spiritual Exercises retreat (this is usually the best place to get a grip on a really accurate program of life – but don’t wait until you can do that before getting your program of life going). Unfortunately, some silent retreats aren’t as gospel-centered as others. I know that my own order offers weekend Spiritual Exercises for lay people throughout the year, in a few different locations. You may be able to find information about them at

I hope this is somewhat helpful, and I promise to remember you in my prayers. God bless you!

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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