Finding a Spiritual Director

A Woman at Prayer

A Woman at Prayer

Foundational to any sound spiritual direction is the idea that there actually is a tangible direction to discover. That objective reality – just as objective and real as a map of your own hometown. For instance, if you asked someone to give you directions to the Cathedral and you ended up at the town dump, you would clearly know that something was amiss. The Cathedral and the dump can’t be the same thing at the same time. Those of you who have a rational basis for your thinking are shaking your head right now saying, “Of course – who in their right mind would disagree with this?”

Unfortunately, there are many in the Church in positions of authority, in religious orders, who would disagree with this kind of thinking. No, they wouldn’t disagree with the way that I just stated it, but they do see the world in terms that will, spiritually speaking, confuse things as diverse as a Cathedral and a place of rotting spiritual refuse.

A great example of this sad confusion surfaced in a conversation I had today with someone who was taking classes with a religious order to become a “spiritual director.” In one of her recent classes the nuns brought in a Buddhist, a Natural Spiritist, and a number of other non-Christian representatives to share their spiritual insights. The goal was to understand that, as she said, “we are all Children of God” and that “we can learn a great deal from the spiritual lives of those who come out of these other religions.”

I was a bit dumbfounded even though I am accustomed to this particular convent spreading dissent and confusion. What struck me was how readily this “spiritual direction” trainee had accepted what they presented to her. A number of scripture verses began to swirl in the back of my head as I cordially smiled and listened… “I am the way, the truth, the life, no one comes to the Father but through me.” (John 14:6) “All who came before me are thieves and bandits but the sheep did not listen to them.” (John 10:8) By the way, Jesus is talking here about one of the groups that presented their “spirituality” via the nuns.  Another verse came to mind, “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, they follow me.” (John 10:27) I wondered if she had ever read or pondered any of these passages.  With deep incredulity, I wondered why someone would look outside of the endless depth and riches of their own faith, the One true Faith, the pinnacle of all that is good and true, into the spiritual wastelands of those who reject Christ both directly and indirectly.  Even looking at the good of what is available in some of these religions, it is something like being diverted away from the most lavish banquet ever served in the history of time to a garbage can in the back of a greasy dive.  Yes, something in there will be semi-edible, but why would anyone who had a seat reserved for them at this great feast ever choose to eat this way?

This scenario points out the tip of the iceberg regarding a few serious issues facing those seeking sound spiritual direction.  Here are a few ways to avoid taking direction from a lost sheep who claims to be a spiritual director:

  • Don’t settle for the garbage bin when you have a seat reserved for you at the feast of the King of Kings!  The great spiritual Doctors of the Catholic Church provide unfathomable wisdom and depth that cannot be plumbed in any one lifetime by any one person.  If you are seeking spiritual direction, ask your would-be director where they get their inspiration and training.  If it is outside of the person of Christ and the tradition of His Church and the Doctors of the Church, you are about to be led into a spiritual garbage dump.
  • Don’t settle for the first answer to your question and don’t be ashamed to dig a little.  After all, you are seeking truth and guidance into a deeper relationship with Christ. There is no greater aspiration in this life, nothing more worthy of careful consideration. A great second question to determine if a director can lead you to the true banquet of Christ is to ask them their position on Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humane Vitae.  If you get anything but unequivocal and strong support for this controversial but clear teaching of the church  – you are headed for a spiritual garbage can.
  • Finally, don’t settle for pseudo-spirituality in the form of New Age Catholicism.  Ask them about “centering prayer.” If they enthusiastically smile and point to a method whereby you can quickly achieve contemplative union (a sacred word, a specific posture and breathing technique, etc.), you are headed for a very confusing journey into a rotting carcass of spiritual darkness.

Unfortunately, finding a sound spiritual director instead of a confused sheep can be difficult.  Don’t give up, don’t stop praying, and don’t settle for anything but a place at the table where you belong, with the King of Kings.

Seek Him – Find Him – Follow Him

Editor’s Note: To learn more about spiritual direction, see Dan’s book Navigating the Interior Life.

Dan Burke is the Executive Director of the National Catholic Register and author of Navigating the Interior Life – Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God.

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    1. Thank you for the article. I recently thought I’d found a good Spiritual Director, but instead had found somebody more “lost” than myself, and the result was not spiritually terminal, but certainly burdened me severely in the end. I am getting up enough healing now, and courage to try again, especially in light of discerning a vocation. Your article was very helpful, especially in helping me understand that I had not found an experienced or spiritually mature Director before.

  1. Oh Dan!

    The roses in your naïve cheeks are really tooooo dear!

    Everybody knows that parish priests are crisis managing broken marriages or too busy managing the 50+ “ministries” to do any real spiritual direction.

