What Is Spiritual Direction and Why Does It Matter?

As I have grown in my understanding of sacred Scripture and matured in my relationship with Jesus I have come to appreciate the value of spiritual direction. As Saint Paul reminds us when he tells us, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20), we are called to let Christ live in us by heeding the Church’s universal call to holiness for each one of us. Spiritual direction is one powerful way we can do this.

Bishop Tobin from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis notes how spiritual direction provides special help in discerning our particular path of holiness. He notes that “the Christian life is a journey” and that “spiritual direction is a helping relationship that allows Christians to achieve sanctity and the heights of contemplation.”

In other words, spiritual direction helps us discern and pursue our unique callings from the Holy Spirit at each stage of our life. It involves three parties: the one receiving the spiritual direction, the one giving the spiritual direction, and, of course, the Holy Spirit. It usually entails meeting up with a spiritual director for an hour roughly once a month (though it could be more or less often depending on the situation).

In spiritual direction, we consider how the Lord is speaking to us and what He is saying. The role of the spiritual director isn’t to tell us what to do or not do (unless, of course, we are committing sins!). Rather, through the spiritual director’s expertise and training, he or she helps us discern how the Lord is working in our lives. Spiritual direction invites us to confront and respond to questions prompted by the Holy Spirit. What obstacles do I need to remove to grow in holiness? What do I need to do so that I am ready to say “yes” to what God places in my heart? How am I being called to love more like Christ in my relationships? What might the Lord be calling me to do (or not do) in my current circumstances?

For someone beginning the spiritual journey, spiritual direction can offer us insight into the fundamentals of prayer and what it means to live a sacramental and communal life of faith. For those a little more advanced, spiritual direction can deepen our life of prayer and help us discern how we’re being called to use our gifts to serve God and His Church. 

But finding a good spiritual director is often a challenge. It can also be difficult to know when one needs spiritual direction, therapy, or some other form of counseling.

I was fortunate to have a spiritual director for a few years in the city where I used to work. What I learned during that time was that spiritual direction is not psychological counseling. It also doesn’t primarily offer self-exploration, self-improvement, and self-therapy. Those of us in recovery may be in need of psychological counseling because of past emotional pain or trauma, and so it’s important to make sure spiritual direction is not used as a replacement for therapy. 

Spiritual direction is also not the Sacrament of Reconciliation (though if your spiritual director is a priest you can always ask to receive the sacrament). It should go without saying that a spiritual director does not take the place of a recovery sponsor. Lastly, spiritual direction should not be confused with pastoral counseling. This was my early mistake. Pastoral counseling is geared toward solving specific problems in a person’s life (a specific issue related to one’s marriage, for example) and can supplement therapy under the guidance of a trained professional.

It’s also possible that during spiritual direction emotional trauma or pain surfaces. This was my experience. Therefore, you might realize after the fact that you need counseling as well (your spiritual director may suggest this to you).

Spiritual direction helps us to focus on our relationship with God. It allows us to discover, deepen, and celebrate how God is working and calling us in our lives. It’s primarily about helping us discern God’s voice in our life (not psychological/emotional improvement) and strengthening our relationship with Him. 

Choosing a spiritual director is important and involves careful consideration and prayerful reflection. A good spiritual director has spiritual and psychological maturity as well as self-awareness, enabling him or her to guide us and help us distinguish the spirit of truth from the spirit of error (1 Jn 4:6). 

To begin your search for a spiritual director, start with your parish priest, parish life coordinator, deacon, pastoral associate, adult faith formation director, or an individual working at a Catholic retreat house in your area. You can ask the person if they know of someone who offers spiritual direction to whom you can reach out. You can also seek spiritual direction by contacting a local monastery or convent with religious who are faithfully living out their vows and inquiring if they offer spiritual direction. Lastly, prayer is key when looking for a good spiritual director. Remember, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mt 7:7). Therefore, we should pray and ask the Holy Spirit to help us find the right spiritual director for our current state in life.

With that said, if you haven’t yet found a good spiritual director then, aside from continuing to look and pray, I encourage you to check out the following resources to learn more about discerning the Lord’s voice and growing in holiness (which is the whole point of spiritual direction):

Finally, I leave you with what Saint John Paul II reminds us of when it comes to listening to Christ’s voice and seeking to grow closer to Him:

“…don’t be afraid to try to deepen that relationship with God, to seek the Lord through prayer and through living the spiritual life vibrantly. It’s a commitment, but the rewards are tremendous—to have that relationship with God, to know God’s presence not only in prayer but in the midst of my daily life, and to be able to seek and find God in all things.”

 

Aaron Walter is a lifelong Catholic and former porn addict whose ministry, NewMenRising, is dedicated to pornography addiction recovery. He is a coach, mentor, and accountability partner and is passionate about helping husbands kick their addiction and transform their lives and relationships. You can connect with him at calendly.com/aaronwaltercoachingsessions.