Dear Dan, I’ve been going to spiritual direction for several years with a good friend. At her suggestion I have recently begun seeing a Catholic counselor to deal with issues from my past which have made it difficult for me to progress spiritually, to trust God, etc. Actually she insisted that I must see a counselor if she was to remain my SD. I was heading this way anyway, however, I was stunned and hurt by the way she presented this to me.
One of the first things the counselor suggested was that perhaps I should find another spiritual director because we are so different in temperament and have had some problems in communication resulting in her feeling I’m resistant and me feeling misunderstood and misjudged. And then we both are frustrated. I strongly feel that God brought us together and I want to remain with my present SD as long as she is willing, because she understands many things about me and knows my strengths and weaknesses and background. And I’d like to try to improve the way we communicate and the way I react (which may improve anyway as I go through counseling and find ways to deal with my emotions).
I think my question is: can this work? (With God’s help and our good will I hope it can.) How does one know when to change spiritual directors? If you fail with one what are the chances of making progress with another, even if you should find one?
Are you ever too old to start spiritual direction? Ever too old to change? I’m in my sixties and feel older than that some days.
Dear friend, you are an inspiration! So many get stuck because they make some progress, become satisfied, and then complacent, and then, well, it usually doesn’t turn out so well. In the book of Revelation (3:16) the Lord warns that the lukewarm will be spit out of his mouth. So, to answer the age question first, you are never too old to start, never too old to fight, never too old to love and be loved, never to old to make spiritual progress, never too old to be absent of sin, imperfection, and blind spots, and thus never too old for spiritual direction. In fact, you are closer to the Lord than ever (in time), it is even more important to do your best to be prepared to meet him face to face.
Your counselor is probably right. Your experience is the reason why I recommend that spiritual direction come outside of the context of a friendship. As an aside, I have no doubt that God has brought you together – but probably for a different reason than you might think. Here are a few more specific examples of the problematic nature of these relationships (these are generally true but not always true and may not all apply to your situation):
- The nature of friendship lends itself to emotional attachments. How do you know when you have gone beyond healthy inter-dependence into the realm of attachment? The best indication is when emotions regularly begin to hinder progress in communication. Healthy director/directee relationships have an element of detachment that helps the director see and diagnosis without the emotional clouding that can be present in a friendship (more about this in a minute).
- Healthy friendships, by their nature, are encouraging. They focus on the up-side of each person. This means that confrontation is not a frequent element. I am not arguing that this should be true, but that it is most often true. So, when friends shift into spiritual direction relationships, the director, by the nature of their role, rightly begins to judge (make assessments) and suggest changes (provide direction) and these then trigger emotions in the directee and the relationship begins to feel less safe than it was before. This is very difficult to overcome.
- When a director is a friend, we are more likely to be attached to the need for them to have a positive perception of us. Thus, when they make assessments, we feel judged (in the negative sense) and will likely begin to quibble about the minute errors in their assessment. This is usually not received well by the director in this case. This reaction comes out of pride and vanity and the concomitant need for approval (sometimes from both sides of the relationship).
- Blind spots and delusion are what they are because we don’t see them – we cannot see them on our own. This often is true because of our familiarity with them. Have you taken a close look at your car lately? Walk around it. Take note of each nick, dent, or other flaw. Why don’t you see those every day? This is because they have become “normal” to you. The flaws are there, but daily exposure minimizes our awareness (unless, of course, we are obsessive about such things). Spiritual flaws disappear because we see them every day and they are thus normal to us. The same can happen with friends. If we have defects or attachments that don’t annoy our friends, then they will disappear to them, and thus they will be unable to help us overcome them. Even worse is when they share the same sin or defect and thereby encourage our own sin and weakness. This is common with the sin of gossip. Our blind spots become theirs because they are so close to us, or so much like us, or regularly participate in the sin or dysfunction with us.
All that said, spiritual friendships are very powerful and important. I suspect that you and your friend can rekindle a beneficial spiritual friendship once you take a break for a while. You can do this by taking up a spiritual reading and discussion program with them.
Though my limited exposure to your situation could yield misdiagnosis, I think that your question reveals, clearly enough, that this relationship has too many distracting elements for it to be a healthy spiritual direction relationship. It is time to make a change. The good news is that God has revealed many things to you in the challenges of this situation. It would be good for you to make note of them and begin to step back and evaluate them from a distance. My instinct is that the insights you gain from this exercise will provide the seeds of your future growth in Him.
PS: I have a book coming out later this year that defines what a spiritual direction relationship should and should not look like. You can learn more here by going to www.NavigatingTheInteriorLife.com
Art for this post on whether a friend can a be a spiritual director: St. Cyril, Apostle to the Slavs, provided by Dan Burke, provenance unknown. Feature image art: Ein ernstes Gespräch (A Serious Conversation), Ludwig Johann Passini, by 1903, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.