Journey to God (Paperback)
Not too long ago, I came across fresh mountain lion tracks while fly-fishing alone in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. My first response was a bit of concern, but after a brief, careful survey of the surrounding terrain, I turned my attention back to the river. As I did so, all my instincts began to press in on me and I realized that I was in a very bad situation. Facing the river and focusing on the water, I was completely unable to keep track of what was around me. The roar of the river through the canyon completely disabled my ability to hear anything but the rushing water. I tried to brush off the feeling, but the tension just continued to rise until—with a teeth-bearing growl—I decided to hike back to safety. I just couldn’t get beyond the fear that the huge blind spot behind me harbored an inevitable attack.
This is a picture of a rare event in life. Blind spots are called “blind spots” because we are not aware of them; we are “blind” to them. The best among us work very hard to develop virtue and to avoid or eliminate sin, yet often have only a vague understanding of the fragile nature of our souls. Saints and sinners alike, we all have blind spots. For all of us, the most deadly are those that threaten our spiritual health and growth. Simply put, these blind spots can hide potentially fatal attacks from the enemy of our souls. “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in faith” (1 Pet. 5:8–9a).
However, the devil is not the only source of attack. Scripture reveals two other serious threats to our spiritual health: the world and the flesh. The world is constantly drawing us away from God. Secular culture is always raising subtle and not-so-subtle arguments against God, all the while attempting to lure us into lifestyles and choices that promise life and freedom but deliver bondage and eternal destruction: “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33).
The last threat on our short list is “the flesh,” which refers to the part of our nature that is inclined to darkness, or sin. Unfortunately, the flesh is the gateway to the soul and the door through which the world and the devil enter into the picture. Ultimately, we cannot be blindsided by the other two without the flesh providing an opening for attack: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41).
Symeon the New Theologian (AD 949 to 1022) said this: “Do not follow the wolf instead of the shepherd (cf. Mt. 7:15).... Do not be found alone, lest you be seen to be the prey of the soul-killing wolf, or as succumbing to one illness after the other, thereby dying spiritually and alone in attaining that ‘woe’ after you fall. For one who gives oneself to a good teacher will have no such concerns, but will live without anxiety and be saved in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory to the ages. Amen.”
Here Symeon reveals both the problem and the remedy. Without exception, the teachings of the saints and spiritual doctors of the Church agree: spiritual direction is among the most powerful tools to help us in the battle. Do you know any wise doctors who treat themselves when they face serious health challenges? Have you heard of any top athletes who don’t have personal trainers and coaches? Spiritual direction is the means through which the Holy Spirit guides us and provides coaching for our souls. No doubt that this remedy is in itself a challenge (as most remedies are), but history books are replete with those who have chosen it and found the difficulties to be nothing when compared to the benefits.
WHAT IS SPIRITUAL DIRECTION?
Simply put, spiritual direction is a relationship through which we come to better know, love, and follow Christ through the help of a kind of spiritual coach. It is a process through which we come to know and love Christ and ultimately experience the heights of spiritual union with Him, even in this life. The director and the directee work together, through the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit, to understand God’s will, and then determine how to follow that leading in a concrete way on a day-to-day basis, into a deeper intimacy with Him. To make this idea a bit clearer, let’s begin our exploration by outlining what spiritual direction is not.
Spiritual Direction Is Not a Boss/Employee Relationship
The director/directee relationship is not analogous to a boss/employee relationship. This is an area where the language of spiritual direction can be a bit confusing in our culture. In normal usage, a “director” tells the one who is directed what to do. Implied is an authority that has punitive power—the power to punish or withhold rewards in the case of disobedience. This is not at all the case with healthy spiritual direction. The directee in this case would be better compared to an athlete and the director a personal coach—specifically, a spiritual fitness coach. Just as with a coach in any sport, the athlete is the one that is ultimately in control. He or she hires a personal coach to help them achieve otherwise elusive goals and perspectives. In the end, the level of influence the director has over the directee is based on the directee’s free choice rather than any position of power. Another helpful comparison common in the East is that of a spiritual healer or physician. Either way, the directee always has the free choice to seek out and follow—or not follow—the healing and growth available to them through the spiritual director as they seek together to understand and cooperate with God’s work.
