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Spiritual Direction Did Not Work for Me – Now What?

Spiritual Direction did Not Work for Me – Now What?


Dear Father John, Two years ago I began “spiritual direction” with a highly educated, sympathetic and easy to talk to, intelligent, [director] but apparently not quite orthodox and not very well experienced or educated in spiritual direction.

I come from the “Latin Mass tradition” of the FSSP-whom I hope you do not automatically reject as “fanatics”, and am looking for someone who follows at least somewhat some of the suggestions of Hugo Doyle's GUIDANCE IN SPIRITUAL DIRECTION.

Instead of talking about vices and virtues et al, we discuss rather modernistic books, some of which are endorsed by the Dalai Lama and other non-Catholic figures. There is unorthodoxy in some of these books. When I try to bring comments from older preVatican2 books, these are ignored and I am told my problems are “mental and scrupulous”. I feel I am being put in a rigid box that does not actually fit my spiritual situation.

The key is that I do not feel I have grown spiritually over the 2 years of monthly spiritual ‘direction' with this priest. My perspective restricts me to a priest or cleric. There are however hereabouts no one else who takes directees. (The traditional FSSP priests admit they cannot do this work, and my present priest is non-traditional/very highly pressingly charismatic.)

I am praying the novena, given by St. Padre Pio, to the Sacred Heart to find a new director or for the Holy Spirit to direct me himself in ways that do not frighten me and that I can understand. I am also praying for this before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle every morning 1hr before Mass when I say a Novena of Rosaries. I have prayed to St. Charles Borromeo, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Padre Pio, for their intercession.

I would ask you to pray for God to help me. I am reading solid orthodox books on sin and virtue and spiritual growth but don't feel this is a total substitute for human interaction. Can you make any further suggestions?


I am sorry to be responding to this question so tardily. Perhaps since you wrote the question your prayers have been answered and you have found a new and adequate spiritual director. Nevertheless, I would like to share some thoughts, since I imagine some of our readers may be faced with similar situations.

Searching for a Spiritual Director

SpiritualDirection-ChristAndSaintMinaFirst of all, I want to point towards our many posts through the years that give advice about searching for and finding a good spiritual director. You can find them on this site by searching according to topic and/or by clicking here to access many helpful posts: Spiritual Direction Process and Index. Also, Daniel Burke’s book, Navigating the Interior Life treats this issue. So, good advice is available.

Nevertheless, even when following good advice about searching for a spiritual director, sometimes we still have difficulty finding one. That’s okay. That’s natural. That is nothing to panic about. God can work in our lives even through that search, and the suffering it can cause, as he has done in the lives of many saints. Regarding the specifics of your question and your situation, I have three thoughts I would like to share.

Realistic Expectations for Spiritual Directors

First, this side of heaven there simply is no perfect spiritual director. The core idea behind spiritual direction is that God likes to work through human channels and instruments. This is at least one reason why he founded a Church. And God is well aware of our human limitations. So if both the director and the directee approach the relationship of spiritual direction from the perspective of faith and hope, God can work powerfully even through the flaws and imperfections of each party. This is one reason why the Church has seen more than a few cases of canonized saints receiving spiritual direction from directors less advanced spiritually than they were.

Characteristics of a Good Spiritual Director

Second, in general, we should be looking for three characteristics in our directors:

  1. trustworthiness,
  2. connection, and
  3. availability.

A director is trustworthy when we are confident in his or her orthodoxy, knowledge of the spiritual life, and experience of Christian living. The characteristic of “connection” has to do with how we communicate with that person – if we feel they are a good listener, that they understand where we are coming from, that they can identify with our questions and struggles and yearnings. Availability refers to the person’s time and place: someone might be a good director, but they may not have the time to invest in the ongoing relationship that spiritual direction requires, or they may live so far away that there will never be opportunities to speak face-to-face.

Choosing a Spiritual Director

As I mentioned earlier, no one is a perfect spiritual director. No one scores a perfect 10 in all those characteristics. So in our search, and in accordance with Providence, we have to discover and decide what is sufficient. Maybe a potential director scores an Spiritual Direction - LudwigJohannPassiniEinErnstesGesprachSpiritualDirection“8” in trustworthiness, a “9” in availability, but a “4” in connection (I am using numbers only to make a point – I hope you know what I mean). Okay, well, if that’s the best combination we can find, we may have to accept the limitation and trust that God will work through it.

