What Is Spiritual Direction?
“The substance of every seriously devout life is the faithful accomplishment of God’s known will. This will is manifested in a) the Commandments, b) the Evangelical counsels, c) for us, in our Rule and the orders of Superiors. All the rest is accidental, and of more or less importance according as it helps us do what is substantial” (Union with God: Letters of Spiritual Direction by Blessed Columba Marmion).
And while this is true for everyone, without exception, many good souls need assistance from a trusted priest to navigate the particular trials of life, ensuring in the process that they are fulfilling the will of God. This is where spiritual direction, often praised by mystics and saints, comes in. The Catholic Encyclopedia provides a good definition of spiritual direction, noting the two ways in which the term is used:
“In the technical sense of the term, spiritual direction is that function of the sacred ministry by which the Church guides the faithful to the attainment of eternal happiness. It is part of the commission given to her in the words of Christ: ‘Going, therefore, teach ye all nations … teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19 sq.). She exercises this function both in her public teaching, whether in word or writing, and in the private guidance of souls according to their individual needs; but it is the private guidance that is generally understood by the term ‘spiritual direction’.”
While priests will often offer a few words of advice in the confessional prior to giving absolution, this is not spiritual direction in the same sense. Spiritual direction should always be done separately so as not to rob others of the limited time available to receive Sacramental absolution, which their souls depend on for life.
Why Spiritual Direction Matters Today
In an age of apostasy and doctrinal confusion, it is more important than ever for the faithful to have traditional and faithful priests who offer to provide spiritual guidance to souls who strive for perfection and who are trying to navigate the modernism and crisis affecting the Church today.
Unfortunately, the heresy of Americanism, among other things, minimizes the importance of spiritual direction, as noted by Pope Leo XIII. And this heresy is very much still around today. Even today, most average Catholics in the pews do not have spiritual directors and have no knowledge what the term even refers to. Yet, before this crisis, Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange wrote on the importance of spiritual direction in the Three Ages of the Interior Life, stating:
“Although it is not absolutely necessary for the sanctification of souls, direction is the normal means of spiritual progress. Many of the early Fathers had opinions similar to St. Augustine who said, ‘As a blind man cannot follow the good road without a leader, no one can walk without a guide.’ St. Alphonsus indicates ‘the principal object of direction: mortification, the manner of receiving the Sacraments, prayer, the practice of virtues, the sanctification of ordinary action.’ Of the qualities of a spiritual director, St. Francis de Sales writes, ‘He must be a man of charity, learning, and prudence.’”
St. Francis de Sales as a Strong Proponent of Spiritual Direction in the Life of Ordinary Catholics
St. Francis de Sales lived from 1567 to 1622. While studying in Paris, he was overcome by a deep sense of despair and darkness. The devil was tempting him to give up on God. Francis could not eat; he lost weight and grew very ill. Finally, praying before a statue of the Blessed Mother and reciting the Memorare, Francis was instantly freed from his troubled state. From that moment on, he consecrated his life to Our Lady.
Francis had prepared and studied to become a lawyer and senator, yet he announced to his father that he wanted to be a priest. His aristocratic family objected strenuously, until Francis was appointed as Provost, under the patronage of the Pope … it was a prestigious office. Francis was ordained and he immediately gave up the worldly privileges to which his rank entitled him. He dedicated himself to refuting the teachings of the Reformation and risked his life to preach in areas where Catholicism had become forbidden.
When Francis became the Bishop of Geneva, he introduced ongoing catechesis for all the faithful. At night, he would even walk through the town and (as a good “shepherd”) slip tracts explaining the faith into the homes of his “sheep,” many of whom had succumbed to Protestant heresies. He lived simply and became a beloved of the poor. His teachings and example brought thousands of militant Calvinists back to the bosom of Holy Mother Church. With St. Jane Frances de Chantal, he founded the Institute of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin, which allowed young girls and widows to join a religious order, without the rigorous discipline of other Orders.
He was so famous for his preaching that people flocked to hear him. His famous book, Introduction to the Devout Life, was originally a series of letters to Madame De Charmoisy, for whom Francis was guiding in spiritual direction. The writing is warm and accessible. The book has offered guidance – and continues to do so – for millions of seekers since its publication in 1609. On account of his spiritual insight and direction, St. Francis is commonly known as the “Doctor of the Spiritual Life” and informally as “The Saint Maker.”
How to Find a Spiritual Director
A Spiritual Director should be a priest who is trained in this area. Confession can be a part of the process of spiritual direction, but spiritual direction is more than just confession of sins. It should also incorporate the 14 rules for the discernment of spirits by St. Ignatius of Loyola. (These rules are being discussed by Kevin Roerty in The Fatima Center’s video series, Our Lady’s Shocktroops, beginning with Episode 46).
Find a priest whose advice during Confession is both challenging and supportive. Spiritual Direction should help you grow in faith; but some saints, such as St. Teresa of Avila, have found it difficult to find the right person. One of her Confessors misunderstood what was happening in her prayer life and misguided her.
Spiritual Direction focuses on the relationship to God. It can also cover character faults (e.g., determining your predominant fault) and the development of a virtue. It may take time to find a priest who is able to devote the time to be your director and who you are able to confide in. But pray to God through Our Lady that you find a priest to help you navigate the challenges of life amid the confusion of today.
St. Francis de Sales said it best when he wrote:
“In truth, your spiritual guide should always be as a Heaven-sent angel to you – by which I mean that when you have found him, you are not to look upon him, or trust in him or his wisdom as an ordinary man; but you must look to God, Who will help you and speak to you through this man, putting into his heart and mouth that which is needful to you.”
May God grant us these counselors of souls now when it is so greatly needed.
Editor’s Note: First Steps First
Since spiritual direction is meant to provide more delicate and nuanced guidance within the specifics of a person’s life, many priests encourage laity to first master the basics of the spiritual life.
For example, one should eliminate all mortal sin and be working against habitual vices. One should be living the sacramental life (frequent confession and Holy Communion). One should develop a disciplined and routine life of prayer, which includes daily meditation.
If these steps have not been taken, then a spiritual director can’t begin to help a person discern the nuances of God’s will in their life. This makes sense. Because one can’t know God’s will in the more particular and subjective matters if one is not even following God’s will in the objective and obvious matters.
By way of example: A young person entering adulthood was trying to make a decision regarding a career. They sought the advice of a priest. The priest asked about the options being considered, which were several. The priest then asked, “How is each of those options going to be the means to glorify God and further your sanctification?”
This caught the young person completely off guard. It was an unexpected question. The priest gently explained: “This must be the foremost question in your mind. Using the light of your natural reason, you must evaluate each option by these criteria first and be able to explain it to me. That process will eliminate the poor options. Only after that should you begin to attempt to seek which of the good options God wills for you. It is only at that point that I, as a spiritual director, can provide assistance.”
All too often people seek a spiritual director before taking these basic steps. Yet a spiritual director is not what they need, as they must first progress in the basics of the spiritual life, in keeping God’s Commandments, in fulfilling the duties of their state, and in orienting their life towards the one thing that matters: the salvation of their soul.
What a person first needs are the Sacraments and a regular prayer life and detachment from worldly goods. Above all, they need to strengthen their resolve. This is accomplished by overcoming the temptations and allurements which lead them away from God and by steadfastly persevering in the basics of the spiritual life. (These topics are all also addressed by Kevin Roerty in The Fatima Center’s series, Our Lady’s Shocktroops, especially in Episodes 1-9.)