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Can friends be spiritual directors? Too old for spiritual direction?

May 5, 2012 by  
Filed under Challenges, Dan Burke, Perspective, Spiritual Direction

Dear Dan, I've been going to spiritual direction for several years with a good friend. At her suggestion I have recently begun seeing a Catholic counselor to deal with issues from my past which have made it difficult for me to progress spiritually, to trust God, etc. Actually she insisted that I must see a counselor if she was spiritual directorto remain my SD. I was heading this way anyway, however, I was stunned and hurt by the way she presented this to me.

One of the first things the counselor suggested was that perhaps I should find another spiritual director because we are so different in temperament and have had some problems in communication resulting in her feeling I'm resistant and me feeling misunderstood and misjudged. And then we both are frustrated. I strongly feel that God brought us together and I want to remain with my present SD as long as she is willing, because she understands many things about me and knows my strengths and weaknesses and background. And I'd like to try to improve the way we communicate and the way I react (which may improve anyway as I go through counseling and find ways to deal with my emotions).

I think my question is: can this work? (With God's help and our good will I hope it can.) How does one know when to change spiritual directors? If you fail with one what are the chances of making progress with another, even if you should find one?

Are you ever too old to start spiritual direction? Ever too old to change? I'm in my sixties and feel older than that some days.

Dear friend, you are an inspiration! So many get stuck because they make some progress, become satisfied, and then complacent, and then, well, it usually doesn't turn out so well. In the book of Revelation (3:16) the Lord warns that the lukewarm will be spit out of his mouth. So, to answer the age question first, you are never too old to start, never too old to fight, never too old to love and be loved, never to old to make spiritual progress, never too old to be absent of sin, imperfection, and blind spots, and thus never too old for spiritual direction. In fact, you are closer to the Lord than ever (in time), it is even more important to do your best to be prepared to meet him face to face.

Your counselor is probably right. Your experience is the reason why I recommend that spiritual direction come outside of the context of a friendship. As an aside, I have no doubt that God has brought you together – but probably for a different reason than you might think. Here are a few more specific examples of the problematic nature of these relationships (these are generally true but not always true and may not all apply to your situation):

  • The nature of friendship lends itself to emotional attachments. How do you know when you have gone beyond healthy inter-dependence into the realm of attachment? The best indication is when emotions regularly begin to hinder progress in communication. Healthy director/directee relationships have an element of detachment that helps the director see and diagnosis without the emotional clouding that can be present in a friendship (more about this in a minute).
  • Healthy friendships, by their nature, are encouraging. They focus on the up-side of each person. This means that confrontation is not a frequent element. I am not arguing that this should be true, but that it is most often true. So, when friends shift into spiritual direction relationships, the director, by the nature of their role, rightly begins to judge (make assessments) and suggest changes (provide direction) and these then trigger emotions in the directee and the relationship begins to feel less safe than it was before. This is very difficult to overcome.
  • When a director is a friend, we are more likely to be attached to the need for them to have a positive perception of us. Thus, when they make assessments, we feel judged (in the negative sense) and will likely begin to quibble about the minute errors in their assessment. This is usually not received well by the director in this case. This reaction comes out of pride and vanity and the concomitant need for approval (sometimes from both sides of the relationship).
  • Blind spots and delusion are what they are because we don't see them – we cannot see them on our own. This often is true because of our familiarity with them. Have you taken a close look at your car lately? Walk around it. Take note of each nick, dent, or other flaw. Why don't you see those every day? This is because they have become “normal” to you. The flaws are there, but daily exposure minimizes our awareness (unless, of course, we are obsessive about such things). Spiritual flaws disappear because we see them every day and they are thus normal to us. The same can happen with friends. If we have defects or attachments that don't annoy our friends, then they will disappear to them, and thus they will be unable to help us overcome them. Even worse is when they share the same sin or defect and thereby encourage our own sin and weakness. This is common with the sin of gossip. Our blind spots become theirs because they are so close to us, or so much like us, or regularly participate in the sin or dysfunction with us.

All that said, spiritual friendships are very powerful and important. I suspect that you and your friend can rekindle a beneficial spiritual friendship once you take a break for a while. You can do this by taking up a spiritual reading and discussion program with them.

Though my limited exposure to your situation could yield misdiagnosis, I think that your question reveals, clearly enough, that this relationship has too many distracting elements for it to be a healthy spiritual direction relationship. It is time to make a change. The good news is that God has revealed many things to you in the challenges of this situation. It would be good for you to make note of them and begin to step back and evaluate them from a distance. My instinct is that the insights you gain from this exercise will provide the seeds of your future growth in Him.

PS: I have a book coming out later this year that defines what a spiritual direction relationship should and should not look like. You can learn more here by going to


Art for this post on whether a friend can a be a spiritual director: St. Cyril, Apostle to the Slavs, provided by Dan Burke, provenance unknown.  Feature image art: Ein ernstes Gespräch (A Serious Conversation), Ludwig Johann Passini, by 1903, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, 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, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. 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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  • LizEst

    Excellent post. Your response is very clear and answers so many questions that can come up as a result of spiritual direction. God bless you Dan!

