Spiritual direction is the difficult art of leading souls from the beginning of the spiritual life to the heights of Christian perfection and holiness. Wait a second…the difficult art of what? Ok, let’s simplify a little. Spiritual direction is kind of like doctor check up’s but in the spiritual life. We need a spiritual doctor to diagnose the state of our soul and prescribe for us the best remedy. As St. Francis de Sales puts it: “Why should we wish to constitute ourselves directors of own souls when we do not undertake the management of our bodies. Have we not noticed that physicians, when ill, call other physicians to determine what remedies they require?”
This direction must be given gradually: that is, according to the strength and need of the soul at a given time. As soon as a soul resolutely decides to travel along this road to holiness, direction should begin and then continue through all the phases of the journey. To venture along this road without an experienced guide is just flat out a bad idea.
Although it is true that some souls have reached holiness without a spiritual director, normally those who have reached perfection have had the advice and counsel of a spiritual director. So, it’s clear that while direction is not absolutely necessary for the sanctification of souls, it is one of the normal means of growing in holiness. The history of the Church is full of saints that insisted on its importance. You would probably do well to follow their example and take this whole spiritual direction thing seriously.
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Who can be my Spiritual Director?
Normally, the spiritual director is a priest and that is for several reasons: (1) the priest usually has the necessary knowledge and practical experience required to guide souls; (2) the task of spiritual direction is closely related to his role as confessor; (3) it is the priest’s role in the Church to deal with matters of conscience; and (4) priests are given special graces from God to deal with these matters.
On the other hand, it is possible that there could be a prudent person who is not a priest, but who leads a life of deep prayer, possesses adequate knowledge, and is experienced in the spiritual life who could give spiritual direction. Some examples of this in the history of the Church would include saints like St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Francis of Assisi.
When choosing a director, two very important things should be kept in mind: (1) you have free will in seeking and choosing a spiritual director, and (2) the director has the free will to make the decision to consent to being your guide.
Qualities of a Spiritual Director
Here’s what some of the saints say:
According to St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, a good spiritual director should be learned, prudent, and experienced.
St. Francis de Sales says that a good spiritual director must have three principal qualities: he must be full of charity, of knowledge, and of prudence.
Let’s examine these qualities:
Above all, a good spiritual director should be moved by supernatural charity when directing a soul towards perfection. He should see in the soul a spiritual child that God Himself has entrusted to his care, and be zealous for that person’s own sanctification. He should be especially careful to avoid sentimental affections that could lead to attachments which would make it impossible to guide the soul in a disinterested manner.
The kindness of a spiritual director should be linked with firmness and honesty. He must have the courage to charitably warn a soul when he sees it is in danger. He should help all individuals to be able to overcome their defects and to be on their guard against those who try and convince unsuspecting souls to follow the wrong path. He should remember that he represents the Lord and should guide the soul so that it can reach perfection.
A good spiritual director should really know his be knowledgeable as far as faith and the spiritual life goes. He should know what Christian perfection consists of, the obligation of Christians to strive for perfection, and also the obstacles that stop a soul from reaching perfection. He should know about the discernment of spirits, how a soul is purified, the different ways to grow in virtue, and the different levels of prayer. Lastly, a good director should have a basic knowledge about the human person: the various temperaments and characters, the function of emotions, and the basic principles of psychology.
Prudence and good judgment are needed to direct souls according to the movements of grace and not according to one’s own ideas. The director’s role is to be able to recognize the particular circumstances of a given situation and to give a soul the advice needed at that moment. That is why prudence is one of the most important qualities of a good spiritual director.
The spiritual director should ask above all for supernatural prudence, which is strengthened by the gift of counsel, by invoking the Holy Spirit often and especially in difficult cases. He should dedicate no more time than necessary to direction, avoiding prolonged conversations, useless talk, and indiscreet questions. He should strive to speak only of what will profit souls, giving brief advice that is clear and to the point. A good spiritual director should be characterized above all by his sound judgment, the clarity of his counsels, and his sincerity as well as frankness, without any partiality or selfish motives.
This quality is particularly emphasized by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross because even if a spiritual director is less knowledgeable or lacking in prudence, experience can make up for these shortcomings. The experience he needs can come from his own spiritual life, but that is not the only way. It can also be gained from his observations as well as the very experience of directing others. However, experience alone is not sufficient since the Holy Spirit can lead souls to the heights of holiness by many different paths.
A good spiritual director should never forget that he is simply an instrument in the hands of God and should avoid making the mistake of thinking that all souls can be led along the same path. If the director were to forget these two very important points, he would become an obstacle to the workings of the Holy Spirit in the soul rather than a help.
Duties of a Spiritual Director
The duties of a good spiritual director include knowing, teaching, encouraging, correcting, and directing the soul while observing secrecy with regards to the private matters discussed in spiritual direction.
The spiritual director should know the temperament, character, tendencies, defects, likes and dislikes, gifts, and abilities of the soul entrusted to him. He should know enough about the individual’s past life to know what the soul’s main struggles have been, how the soul has progressed in the spiritual life, and the main graces the soul has received from God. All this knowledge helps the director to understand the disposition of the soul as well as to see what sacrifices the individual is willing to make to achieve sanctity. Then, the director should be aware of the current obstacles and struggles that the soul is going through.