Spiritual Direction Is Not Confession
Spiritual direction is not synonymous with confession. The challenge with distinguishing spiritual direction from confession usually comes when the modern inquirer reads the saints who talk about their spiritual director or confessor as if they are one and the same thing. The reason for this is that there was a time when it was very common for confession and spiritual direction to take place together. The modern decline in priest-to-parishioner ratio has likely been the unfortunate cause of the separation of the two activities, but spiritual direction has never been the exclusive territory of priests or even religious. As an example, most would be surprised to know that Pope John Paul II, in his youth, had a lay spiritual director. Regardless, even though this is a sub-optimal situation, at present, confession and spiritual direction are more likely to occur as two separate activities.
Spiritual Direction Is Not Spiritual Friendship
Spiritual friendships are invaluable to the life of a Christian, and while they share many characteristics with spiritual direction, they differ in a few very important ways. One key difference is that the specific focus of spiritual direction is the spiritual life of the directee. Spiritual friendships and mentoring relationships frequently include aspects of the spiritual life, yet they usually also have elements, activities, and interests that are peripheral (though sometimes beneficial) to the spiritual life. Another key difference is with respect to the intensity of the relationship; going back to the personal coach analogy, most athletes would never expect to have a friendly or passive level of accountability with a personal coach. Instead, they engage with a personal coach to be firmly challenged, pushed, and encouraged toward concrete progress. Again, the directee is ultimately in control, but when he or she seeks out a director, they are typically looking for a much higher level of accountability and direction than the normal bounds of friendships can often provide—even healthy spiritual friendships.
Spiritual Direction Is Not a Catholic Self-Help Program
Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and even self-centeredness are promoted in our culture, but are damaging to souls when they bleed into the spiritual life. As the Introduction illustrates, when we have a blind spot we cannot rely solely on our own limited capacity to see what we do not perceive—no matter how hard we might try. Instead, we need to break the pattern of a false, bootstrap spirituality that often results in self-delusion and spiritual atrophy. As St. Bernard once said, “He who constitutes himself his own director becomes the disciple of a fool.”2 In keeping with this challenging insight, we misunderstand spiritual direction if we think we just need a quick pep talk to get back on our feet and get going on our own again. Still, even though logically compelling, the idea of moving beyond self-help is a tough pill for most of us to swallow.
Spiritual Direction Is Not Psychological Counseling
The psychological and physical aspects of our lives have an impact on our spiritual lives, and there is no easy way to extricate these realities from one another. Your spiritual life can and will affect you emotionally. If these emotions prove to be a hindrance to your spiritual progress, they should be addressed with your spiritual director. Conversely, your spiritual life, as it grows, will positively impact your psychological and physical health. Yet, just as you would not go to a spiritual director for physical therapy, it is also unwise to attempt to deal with deep psychological issues with a spiritual director (at least with one who has not received special training in both fields). When emotional or psychological issues are serious, seek specially trained professionals for help.
Spiritual Direction Is Not a Onetime Emergency-Room Event
Under normal circumstances, spiritual direction should not be thought of as being comparable to an emergency room visit. Spiritual direction is better likened to a wellness program or a long-term exercise and diet commitment that will result in maximum health. Even though there is a place for appropriate emergency calls to one’s spiritual director, these typically occur within the context of ongoing spiritual direction. In general, it is not reasonable to expect a spiritual director to be responsive to emergent needs outside of an ongoing relationship. Why? Because experienced spiritual directors understand that if a person experiencing an emergency is not ready to work diligently and consistently on their relationship with God (both at the point of crisis and afterward), the director is likely unable to assist in any substantive way. That said, some individuals in crisis experience a level of clarity that could be the beginning of a serious and life-altering faith commitment. Those in this category are ready and eager to do whatever is necessary to pursue God and cooperate with His work in their soul. These are not in the same camp as those who have a heart attack, receive emergency services, and then return to the lifestyle that brought them to their knees in the first place. The good news is that God is always ready to receive us when we are ready to turn to Him.
