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Three Priests Talk About Spiritual Direction

Spiritual Direction is often misunderstood, misused, or overlooked. To help unmask the intrigue and bring it out of obscurity, I asked three priests–Fr. Mitch Pacwa S.J., Fr. John McCloskey III STD, and Fr. Wayne Sattler –to share their thoughts on spiritual direction. I will introduce each separately, and then offer their reflections.

Father Mitch Pacwa S.J. is perhaps best known as a host on EWTN TV and radio. He is an American Jesuit priest, popular author and can celebrate liturgy in both the Roman and Maronite rites. He is President and Founder of Ignatius Productions. Fr. Pacwa has a PhD in Old Testament, a Master of Divinity, and a Bachelor of Sacred Theology, and is an accomplished linguist, speaking thirteen different ancient and modern languages.

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If a Catholic immerses himself in the faith–reading about it and fully practicing it–isn't that enough? 

The answer to that is in the “fully practicing.” If one is fully practicing, then that is all one needs, since the full practice of the faith encompasses all of life. The problem is that many people are immature in understanding the full practice of the faith. For that reason, most people, especially when they are young, need a spiritual director who is mature in the faith and its lived experience. The director can help point out the deficiencies in living out and understanding the faith that the directee might not know on his or her own.

Can you tell me if most saints had spiritual directors?

I have never surveyed the literature in such a way as to know whether most saints had spiritual directors, but it certainly appears to be the case based on what I know about their lives. This is especially true as they enter the spiritual life, particularly when they are religious or clergy. Spiritual direction is normal from the novitiate forward in religious life, and in the seminary. Most of the lay saints have had spiritual directors, though this is not always so well known about the martyrs, since the way they died overshadows much of their earlier life.

Is spiritual direction for everyone?

Certainly everyone can benefit from a spiritual director, but it is frequently hard to find one, particularly since so many clergy and religious are overwhelmed with work these days. Sometimes, we need to find a close friend, that is, one who loves us enough to accept us, no matter what we tell them, and who is seeking virtue and the love of God as the goal of life. Such a friend might well help us in spiritual direction. However, when the friend is a peer, there may be the problem of the lack of experience, no matter how noble their virtues and aspirations. For that reason it is good to also consult with someone who is more developed in the spiritual life, whether lay, religious, or clerical.

Fr. John McCloskey III, STD, is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei. He is Research Fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington DC. and was a McCloskeychaplain at Princeton University from 1985-90. As a priest of thirty years who has provided spiritual direction to a wide range of souls, he states that nothing is more important than the aggressive pursuit of advancing our relationship with God. Fr. McCloskey is also a contributor to this site. You can find out more about Fr. McCloskey at www.catholicity.com/mccloskey

Is important for lay people to find a spiritual director?

It is essential if a person wants to grow on apostolic holiness.  Those of us who are sincere practicing Catholics know that our most important work in this life is to prepare ourselves for the next one where we really will be immortal.

Are all priests qualified to act is spiritual directors?  

Absolutely not!  They qualify if they also are seeking holiness and have their own spiritual director.

Can lay people also serve as spiritual directors?  

Yes if they also receive spiritual direction and are receiving  on-going formation, preferably in a specific spirituality. 

What is the purpose of spiritual direction? 

Simple, to become a saint.

Can a person do just as well by using literature and other Catholic resources to nourish and direct their souls? 

No, but that should part of spiritual direction–to get recommended spiritual reading. 

Fr. Wayne V. Sattler  is a priest for the Diocese of Bismarck. For six years he lived as a hermit. He currently resides in the parish of St. Anne’s in Bismarck and Fr. Sattlerprovides assistance to the Permanent Diaconate Formation Program. He has given numerous retreats, particularly for the Missionaries of Charity.

Is it important for lay people to receive spiritual direction?

Yes, I do believe it is important for lay people to find a spiritual director. 

Are priests automatically qualified to give spiritual direction?

All priests are not automatically qualified to be spiritual directors. In my opinion, spiritual direction is a charism given by God. Although proper education is an important aspect of good direction, it alone assures nothing. It is not enough to have a “certificate” to assure that one is in sound spiritual hands. St. John of the Cross warns us to take great care into whose hands we entrust our soul.  In “Seeking Spiritual Direction,” Fr. Thomas Dubay spelled out six qualities that would be good to look for in a spiritual director;

          1.   A person of true prayer; liturgical and personal.      

           2.  Orthodox; “sound doctrine”; as twenty centuries of Church history painfully show 

          that deviating views promote neither deep prayer nor heroic holiness.  