The goal of spiritual direction is to lead the soul to the summit of perfection. In instructing and guiding the soul, the director should allow the individual to solve his or her own problems and difficulties on their own accord, when possible, so that the soul does not become excessively dependent or begin to go to him for unnecessary permissions or silly things.
The soul should be instructed in obedience so that it does not take any important spiritual step without the approval of the spiritual director. The schedule, prayer life, apostolate, practices of piety, mortification and penances should all be approved and monitored by the spiritual director.
The direction should be limited to spiritual matters and the director should never allow the soul to go off track and speak about worldly things or engage in useless conversations.
Special care should be taken with regard to scrupulous souls who should be guided to trust and obey their director without making excuses.
The director should strive to instill in souls complete confidence in God and distrust of self. Souls should be encouraged to be faithful to God’s graces, knowing that fidelity leads them to holiness. The director should be aware of the great harm that can be done if the soul is treated harshly and severely when it is in most need of encouragement and assistance so that the soul can continue on the journey to perfection.
The spiritual director must be able to combine gentleness of character with the obligation to correct the faults of the soul being directed. The goal of leading the soul to perfection cannot be done without helping a soul to remove its defects and to find remedies to correct tendencies towards certain sins. Without discouraging the soul, the director must make the soul understand that voluntary imperfections impede the journey to perfection.
The direction of souls should be progressive and continuous. The director must discern what the needs of the soul are at a given time, neither over demanding the soul--leading it to discouragement--nor impeding it from being able to soar towards God when He wishes to lead it to a higher degree of holiness. Therefore, the spiritual director should know the different phases which mark spiritual progression to be able to discern the directed soul’s state and help it to advance to the height of holiness.
The spiritual director should be a person of great discretion: that is, know how to respect the privacy of the person directed and how to keep the matters discussed confidential. He should never pry into matters or force the person being directed to reveal something he does not wish to tell.
Qualities of the Person Directed
Spiritual direction cannot be successful unless the person directed cooperates and has the correct disposition.
Attitude toward the Director
The person receiving spiritual direction should have an attitude of respect, trust, and docility towards the director.
Respect – You should see your director above all as a representative of God, despite whatever qualities (defects or perfections) he might have. The respect shown should help you to be docile and obedient towards your director. At the same time this respect should be a safeguard against any excessive familiarity, which could lead to an unhealthy attachment. As St. Francis de Sales says, “In a word, this friendship should be strong and sweet, holy, all sacred, wholly divine and entirely spiritual.”
Trust – The kind of trust you should have towards your director should be one of filial confidence and perfect openness of heart. You should make a special effort to cultivate this trust in such a way that it converts into a supernatural love for your director.
You should be on guard to make sure that this trust does not deteriorate into sensual affection.
If you find it particularly difficult to be totally open with your director because you are excessively shy or timid, you should tell that to your director and allow him to help you by asking certain questions or recommending a good book.
On the other hand, if you see that you have the danger of speaking too much in spiritual direction and you easily bring up unimportant matters, you should limit your time with your director and save less important topics for another occasion.
Docility – You should also be docile when listening and carrying out what your director advises. Your only desire should be to fulfill the will of God. There is nothing more harmful than trying to fulfill your own selfish desires by convincing your director of your own personal views. It is your duty to speak sincerely about your likes and dislikes with your director and to mention any difficulties or trouble you see in carrying out your director’s advice. As soon as you have explained everything, you should humbly submit yourself to his guidance unless what he counsels is clearly against faith or morals.
To make sure spiritual direction is successful, you should examine yourself and make sure you are sincere, constant, and discreet.
Sincerity – In order for the director to guide you to greater perfection, he must have knowledge of your soul. You should speak openly and sincerely about your weaknesses and temptations, failures and successes, trials and difficulties, desires and resolutions. Do your best to be frank and honest in the spiritual matters you bring up and be careful to neither excuse your faults nor exaggerate your virtues.
Constancy – You should have the disposition to persevere in the way of holiness by being obedient to your director’s advice, trusting in his guidance. Do not change spiritual directors unless it is for a serious reason. This is because you can easily fall into the trap of being led by your own personal likes and desires just because you don’t like or agree with the advice of your director. Be constant and humble, trusting in the person God has placed on your path to help lead you to perfection.
Discretion – Just as the director is obliged to observe secrecy with regards to matters discussed in spiritual direction, you are also obliged to practice discretion. You should never tell others about advice or admonitions you have received from your director which applies to you and your particular circumstance. Great harm can be done to the director if you are not discreet, and as a result he could rightly choose to stop spiritual direction.
How to choose your Spiritual Director
Choosing your spiritual director just takes three easy steps:
(1) Pray – You should ask God in prayer for the grace and the light necessary to prudently choose a director.
(2) Investigate – You should investigate and see which available person possesses the knowledge, prudence, and experience needed to be a good spiritual director. You should not base your choice on natural inclination or feelings towards a particular person, but it is important to seek out someone whom you can trust and open your heart to.
(3) Choose – Once you have found someone who fits the necessary qualities of a good spiritual director and who you yourself are willing and ready to respect, trust, and be sincere with, you can start. Any later thought about changing directors should always be taken seriously since you can easily make mistakes in your own judgments about your director. If you decide to change directors, you should also make sure that it is not just because you don’t want to obey and would rather follow your own selfish desires.
The Spiritual Life, A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology by Adolphe Tanquerey, S.S.,D.D.
Spiritual Theology by Jordan Aumann, O.P.