Spiritual Direction did Not Work for Me – Now What?
Dear Father John, Two years ago I began “spiritual direction” with a highly educated, sympathetic and easy to talk to, intelligent, [director] but apparently not quite orthodox and not very well experienced or educated in spiritual direction.
I come from the “Latin Mass tradition” of the FSSP-whom I hope you do not automatically reject as “fanatics”, and am looking for someone who follows at least somewhat some of the suggestions of Hugo Doyle’s GUIDANCE IN SPIRITUAL DIRECTION.
Instead of talking about vices and virtues et al, we discuss rather modernistic books, some of which are endorsed by the Dalai Lama and other non-Catholic figures. There is unorthodoxy in some of these books. When I try to bring comments from older preVatican2 books, these are ignored and I am told my problems are “mental and scrupulous”. I feel I am being put in a rigid box that does not actually fit my spiritual situation.
The key is that I do not feel I have grown spiritually over the 2 years of monthly spiritual ‘direction’ with this priest. My perspective restricts me to a priest or cleric. There are however hereabouts no one else who takes directees. (The traditional FSSP priests admit they cannot do this work, and my present priest is non-traditional/very highly pressingly charismatic.)
I am praying the novena, given by St. Padre Pio, to the Sacred Heart to find a new director or for the Holy Spirit to direct me himself in ways that do not frighten me and that I can understand. I am also praying for this before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle every morning 1hr before Mass when I say a Novena of Rosaries. I have prayed to St. Charles Borromeo, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Padre Pio, for their intercession.
I would ask you to pray for God to help me. I am reading solid orthodox books on sin and virtue and spiritual growth but don’t feel this is a total substitute for human interaction. Can you make any further suggestions?
I am sorry to be responding to this question so tardily. Perhaps since you wrote the question your prayers have been answered and you have found a new and adequate spiritual director. Nevertheless, I would like to share some thoughts, since I imagine some of our readers may be faced with similar situations.
Searching for a Spiritual Director
First of all, I want to point towards our many posts through the years that give advice about searching for and finding a good spiritual director. You can find them on this site by searching according to topic and/or by clicking here to access many helpful posts: Spiritual Direction Process and Index. Also, Daniel Burke’s book, Navigating the Interior Life treats this issue. So, good advice is available.
Nevertheless, even when following good advice about searching for a spiritual director, sometimes we still have difficulty finding one. That’s okay. That’s natural. That is nothing to panic about. God can work in our lives even through that search, and the suffering it can cause, as he has done in the lives of many saints. Regarding the specifics of your question and your situation, I have three thoughts I would like to share.
Realistic Expectations for Spiritual Directors
First, this side of heaven there simply is no perfect spiritual director. The core idea behind spiritual direction is that God likes to work through human channels and instruments. This is at least one reason why he founded a Church. And God is well aware of our human limitations. So if both the director and the directee approach the relationship of spiritual direction from the perspective of faith and hope, God can work powerfully even through the flaws and imperfections of each party. This is one reason why the Church has seen more than a few cases of canonized saints receiving spiritual direction from directors less advanced spiritually than they were.
Characteristics of a Good Spiritual Director
Second, in general, we should be looking for three characteristics in our directors:
- connection, and
A director is trustworthy when we are confident in his or her orthodoxy, knowledge of the spiritual life, and experience of Christian living. The characteristic of “connection” has to do with how we communicate with that person – if we feel they are a good listener, that they understand where we are coming from, that they can identify with our questions and struggles and yearnings. Availability refers to the person’s time and place: someone might be a good director, but they may not have the time to invest in the ongoing relationship that spiritual direction requires, or they may live so far away that there will never be opportunities to speak face-to-face.
Choosing a Spiritual Director
As I mentioned earlier, no one is a perfect spiritual director. No one scores a perfect 10 in all those characteristics. So in our search, and in accordance with Providence, we have to discover and decide what is sufficient. Maybe a potential director scores an “8” in trustworthiness, a “9” in availability, but a “4” in connection (I am using numbers only to make a point – I hope you know what I mean). Okay, well, if that’s the best combination we can find, we may have to accept the limitation and trust that God will work through it.
In your case, it seems that even after two years, you find significant difficulties as regards your current director’s trustworthiness and connection. If you sincerely believe you haven’t grown spiritually under his direction, and if someone else (the director himself, or another person you trust) agrees with you (giving a certain objectivity to your self-evaluation), that would seem good enough reason to look for another director. But remember, there are no perfect spiritual directors on this side of heaven, and God knows how to work powerfully through broken instruments.
What Should We Expect from a Spiritual Director?
And yet, I am a bit concerned about your comment that you haven’t progressed spiritually under the guidance of this director. Even a very good spiritual director is not in charge of our spiritual life; we are. A good director is only an instrument, and only one of many instruments. Certainly, the great spiritual writers, and even recent popes, have emphasized the importance and usefulness of good spiritual direction. But if you are praying, seeking to grow in virtue, and seeking to know, love, and follow Jesus more closely (as it seems you are), I find it impossible to imagine that you haven’t advanced at all in two years! I wonder if, perhaps, you should reflect more fully on your expectations as regards to spiritual growth and the role of a spiritual director within that process.
Backed Into a Corner?
Furthermore, I wonder if you may have unwittingly backed yourself into a corner by insisting absolutely that your spiritual director be a priest or cleric – the Church has no such official limitation in her teaching or practice. I understand why you may have a preference for that. But the history of the Church shows that both lay people and women religious can prove to be very effective spiritual directors. Perhaps you could open up your search to include those possibilities, even having a couple conversations with prospective directors before actually broaching the subject (meeting with them to ask for a piece of advice, for example, in order to test the waters), just to see what might happen. Even finding a mature “fellow-traveller” to speak with regularly about spiritual things can be a big help.
God Is Always at Work
Third, during seasons of life when we simply cannot find a spiritual director, we simply have to do the best we can. God will continue to love and guide us, if we remain humble and sincere in our pursuit of greater intimacy with him. The spiritual disciplines and activities you mention are worthy and will, I am sure, bear fruit in your life.
I will certainly say a prayer for your successful search, and even more for God to continue guiding you closer and closer to the fulfillment of the dream He has for your life.
Peace in Him, Fr John
Art: Christ and Saint Mina, 6th-century icon from Bawit, Egypt, now in the Louvre, user-Abraham, PD-US copyright expired; Ein ernstes Gespräch (A Serious Conversation), Ludwig Johann Passini, by 1902, PD-US; Partial restoration detail of Vision of the Holy Trinity [with St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila], anonymous Brazilian painter, 17th century, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less; all three from Wikimedia Commons.