Dear Father John, I’m a new Catholic as of April, 2012. I received spiritual direction that was immensely helpful with a priest about four times, before I was received into the church. While in my first confession, that priest told me I needed ongoing spiritual direction for many specific reasons. He said I should contact the pastor because he, as an assistant pastor, could not guarantee meeting with me long term. I did meet with the pastor, who concurred with what the first priest said and also said he was leaving but I should let the next pastor know. I met the first priest a month later and he forgot everything he said before and was telling me that I couldn’t count on a parish priest for spiritual direction long term but I should contact a monastery to see if a monk or nun could help me. My RCIA sponsor contacted the Carmelites for me and they said they could not. He keeps saying now that priests aren’t available for long term spiritual guidance, but I read online that people have pastors and parish priests as spiritual directors for years. Anyway, I’m feeling very discouraged. He said I need ongoing support because I have a developmental disability that makes it hard for me to sort things out spiritually, and so I am often easy prey to darker influences. Also, I’m a serious and devoted student in contemplative prayer and wish to pursue a contemplative life in a related career (which is not also a religious vocation.) Is what he’s saying a personal rejection? Is what he’s saying even true? More importantly, my anxiety is building over not knowing who to trust for guidance right now. I do have a therapist who is Catholic and she is helpful with emotional issues I work through but she will not advise on moral/faith issues that come up and she says I need to talk to my priest.
Welcome home!!! As an adult convert to Catholicism myself, I am always deeply edified and encouraged when I hear of others the Lord has led down similar paths. I would encourage you during these first months as a new Catholic to keep meditating in your heart on St. Paul’s beautiful and powerful phrase: “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
Trust in God!
And that’s where I would like to begin answering your important question. In the midst of this difficulty, which is clearly a painful one, and in the midst of every difficulty that you will face along your journey to the Father’s house, remember that God is right beside you. He protects us from many, many difficulties, and the ones he permits us to face are, from his perspective, opportunities for growth. Be sure of that. Your struggle to find stable and dependable spiritual guidance is, in itself, a magnificent expression of your love for God and your hope in his grace. God will honor that, and he is pleased with that, and he is upholding you even as you continue your search. Even canonized saints (St. Margaret Mary, St. Faustina, St. Elizabeth of Hungary…) faced this difficulty, so you are in good company.
Before I offer my own answer to this important question, I want to request that our readers’ share their wisdom. I know that many of our readers have faced this same problem. Please comment on what has helped and hindered you in seeking to resolve it.
Priests as Spiritual Directors?
I would like to offer three suggestions. But first, a word about parish priests and spiritual direction. No ecclesiastical rule exists on this point. Each parish priest will offer or not offer spiritual direction as he sees fit, in accordance with his possibilities, training, and pastoral priorities. Quite often, parish priests decide not to offer ongoing spiritual direction. And this is very understandable. If a priest’s parish has 2,000 families, and 10 percent of those families asked for regular spiritual direction, the priest would have to spend 100 hours a month in this ministry alone! Parish priests juggle a mind-boggling amount of demands on their time. It helps to keep this in mind. Sometimes we can feel that we are being personally rejected when someone denies our request for spiritual direction, but we shouldn’t. So many other factors can be at work.
My first suggestion is to continue your prayer of petition. Keep asking God each day to grant you the guidance you need, and to give you a spiritual director, if it be his will. And trust that God will continue to guide you as you continue your search. He cares even more than you do about your growth in spiritual maturity, about your true, lasting happiness. If you continue to place your life in his hands, day after day, you will give his grace more and more space to work wonders in your soul.
Secondly, I would encourage you to read this earlier post, which gives a whole list of possible places and organizations where you may be able to find a spiritual director. This post may be useful too. So, as you continue to ask God to do his part, you should keep on doing your part – searching. Jesus affirmed, “Ask, and you shall receive!” But he also exhorted, “Seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). So keep asking, but also keep seeking and knocking. While you look, don’t be afraid to ask a priest for individual appointments when you feel that you really need some spiritual guidance. Even though many priests can’t commit to ongoing spiritual direction, most make themselves available to meet with people who have questions or particular struggles they need to speak about.
Thirdly, what should you do in the meantime? Continue to grow in your prayer life, continue to frequent the sacraments, continue to seek to know, love, and imitate Christ in your daily life (above all, seeking his will), continue to form virtue and overcome vice, and continue to nourish your mind with good Catholic literature. You are doing all of those things already; keep doing them! Keep seeking to “draw closer to God” and “he will draw closer to you” (James 4:8). And while you do, remember the spiritual principle that frustration and discouragement never come from the Holy Spirit. If you are making a decent effort to do what you can to find solid and stable spiritual guidance and to follow Christ each day, God will guide you. Take confidence in that. Trust in him. This earlier post also has some insights regarding what to do “in the meantime.”
Help in Other Places
As a final thought, it may help you to keep your eyes open also for a spiritual mentor. A mentor is someone you can meet with to talk about your spiritual life, even if this person doesn’t have specific training as a spiritual director. If there is an older woman of faith in your parish, someone you respect, someone you can see that has achieved an attractive degree of spiritual maturity, feel free to invite her out to a cup of coffee, simply saying that you would like to get to know her better and talk to her about the faith. This kind of mentoring isn’t as formal or regular as spiritual direction, but it can do wonders. You may also find support and stimulation to spiritual growth by joining a women’s Bible study or faith-sharing group, or an adult faith-formation program. These kinds of activities allow you to surround yourself with people who share your desire to go deeper spiritually, and the leaders of these groups are often excellent mentors. Such fellowship and friendships can provide key support in dark times. RCIA shouldn’t be the end of your faith-journey, but only the beginning!
Art: Unknown statue, 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.