As stated before in Part I, there is a clear pastoral need for sound spiritual directors in the church who are both priests, religious, and lay faithful with solid formation. We will continue our conversation on what are particular seasons and scenarios in the life of faith that every member of the faithful will need the assistance of spiritual direction.
II) What are some seasons of life where I have a need for spiritual direction?
The Church envisions various scenarios when spiritual direction is needed in the lives of all the faithful. This is based off of the following observations:
“Spiritual direction can be habitual or periodic or an occasional accompaniment ad casum. Initially, it can be more intense. It often happens that some of the faithful, in following their vocation, are encouraged to seek spiritual direction as a result of preaching, reading, retreats and prayer groups or, indeed, because they go to confession. A careful reading of the documents of the Magisterium can also arouse a need to seek out guidance so as to live more faithfully the Christian life. Such devotion to the spiritual life leads to greater social commitment: “Openness to God makes us open towards our brothers and sisters and towards an understanding of life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a spirit of solidarity” (Congregation for Clergy, The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy, n. 86)
In reflecting on this, two times of life where spiritual direction is necessary are often 1) Between the time of confirmation and the time of young adulthood when one is still discerning their primary vocation from God; and 2) After a major conversion in which I return to following Jesus and His Church after living a life of hardened sin, ignorance, and unbelief. This is seen in the lives of saints such as St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. In both of these scenarios, the Lord often places questions of basic Christian discipleship on the hearts of these persons and they are grappling with finding the answers. These questions of basic Christian discipleship (See Congregation for Clergy, The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy,, n.128)
usually revolve around the following issues:
- Who am I?
- Who is God?
- Who is Jesus Christ?
- What is the Church?
- What is my relationship to Jesus through His church supposed to look like?
- What are my individual gifts, talents, strengths, and interests?
- What are my sins (mortal, venial, and root sin/predominant fault), wounds, addictions, and areas of growth in my life?
- How is Jesus asking me to know, love, and serve Him and His Church in my life?
- How do I accept the gift of God that is me in love?
These life scenarios will often include the need of a personal and freely given commitment to Jesus in faith through the forming basic virtues and habits of Christian discipleship in living out the interior life. (See Congregation for Clergy, The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy, n. 87-88, 92, 122-134) This is done in the context of a rule of life where these virtues and habits are fostered through grace according to one’s vocation and life circumstances. A rule of life will include some form of the following best spiritual practices and will vary from person to person according to their vocation and state in life:
- The reverent, faithful, and fruitful reception of the sacraments (first the Sacraments of Initiation then after regular attendance at mass at least on every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation to daily mass attendance).
- The regular reception of the Sacrament of Confession, especially when one is struggling with persistent mortal sin.
- Consistent practice of daily mental prayer with Scripture or through practicing awareness of God’s presence.
- A healthy prayer life that includes a basic understanding of the prayer of praise, thanksgiving, adoration, contrition, and petition before God.
- A regular practice of Eucharistic adoration.
- A healthy devotion to Mary and the saints by reading about their lives and writings and seeking to cultivate their virtues.
- A regular practice of praying the rosary, the chaplet of divine mercy, litanies, devotional prayers written to or by saints, and novena prayers.
- A daily examination of conscience that helps me see God’s presence in my life and foster true contrition and conversion in light of my own particular struggle with sin.
- The discernment of spirits – this concerns learning how to hear and respond faithfully to the voice of God manifesting in my life, rejecting the voice of sin and the lies and temptations of the devil, and seeing the importance and limits of my observations, preferences, and opinions within the context of my life.
- Growing in divine intimacy with Jesus through a life of virtue, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, surrender to Divine providence, and hosting the presence of God in every season of my life.
- A practice of taking a desert day, a day of recollection, or annual retreat where one spends a prolonged period of silence and prayer with the Lord outside one’s regular routine.