           3.   Adequate theological education          

           4.  Sound judgment and experience of life.

           5.   Sufficient understanding of psychology, ability to recognize human woundedness

               and to know when to make referrals

           6.   One at whom you feel at ease.

Can lay people make good spiritual directors?

Lay people can also serve as spiritual directors given they exude the same aforementioned qualities and charism 

What is the purpose of spiritual direction?

The purpose is to  preserve one from being deceived in the spiritual life. A director is an objective voice to help us see where we really are in our spiritual journey. If our sincere desire is holiness, we should be humble enough to realize that we need a guide, for we don’t always see ourselves are we are truly seen.

Can a person do just as well by using literature and other Catholic resources to nourish and direct their souls?

It is important to remember that the true spiritual director is the Holy Spirit. He is free to use what He wills to direct us. But just as He has chosen to use the instrument of a human to bestow upon us the rich gift of the Sacramental life, there really is no substitute for a spiritual director in the flesh. A book is simply not able to give real personal insight, and the spiritual director can lead us to materials that will really help us, and not just ones of our own choosing.

                                                                       *** 

To learn more about Spiritual Direction, Navigating the Interior Life by Dan Burke, explains what it’s about, how to get the most out of it, and how to find a spiritual director. You can also learn more and gain valuable insight at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.

Note: 100% of the profits from the almost 1000 books sold through http://www.NavigatingtheInteriorLife.com/ go towards providing free faithful Catholic resources to the spiritually hungry around the world. Books are provided for free to the faithful poor and those who have taken a vow of poverty.

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About Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press's Amazing Grace Series. Her newest books are: Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families, a collection of stories to inspire family love, and Dear God, I Don't Get It and the sequel, Dear God, You Can't Be Serious, children's fiction that feeds the soul through a fun and exciting story. Patti's Blog http://www.pattimaguirearmstrong.com. Facebook. Twitter.

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  • LizEst

    Thanks Patti! You do good work! God bless you!

  • $1650412

    I very much appreciate this. Both priests asked about lay people as directors responded positively. I have heard contentions that only priests should be spiritual directors so I am glad to see it affirmed by even more sources that lay people can fulfill that role in the Church for needy souls.

    • Becky Ward

      This is from the Holy Father – Pope Benedict XVI.

      “There are to be found also well formed lay people – both men and women – who offer this service of counsel along the journey of holiness.

      “This is from “THE PRIEST, MINISTER OF DIVINE MERCY”
      AN AID FOR CONFESSORS
      AND SPIRITUAL DIRECTORS
      http://www.clerus.org/clerus/dati/2011-05/20-13/Sussidio_per_Confessori_en.pdf

  • Erin Pascal

    Thank you for sharing this eye-opening post Patti!

    I am in the process of finding myself a spiritual director. I have been asking God to guide me and put you in touch with the right person who can guide me in my spiritual journey
    .
    I understand that priests and laypersons who possess the above mentioned qualities can be my spiritual director, but how about friends who take their interior and apostolic life seriously? Would it be okay to go to them for guidance?
    Thanks!

    • Dear Erin – great question and worthy of a post. I do cover this in-depth in my book Navigating the Interior Life. In short, the best option is a holy priest. Certainly there are schools for laypeople that prepare them well for this task. You might be surprised to know that Blessed John Paul II once had a lay spiritual director. But, if you cannot find a “director,” spiritual friendships can be very powerful and helpful in the journey to greater intimacy with our Lord.

    • Scott Kallal

      Dear Erin,

      I also would have to agree with Dan. One thing is spiritual friendship and another thing is spiritual direction. Both have their value. A common difficulty experienced by those who choose friends as “spiritual directors” is that they are unable to share all they would want, and the friend/director at times experiences a lack of freedom. Also, spiritual direction is often considered “internal forum” like confession and not to be revealed elsewhere. This can be difficult when two people regularly interact as friends. I hope this helps.

      God bless,

      Fr. Scott, AVI
      Apostles of the Interior Life

  • Scott Kallal

    How fascinating to see three slightly different perspectives on spiritual direction. I would like to add my own answers if I may:

    As Fr. McCloskey put it, the goal of spiritual direction is to become a saint, to grow in intimacy with God and be transformed into the man or woman He made you to be. Said differently the goal is do God’s will in every area of your life: prayer and sacraments, family, community, work, school, finances, vocational discernment, friends, body, mind, heart, ministry, etc.

