Spiritual direction is a practice that recently has received a great deal of publicity about the Catholic laity. While it was once something primarily connected with the religious life, it has since become something embraced by the Catholic world at large. Spiritual direction is often sought by Catholics who are anxiously attempting to make some major life decision, or who are trying to discern their vocation, but that is only one dimension of the many purposes of spiritual direction. Thomas Merton explored the many facets of spiritual direction, considering how it has been used in the past, how it should be used, and how it can be most fruitful in the lives of spiritual directees. You can find some of my favorite quotations from the book, as well as some of the most thought-provoking.
“Spiritual direction is a continuous process of formation and guidance, in which a Christian is led and encouraged in his special vocation, so that by faithful correspondence to the graces of the Holy Spirit he may attain to the particular end of his vocation and to union with God” (9). More often than not, a person will seek spiritual direction for the first time when they have a major decision to make, especially when that decision is related to their vocation in life. Having a spiritual director present for these significant moments of life can make reaching a decision much easier, and oftentimes they can reveal a great deal that we didn’t know about ourselves. My own discernment process has led me in countless directions, and on at least a few detours. Some of those detours were monumental parts of my faith journey that I walked with my spiritual director beside me, and others were instead my attempts to walk alone. Trust me, it’s always better to walk with someone, and a spiritual director makes a wonderful companion!
“The spiritual director is concerned with the whole person, for the spiritual life is not just the life of the mind, or of the affections, or of the ‘summit of the soul’- it is the life of the whole person” (10).
“A spiritual director is, then, one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in his life, in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading him” (11). A spiritual director often can see things that remain invisible to us when we are in the midst of making a significant decision. There have been so many times where my spiritual director has been able to make connections that I did not see, as well as draw out truths about myself that, up until that moment, I had been completely unaware of. When we are faced with a significant decision, we are often blinded by emotion, and in those situations, we are more likely to make better decisions when we listen the voice of rationality and wisdom. My past spiritual directors have all had the uncanny ability to transform seemingly difficult decisions into really obvious ones. They’ve all been incredibly adept at making me realize that when I move beyond all the anxiety and emotion, I generally already know what I’m supposed to do. Sometimes, I just need a little help reaching that point. Do you want a really obvious example? I agonized for weeks over whether I was going to pursue a Master’s degree or volunteer for a year. I was stressed beyond belief, and even after weeks of discernment, I was no closer to reaching a conclusion. Then I went for my regular monthly spiritual direction, and with just a few well-posed questions, I suddenly knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing. It felt like an epiphany, but really it was simply a matter of drawing out the truths that were already there. And so, after weeks of worrying, I decided to go to school. And before I move on to the next quote, let me just say this: it is important that spiritual direction by a regular thing in your life. Sure, we don’t absolutely need a spiritual director. Some people can go years without ever feeling the Lord calling them to seek spiritual direction, and that’s perfectly acceptable. But when you do feel that tug, pursue it. And you shouldn’t be calling up your spiritual director for the first time after months of no communication because you are faced with a problem. Sure, if you do find yourself in that situation, by all means call up your spiritual director, but it’s important to note that this isn’t an ideal situation. When you are faced with a significant decision, spiritual direction should increase. If you had met once a month before, increase it to every other week, or even every week, depending on what your spiritual director thinks best. But this isn’t the best time to seek out your spiritual director for the first time in months. Your relationship should be a continuous one, rather than one that only exists when you’re in need. Spiritual direction should not be something that you only seek when you are in trouble, but it should be a consistent part of your life. This will make your sessions much more fruitful when you are faced with a big decision, trust me.
