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Should I be looking for another spiritual director?

Dear Father John, I was wondering if you could give me a bit of perspective. I recently asked a director to help me in my discernment of religious life.  After he agreed I wrote out a summary of the context for my perceived call along with a list of my vices/faults, graces/strengths, etc. The arrangement was that after reading the letter, we would talk, with the idea that I would write emails every week or two, and we would talk on the phone at longer intervals. I was confused and disappointed by our first meeting… I think he may really not know how to proceed… I was puzzled that he did not talk about anything I had written, except to say that it moved him. I guess my expectation was that he would ask ME questions, about my spiritual life, and that in answering them I would be more aware of what I needed to work on or think about. What should I do? I feel a bit strange about telling my director what to do, and I feel that this would affect his authority. If I tell him everything I want him to do, why I am going to him in the first place? I actually do want someone with some authority to guide me. Maybe I just need to find someone else?

There must have been a reason why you asked this priest in particular to guide you. You must have seen in him something of the spiritual wisdom that you believe can help you in your own spiritual journey. So I would not recommend that you look for someone else quite yet. Here are some thoughts that may help you move towards a more satisfying spiritual guidance relationship. These ideas, I think, would be relevant for any spiritual direction relationship, not only for someone discerning a religious vocation. (By the way, you may find valuable discernment insights at www.vocation.com and www.imaginesisters.org.

Spiritual Direction as a Means not an End

First of all, remember that spiritual direction is not the only source of input for your spiritual life. It is not meant to be the only source of guidance. The Holy Spirit will continue to be your primary director. Your prayer, your spiritual reading, your participation in the sacraments, your personal reflection, your efforts to love your neighbor and fulfill God’s will in your life – all these are still major channels of God’s grace for you. You can still listen to God’s voice through these channels, find his light there, and move towards greater intimacy.

Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that our spiritual director is supposed to be in charge of our spiritual growth. Not true. Spiritual direction is a valuable, and perhaps necessary, element in the pursuit of spiritual maturity. But each one of us is still in charge of our own lives – even God himself will never seize our freedom, and neither should a spiritual director (even though sometimes we feel like it would be a lot easier if they did!). God wants us to make use of spiritual direction, but he doesn’t want our spiritual directors to replace our own freedom and creativity. Our friendship with Christ is still our friendship with Christ.

Patience Matters

Second, I would encourage you to be patient. You mention that this priest, though experienced and knowledgeable in the spiritual life, has not been habitually involved in the ministry of spiritual direction. So there will be a learning curve for him. That’s okay. That’s natural. And, by the way, he will never be the perfect spiritual director. And you should be perfectly at ease with that!

Remember, the main protagonist in the spiritual direction relationship is actually the Holy Spirit. So, if you are doing your part to prepare and communicate, the Holy Spirit will be sure to act through the instrument of spiritual direction even if your Director is a bit clumsy. God can handle that. The mere fact of communicating our spiritual experiences to a director exercises a number of key virtues – like faith, humility, and prudence – and sometimes that’s all the Holy Spirit needs to keep us moving along the path of spiritual progress, regardless of the specific advice that the Director may or may not offer.

Suggesting vs Controlling

Third, you should feel completely free to make suggestions to your Director about the structure of your conversations and the topics to be covered. You making suggestions is not in and of itself controlling. And you can phrase your suggestions in a completely non-controlling way. For example, “Father, thank you for our conversation – your comment about X was very helpful for me. After we talked, I was reflecting, and I think it would help me next time if we maybe start with a prayer. Would that be okay? And then, to help me stay focused, I would like to make sure that even if a lot of subjects come up, we talk specifically about my prayer life, my apostolate, and my constant battle with discouragement. Do you think it would be okay to keep those three topics on our “list” every time we connect by phone? And I will be sure to update you on what I am experiencing in those areas on my email updates every couple weeks.” So you see, you can make suggestions that will be helpful for you, and they will not be threatening to your Director. Your taking the initiative in this way is not contrary to your wanting your Director to direct you. Your Director will surely give you specific recommendations as you continue developing your relationship, and as he continues to get to know you.

Looking Elsewhere

Fourth, what should you do if after a period of months you feel like no progress is being made? There is no obligation to continue receiving Direction from someone whose direction is not helping you. But I wouldn’t rush to a decision here. You will experience awkwardness, and so will your Director, at the beginning – especially since you are trying to have spiritual direction from a distance. But the awkwardness should diminish gradually. If a number of months pass and it doesn’t, then you should feel free to graciously conclude that the long-distance direction is not working. In that case, you could ask your Director what he would recommend, or simply thank him for trying to help, and then look for someone else.

