By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
A healthy spiritual life is like a docile and trusting child happy to grow under a mother and father. In this image, we all need “spiritual direction” like we all need mothers and fathers, men and women ready to affirm, teach, console and challenge us. Like all good parents, our spiritual directors will aim above all to emancipate us, to foster our mature and free contact with the true Director of souls — the Holy Spirit.
Concretely, spiritual direction is an opportunity to explore our interior life in the presence of someone we can trust to help us deepen it. The director can be a priest, religious or lay person, but it should be someone whose spiritual and human gifts render them able to listen well and to ask good questions. Spiritual direction is an art, and it cannot be replaced by a set of techniques. A good director knows how to probe us about our attachments, hopes and fears, and thereby to help us to accept ourselves, to know that we are loved, and to escape the tunnel vision into which we easily fall on our own.
Spiritual direction is also an opportunity for us to “personalize” the faith. Sometimes we know many things about Catholic faith in only an abstract way. There is a difference, say, between knowing “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16), and, on the other hand, knowing that this divine love extends to me in a personal way — this very me who did this or that shameful thing, or who has this or that dream for holiness and happiness. Personally, as someone who has heard many confessions, and who of course goes to confession regularly, I am struck by how deep our apprehension of the faith can be — to the point of powerful tears — when we deal with it in a personal context.
Good fruits of spiritual direction include increased self-knowledge and knowledge of God, and thereby a richer prayer life. This, in turn, increases our awareness of the loving design of God the Father, the friendly presence of Jesus in all our joys and sorrows, and the subtle movements of the Spirit directing our lives. We become more open to the actions God wants us to take in the future, and to the meaning he wants to give to our past.
How often should we seek spiritual direction? We should go when our desire is authentic, that is, when we are willing to spend about an hour opening up to someone, vulnerably sharing our weaknesses, and then listening humbly as the director tries to help. We shouldn’t see spiritual direction from a Pelagian desire to take control of our spiritual lives or to inflate our self-image by a sophisticated spiritual program. We should go because we sense we are in need: we might be confused and need advice; elated and gratefully wanting to know how to respond to God’s gifts; curious about the meaning of some part of our lives; restless to discern what course to take in our vocation, and so on.
If we are frightened of becoming vulnerable, let us remember that God himself become vulnerable in Jesus. We can find courage, solidarity and meaning in bearing our wounds with him. Spiritual direction is a place to dismiss the defense mechanisms we use to avoid pain, mechanisms which consequently block us from integrating the injuries, mistakes, uncertainties, and disappointments we experience in our lives (defense mechanisms include things like anger, avoidance, perfectionism, and distraction through entertainment and workaholism).
We all need direction, even if not always a formal meeting with a spiritual director. That’s because our true spiritual director is of course the Holy Spirit, and he can work through all sorts of instruments: homilies, friends, Bible studies, share groups, therapy, prayer, dreams, teachers, relatives, the performance of works of mercy, study, work, and anything else in our lives. In fact, the Holy Spirit can work through all sorts of instruments — including an hour with an ineffective spiritual director. No director is an oracle or infallible guide, and God makes use of everything to try to reach us. Accordingly, sometimes he will enlighten us precisely through the shortcomings of a director.
We don’t always need a formal meeting with a spiritual director. And yet, at certain times in our lives, we all need someone to whom we can unburden ourselves through the vulnerable sharing that cultivates our interior life and experience of God’s unconditional love. If that time in your life is now, contact your parish or a group like Reditus Ministry (reditusministry.org) to see what resources are available. Or perhaps you already know someone in your circle of friends and family ready to listen.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.