Spiritual Direction Is Not Wandering Around with a Spiritual Companion
Wandering around is the opposite of a deliberate journey in a specific direction. Spiritual direction that is directionless is a contradiction. Some modern conceptions of spiritual direction have reduced the director-directee relationship to one of blind companions in spiritual meandering and self-discovery. This is not a picture of healthy spiritual direction. Spiritual direction that lacks direction is not direction at all. It may make both parties feel good about one another, but if the desired end is not union with Christ, and if a specific path does not emerge for the directee to follow in order to better know and love Christ and others, then the relationship cannot rightly be called spiritual direction.
Spiritual Direction Is Not a “Just Me and Jesus” or a “Just Me and the Holy Spirit” Effort
Those that struggle with self-disclosure or a lack of understanding of the definition and benefits of spiritual direction sometimes end up rationalizing their weakness by discounting the need for human assistance. “Just me and Jesus” or “Just me and the Holy Spirit” becomes their slogan. This is a comfortable but dangerous trap. As we will discuss later, God has chosen to use human instruments to shape, mold, and bring us closer to Him. This is because it can be very dangerous to direct oneself; the devil lurks in that blind spot and waits to attack; others can see our faults and weaknesses better than we can, and a good director can tell us what’s hiding in our blind spot. It is extremely rare that anyone seeking to deepen their faith will find themselves in circumstances where God violates His chosen means for our growth. Unless you are a desert hermit, you are not likely to fall into this category (and even hermits have spiritual directors).
Spiritual Direction Is Not about Apostolic Work
Though this problem may be limited to a few modern movements, it is worth noting. If a priest, consecrated, or religious is engaged with a person in apostolic work and is also serving as that individual’s spiritual director, the work of the apostolate can easily displace authentic spiritual direction. Spiritual direction should include the pursuit of virtue and action in faith, but the emphasis must always be first on a relationship with Christ, and then only secondarily on the ways in which that relationship plays out in specific apostolic action. Leave the nuts and bolts of Kingdom work for meetings specifically on that topic. This way, both of these activities will be treated with the appropriate emphasis.
Spiritual Direction Is Not Just About Prayer—and It’s Not Just About Action
Though this form of direction doesn’t belong fully in the “this is not spiritual direction” category, it can reflect an immature form of direction not likely to yield the growth that comes from a more balanced approach. Love for God in the form of prayer or adoration could very well be a false love if it does not result in tangible expressions of love for those around us. The converse is also true: if we give our lives to social justice but ignore the source of justice, we are like Martha, in danger of missing “the better part” and failing to fulfill both of the commandments that Jesus affirmed as the greatest (see Mt. 22:38).
Spiritual Direction Is...
Now that we are clear on what spiritual direction is not, we can focus on what spiritual direction is. Spiritual direction is a relationship between three persons:
- the Holy Spirit •
- the director •
- the directee
The main focus of spiritual direction is union with God.
The central aim of spiritual direction is to help guide the directee to purposefully, consistently, and substantively grow in their relationship with God and neighbor.
This will happen by discovering God’s presence and work in our souls and embracing His will through the fruitful embrace of prayer and virtue. The ultimate end of spiritual direction is, as Jesus commanded, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:30–31). Spiritual direction is about developing a love relationship with God that inevitably spills into all other areas of our lives.
With this concise overview of spiritual direction, in the next chapter we’ll explore whether or not spiritual direction is right for you.
Spiritual Guides, Spiritual Directors, and Spiritual Mentors: What’s the Difference?
Depending upon the source of the spiritual director’s training, there are different types or titles of those who offer spiritual direction. For instance, a number of movements in the Church offer training for laypeople so that they can provide spiritual direction. These organizations often make a distinction between ordained (men) or consecrated (men or women), referring to them as “spiritual directors,” and laypersons who might be called “spiritual guides” or “spiritual mentors.” The distinction is usually a reflection of the level of training and education possessed by the one providing the guidance. It is likely that those with the title “spiritual director” have received a level of formation that is higher than those who might be called “spiritual mentors” or “spiritual guides.”
Avoid getting caught up in the specific titles. Nor should you assume that someone with a lower level of formation is insufficiently equipped to help you with your spiritual life. Spending time with another soul that is aggressively pursuing Christ and has some experience that exceeds yours can be very beneficial. The goal is to understand and pursue Christ in the process regardless of the specific titles that may or may not be applied to the individuals available to help you do so.