“Those who have regular spiritual direction ought to realize that this is a gift of God, and even though they may not be thoroughly satisfied, they should humbly appreciate the fact that they have direction at all” (17). I found this quote to speak to me on multiple levels. For one, regular spiritual direction really is a gift, and I really should never forget that. There have been countless occasions where my relationship with my spiritual director has made reaching a decision so much easier. So often, they can see clearly when my vision is cloudy. The Lord has given them to me to help guide me along the right paths, to draw me closer to Christ and to help me make sense of the journey that I am making, as well as the detours that I’ve encountered. Furthermore, even when I am told something that I don’t altogether agree with, or that I don’t want to hear, I know that I need to be grateful. No spiritual director is going to be perfect, and neither am I. Sometimes my spiritual director might be wrong. Sometimes I’ll be wrong (and I feel like that happens more often than the latter). But I really do believe that if both spiritual director and directee are hoping to follow the Lord, we will not be led down the wrong path. Sometimes we might be led on detours, but even these will serve a purpose in the long-run. Even apparent dead-ends can teach us something, even if it’s just that sometimes we need to be humble enough to turn around and go back to the beginning to start over.
“We should certainly be serious in our search for God- nothing is more serious that that. But we ought not to be constantly observing our own efforts at progress and paying exaggerated attention to ‘our spiritual life'” (18).
“What we need to do is bring the director into contact with our real self, as best we can, and not fear to let him see what is false in our false self…We must let the director know what we really think, what we really feel, and what we really desire, even when these things are not altogether honorable…Hence, we should approach direction in a spirit of humility and compunction, ready to manifest things of which we are not proud” (20). This is an extremely important aspect of spiritual direction, and I cannot stress enough how much this needs to be true for spiritual direction to be fruitful. We cannot be afraid to show our spiritual director our true selves, our whole selves, both the good and the bad. If we are concerned with only revealing the pleasing parts of our soul, and seek to hide the parts that we are ashamed of, spiritual direction will not work. This is why your choice of spiritual director is so important. If you choose someone who you always want to please, who you are ashamed to show your flaws, you will struggle to attain a strong spiritual director-directee relationship. I can definitely attest to this fact. I’ve had several spiritual directors over the years, and while most changes have been for convenience (i.e. I had moved or they had moved, and regular spiritual direction had become difficult), there was at least one time where I had to change spiritual directors because we realized that while we were very good friends, we weren’t the best pair as spiritual director and directee. I cared too much about what he might think of me, and consequently, I hid parts of my soul that I was ashamed to show him. I was afraid to lose his love, and so I only revealed the good parts of me. This of course was ridiculous on several levels. For one, I never needed to fear losing his love; our friendship was stronger than that. In addition, in order to preserve our friendship, I needed to seek spiritual direction elsewhere. And because he knew me so well, not only did he accept that fact, but he even encouraged me in my search for another spiritual director. Spiritual direction will only truly be effective if we are willing and able to bare our souls to another person. Because spiritual direction is about caring for the whole person, we cannot hide who we truly are.
“The director is one who knows and sympathizes, who makes allowances, who understands circumstances, who is not in a hurry, who is patiently and humbly waiting for indications of God’s action in the soul. He is concerned not just with this or that urgent problem, this or that sin, but with the whole life of the soul. He is not interested merely in our actions. He is much more interested in the basic attitudes of our soul, our inmost aspirations, our way of meeting difficulties, our mode of responding to good and evil. In a word, the director is interested in our very self, in all its uniqueness, its pitiable misery and its breathtaking greatness. A true director can never get over the awe he feels in the presence of a person, an immortal soul, loved by Christ, washed in His most Precious Blood, and nourished by the sacrament of His Love” (21). My only comment is this: reread this passage. It’s really the essence of what it means to be a spiritual director.
“We must learn to speak according to our own inner truth, as far as we can perceive it. We must learn to say what we really mean in the depths of our souls, not what we think we are expected to say, not what somebody else has just said. And we must be prepared to take responsibility for our desires, and accept the consequences” (23).
“True simplicity implies love and trust- it does not expect to be derided and rejected, any more than it expects to be admired and praised. It simply hopes to be accepted on its own terms. This is the kind of atmosphere which a good director tries to produce: an atmosphere of confidence and friendliness in which the penitent can say anything that is on his mind with the assurance that it will be dealt with frankly and honestly…Such real, genuine aspirants of the heart are sometimes very important of the will of God for that soul- and sometimes they must be sacrificed” (23).
