May 9, 2010

Getting the Most out of Spiritual Direction

This post is a request from a new friend. go and check out his blog. On the one hand, I hesitate to write it; I am not a spiritual director, and I have no formal training nor credentials in the practice. On the other hand, I have nearly twenty years of experience in using spiritual direction in a mediocre way, and I can share my own reflections on how I have tried to improve its use for myself. My reflections are bound up with my own ideas about the nature, practice, and purposes of spiritual direction. As with anything in the spiritual life, take whatever helps you to consent to the grace of God, and leave the rest.

Some ways to get the most out of spiritual direction:

Prepare and follow through with your preparation. Take the time before each meeting to pray for your director and for the Holy Spirit to inform your conversation. Examine yourself and try to notice what is going on with you spiritually. Discern and decide what will be the issues and topics you want to bring up. Most directors will regard simple listening as their basic stance toward you and will follow your lead in the conversation. Therefore, if you don't get to talk about what's really important, it's usually your own fault.

Try to be continuous from one meeting to the next. Make goals, decide on where discernments and resolutions need to be with regard to time, and work from one meeting to the next. For me, taking notes has always been a help in keeping from going around in circles. I have a notebook for spiritual direction, in which I keep track to the progress of discernments and make note of insights which I might otherwise forget. You may find that note taking makes some directors nervous. They will get over it.

Go to appointments when you are your most usual self. This may only apply to people who are moody like me, or who experience a lot of ebb and flow in fervor and devotion, also like me. Discerning the grace of God and the life of the spirit are delicate and subtle works, and if we always go to our appointments at a time when we are tired, or after we've had too much coffee, the director may develop an incorrect sense of who we are. When I was a postulant I used to have spiritual direction on Friday afternoons, when I was at my most tired moment all week. My director's office was on Washington Square North, and to get there I used to walk through the park and see all the young people having fun. Needless to say, I didn't always give a fair presentation of where I was with my vocation. In my notes I'm always amused to look back at one in particular of Sister's pronouncements: "Well, if that's how you feel, of course you should leave the Order!"

Do not fear to talk about anything. If you really desire God above everything else, you have to get over the fears and shame that keep you from bringing sins and temptations into the light and asking your director's advice about them. You also have to let go of the fear of vanity that sometimes keeps people from revealing extraordinary graces. Supernatural experiences are not as uncommon as we sometimes think; people just don't talk about them so much. If something is keeping you from holiness on the one hand or pushing you into it on the other, bring it up. If you aren't ready to trust the confidence of your director with anything, you need a new director.

Work out for yourself the relationship between spiritual direction and confession. If your director is a priest, he could also be your confessor, though this is not necessary. For some, and at some stages and moments in the spiritual life, an engaged and thorough celebration of the sacrament of penance is all that is needed for spiritual direction. Consciences are revealed, pastoral advice is offered, new resolutions are made, and the grace of sacramental absolution comes to aid it all. If your regular confessor and your spiritual director are different people, however, it is important to make sure that the two are integrated somehow. What must be avoided is the development of separate personae for the two relationships. For example, you may be at spiritual direction discussing how well you are encountering the beautiful graces offered to you in daily life, while on another day you are beating your breast in confession as you reveal yourself as someone in a terrible struggle with an attachment to some serious sin that you don't bring up in direction. I am sure that the devil rejoices in this sort of spiritual disintegration of self. Both of these characters are you; bring your whole self to spiritual direction. The Lord promised to harvest the wheat along with the weeds.

Take it easy. The spiritual life demands that we be both loose and vigilant at the same time. We can't plan it out, or even control or anticipate an hour of conversation with a director. Because of God's eternity, grace always appears to us as adventitious, and because of His goodness, it is always surprising to our stingy souls and narrow minds. I am more and more convinced that God is looking for souls willing to do the work of the spiritual life. When He finds one, He puts it to work, believe me. But we must always remember the work is His and not ours. Our primary project is to train our consciousness to notice grace, and to train our wills in consenting to it. It's an adventure for sure, but one that demands the abandonment of control. Take it easy.

I hope this helps.

Related posts:

Finding a Spiritual Director

Should I Fire My Spiritual Director?


Sara said...

Yes, yes, this helps. Thank you very much. Thank you especially for the reminder to let go of the fear of vanity.

Cole Matson said...

Thank you, Father! This certainly does help.

I find the greatest benefit of my spiritual director so far has been his encouragement not to take myself so seriously. I'll go in beating my breast over something, and he'll basically tell me, "Don't worry about it." Say you're sorry and move on, confident in God's love. Don't self-flagellate and wallow in self-accusation. He's a good man for a joyful laugh when you need to be gently humbled!

He also doesn't hear the confessions of people he's seeing for spiritual direction, so I'm going to have to keep in mind your advice to avoid personality schism when I go to my two chaplains for two different things. I haven't experienced the sacrament of penance yet, and am a bit nervous about it, but I'm blessed to have two excellent priests at my university chaplaincy whom I trust completely.

I'll be received into full communion through my chaplaincy a week from today, at the evening Mass. Thanks for the help and encouragement your blog has provided as I've been preparing for reception over the past year.


Elizabeth Mahlou said...

It does help, very much. You always write about such useful things. I am one who is hesitant to bring up the supernatural with my confessor although I had (a priest recently transferred away) a spiritual director who was very good at helping me determine authenticity. I think I shall maintain a correspondence with him. I am a little overwhelmed at finding a new spiritual director. I wish I knew how our local priest, who is my confessor -- and friend -- would react to my supernatural experiences. He is so grounded! Perhaps you are right about not being afraid to bring them up. Who knows! I might be very surprised. (I suppose it is a form of vanity not to want to be labeled "crazy.")