    My last director was at a good Catholic school I attended over 20 years ago. Since then, every one I’ve asked is simply too busy for a measely 20 minute session twice a month, or whatever.

  2. The Church, the People of God to whom Jesus said “ When he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into the whole truth” (Jn 16:12), have ruled that Humanae Vitae is not a Church teaching relevant to married Catholics.

    1. Dear Brencel – Your representation of members protestantism is accurate – they do reject Humane Vitae and many other Church teachings. As I am sure you know but wish wasn’t true, the Catholic Church – the one led by the Holy Spirit through those whom Christ has ordained and their successors, wholeheartedly embrace Humane Vitae as authoritative. Rejection of those outside of the fold who do not yet fully know or heed the voice of Christ is to be expected.

  3. I have been trying for ten years. One priest deeply betrayed me, another died. After that I called the diocese and they sent me to a woman who told me Christ would come back as a woman. There have been other attempts, and now I have completely given up. Never again: too much effort and time invested and the level of pain after yet another let down is unbearable.

  4. I have benefited exceedingly from two spiritual directors since I became Catholic in 2009. One was a Dominican priest and the other was a Byzantine priest. Both gave a great deal of time and provided a piercing voice of Truth during our meetings, which were usually monthly. Unfortunately, they both were relocated. I honestly don’t know who to turn to right now; I love the Dominicans. They are very wise and holy and accessible, but their tenures here are never very long. I am interested in long-distance spiritual direction at this point, for the sake of consistency; yet to have a spiritual director who is also one’s confessor is obviously not then possible.

    Given the above comments, I would not actually complain about this situation. To have had the direction I’ve had has blessed me exceedingly and I don’t take it for granted. Still, now I have none, and I pray God will provide again as He has.

    1. Dear Mindy: Both your success and frustration is consistent with my dialogue with thousands who desire to more deeply know and love Christ. I pray that you will find something more stable soon.

    2. Dear Mindy
      I have had short term success here and there, and did wonder if in this day and age, perhaps short term Spiritual Direction is both practical and beneficial.

      It does leave one hunting all too frequently for a new Director, but then again a fresh point of view is often fruitful.

      I do think you have to be creative in the search and I had not considered the Byzantine or Eastern Catholic tradition (thanks for the idea).

      If we have to let go of our Directors, is this bad? I think short term successful (fruitful) Spiritual Direction is better than none at all.

      Plus “letting go” – even of spiritually beneficial relationships is sometimes part of what we may be called to do as we cling to Christ and His cross. (Just a thought)

  5. If a spiritual director is so extremely important, then isn’t it up to our priests, deacons, people like you, Dan, etc. to find one for those of us who have been so unsuccessful for so long? Probably not, because there are so many Catholics and so few spiritual directors. My pastor said he doesn’t have time to given even a little spiritual direction when we go to confession and referred us to a city too far for me to get to. I found one who said I could get spiritual direction over the internet for $35 a week. I live on a very limited income, so that was out. I feel that I’m being admonished and judged not to be as spiritual as others because I haven’t found a spiritual director yet. I think a little more compassion is in order. I remember reading St. Therese didn’t have one, and she ended up being a Doctor of the Church.

  6. When one cannot find a spiritual director, one can still be fed and formed by reading some of the classics, such as the letters of Sr. John of the Cross, who was writing to his those who sought his guidance.(This would be found in his collected works). And also, the letters by Fr. de Caussaude, who wrote “Abandonment to Divine Providence”, to the sisters who were writing to him.These are also very helpful to understand many of the principles of the spiritual life. We also need to pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance who after all, is the main Spiritual Director. All others should only help us to discover His lead.

  7. I thought I had found a spiritual director when going through a severe crisis. But he told me that in seeking direction I was being self indulgent so now I have no one. I believe he directs others on a regular basis. Should a payment be made? I did not offer a payment.

    1. I feel for those who have posted. I, too, have had a lot of problems with this. I had three good SDs die on me, had a good one who was “temporary”, and the one I just ended up with– well, not sure what happened, but it ended with a lot of anger, rejection and confusion. I am so distraught over the experience, that it left me lately unable to function. I am not sure what happened, frankly. But it was weird.

      As for payment, Jo, some of them do charge– some of them don’t. Priests normally don’t charge, in my experience.

      I will pray for all those– like myself– who are lost, but who cannot find direction within this Church. Banquet (or feast)? Maybe it used to be, but now, it’s like a potluck supper: you never know what you’re going to get (shades of Forrest Gump!) I myself am considering going outside the Church. Priests are too busy and impatient, the women charge too much, and all are in a state of transition. If it is possible to be hurt within the Catholic tradition, than it is possible to be healed outside of it. I don’t see a “feast” being of any use if it gives one severe indigestion.

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