HAVING TOO MANY SPIRITUAL DIRECTORS
Dear Father John, I recently read something about having too many spiritual directors. Is there such a thing? How many is too many? Is it OK to have more than one?
It depends on what you mean by “spiritual director.” Strictly speaking, spiritual direction is an ongoing relationship in which the spiritual director serves as a special guide and companion as we continually strive to discover and embrace God’s will in our lives. From that perspective, we should never have multiple spiritual directors at the same time. Here’s why.
One Destination – Multiple Roads
First of all, our spiritual journey has one destination – greater intimacy with God, greater holiness – but many possible paths to that destination. Different spiritual directors will emphasize different aspects of those paths. If you have two or three spiritual directors, one may say, “turn right at the light,” and another may say, “turn left at the light.” Both of those turns may eventually get you further along in your journey, depending on the subsequent turns that you take. But if you follow the guidance of the first spiritual director, and then go to a second one and follow their advice too, you may end up going in circles instead of making progress. In other words, it’s important to have consistency in the guidance that you receive, since there is no one formula for spiritual progress. Different spiritual directors will have different gifts and insights, just as different coaches have different styles of coaching – not necessarily better or worse, just different. For consistent growth, we need to follow consistent guidance.
A Meaningful Relationship
Second, since the essence of spiritual direction is the relationship we have with our spiritual director, we have to invest time and energy in developing that relationship. We have to go deep. We have to allow ourselves to be known thoroughly, and that requires opening ourselves up in ways that are challenging and demanding. Having multiple spiritual directors impedes the development of this depth. In fact, many times having multiple spiritual directors simultaneously can be a subconscious tactic for resisting that kind of openness. I just go around to my different spiritual directors, telling each one of them what I know each wants to hear, and picking and choosing among their various indications according to whatever my personal preferences are. That’s a formula for spiritual stultification, not for spiritual growth. It can be an exercise in vanity and pride, not in humbly seeking the face of the Lord.
Not the Only Source of Input
But having a single spiritual director at a time doesn’t mean we can’t also consult with other people about specific questions or issues. We can have spiritual friends, mentors, people we respect and trust and consult – these people can also accompany us and support us in our spiritual journey. Those relationships are perfectly compatible with spiritual direction. In fact, speaking about those relationships with our spiritual director can help us appreciate them, discover how God wants to work through them, and live them better.
A good spiritual director will also know how to recommend other people to consult about particular issues – financial issues, marital issues, health issues, etc. A spiritual director isn’t an expert in everything. God will also use other people and other relationships to help us grow spiritually. Nevertheless, the spiritual director remains a special and consistent reference point, a relationship in which God promises to work in a particular way, a relationship that requires supernatural docility on our part.
Switching Spiritual Directors?
Your question opens up one other aspect of spiritual direction: How long should we keep the same spiritual director? Many times, the external circumstances of life require us to look for a new spiritual director – we have to move to a new city, or our spiritual director is no longer available to meet with us, for example. In those circumstances, the answer is simple – keep your spiritual director as long as you can. But other times we can come to a point in our spiritual journey where we feel that our spiritual director is no longer helping us. We feel a bit stuck. We no longer feel the same connection with our spiritual director that we used to feel. The advice and guidance that we receive doesn’t resonate the way it used to; it feels less relevant.
When this begins to happen, the first thing to do is a deep self-examination. Is there something in my heart that is causing this disconnect? Is there some unspoken fear or self-centered resistance that’s disguising itself as dissatisfaction with my spiritual director? It would be a worthwhile topic to bring up in spiritual direction, actually.
After this sincere and patient self-examination, we may still be convinced that we need to look for a new spiritual director. That can be fine. We have no obligation to keep the same one forever. On the other hand, frequently switching directors can be a sign of the same dangers present when we insist on keeping multiple spiritual directors simultaneously. If you find yourself perpetually dissatisfied with your spiritual director, maybe what needs to change is your own set of expectations. If you are in this situation, I can recommend another post on the topic [click on the title to access it]: Spiritual Direction Did Not Work for Me – Now What?
I hope these thoughts have helped answer your question. God bless you and keep you!
Sincerely in Christ, Fr. John Bartunek, LC
Art for this post on Having Too Many Spiritual Directors: A fork in the road Which way should I go?, Nicholas Mutton, 16 September 2007, CCA-SA 2.0 Generic; PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago (Sept. 21, 2007) – Father Joseph Harris, left, a Roman Catholic priest in Trinidad and Tobago, celebrates mass with Lt. Cmdr. Paul Evers, a Navy chaplain and Roman Catholic priest, aboard Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20), U.S. Navy photo taken by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joan E. Kretschmer, 21 September 2007, PD-US work of the U.S. federal government; Conversation dans l’atelier à Corneilla-de-Conflent (Conversation in the workshop in Corneilla-de-Conflent), Georges Daniel de Monfreid (1856-1929), PD-US, author’s life plus 80 years or less; Ein ernstes Gespräch (A Serious Conversation), Ludwig Johann Passini, by 1902, PD-US; all Wikimedia Commons.