“The director wants to know our inmost self, our real self. He wants to know us not as we are in the eyes of men, or even as we are in our eyes, but as we are in the eyes of God. He wants to know the inmost truth of our vocation, the action of grace in our souls” (23).
“Direction will school us in being true to ourselves and true to the grace of God” (24).
“[T]he director must be on his guard against the unconscious spiritual vanity which makes virtuous souls seek to shine, in a subtle way, in his eyes and capture his approval” (24).
“Graces and gifts are never going to turn the head of anyone who keeps his attention fixed on God, instead of on himself, and the more truly contemplative a state of prayer is, the more will it be obscure and transparent and unaware of itself” (26).
“[T]he virtue to be exercised in direction is docility rather than obedience, and docility is a matter of prudence. Obedience is a matter of justice. To ignore the guidance of a director may be imprudent, but it is not a sin against justice or against the vow of obedience” (29). This is a really important distinction to make- the docility required in spiritual direction should not be confused with the virtue of obedience, and especially with the vow of obedience. I’ve heard varied viewpoints on this matter. For some people, one’s spiritual director is the voice of God, and consequently they should be obeyed faithfully in all things. Other people are more inclined to stress the humanity of the spiritual director, and thus the possibility of faulty advice. Thomas Merton’s advice is particularly helpful here- prudence is key. Exercising the virtue of prudence when working with a spiritual director can be extremely beneficial. So even if the words of a spiritual director are not the voice of God per se, they should be considered very seriously. Spiritual directors possess a wisdom that the directee is often lacking, and in many cases, they are aware of details of which the directee is completely oblivious. It would be incredibly unwise not to seriously consider your spiritual director’s opinion because 99 out of every 100 times, they’ll end up being right and you’ll end up wishing you’d listened better. Spiritual direction requires a certain degree of humility because you will at least on occasion be asked to put aside your own opinion to listen to the advice of your spiritual director. More often than not, this is the best thing that you can do for yourself. Trust me.
“Once the director and his penitent get to know each other, the direction generally goes on peacefully and uneventfully from month to month and from year to year. Great problems seldom arise. Difficulties are few. When they come up, they are handled simply and peacefully, without much fuss. There may be rare moments of difficulty and stress, but they pass by. One is tempted to think that all this is too tame, too quiet, too safe. It almost looks as if direction were a waste of time, as if it amounted to nothing more than a friendly chat about trivial events of the season.
However, if we are wise, we will realize that this is precisely the greatest value of direction. The life that is peaceful, almost commonplace in its simplicity, might perhaps be quite a different thing without these occasional friendly talks that bring tranquility and keep things going on their smooth course” (30). I think this is the most important piece of advice that Thomas Merton proposes. It’s not that the rest of the book has no value or purpose, but this is probably the most misunderstood aspect of spiritual direction. In most cases, spiritual direction is sought when one is in the midst of making some life-altering decision, and once the decision had been reached, spiritual direction is abandoned until the next crisis arises. But this is not how spiritual direction is supposed to work. As I mentioned earlier, you should not be seeking spiritual direction for the first time when a major decision looms before you; you should instead be increasingly the frequency of meetings that have already been occurring. Spiritual direction is not something that is only needed when we’re in crisis-mode, but should be a regular part of our spiritual life. If we feel the Lord calling us to seek spiritual direction, it should become a routine for us. It might seem inconsequential, a “friendly talk” that helps us to remain centered and peaceful. A spiritual director will only be able to help you through momentary crises if he/she is familiar with you as a person, if they’ve spent time coming to know you, even if most of your meetings are spent discussing what might seem like trivial matters to you. But ultimately, it’s how we deal with trivial things that will determine how we’ll respond to the problems and difficulties that inevitably occur from time to time in our lives. If your spiritual director is not allowed to accompany you throughout your journey, they won’t be able to give you proper guidance when you eventually reach a fork in the road. We are often unable to decide which path to take on our own, but we were never meant to make this journey alone. But here is the ultimate question? Who will you let walk with you?
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!