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Is it OK to Have a Spiritual Director Not as Advanced as I am in Prayer?

March 20, 2013 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Finding a Director, Spiritual Direction

Dear Dan, my spiritual journey seems to be leading me deeper into contemplative prayer. Is it important for me to find a director who is experienced in contemplation, or is it okay for me to have someone who is compatible with me in other areas but not necessarily in this?

Dear friend, you have asked several good questions. That said, there are also a few questions that need to be answered so that we can avoid common confusion about advanced states of prayer.

What is contemplation?

Sometimes, it can be very helpful to identify what something is not before you explain what it is. Because there is so much misinformation about contemplation in modern literature, we will use this as a starting point.

Contemplation is NOT:

  • a method of prayer.
  • something we generate on our own or through a sit, breathe and repeat a sacred word formula.
  • oneness or fusion with a cosmic force or principal or the universe.
  • a good feeling during prayer.
  • the same as or synonymous with meditation.
  • something that we can in any way originate, intensify, or prolong by anything that we do.
  • an exercise in self-contemplation, stillness, silence of the mind, or self-emptying.
  • a new or alternate realm of consciousness.
  • a turning inwards on ourselves.
  • an annihilation of self, resulting in total union with God wherein the self no long exists as a distinct creature.
  • a looking within to discover authentic wisdom, creativity, and power.
  • a detachment in any way from the person and incarnational reality of Christ.

So, what is contemplation? Here’s a definition I provided in my book Navigating the Interior Life that is in keeping with Catholic tradition:

Contemplation is an infused supernatural gift, that originates completely outside of our will or ability in God, by which a person becomes freely absorbed in God producing a real awareness, desire, and love for Him. This often gentle, delightful, or even intense encounter can yield special insights into things of the spirit and results in a deeper and tangible desire to love God and neighbor in thought, word, and deed. It is important to note that infused contemplation is a state that can be prepared for, but cannot in any way be produced by the will of a person through methods or ascetical practices.

Ok, with that out of the way, let's move on to your questions.

Is it important to find a director that is experienced in contemplation if you are at that stage of prayer?

It is optimal to have a director that is advanced in prayer to an equal or greater degree than we are. However, the factors that inhibit or enable contemplation can be understood by any competent spiritual director regardless of their direct experience. If they are well grounded in mystical and ascetical theology and are faithful themselves, they can probably help you in your journey. If you must settle for a less experienced director, it can be helpful to self-educate on the topic. Check out our Resources area for reading recommendations.

Is it ok to have someone who is compatible with me? (You didn't ask this one directly but it is worth consideration.)

Believe it or not, it is not necessary to have someone who is “compatible” with you. In fact, it is best to have a director who is different than you and who will challenge you to think and in ways that you may have never considered. Sometimes a challenging spiritual direction relationship can be a catalyst for unexpected growth assuming that it is a healthy relationship. In my case, my I selected my current spiritual director because I sensed that she would pose a challenge for me. I was right. Thus far it has been the most productive spiritual direction relationship I have had.

I hope these answers help you along your journey. Be assured of our prayers as you seek to deepen your love and service to our Lord and His people!


Art for this post on whether or not it is OK to have a spiritual director not as advanced in prayer as one is: Abrazo de Santa Teresa de Jesús, Santa Catalina de Siena y Santa Clara (Embrace [or Hug] of Saint Teresa of Jesus [St. Teresa of Avila], St. Catherine of Siena and St. Clare [of Assisi], Anonymous Castillian Painter, second half of the 17th century, PD-US author's life plus 70 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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  • concerned614

    I believe it’s also important to analyze our hearts as well. God may have lead you to that spiritual director for a reason. It’s always a good idea to go into things with your cup empty. As an actor in a movie once said, how can you learn anything when your cup is already full? If you go in with the attitude that I am going to learn more than this person.. or I am already more advanced than this person, eliminates the Holy Spirit from the equation. God is teaching you THROUGH a person, as a channel of grace. Sometimes we do need a new spiritual director, but we have to make sure it is God’s Spirit guiding us to that decision and not our own vanity. Discernment is key.

  • Thank you, Dan, for this very illuminative Response. These words do ring a bell in my mind:

    “……….it is best to have a director who is different than you and who will challenge you to think and in ways that you may have never considered. Sometimes a challenging spiritual direction relationship can be a catalyst for unexpected growth…….”

  • Scott Kallal

    Great answer Dan. You’re right that at least in the Western tradition of spiritual direction, the director is not expected to be holier or more advanced than the directee. Here the analogy of the coach or physician may be useful. Michael Jordan’s basketball coach didn’t have to be a better basketball player. His job was to offer objective feedback and ways that Michael could improve his game.

    Also, regarding compatibility, it depends very much on what is meant. There does need to be a good “team fit” in spiritual direction, but this does not necessarily mean thinking in the same way. Oftentimes the best team fit, as you put it, is complementary. A good spiritual director knows how to unconditionally accept all that the directee brings and then stimulates them to grow to new and unexpected heights kind of like a trampoline.

    Thanks again for the great blog. You are in my prayers.

