Dear Father John, what is the difference between confession and spiritual direction?
Confession and spiritual direction are like partially overlapping circles: they share some common characteristics, but their centers, their essences, are distinct.
The Distinction of Confession
The essence of confession is the sacramental grace that Christ gives to our soul through the ministry of his priest. When we open our hearts to him through sincere repentance and honest confession of our sins within the sacrament of reconciliation, we receive an infusion of grace that forgives our sins, strengthens our spiritual weakness (especially regarding the behaviors that we confessed), and increases the bond of our supernatural friendship with Christ. It also exercises and therefore increases the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity. In confession, God acts on our soul the way a surgeon acts on a patient: directly, profoundly, in ways that we could never reproduce by merely natural efforts.
This is why we don’t have to worry even if the priest who hears our confession is taciturn, deaf, grumpy, in mortal sin, or even (God forbid) harsh. The priest is God’s instrument of grace within this sacrament, not the source of that grace.
The Distinction of Spiritual Direction
The essence of spiritual direction is solid advice. The spiritual director helps us see more clearly what God is asking of us and how he is acting in our lives. The director also helps us see objectively the quality of our response to God: are we being docile and humble, or are we just tricking ourselves into doing what we feel like? The spiritual director is like the physical therapist that helps us identify the exercises we need to be doing in order to grow spiritually, and then helps us adjust our spiritual program of work in order to keep it effective and on track. This is invaluable advice, but it is noticeably different than that surgeon who actually reconstructs a torn ligament or rebuilds a broken lung.
This is one of the reasons why nothing inhibits lay people from becoming excellent spiritual directors. Ordination is not required, just solid training in spiritual theology, ample personal experience in the spiritual life, and the Holy Spirit’s gifts of knowledge (discernment) and counsel. But God has reserved the sacrament of confession to his ordained priests, in order to guarantee that he acts directly therein.
Nevertheless, although the essences differ, the secondary characteristics of confession and spiritual direction can often overlap. A good confessor gives more than absolution; he also utilizes the sacred moment in which this person is opening their heart to God to remind them of God’s goodness, love, and wisdom. If he detects some confusion or frustration, he can also give sound advice, just as a spiritual director would do. If the penitent has questions or doubts, the confessor answers and resolves them. The atmosphere of faith in which the sacrament takes place is incomparably propitious for the action of the Holy Spirit and the penitent’s docility to that action. In past centuries, in fact, lay people usually received spiritual direction within the sacrament. They would go to the same priest regularly for confession, and this “confessor” became their spiritual father, their spiritual director. In more recent times, however, the practice of having separate spiritual direction, which used to be reserved for consecrated religious, has spread to the laity as well. This is linked to the Church’s growing emphasis on the lay vocation as a vocation to holiness, just as much as a religious vocation is a call to holiness. Only the states of life differ.
Some priests who are excellent confessors even prefer to give spiritual direction within the sacrament of confession. Combining the two makes for a longer stay in the confessional, but it can be fruitful. If you are having trouble finding a spiritual director, you may want to ask around to find out which priests in your area have a reputation for being wise confessors. You can then go to confession with them, and in addition to confessing your sins, you can also mention in the sacrament that you are trying to follow a program of spiritual growth. Then include as part of your confession the areas of spiritual work in which you have had difficulty in recent weeks. These difficulties may be imperfections (unconscious faults) more than sins, but by confessing them you express the delicacy of your love for Christ, and you give the confessor a greater understanding of the state of your soul. Then he will have a chance to give you solid advice and guidance before giving you absolution. You can use that advice to adjust your program of spiritual work for the coming weeks. In this way, your confessor can double as your spiritual director. The disadvantage of this arrangement, however, is the lack of time to converse. Often what is most helpful in spiritual direction is the focused conversation about spiritual things. Necessarily, the parameters of the sacrament curtail this kind of discussion.
Of course, the contrary situation also arises. Oftentimes, if one’s spiritual director is also a priest, it is quite natural to finish spiritual direction with the sacrament of confession. In this case, the priest will take less time to offer advice and encouragement, which has already been given in spiritual direction. The disadvantage of this arrangement (which is certainly not a requirement), is the tendency to dilute one’s awareness of God’s action through the sacrament, a penchant for considering the sacrament merely as the frosting on the cake of spiritual direction, at least on a subconscious level.
Keep in mind the essential difference between confession and spiritual direction. If you do that, then the overlap of secondary characteristics, which can take as many different forms as there are people, will always enhance and never confuse your experience of both.
Art for this post on the difference between confession and spiritual direction: Confession, Giuseppe Crespi, 1712; Ein ernstes Gespräch (A Serious Conversation), Ludwig Johann Passini, by 1902; both PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.