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What if I Disagree with my Spiritual Direction on My Root Sin?

What do you do when you are pretty sure your root sin is pride (based on self-reflection, common sins in confession, etc…) but your spiritual director doesn’t think it is true. Mine keeps telling me I am not proud — but we end up in this weird argument where I assert that I am and he says that my reply is what a humble person would say. And how much does it matter if he agrees with me on that major fault or not? It seems to me to be important, but on the other hand, things are otherwise fine in direction.

The good news is that it sounds like you have an honest and open relationship with your director. This is a great starting point for the answer to your question. root sinThe first step is to ensure that you actually do disagree. To do this, it would be important to make sure that you both agree on the definitions of the root sins in question along with the corresponding manifestations. Once you agree on definitions, then you can talk through your self-reflections and pattern of confession in order to find common ground on a proper diagnosis.

What if after all that work you still disagree? Well, this is where the idea of docility and obedience comes in with spiritual direction.

Docility is an area of great importance in the spiritual direction relationship and can easily be misunderstood. This is especially true of modern seekers who often recoil at the slightest idea of submission or subjection of one’s will to the guidance of another. With modern western Catholic writers on the topic of spiritual direction, you may find strongly stated cautions regarding this issue. Often this is because of sincere sensitivity to abuse and a legitimate concern to ensure that the directee remains totally free to follow or discard any of the guidance received in direction. In Eastern Church traditions (e.g., Greek or Russian Orthodox), you are more likely to find equally strong statements on the other end of the spectrum. In the East, any directee would be cautioned to avoid spiritual direction if they are not ready and willing to completely open and submit their soul to obedience to another. In the East, the sincere concern is that the directee overcome any delusion or self-deception. In reality, both of the extreme forms of these concerns can result in unintended problems. Simply put, if you are docile to misdirection, you will be misdirected to your own detriment and by your own choice. If you are stubborn toward sound direction, you will misdirect yourself, likely to great spiritual detriment. Because of the abuses on the overly submissive side of the spectrum, there is often an equal and opposite overreaction. As is common with opposite extremes, wisdom resides closer to the middle. The key is that you should always maintain your freedom to act according to your own will in your submission to God, and you should maintain an equal readiness to humbly accept the insight and direction of any director who is worthy of your trust. Here’s a little more insight into the ideas of docility and obedience.

Docility: True docility is an essential ingredient in any successful spiritual direction relationship. What is docility? Docility is a humble readiness to follow God’s will for our lives. This is sometimes expressed in the willingness to listen to and follow imperfect counsel from an imperfect person,  even when we disagree or don’t completely understand. It is critical to remember that we are in spiritual direction because we recognize that the human condition requires outside counsel to grow. The fact that we are finite fallen creatures requires that someone help us to see the areas of our souls that we cannot see without help. Even if our director is wrong on a particular matter (assuming the direction is not something sinful), we will most assuredly benefit from heading down paths that we would not have chosen on our own. This simple exercise of taking unfamiliar paths will reveal things to us that we would have never been able to see without having been prompted to do so.

Obedience: Some writers on the topic of spiritual direction make a distinction between what they call docility and obedience. Typically, they will point out that obedience is something that occurs only in a slave-to-master relationship when the slave has no will of their own. This approach is often a well-intended overstatement to make the point. It is true that no directee should act in such a way as to substitute the will and desires of the director for their own. It is also true that no directee is, by definition, sinning if they choose to disobey their spiritual director (unless of course their counsel echoes the commands of God himself or falls within the context of religious life). Yet it can be a profound act of holiness to obey our spiritual director, particularly when what they are suggesting is something that is very difficult but may nonetheless lead us to a deeper relationship with Christ. The key here is to remember that God never usurps our free will; neither should a spiritual director. It is important to reiterate that a spiritual director is not able to influence our lives without our consent. If what we are directed to do is in keeping with God’s law as reflected in Church teaching, and we are choosing to obey by our own choice, we are on solid spiritual ground and will likely find great blessings through our obedience.

All that said, you are in a very good place: 1) you are in spiritual direction; 2) you are working diligently in the area of self-knowledge; and 3) you are taking the entire process very seriously. I have no doubt that, whatever course of action you take in this situation, you will find yourself moving into a deeper relationship with Christ!

Happy New Year!

Seek Him – Find Him – Follow Him

Dan

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Art for this post on disagreeing with one’s director about one’s root sin: Detail of Saint-Cloud, Eugène Atget, 1924, author’s life plus 80 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of SpiritualDirection.com, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, and his newest books Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep and Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Lflynn

    “Even if our director is wrong on a particular matter (assuming the direction is not something sinful), we will most assuredly benefit from heading down paths that we would not have chosen on our own.” This is good stuff! I really like how you broke it down with defining docility and obedience. Jesus did send them out in twos! Thank you both for bring this topic forth.

  • LizEst

    Thank you for this great post Dan. This ought to be filed in the area of “selecting a spiritual director” or something of that ilk. It is so needed. Some well-meaning people (directors and directees) get into trouble in their roles for the above reasons. A director once said, “blah, blah, blah and that is why I am such a great director!” I don’t even remember what the blah, blah, blah was, but I sure remember the last part. What was that?

  • Guest

    Thank God, I found this Website. And thank you,Dan, for this sound advice. This will help me tremendously in my journey with my Spiritual Director.

  • Woodycos

    Thanks Marc!

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Thanks Woody – hope you are well.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Thanks Marc!

  • faithful

    Is spiritual direction for everyone? I feel guilty asking my parish priest for time. He’s busy, I know that. I recently told him I didn’t need spiritual direction anymore, and his response was “that’s good.” Sometimes, I think he was doing more analyzing of what I said that showing me the direction of the spirit. I was told: if direction becomes ‘counseling’ or ‘sounds like it’ then it is time to stop it. Agree?

  • Mary Beth Roberts

    Dear Dan,
    I am sure by now you have heard of the Neocatecumenal Way. In my walk for the past 3 years, I am running into feelings of opposition towards their expectation of following what they say in docility and obedience. After reading what you wrote above, they take on the role of spiritual director, It seems to be that both the catechists and “responsible” of each small group take on a sort of authority and from my personal experience, expect you to blindly follow. My experience is that they don’t always explain things to you… they will say things like “just come” or “you’ll see. They expect you to blindly follow and I feel that this technique can me and has been at times both manipulative, demanding, and disrespectful. I will not blindly follow someone or some group I do not know. But it seems that this is the expectation. I must preface this by saying that God HAS worked through my active participation and commitment to this this group, and I am reaping many fruits in my life through “walking” (as they term it) with them… such as seeing my faults more clearly- as being in community does. BUT I am running into these kinds of attitudes and my natural distrust of authority and abuse has caused me to react strongly and has created some friction in the group from time to time. Thankfully we have a priest who is acting as a sort of spiritual director for us and is sensitive to these sorts of things as well. However, he is new to this group for the past few years as well. l am curious if you have experience with this movement and what you know about how they choose to direct and shepherd people who walk by this way. Thank you in advance for your feedback! God bless you for all you are doing!

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