Above all, however, I think the most important thing to remember is that spiritual direction is a means for growth; it is not meant to involve handing over to your Spiritual Director the responsibility for your spiritual life. Keeping that in mind will, I believe, help you have realistic expectations and take intelligent advantage of everything God’s Providence offers you.

PS: You might both benefit from reading Navigating the Interior Life – Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God.

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Art for this post on Looking for Another Spiritual Director?: A man holding a sextant, photographer unidentified, 9 November 2004, TOR, PD from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of official duties, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • FrRamil E. Fajardo

    Thank you, Fr: absolutely spot on!

    “Your prayer, your spiritual reading, your participation in the sacraments, your personal reflection, your efforts to love your neighbor and fulfill God’s will in your life – all these are still major channels of God’s grace for you. You can still listen to God’s voice through these channels, find his light there, and move towards greater intimacy.
    “Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that our spiritual director is supposed to be in charge of our spiritual growth. Not true. Spiritual direction is a valuable, and perhaps necessary, element in the pursuit of spiritual maturity. But each one of us is still in charge of our own lives – even God himself will never seize our freedom, and neither should a spiritual director…”

    A spiritual director will guide and direct, but never dictate or directly intervene. He helps us to speak to God by hopefully introducing us to Him, then as John the Baptist said, “He must increase, I must decrease.”

    • Thank you for your encouragement Father.

    • Becky Ward

      Amen!

  • Mari Kate

    Thank you Father. This is an excellent reminder, not only for directees, but for directors as well: The Holy Spirit is the Spiritual Director. In order for the process of spiritual direction to be life-giving and beneficial, it must encourage us to be open to recognizing the movement of the Holy Spirit. For this to happen, our personal freedom is key. Unfortunately, like any action of free will, one is also free to resist what the Holy Spirit is revealing. Sometimes when this resistance sets in, it may be a temptation then to blame the spiritual director as well. Could you perhaps address the issue of resistance in a later post for us?

  • Judy

    It sounds as though the writer is very structured and prepared. Perhaps the director is taking an approach of general conversation that the writer hasn’t pondered and organized (and controlled) in advance in order to get a better idea of the spontaneous self, which may reveal a bit more (or confirm) about the actual spiritual state.

  • Camila

    Hip hip hooray! Can you hear my cheer?! Dan’s comment at the end is great! “PS: you might both benefit from reading Navigating the Interior Life – Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God.” (It might sound Dan is paying me to advertise – he’s not!) But just last week I had a meeting with my (2 year) spiritual director and I presented him my rule of life developed while reading this book. He liked it so much he said he was going to order the book. It helped to say it was voted one of the best catholic books of the year, runner up with Pope Benedict’s book. His eye brow went up and he said “oh really?!” I can’t explain how exciting this is, because even though I have tried putting something like this together in the past, having read the book it gives both directee and director the same game plan, the same language, the same tools to work with. You both get on the same page and move forward from their. It gives you point of references that you can talk and troubleshoot. It really is great.

    Tip. I took my rule of life AND my book. I presented the rule of life and then I offered my book as a gift. He looked at the book (completely full of sticky notes, highlights, underlines, question marks, exclamation marks etc..) you could just see his face and I could read his thoughts… “nah…I’ll order my new crisp version!”…. I even said “you will really, right?!” “yes, he said” “because, otherwise I’ll order one for you”….at this point his eye brow was sort of saying “who’s bright idea was to have me be your director?!?!” – He’s a cute little deacon and I love him very much, so he knows my nudging was a good one!

    • LizEst

      WS – This is great testimony to Dan’s book. And, I believe the key words are “it gives both directee and director the same game plan, the same language, the same tools to work with. You both get on the same page and move forward from [there].” If either or both director and directee are unclear on, or fail to communicate, what the goal of direction is, this journey and relationship can become difficult. This book is wonderful in bringing this about.

  • Christina Solt

    I had the some of the same concerns when I began Spiritual Direction with my current director. However, I have been deeply humbled by how much he understood and how much I didn’t. Progress can be slow and we aren’t used to it. We want answers right now and it doesn’t always happen that way. Several times, I asked him to take a firmer stance but he just told me that I was doing what I was supposed to. I didn’t believe him completely but after almost 2 years, I trust that the Lord is working through him. Judging from what is happening in my life currently, he helped me to follow the Lord’s plan not my own. Perhaps you are being asked to practice trust. It is a necessary element of Spiritual Direction and a difficult task for most of us. God Bless you, our family offers prayers for religious vocations nightly. You will be included in those prayers.