  • tx

    What length of hiatus in face-to-face Spiritual Direction is acceptable? My SD was given a new assignment and is very busy; we have not met in 6 mos. but continue to email.Should I offer to ‘find’ a new SD or wait to see if an opening comes up and/or he suggests someone else? I had made great progress in my prayer life; his writings continue to inspire – how do I discern God’s will?

    • Dear Friend: It really depends on your need. There are times when we struggle more and need more insight. The transitional times between the three ways can be very challenging – particularly when we are in desert periods or when we are called to set aside meditation and allow ourselves to be drawn into deeper waters. I have gone for four to six months with little need and then needed to seek guidance on a monthly basis. If you are deepening your life of prayer and virtue you can move to quarterly or semi annually. If you are struggling with habitual patterns of sins, these long periods can be problematic. Hope this helps.

      • tx

         Thank you, Dan – no desert or habitual sin pattern involved; you make excellent and very helpful observations. And, while not 35yrs. like BKS below it’s been a lengthy relationship I value. With that in mind, it would seem I should have been able to actually bring this question to my SD, but hesitated…

      • LizEst

         And I have, at times, gone a year! At the next meeting, it was as if there had been no interruption. You hit the nail on the head. It really depends on your need.

  • Lyonsjoan

    I see where SD accompanied with attendance in a group specifically geared for spiritual growth assists the directee in integrating the SD experience. It is also helpful if the group participates in outreach programs in the community or looks to make a difference in the community.  The communal aspect in spiritual growth is not to be overlooked.  

  • Cara

    I purposely choose spiritual directors who are not personal friends because I don’t want personal feelings to interfere with his assessment of my spiritual condition. When I want tea and sympathy, I go to my friends, but when I need to hear the truth about the state of my soul, I go to a professionally trained SD.

  • Mary@42

    Thank you, Dan.  You are speaking to me personally.  Becky 313 will agree with me because she knows the agony I have recently undergone….it was painful but God showed me what He wanted me to do and I did it…..

    To the questioner now…, too old for SD?????  surely you are joking!!!!!!!  this young gal is a 73 year-old widow and definitely  needs Spiritual Direction….Oh, I know how you sometimes feel….but forget that….as Dan says, we are nearer to God than 40 years ago!!!!!!  Now ready to enter what I call my 4th and Last Quarter lap of my Life, I strive to stay very, very close to God……a Spiritual Direction at this stage is not a luxury…. he/she is essential.  The beauty of this age is that, I have all the time to stay in touch with Him all day……Dan, remember I told you old people talk to themselves?……and me, I talk to Jesus as I work on this Laptop as He watches me from the Image of the Divine Mercy…..He has become a very good Pal…..before I used to talk to my cat…..I love cats….and I love my present young boy called Maxwell Okoji……Becky, sshhshsshh…. that is the name of my Personal Doctor of some 12 years!!!!! 

    My feeling is that if you feel awkward issues are clogging your relationship with your current SD it is quite in order to get another one and then, continue your friendship with your current one as before.  Friends are valuable at our age, believe me.  Be blessed

  • Barbaraksanders

    FYI  I have had the same spiritual director for 35 years. It is the
           nature of this lengthy relationship to also become a friendship.
           However, we do not get together for social events.
           She is also a psychologist.
            When and if this works, it works well. This director is very
           unique, she is an anchor of faith for me and a place of
           stability.  A well from which to drink. We have often worked
           together in service to the church and yet we have boundaries
            that have worked all these years to preserve the direction

    • LizEst

      The boundary thing is important.

    • Thanks Barbara – do you think her training as a psychologist has helped with keeping the proper boundaries? What elements allow this to work in spite of the normal challenges that surface in these kinds of relationships?

  • Jkleprechaun

    There’s something wrong with this directee’s comments…it is all one-sided and the individual knows full well the director can not, without breaking a sacred trust, reveal the WHOLE TRUTH and the Whys and Wherefores of actions taken!  

    • Dear Friend – I am not sure what you are getting at. Can you explain more fully?

  • Ann

    I too have a SD, but, I believe that a true SD should be a priest, who may know you well, but, where you should stick to certain norms where as with a friend goes beyond limits. It’s great to have a friend to whom you can turn too, but, there is a difference between one and the other.

  • nonny

    Be VERY careful who you allow to direct you. Read what the great saints say about it – like St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Jesus. There are many people today offering spiritual direction who are not really good directors… Not just anyone has this gift. Just because someone is “trained” as a spiritual director does not mean that they have this gift, which is very different from good advice, nice spiritual thoughts, etc. A saint said, beware especially of those who are anxious to have everyone know they are a director and seek out people to direct… When someone announces to you, without being asked, that they are a spiritual director, it’s not a good sign. Just some thoughts.

    • Becky Ward

      Absolutely a gift – great advice!!

    • LizEst

       You are so right. I wish all would understand this.

    • Merlinemj

      The answer is so vivid that it is a eyeopener to me too.

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