    Since everyone is called to be a saint, then it is “for” everyone, though I would not say it is essential. Sorry Fr. McCloskey! As Fr. Sattler pointed out, the Holy Spirit can work in a variety of ways, but I would call spiritual direction an “ordinary” way.

    As far as qualifications, just like any job, three questions must be answered:

    1) Can this person do the job? Do they have the appropriate knowledge base both the big picture of the spiritual life and the ability to look at each specific area and help me to grow in doing God’s will? Do they understand the “spiritual organism” that I am? Do they have an appropriate level of experience in spiritual matters? This is the first and most essential criteria.

    2) Will this person do the job? Are they available? Are they willing to make the time? Do they really have a heart for helping people grow spiritually? You can experience much pain if you find a “qualified” spiritual director who doesn’t have time for you.

    3) Is it a good team fit? Do I feel at ease with this person? Can I be brutally honest with them? Not every spiritual director is a good fit for every directee! 

    I know it can be hard to find a suitable spiritual guide. Let us pray that God will help us to raise up a whole new army of spiritual mentors!

    God bless,
    Live from your heart,

    Fr. Scott, AVI

    • Given that my spiritual director is not a priest I am not sure as to what as far as weakness and shortcommings I could bring up. So I need to always sort what I need to bring into confession and what I need to bring into spiritual direction. I need more clarity on this. If a person is seeking spiritual direction and has suffred traumatizing events, how does that fit into spiritual direction as well as into confession. I do have a therapist who is a catholic therapists, alot of times the things I need to bring up are intergrated so the confessor, spiritual director and counselor/therapist will hear the same issue. how offten should one see thier spiritual director. Thanks for the wonderful article and comments.

  • judeen

    fr. sattler is really good.. so we seek in the deepest ways to live Gods ways… and follow God… really like what He said… yet still I have a question. about spiritual expereinces.. -does not a spiritual director help a person descern what God is trying to tell them and what it means? or why it is happening.. when connected to God . God does communicate.. this is showen over and over in scriptures.. when 1 desires God and asks God into 1s life.. so God will answer.. it is to make sure 1 does what God asks of a person… is not a director help in this

    • Becky Ward

      I think it would depend on the experience Judeen. Spiritual Directors certainly do help us with discernment, and once a good relationship has been established and they are familiar with our relationship with God, they would be in a better position to help us understand specific experiences. Yes, God talks to us. But we may not be able to understand the spiritual meaning attached to an experience because of our limited human abilities. St. John of the Cross addresses issues like this in “Ascent of Mount Carmel.”

      For instance, I believe St. Joan of Arc received a message indicating that God would free her from enemies. She didn’t understand that to mean that she would be freed through her death.

      • judeen

        hi, becky that is what I am talking about.. how important a spiritual advisor is…. and I think God communicates with us all.. we just do not listen…. and an advisor has to be intouch with the HOLY SPIrIT.. and then God will guide them as he needs… it can not be dome by study. but by the love of God…

        • Becky Ward

          I believe it takes both Judeen. I think souls are called to be spiritual directors…and then, as the saying goes – “God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called.”

          There are many spiritual principles and guidelines that directors need to be aware of, and they also need to have a good understanding of the journey of the soul. This is one reason I think Dan’s book is so needed…..how can we get someplace we’ve never been before without some guidance? The devil is cunning and determined; he can fool us easily and wants us to believe we don’t need any help.  So we must know what the Church teaches in order to provide faithful help.

          While God does inspire us and speaks to those who listen – He still desires that we get to Him through the help of other souls. This is well documented by St. John of the Cross and St. Catherine of Sienna…..and probably others saints as well…..these are the ones I know best. It is an act of humility and obedience to seek spiritual direction.

          I agree with you that most of us don’t know when God is speaking to us…most of us haven’t been taught how to listen…but we can learn! 🙂

  • I’m a little slow on the uptake due to the holidays but I really like what the 3 priests had to say (do they sing like the 3 Irish priests do?).  Seriously though, Dan’s book is awesome and I am just now getting around to reading it and will be showing it to one of my parish priests who has agreed to be my confessor and if he is interested, I plan to purchase one for him.  I agree we need spiritual direction for young people but how about people like myself who came back to the church after a long hiatus and need a good dose of spiritual direction?
    Again, great book…so glad I purchased it!  Jackie

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