FR. SCOTT, WHAT ABOUT SPIRITUAL DIRECTION?
That’s a good question and I’m glad you asked. If you go to a place like Catholic Answers Forums and go looking for help on the Vocations page saying “I’m discerning. What should I do?” the most likely response you’ll get is: “Find a spiritual director”. I’m serious, that’s it. That’s what they’ll say. That’s not very helpful and let me tell you why.
There are two possibilities:
First of all, you may have already known that you “need” a spiritual director or a spiritual guide. In that case, back to square one. And if you can’t find one, does that mean you’re discernment is permanently suspended? Is it possible that God does not to want you to discover your vocation and that’s why he won’t give you a spiritual director? That’s preposterous. Spiritual direction is a normal, but not an essential, means. God has given you ways of knowing His will that do not require spiritual direction. After all, in the end, it’s you, not your spiritual director, who must decide what to do with your life. To put that responsibility onto someone else, even your spiritual director, would be spiritually irresponsible.
Second of all, you may not know much about spiritual direction (except perhaps that people say “you need it”). Now that’s horrible. How are you supposed to decide who to go to for spiritual direction when you don’t know what it is or who to look for? Exactly, it’s sending you in circles again. Now here’s what you need to know about spiritual direction:
WHAT SD IS
Spiritual direction is a one-on-one relationship that helps you grow spiritually, meaning: your prayer life, your virtues, living balance and what you already know to be God’s will, healthy relationships with family, friends, co-workers, romantic interests, etc. It’s about focusing your whole life on holiness. Spiritual guidance can come from a whole range of sources, from saintly grandmas to assistant pastors to youth group leaders and catechists. Sometimes you’re looking for advice, sometimes maybe just someone to listen, sometimes you get something you weren’t looking for, like a great insight or a kick in the pants… How do you know how to find someone who can do that for you?
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
According to Teresa of Avila, you need to look for four things in a spiritual director:
- “learning,” a basic textbook understanding of the faith and the spiritual journey. That way they lead you in truth.
- “prudence”, that way they can help you make good decisions.
- personal holiness is nice but not a must because you, not the guide, are the one making the journey. It would make him or her more aware of God’s action in you and in themselves.
- experience in life and particularly in spiritual matters especially for the discernment of mystical phenomena is also useful but generally unnecessary.
Those are the characteristics you’re looking for, but there are also some things you’ll want to avoid…
Avoid anyone who is “too busy”. While persistence may pay off in getting a potential guide to meet with you, you typically lose out on consistency and thus on the guidance you had been so desperately seeking. Find someone who is available to talk with you in person if possible, by telephone or skype if necessary, by email or snail mail if you’re really desperate.
Another thing to avoid in most cases is someone who is confident they already know what you should do, especially if it serves them. For instance a priest who “knows” you should enter seminary for his diocese or formation in his religious community. These guides are dangerous and can cause you harm and confusion. (I say in most cases, because there are charisms like that of Padre Pio who knew what people should do, yet different from these guides his advice was never self-serving.)