Every month I meet individually with various people to discuss their relationship with God. This includes men and women of different ages, vocations, and life experiences. Each one of them has sought spiritual direction because they want greater intimacy with God. Despite this common desire, each person’s relationship with God is as unique as the individual. In the spiritual life, after all, there are no identical twins.
On average, each individual meeting lasts about an hour. Depending on what each person is sharing on a particular day, sometimes there are tears, sometimes there is laughter, and sometimes there are both all within the same meeting. These responses are not because of emotional or psychological problems, but because these are people of prayer. In their prayer, they are encountering the living God who, although desires to be known, never allows us to grasp him completely. This seemingly intimate and yet distant aspect of God can cause joy and happiness one day, fear and anxiety the next.
Spiritual direction, unfortunately, has often been misunderstood. The spiritual director is not some guru who has all the answers, nor is he an expert in discerning exactly what God is doing in your life. At the same time, the spiritual director, at least most often, is not a psychologist who is looking to discover the causes behind one’s behavior, emotional outlook, or mental state.
Surprisingly, the spiritual director cannot even be considered a friend. Though friendly in nature, the monthly meetings between a spiritual director and a directee are not the equivalent of two friends getting coffee and catching up on one another’s life. Since God is the center of this relationship, the space that a director and directee occupy is surrounded in mystery, which is why this relationship defies worldly categories.
If a spiritual director is not a guru, a psychologist, or even a good friend then what is a spiritual director? A spiritual director is simply someone who assists another person in his relationship with God. He does this most effectively when he listens, without an agenda, to a person’s experience of God, particularly in an individual’s prayer life. This listening by the spiritual director helps the other person to hear God’s communication in his own life and notice how he is responding. Only after deeply listening can the director offer his own insights and observations.
Oftentimes people ask me if they need a spiritual director. My answer is always the same: if you desire to take the Gospel seriously then I highly recommend one. The reason for this, even though we might not like it, is simple: each one of us needs help. By ourselves, we are unable to perceive God’s action in our lives. The Christian life flourishes, not when we live in isolation from others, but when we can share the joys and struggles with another believer, who not only desires to see our relationship with God grow but who is mature enough to sit with us and listen to us as we sift through a wide range of emotions and experiences.
Most people believe that only a priest can be a spiritual director, but actually, most priests are not spiritual directors. Priesthood and spiritual direction are two separate ministries rarely found together in an individual. A good spiritual director has three essential qualities. First, God has called him to this ministry. Second, he is a person of deep prayer who is striving to conform his life to the Gospel. Finally, he must be a good listener. If a person possesses these three qualities, whether that person is a priest, religious, layman or woman is irrelevant.
In my years as both a priest and a spiritual director, I have found that generally, my public role as a priest follows a particular fixed order, such as in the sacraments and other liturgies. Spiritual direction is entirely different. There is no format, and there is no group. It is solely one person’s relationship with God, which, unlike the sacraments, is often not organized and structured.
The happiest day of my life, without a doubt, was when I was ordained a priest. On the morning of my ordination, I was configured to Christ the High Priest. I was given the authority and the power to preach the Gospel and to sanctify others, primarily through the administration of the sacraments. Since I was ordained a priest, I have heard countless confessions, celebrated Mass and preached the Gospel in many places and circumstances throughout the world. Despite the enormous love and gratitude I have for my vocation to the priesthood, my ministry of spiritual direction remains, unexpectedly, the greatest joy of my life.
As a spiritual director, I have accompanied many people in the joys and struggles that a maturing relationship with God entails. In these meetings, my directees have shared with me things that are known only to God and the individual soul. As a spiritual director, I occupy a space that nobody else shares, not even a spouse or a best friend. Hence, it is a space that demands the utmost respect and reverence, one that can be adequately described as “holy ground.”
Their experiences have left a profound impact on me. Their humility, strength, and poverty have encouraged me, since, like them, I share the same joys and struggles they do. When I see what God is doing in their life, despite my own confusion and fear, I am reminded that God is walking with me and guiding me.
Even though we often do not walk away with clear definitive answers in spiritual direction, we are given something even greater: an experience of God as mystery. In this experience, we find, much to our own surprise, that even when we are not aware of it, God never tires in pursuing us. I have found proof of this in every individual life.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.
Originally published as “A Path of Intimacy” in Amid Passing Things: Life, Prayer, and Relationship with God by Jeremiah Myriam Shryock, CFR. © 2019 The Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Used by permission of Paraclete Press, Inc.