    • LizEst

      You hit the nail on the head, Christina. When we begin the spiritual life in earnest, we are so not used to waiting and especially not on waiting on the Lord whose ways are not our ways and are, in fact, much higher than ours. Scripture itself tells us, “Wait for the Lord, take courage; be stouthearted, wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14). God bless you and all your family! May He richly bless your nightly prayers for religious vocations.

  • Sarah Crowe

    For anyone who is searching for Spiritual Direction, should know themselves enough to discern what is needed in their life. To fulfill the Scripture “Be Holy because I am Holy”, we need to begin to perform “self examinations” and learn to identify the issues that you need to sacrifice to GOD. If you can’t find any, ask GOD, He will bring issues up for you to see and take care of.

    I agree with the Priest, that you must be patient, but not only that. You must also drop any expectations you may have regarding anything on your Spiritual journey, because it’s like tying GOD’S hands behind His back. You must remain open minded, question everything, discern where it’s coming from, and how it would apply to your life, and your relationship with Christ.

    Last, Never, Never Give up. No matter how difficult it may get, keep moving forward.

    GOD Bless

  • patricia barker

    i have contacted my parish priest to ask his advice. i was hero worshipping him and he knows how i felt so i will not speak about that to him, t i have made an appointment with him for confession and even speaking here has helped. the Holy Spirit is guiding my decisions about my spiritual life and i feel as if i have cast off the old me and God is making me new creation these posts are so helpful and thanks for your response

    • LizEst

      Just be careful. The devil is very cunning and sly. Find a good director you are not attracted to.

      • patricia barker

        i will take your advice and since we have 2 priests i will go to the other one for confession. i will keep the appointment with the one i am attracted to as it is for confession and then after that i will minimise my contact with him.

        • LizEst

          You are attracted to a priest. A clean break is what is called for here. Give him up for Lent and continue to give him up for good.

        • patricia barker

          i cannot make a complete break . i do not feel attracted to him. any more.i am maybe too cautious. i am to be commissioned as a member of the Pastoral Council which means some contact with him. it may have just been a passing crush and i am not willing to go to another parish as i wish to stay grounded

          • LizEst

            patricia — You are fooling yourself. In your previous comment, you said you are attracted to him. Here is the quote from your own writing: …”i will keep the appointment with the one i am attracted to as it is for confession and then after that i will minimise my contact with him.” This is even more reason not to have contact with him. By your own words you say you are attracted to him. And, even in this comment here, you say “it may have just been a passing crush…” By your own words, you do not even know whether it (this “crush”) has passed or not. This is very dangerous territory for you and for him. Watch out.

  • LizEst

    You don’t have to go to another parish. Just attend the Masses that the other priest in the parish celebrates. Very easy to do … unless you are consciously, or subconsciously, looking for an excuse to be where the priest you are attracted to is.

    • patricia barker

      he says all the masses in the parish so i cannot avoid contact with him, he heard my confession this morning and i now realise it was just a crush. i am not looking for excuses to be where he is and i will never mention how i felt to him again.

      • LizEst

        If he says all the Masses, and you can’t go to another parish because of limited bus service on Sunday, then you cannot avoid that contact. But, you can indeed make an appointment to go to confession in another parish, with a different priest. You can avoid being on the parish committees, etc, where he is present. Yesterday you said “i will keep the appointment with the one i am attracted to”. That’s present tense. The way a crush, an addiction of any sort works, is that the object of that attraction itself causes a person to want that object more, even if a person is not conscious of it. The thought of it releases opiate-like substances in the brain. People who have, in the past, been addicted to alcohol or drugs or gambling or pornography or any addiction, when healed, realize they must stay completely away from what they were attracted to because that’s the trigger. Only after many years can they even be around the object without being attracted to it. This situation is still too fresh, too recent for you. That’s another reason why this is dangerous for you (and for him, I might add). Here is a post on our site that you may find helpful. Please read it and all the comments that other people have written there. http://www.spiritualdirection.com/2011/12/05/how-can-a-woman-build-an-appropriate-relationship-with-a-priest

        • patricia barker

          i have already contacted a priest in another parish and he asked if i phone back during the week to make an appointment.

          • LizEst

            That’s a good step.

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