In your case, it seems that even after two years, you find significant difficulties as regards your current director’s trustworthiness and connection. If you sincerely believe you haven’t grown spiritually under his direction, and if someone else (the director himself, or another person you trust) agrees with you (giving a certain objectivity to your self-evaluation), that would seem good enough reason to look for another director. But remember, there are no perfect spiritual directors on this side of heaven, and God knows how to work powerfully through broken instruments.

What Should We Expect from a Spiritual Director?

And yet, I am a bit concerned about your comment that you haven’t progressed spiritually under the guidance of this director. Even a very good spiritual director is not in charge of our spiritual life; we are. A good director is only an instrument, and only one of many instruments. Certainly, the great spiritual writers, and even recent popes, have emphasized the importance and usefulness of good spiritual direction. But if you are praying, seeking to grow in virtue, and seeking to know, love, and follow Jesus more closely (as it seems you are), I find it impossible to imagine that you haven’t advanced at all in two years! I wonder if, perhaps, you should reflect more fully on your expectations as regards to spiritual growth and the role of a spiritual director within that process.

Backed Into a Corner?

Furthermore, I wonder if you may have unwittingly backed yourself into a corner by insisting absolutely that your spiritual director be a priest or cleric – the Church has no such official limitation in her teaching or practice. I understand why you may have a preference for that. But the history of the Church shows that both lay people and women religious can prove to be very effective spiritual directors. Perhaps you could open up your search to include those possibilities, even having a couple conversations with prospective directors before actually broaching the subject (meeting with them to ask for a piece of advice, for example, in order to test the waters), just to see what might happen. Even finding a mature “fellow-traveller” to speak with regularly about spiritual things can be a big help.

God Is Always at Work

DetailJohnOfCrossTeresaOfAvilaVisionOfTrinity for post on spiritual direction did not workThird, during seasons of life when we simply cannot find a spiritual director, we simply have to do the best we can. God will continue to love and guide us, if we remain humble and sincere in our pursuit of greater intimacy with him. The spiritual disciplines and activities you mention are worthy and will, I am sure, bear fruit in your life.

I will certainly say a prayer for your successful search, and even more for God to continue guiding you closer and closer to the fulfillment of the dream He has for your life.

Peace in Him, Fr John



Art: Christ and Saint Mina, 6th-century icon from Bawit, Egypt, now in the Louvre, user-Abraham, PD-US copyright expired; Ein ernstes Gespräch (A Serious Conversation), Ludwig Johann Passini, by 1902, PD-US; Partial restoration detail of Vision of the Holy Trinity [with St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila], anonymous Brazilian painter, 17th century, PD-US author's life plus 100 years or less; all three from 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, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Gregory724

    Dear Spiritual Direction Seeker,
    You seem to be in a panic mode because you have not found the “right” ,”perfect” spiritual director. Jesus said,”Learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of Heart”. The Holy Spirit is the BEST SD you can have. Trust in Him, and he will help you. Remember Padre Pio’s famous line: “Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry”!

    • LizEst

      As Father John said, God likes to use human beings in order to direct others. This is because we can err in thinking we are getting guidance from the Holy Spirit, when, in actuality, we are getting advice from the evil one because he can be very deceptive and clever and can readily disguise himself. So, it is always important to continue to seek spiritual direction from an actual magisterium-faithful spiritual director, someone who is also good at discernment of spirits. That’s why the Church places so much emphasis on spiritual direction. Father John’s advice is on target here.

      By the way, for those who are reading this and want to know more about discernment of spirits, please see our ongoing Divine Intimacy Radio show. Dan and Melissa are devoting one radio show to each rule of St. Ignatius’ discernment of spirits. Click here to see the programs: As well, Dan also teaches a course on line on discernment of spirits at the Avila Institute School of Spiritual Formation here:

      • Gregory724

        Sorry, LizEst, but the evil spirit can influence ANY spiritual director to give the wrong advice. How many “directors” are sexual abusers or predators? This woman is caught up in perfectionism, and NO MAN is perfect, so let prayer and common sense direct you, along with The Scriptures, to define the word of God in YOUR heart! The Catholic Church has many sources of direction, and God is not the God of confusion.
        Unless you are trying out to be a Carmelite Nun, I stand by Padre Pio’s direction–“Pray, hope, and don’t worry!!”

