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Spiritual Direction is NOT a Catholic Self-Help Program

The tendency toward self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and self-centeredness in our culture is perhaps one of the most damaging to souls. Unfortunately and inevitably, these diseases tend to bleed into the spiritual life. What we do need is to break the pattern of a false boot-strap spirituality that often results in self-delusion and spiritual atrophy. As St. Bernard once said, “He who constitutes himself his own director becomes the disciple of a fool.” In keeping with this challenging insight, we are misunderstanding spiritual direction if we think we just need a quick pep talk in the mirror to get back on our feet and get going on our own again.

This is an excerpt from Dan’s book Navigating the Interior Life – Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God. To learn more, click here.


What is spiritual direction and my spiritual direction? What are my “blind spots” and how can I uncover them? What keeps me from all the spiritual riches Christ has for me? How can I better understand where I am in my spiritual progress?

Daniel Burke’s Navigating the Interior Life will give you the tools you need to understand how and why we grow and die in the spiritual life and what we can do about it.

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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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  • Pat

    I think spiritual direction is meant to be a form of relationship between director & directee, and as a true guide- the Holy Spirit-, which must be present. In order for that to work, both sides of director/ directee must be willing to share their inner self w/ the other, in order for the Holy Spirit to be able to manifest itself in the individual’s life. Ideally, at least the director should be in the state of grace, though it’s better if both are.
    A true humility on both sides is required to be open to what the other has to say, & most importantly, what the Holy Spirit has to say.
    Sometimes the director will find he/ she learns from the directee, in this manner.
    I think everyone, not just religious or priests or seminarians, should be able to have a spiritual director, because the majority of human beings are single or married, or simply aren’t religious or priests. Yet these lay people often can’t find a good director because some priests rather concentrate on seminarians etc. And obviously, people of the world may have a hard time understanding the spiritual director. In such cases, I think lots of patience is required, and a real need of empathy & compassion on part of the director.
    The worst thing to do is give up on somebody because they don’t seem to ‘get it’. Jesus didn’t give up on people. I think if the Holy Spirit is truly involved, then that is where and how Spiritual Direction can be sustained.
    To return to the topic: sp. direction is not self- help, but without a doubt one can find solutions to issues in one’s life if a person is able to submit to God’s Will within the frame of direction. In the end, whatever touches the directee or director, touches everybody else sine we are all connected through that one body of Christ. Therefore, we’re not solely serving ourselves, but others as well.

  • faithful123

    Agreed! For pep talks go to our spiritual friends. (as another article spoke, spiritual friends are not spiritual directors)

    A spiritual director listens for ‘the movement of the Spirit’ in the directee’s
    words; and brings the directee to hear the presence also and stay in tune
    to it.

  • Clare

    I am going to be honest you.
    Everything depends on money even in the Church, especially in the church.
    I see that even in your directions on how to ask a question, you advise,” Also,
    if you regularly donate time, talent or treasure to our effort
    here, please put “DONOR” in the subject line along with a one line summary of
    your question. This will help us better prioritize your questions.”

    If you have a family to support, or you are on a limited income, even
    attending a retreat once in a year is something that is financially prohibitive
    or very very rare. I find too many people in the church fall into this category. Only the affluent can afford all or much of the
    spiritual benefits, treats, retreat and spiritual directors. Ironically, those
    that can afford such luxuries don’t often want them.

    I know you will say that retreat houses and spiritual directors
    would not turn away people who can’t afford it, but I know firsthand that is just
    not true. If everyone who wanted to take
    advantage of these benefits, but couldn’t afford it, would come forward, it
    would be impossible to accommodate them. One has to depend on a good prayer
    life, books, and hoping for the occasional good homily or the chance that they
    might get a good confessor. Maybe their
    spiritual directors are fools, or maybe Jesus does a better job than you give
    him credit for.

    • $1650412

      Clare- (this is very long-winded, I apologize!) I know I have felt the way you mention here about my perception of price tags on participating in some formative things at Church, so I want to try to encourage you. I know I have to guard myself against bitterness that I can be tempted to, when I think that, objectively, ‘things should be a certain way’ and they just aren’t; therefore many people (mainly me!) unnecessarily suffer. This is true. Because of sin things are skewed in so many areas that should not be- but the antidote is grace, and when we are most aware of what we see as a problem, often, I think, the commission to be a solution is appointed to us. And the means by which we do that is to incarnate the virtue we think is lacking or missing.