When I have to make a major life decision regarding my vocation, career, and/or family: This requires the discernment of my motivations and a particular choice before me and weighing its positives and negatives. It also involves prayerfully discerning the choice in light of what God may be asking me to do through prayer and various circumstances I am facing in the present moment of my life. I also must consider what God is asking me to do in light of the constant teaching of the Church conveyed both through scripture, tradition, the teaching of the Magisterium and, the writings and lives of the saints. This is rooted upon the following insight:
Special situations can also arise while travellng the Christian path. These can come about though the illumination or urging of the Holy Spirit and through a desire to make a greater commitment to the spiritual life or to the apostolate. However, there can be other moments which are illusory and deceptive and which derive from pride or fantasy. Those who travel the spiritual path can also experience discouragement, distrust, mediocrity, negligence or tepidness, excessive anxiety to be appreciated, false humility etc (Congregation for Clergy, The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy, n. 94)
When I am struggling with major spiritual desolation, persistent temptations to mortal sin, or when I am suffering a major life/vocational crisis and need accountability and support. This is something conveyed by the saints, the doctors of the church, and the various spiritual traditions of the church. This is first given within the sacrament of reconciliation but often there is a need for prolonged discernment and guidance outside the confessional. This guidance can be provided by both priests and wise and holy lay people. This is based on the following insights:
“Spiritual direction is usually connected with the Sacrament of Penance, at least in the sense of a possible consequence, when the faithful request guidance on the path of holiness, including the specific journey of their personal vocation: “Along with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest must also exercise the ministry of spiritual direction. The rediscovery and extension of this practice, also in moments outside of the administration of Penance, is greatly beneficial for the Church in these times. The generous and active attitude of priests in practicing it also constitutes an important occasion for identifying and sustaining the vocations to the priesthood and to the various forms of consecrated life”. (Congregation for Clergy, The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy, n. 73; Second Vatican Council, Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 18)
There are also illnesses and psychological weaknesses connected with the spiritual life. Usually, such take a spiritual character. They are generally rooted in some psychological cause such as lukewarmness deriving from the acceptance of habitual venial sin or imperfections, accompanied by an unwillingness to correct them. Mediocrity (superficiality, tiredness for work without the support of an interior spiritual life) may also produce such conditions. These weaknesses can also be connected to temperament: anxiety about perfection, erroneous fear of God, unfounded scruples, rigorism, lassitude, etc. (Congregation for Clergy, The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy, n.96)
“The works of the spirit of evil are accompanied by pride, independence, sadness, discouragement, jealousy, confusion, hatred, deception, disdain of others, and selfish preferences. It is very difficult to distinguish these areas especially in the absence of spiritual direction.” (Congregation for Clergy, The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy, n.99)
When I perceive that the Lord is manifesting himself to me in a particular way in my prayer life and is asking me to love and serve Him and His Church in a particular way, calling me to a deeper intimacy with Him. As one grows in the life of prayer and holiness through the interior life, God begins to act in powerful and profound ways bringing a soul from the beginnings of mental prayer to the prayer of contemplation with its various spiritual depths to the heights of divine union. This is based off of the following insight:
“A second moment in spiritual direction is known as the time of progress and advancement. At this stage in the process emphasis is placed on recollection, the interior life, increased humility and mortification, the deepening of the virtues, and the improvement in the life of prayer. This stage leads to the stage of greater perfection in which prayer is more contemplative. Preferences are eradicated by distinguishing an “active” and “passive” aspect (or rather following faithfully the action of grace which is always surprising), so as to learn to overcome the dark night of the soul (or the dark night of faith). Deepening humility always results in increased charitable acts.” (Congregation for Clergy, The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy, n. 90)
The saints also remind me that to seek holiness and intimacy that Jesus is offering me is a journey where one cannot travel alone nor rely solely on one’s own abilities, knowledge, or devices. We can see this consistently emphasized throughout the centuries of the life of the Church. Saint Jerome states, “Do not be your own master and do not set out upon a way that is entirely new for you without a guide; otherwise you will soon go astray.” St. Bernard of Clairvaux states, “Anyone who takes himself for his own spiritual director is the disciple of a fool.”
There also comes a point where I may see the shortcomings and failures of where I was raised in light of human sinfulness, weakness, and ignorance. This is why it is important to seek advice from someone who has an outside perspective who is committed to the call to holiness and intimacy with Christ, who is faithful to the Magisterium and the constant teaching of the Church, and has life wisdom and experience. Usually such a person can be a priest, or faithful lay person, especially those who have a basic understanding of the interior life and who have training in spiritual direction. The best of them will be humble and honest before God and you. They will be able to reverence the action of God at work and will help provide you with accompaniment through listening to your story, guidance, accountability, and support.
For more information on the importance of spiritual direction and how it may apply to you in your particular vocation, please consult Navigating the Interior Life, Spiritual Warfare and the Discernment of Spirits, The Devil in the Castle by Dan Burke, and Spiritual Direction: A Guide for Sharing the Father’s Love by Fr. Thomas Acklin, OSB and Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB.
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