    God bless,

    Fr. Scott, AVI
    Apostles of the Interior Life

    • Thanks Father. Of course, if Michael Jordan was retired but available as a coach – that would be the best scenario… spiritually speaking of course.

      • Scott Kallal

        ooh Dan, that reminds me of something very important. The best players don’t necessarily make the best coaches! And that’s true in the spiritual realm as well. Not all great saints were great spiritual fathers. Many would argue that St. Francis of Assisi is the greatest saint of all time, and I would find it hard to argue with that. Still, is he the greatest spiritual father of all time? He certainly had many followers, but we see his order splitting up and even falling into heresy in large numbers shortly after his death. At that point, I’d say give me St. Francis de Sales, or any of a number of other directors. The best relation of this comes from Teresa of Avila which she tells of her experience with Fr. Daza and another Jesuit whose name now escapes me (You can read it in her autobiography). One has his cause of canonization going, and he almost ruined Teresa! The other was an ordinary priest but he understood her soul and spoke to her in a way that not only consoled her but led her to pursue the foundation of the OCDs. It’s an amazing story of holiness not being the same thing as being a good spiritual director…

        God bless,

        Fr. Scott, AVI
        Apostles of the Interior Life

        p.s. Also, if I understand correctly, Michael Jordan has ruined the two basketball organizations he has sought to run… Just saying!

        • Funny – I had the exact same thought as I was writing my response. Good insights.

        • Becky Ward

          FANTASTIC advice Fr. Scott.

  • Rita

    Thank You, Dan. ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ helped me a lot to understand God’s work in me.

    • The Cloud can be a very good book though it is often misused by those who seek to read into the text something different than the author taught…

  • Michael

    I’ve been following your post for a few weeks now! Have also been learning many different ways of thinking about?? Reading the book Discernment of Spirits / St. Ignatian everyday living. Let me tell you, it’s the best thing that my new and first spiritual father could have started me with. I’m just finishing my last pillar journey through the Catechism / Pillar IV – Prayer: The Blessing Given and Received. Just thinking how it really humbled me!? Then following you Dan and read what other people are posting is even more humbling.. Yes I have learned that contemplation in
    prayer; will deepen your prayer life; but as you sad ~ it’s a gift from God and then you learn how to use it; “that deep” in the persistence of silents; with God! Thank you.. God bless

  • I just happened to find your blog and recently have heard a friend from church talk of her spiritual director. Evidently the 8 years of Catholic School didn’t include what this is all about. So my question is very simple – when does one seek a “spiritual director”? Is this something for those who are in religious life? I’m not kidding when I say I don’t know anything about this topic. Over the past year and a half, I find myself reading more and more. I’ve been in bible studies over the years, but have gotten more serious about it. I’m intrigued by the lives of the saints and have found myself leading a parish rosary each Monday evening – since the Fortnight last summer…my parish made no plan to take part, so I asked if we could gather once a week, we are a small (only 5-8 parish members attend) – anything where so I start to learn about how to find a director…..

    • Becky Ward

      Colleen, your list is actually very close to what was happening in my life just prior to my realization that the Lord was calling me to learn to know Him more deeply. Keep your eyes and your heart open….the fact that you are ‘hearing’ people talk about spiritual direction (it’s on your radar) is a good sign that it might be time to find out more!! 🙂


    • LizEst

      The call to holiness is universal. Everyone is called to it. At the same time, everyone has blind spots in their spiritual life. We can see some of who we are before God…but, we can’t see all of who we are. So, a spiritual director helps us see those blind spots, helps us work to fix our weaknesses and reduce/eliminate our sins, and teaches us how to grow in virtue. The spiritual director is kind of like a fitness coach for our souls. The fact that you seem to be getting closer to the Lord and that you are getting more serious about your walk with Christ (if I am understanding what you wrote correctly) makes me believe you may be ready for spiritual direction. It is not just for clergy or those in religious life. Many lay people (many people on this blog in fact) have spiritual directors as well…and that number is growing.

      If you don’t have the book “Navigating the Interior Life” (ISBN: 978-1-937155-86-5), I strongly recommend it. It is all about spiritual direction and was written by Dan Burke, the founder of this Spiritual Direction blog. It was just published in the fall of 2012…and, Dan has neither told me nor paid me to say this!! I just firmly believe it is an excellent handbook which will answer your questions.

      You will learn quite a lot about spiritual direction in it. Not only that, there is actually has a chapter in the book titled, “How do I know if I’m ready for Spiritual Direction?” and one called “How do I know if I’m not ready for Spiritual Direction?” It’s short and reads well. And, it walks you through how to go about finding a spiritual director and even what questions to ask of him/her in order to figure out whether a prospective spiritual director is faithful to Church teaching.

      God bless you, Colleen, as you seek to follow our Lord more closely. Have a Blessed Holy Week and a Blessed and Happy Easter!

  • Marianna

    Hi! Thank you for this article, i found it quite helpful. May I have a clarification on the last answer, the one about the director not necessarely compatible? I was a little confused when you talked about the “challenge” you have in your case (is it that my english is not as good as I think or may it be an error of typing…?)
    Thanks a lot!

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