      Practically speaking everything does cost- so how do we take our two loaves and five fish and make it feed five thousand? Well, first by fervent prayer and faithful personal stewardship. Sometimes the faith involved in that, opens an unexpected avenue of grace and provision in other ways. Someone sees your generosity and faith and it inspires them to emulate it; God multiplies your energy so you can do more with less; or your creativity so you can do more with less or something exceptional with very little; or your willingness to suffer so you can… again, do more with less (in this case, less comfort). Reading Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence here in the book club on RCSD has helped me so much to work through some of these things.

      I have a boatload of kids so there are few things that I can do if they cost money per head, even an implied cost requested as a donation. I know that if I am at peace about how I am dealing with what I have stewardship over, then I have greater confidence that God will provide all He wants us to have, do, or experience according to His will. If the provision is not there, then that is fine- I have learned to honor the situation as part of my cross. (This is not me being super-sanctified and stuff, it is a very real coping mechanism, because there are alot of things that by following God’s will for my life I do not have access to, that many people take for granted as normative. And it is hard.) I also find comfort in knowing that this might unite me on some level to the religious who take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and then go without air-conditioning in the deep south and can’t buy Deep Woods Off to fight back the mosquitoes in what seems like a plague year here, etc. I know they experience a freedom beyond words and I can be part of ‘the same kind of team’ when I embrace my own variety of sovereign or providential boundaries on what God has for me.

      By embracing that interior peace I mention above, those who are aware of these challenges you mention- those who feel them keenly-maybe we are called to be a solution- perhaps we can bring the antidote to what sometimes seems like an overemphasis on the practical secular approach to financial issues in our parishes and dioceses, by faith and testimony.

      Look out, Clare! God might be calling you to become a Spiritual Director in order to increase His provision by faith, in you area! You just never know- He can be so sneaky like that! ;o)

      • Jo – thanks for your empathetic response. to Clare – much more charitable than my first. The button this pushed for me is that we offer 100% of what we offer for free. Of all folks to complain at, we shouldn’t be the target. That said, I probably shouldn’t have snapped back. I would have been much holier if I would have simply accepted the unfair comments and moved on. It is important to note that it only takes a commitment to pray to become a “Donor” of CSD. Maybe we should change the term to “Apostolate Partner” or something like that so we don’t convey something we don’t intend…

      • Your response to Clare,JoFlemings, resonates with me very, very well. I also felt overwhelmed when our Parish told us we are robbing God by not faithfully paying our monthly 10% Tithe. I felt guilty because the monthly cost of my medication keeps rising; petrol prices in this country have gone crazy and the cost of living has gone through he roof. With my modest income being static, after paying for the necessities – utilities, groceries of the absolute essentials and other household expenses, I find myself with only a few thousand Kenya Shillings to spare…..but I do have to understand we are no longer the Kenyan Church of my childhood and youth, which financially depended on the Missionaries and never needed the Faithful to pay anything above the normal salutary Sunday Offering which one made in obedience to the Precepts of the Church. I agonized over this for a lot until my Spiritual Director advised me that I do make up for the failure to meet the 10% Tithe by the services I offer to my Parish as a Member of the Parish Development Committee, my rural Home Parish where I am a Member of the Parish Development Committee/Parish Pastoral Council and my Eucharistic Apostolate of the Divine Mercy where I am the Secretary of the Kenyan Chapter.

  • Ralyge

    I particularly like the wording of this paragraph. As our parish priest once said, “we can’t earn eternity, but we can loose it.” About the time that we think we can “pull our selves up by our bootstraps,” the Lord allows something in our life, thankfully, to remind us of our dependency on Him.

    • LizEst

      Ralyge – Your parish priest’s saying is a great statement in defense of the faith. Many think there is nothing we can do to forfeit the free gift of eternal life Christ has won for us by His Paschal Mystery. This is the sin of presumption, which one priest here told us, is one of greatest sins we have in this world today. God bless you, Ralyge, for sharing that golden nugget from your priest. It’s something to remember through our entire lives.

      ps. Happy Feast of the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary today!

  • This sentence is spot on :

    “we are misunderstanding spiritual direction if we think we just need a quick pep talk in the mirror to get back on our feet and get going on our own again.”

    As I continue to pray for a Spiritual Director, I have realized that, as of now, a regular Confessor can help one tremendously as he begins to understand one’s personality, their personal state of life and the hindrances and potential pitfalls peculiar in one’s Spiritual journey. He is, therefore, able to offer valuable advice and guidance during Confession. This has helped me a lot during this hiatus.

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