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How do I Deal with Psychological Issues Surfaced in Spiritual Direction?

Dear Father John, when a major issue (in this case, abuse) that surfaces with the help of my spiritual director bleeds over from the psychological realm into the spiritual, how (and when) do I get away from it in my spiritual direction so I can get to the spiritual issues of prayer, discernment, etc.?

It is difficult to answer this question, because the timing involved in any healing process like the kind you mention isn’t fixed. It depends on factors that are highly personal and often impossible to identify fully. Nevertheless, the question is an excellent one, so I will try to share some thoughts, hoping that you find them helpful.

First off, even from the few sentences you have written, it is abundantly clear to me that the Holy Spirit is very close to you, and that you have learned to hear and follow his promptings (those promptings are usually little more than a good idea that pops onto your internal radar screen). You are discovering, I think, that God is faithful, even when others are not. From God’s perspective, what matters most is that we come to know, love, and follow him more and more closely every day, so that we can enjoy him more fully in heaven forever. Because of his infinite goodness, wisdom, and power, he can make that happen even in the aftermath of evil. As St Augustine said, “For almighty God. . ., because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.” But at the same time, as the Catechism reminds us, “Faith gives us the certainty that God would not permit an evil if he did not cause a good to come from that very evil, by ways that we shall fully know only in eternal life” (#324). I sense that you are learning this wisdom, that God is teaching it to you. As you continue to learn it, he will also give you chances and put you into situations where you can help others learn it too (get ready).

Now, onto the question: What will help you keep a balance in your spiritual work as the psycho-emotional healing process continues moving forward? I think the key factor in this period will be your program of life. This is what keeps us objective. It identifies our root sin, and also the concrete virtues that we personally most need to develop in our pursuit of holiness. In other words, it enables and empowers proactive spiritual work. This helps us move away from a primarily reactive or subjective spiritual environment. How can you (personally, in the here-and-now of your unique life-situation) be more Christ-like in your relationships, in the carrying out of your responsibilities, in your efforts to build the Church? How can you (you personally) live the sacraments more deeply, learn to hear the Holy Spirit better and better in your contemplation and meditation on God’s Word? How can you (you personally) divide and conquer for Christ the territory of your heart… As you identify the areas of virtue where you need to grow, the emotional and psychological issues will begin to re-dimension themselves, and you will see them as obstacles and opportunities in your proactive spiritual effort (though depending on their intensity, you may need to get specific psychological help as well – nothing to be afraid of). And so you will be able to face them as you would face any obstacles and opportunities: in the bright and attractive light of God’s personal (to you specifically) call to holiness, lasting happiness, and Christian fruitfulness. The program of life is a tool that can help you make that happen, though it will take time to transition from reactive to proactive. Be patient. God’s grace will be the driving force.

If you are already using a program of life, go over it again, read over our blog entry on how to use it, and make a point of speaking with your spiritual director about polishing it up and turning it into a more practical and living document. Then use it as the blueprint for your spiritual direction, as well as the themes of your personal prayer. If you’re not using one yet, you have a treat in store! If possible, I would also recommend that you go on a trustworthy Spiritual Exercises retreat (this is usually the best place to get a grip on a really accurate program of life – but don’t wait until you can do that before getting your program of life going). Unfortunately, some silent retreats aren’t as gospel-centered as others. I know that my own order offers weekend Spiritual Exercises for lay people throughout the year, in a few different locations. You may be able to find information about them at

I hope this is somewhat helpful, and I promise to remember you in my prayers. God bless you!

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Father, I’m so glad you posted this question. I went through something similar three years ago when I began recovering memories of childhood abuse. I had just returned to the Church after an absence of over 25 years. When I first returned God helped to open my heart to His love and through that I began to allow myself to love others and others to love me. That process led to the recovery of some very painful memories. I did seek counseling and that helped me to deal with some aspects of the abuse. However, the most helpful thing I did was to attend a weekend spiritual exercises retreat. It was truly a life-changing experience. As you said, I big part of the retreat was developling a program of life. Although the retreat was rather intense, I left feeling happier than I had in months and I began attending daily Mass several times a week. Fast forward to the present, I no longer fear the memories, I have continued going to daily Mass whenever possible, and I go on the retreat every year.

  • Cynthia

    Father, what about those of us who can’t afford to go on a Spiritual Exercises Retreat?

    • Dear Cynthia – Often the retreat masters or hosts of retreats provide scholarships to those in need.

  • Guest

    Thank you for this very educative Lesson. My fear is that since my mental breakdown in 2007 which landed me in hospital for two weeks, I am never sure what generates or controls my thought process, feelings or moods. I am still under medication. However, I have taken my Spiritual life very seriously and attend daily Holy Hour Eucharistic Adoration and Holy Mass. Thankfully, and by God’s Grace, I have been able to obtain consoling advice during the weekly Sacrament of Reconciliation and that has given me courage as I am assured that I am in the right path and I am doing the right thing. However, I have found it hard to discuss my condition with the Priest who had agreed to be my Spiritual Director for fear of how I shall be judged. So I keep very much to myself and only meet, once a week, with the Members of our Eucharistic Apostles of the Divine Mercy. Here, I have progressed and gained more confidence in myself but I make sure no one knows about my previous problem or the other physical infirmites I am suffering from.

    Although I had decided to get a Spiritual Director, I am still hesitant because I am not sure how he will handle my situation and if I can derive any benefit by opening up to him. What advice can you give me on how to proceed? I am really eager to grow in my Faith and improve my prayer life, but the uncertainty of what actually is in action within me worries me from time to time.

  • underhermantle

    Spiritual direction is not always simple, but always helpful!

  • Marie

    Thanks again Fr. John for sending, writing and giving a very wonderful answer. I have appreciated your answer and will now need to go back to my program of life. Since September I have been a daily reader to this site and there have been numerous “gifts” of spiritual information that you have shared. When I wrote about the confusion(Oct5) I was having with my director, you gave great advice and I have stayed with this priest. He has been a great blessing from God as has all of your work in serving us in this medium.
    May Mother Mary protect you always.

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