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Spiritual Direction- who, what, why, and what I look for in a director!

Spiritual direction- what is it? Who does it? Do you need it? The saints seem to all have had a spiritual director, do I need one? These were some of the questions I asked myself about spiritual direction for a long time. Eventually I found answers to those questions, and I’m going to share some answers and resources to YOUR questions about spiritual direction. I’m not an expert by any means on this topic, but I’m sharing my experience of spiritual direction, and what has worked for me, including qualities I look for in a spiritual director.

Before We Begin…

Important to note is that when one struggles with scrupulosity, especially if it has come with a diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, it is often recommended that a person has a regular spiritual director/confessor to help them in overcoming it. It isn’t necessary for everyone who struggles with scrupulosity all the time, but it can certainly be helpful, especially if you take the advice of your director.

Another thing I really want to stress is that spiritual direction is NOT a necessity for holiness. It is NOT a requirement of the Church. Plenty of saints went without spiritual directors, and you can to if for whatever reason, spiritual direction is not something that works well for you or is unavailable to you, etc.

And because spiritual direction is optional in the life of a Catholic, it is NOT a sin to not take the advice of your director. If something he suggests for you doesn't work, tell him. The whole point is to find ways of prayer and strategies for overcoming obstacles in the spiritual life that work for you and bring you closer to God. That said, give his advice "the old college try", as my mother would say, and be open-minded to his advice. You may be surprised how the Holy Spirit works through him and what you try that you thought you'd hate, but end up loving. Ask me how I know.

What is Spiritual Direction?

Great question. In an article for the Catholic News Agency, Lee McDowell, a spiritual director in Denver, is quoted as sharing this definition of spiritual direction:

“One of my favorite definitions for spiritual directions is that it is a three-part encounter,” McDowell said. “An encounter between the Lord, the directee, and the spiritual director, for the purpose that the directee may grow in their relationship with our Lord.”

I myself have always liked the analogy of a “personal trainer/therapist” for your spiritual life, but I think that the Fathers of the Church might be rolling their eyes at that oversimplified explanation.

Regardless, the basic premise of spiritual direction is that it is about improving your prayer and faith life, and therefore, your relationship with God.

Spiritual direction also looks different for everyone. This is a normal, good, natural thing, as every director and every directee is different. So as I discuss below my experience of spiritual direction, keep in mind that this is what it has looked like for me, and if it looks different for you, that is OKAY.

My Experience of Spiritual Direction

I did not have a spiritual director until the summer before my freshman year of college. It was always something I desired, as priests are very near and dear to my heart, but never something I thought was a super urgent priority. The summer I was supposed to leave for college, my university plans were upset. I realized I would have far too much debt after attending the school to which I had already committed. This was deeply upsetting and frustrating to me on a lot of levels, and I was so saddened by this turn of events. I had come to this realization a month away from my move-in day, and was additionally stressed by the thought of needing to apply quickly for community college in the fall.

All of this happened two days or so before I was supposed to attend a Steubenville Youth Conference on the main campus in Ohio. I decided I would pray for a miracle at that conference, and hoped for the best. No miracle came. Disappointed and sad, I returned home. When we arrived back at our parish for our parents to pick us up, we were greeted by my favorite priest. I immediately told him I wouldn’t be going away for school.

The next day, he reached out to me and asked if I wanted to talk. I said yes, and we met that same day. I didn’t go into it thinking I would be getting a spiritual director out of this, I just needed someone to talk to. I poured out my heart and my suffering to him over this huge disruption of my plans, and he consoled and advised me.

Something about all that this priest said to me had captivated me. He was able to see all the wounds of my heart, and read me like a book. Because I was in a dark time, I continued to see him regularly. What started out as pastoral counseling, which is what it sounds like, became a director/directee relationship over time. It was never formally agreed to by the two of us, but that’s what it was, and this was made clear to me when I was confiding to him my struggles with scruples. He told me to ask my regular confessor (a different priest) a question and said to tell him “my spiritual director told me to ask X”. It was a huge relief to me to have a director, and a joy as well, as I had yearned for one for so long growing up.

Direction, in my experience, was always a blend of pastoral counseling and spiritual direction. We talked about life, politics, science, faith and religion, school, all the things. And because the rest of your life affects your prayer, he regularly asked me if I was taking care of myself physically and mentally, and how my relationships with family and friends and school were. Direction for me was very much an experience of spiritual fatherhood, and I am so grateful for how it has impacted my life.

By the grace of God, that priest was my director for almost four years. Recently he was reassigned over an hour away, so I am looking for a new one, which is really hard, but I know that it is all for the greater glory of God.

What Do I Look For?

So now that I’m looking for a new director, here are some qualities that I feel are important for my spiritual director to have. Some of these won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but again, this is what I look for.

  1. Really, truly Catholic. This goes without saying, but someone who believes EVERYTHING that the Church teaches.

  2. Priest. This is my preference, although you can find certified spiritual directors outside of the priesthood.

  3. If a priest, ordained for 5 years or more. While I love newly ordained priests, I look for a priest director who has been ordained for more than 5 years as he has more pastoral and life experience.

  4. Someone who practices the Faith similarly to me. I was raised in a more conservative diocese with more orthodox experiences of the Liturgy, and Catholicism in general, and so I look for someone who thinks similarly when it comes to that sort of thing, as they are more likely to understand where I am coming from.

  5. Experience directing individuals with OCD/scrupulosity and other mental health issues. This one just seems like common sense.

  6. Someone who is a “real person”. I want a director I can laugh with, tease, and who isn’t afraid to do the same with me. Basically, I look for a dad-type.

  7. Close by. Because logistics, and I prefer in-person conversations.

How to find a good director

This can be tricky for a lot of people. The key is to entrust the Holy Spirit with your search. I know, it’s easier said than done! That said, we don’t just sit around as Christians waiting for God to do all the work. It’s important to make an effort to find someone if you really feel strongly about having a director. Here are some tips for finding a good spiritual director!

  1. Pray. Obviously.

  2. Ask around. Family, friends, religious brothers or sisters, or your parish clergy. You never know who knows someone.

  3. Just ask to chat with a priest. It could be your regular confessor, which is the ideal situation, but it could be any priest you know is solid in the Faith and whom you trust. Even if your parish priests can’t direct you for whatever reason, they may know someone nearby who might be able to.

  4. Ask your Diocese for resources. Their job is to help you get to heaven!

What does it look like in the beginning?

Everyone’s experience of spiritual direction is different. Father Mike Schmitz and Father Mark Mary both have great videos about spiritual direction here, here, and here, and I would recommend both of Fr. Mike’s especially if you want to know more about the process.

So there you have it! Spiritual direction in a nutshell. I hope this was helpful to you! Leave me a comment sharing your experiences of spiritual direction! I always love hearing other people’s stories. And be sure to share this with your friends and family!

I am praying for you all.

St. Therese, pray for us.

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