        • LizEst

          Gregory724 – Yes, the evil spirit can influence anyone and, perhaps, you, or someone you know, has had a very negative experience with a director. It can happen, but it is not the norm. By your reasoning, everyone is suspect, no matter who they are, what they do, or what their track record is, and that includes the Pope, who spent much time as a spiritual director. We cannot be our own directors, for we will miss the blind spots that only directors can point out to us and help us correct.

          Regrettably, you are mistaken about not seeking a spiritual director. Dan’s book is a good guide for discerning when something might be awry. And, a person can always change directors/confessors if the one they are seeing is not a good fit for them. The Church has a long-standing tradition of using spiritual directors to help her people — lay, religious, consecrated. When ego surges to the fore, and causes us to dismiss good direction, it’s a pretty sound indicator that someone has veered from the obedience and humility that Christ enfleshed.

    • Bev Mabry

      I would like to also add a couple sayings/teachings from my many years in Recovery: “when the student is ready the teacher appears” and “there is only One who is perfect.”
      I found that God speaks to me through other people in these big meetings full of people who did not have the same religious affiliation as I do.
      I always had confidence that God was teaching me what I needed to know on a daily basis for the stage and place I was at in Recovery. I’ve always found myself in a hurry to make progress – even if I do not have today’s lesson down well enough for the next stage. I had to practice a lot of patience (something that does not come easy for me!)
      After being in these groups for so long I can not imagine trying to depend on a single person as a spiritual director. The Holy Spirit is our ultimate Director and we need to move as He guides, and sometimes that guidance is to wait or practice what we have learned up to this point.

      • LizEst

        You will grow much more spiritually, and quicker too, by having a spiritual director and following his or her instruction. Why? Because it forces you to submit your will and your ego to someone else. As long as it is not an abusive relationship, you will grow in humility and obedience, two very important virtues. And, it is humility, above everything else, which draws God.

        Dan Burke has himself said that obedience to his spiritual director literally saved his life within the last year or so.

        • Bev Mabry

          I have never heard of having a spiritual director before this article. Is this for people headed toward Ordination? I’m serious too – I grew up with very spotty religious education and as an adult have not found that the Church provides a lot of resources for people like me.

          • LizEst

            Spiritual Directors are for everyone! I heartily recommend Dan Burke’s book, if you don’t already have it. It will walk you through what spiritual direction is and is not, where do find one (besides your pastor or parish priest), what questions to ask a potential director to make sure that they are aligned with what the Church believes and teaches, etc. Dan’s book is kind of like a step by step book for this.

        • marybernadette

          Regarding ‘our egos’ how very true. within the last two years when I went to Confession, at least two Priests ‘shocked’ me by telling me I had a ‘superficial’ relationship’ with the Lord. When I heard this once, I thought it may be an opinion but then from another Priest, I wondered that the Lord was really telling me this. As you know, Padre Pio was quite abrupt with certain people in the ‘Confessional.’ he was a loving father who wanted people to be serious about their relationship with the Lord and the danger of continuous living in esp. ‘mortal sin.’ We really do need discernment from the Holy Spirit otherwise we can get confused. What about St. Teresa of Avila when she said she had some ‘bad advice’ from some ‘Confessors’ alluding to ‘venial sins’ being nothing to be concerned about.

  • LizEst

    Hi John, We have many, many posts on spiritual direction. That link that was provided was a basic index of posts on the subject. So, try using other terms in the search field located in the box under the crucifix at the top of every page. As well, this article might help you: By far, though, the best handbook on this is Dan Burke’s book “Navigating the Spiritual Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God”…and I’m not saying that because I’m an editor here. Many have found it very helpful, concise and to the point, even with step-by-step instructions on how to select a spiritual director, what questions to ask a potential spiritual director, and how to determine what one’s root sin is. It is available in many different formats and you can find it here: It is also available in Spanish here:

    Spiritual direction has been around for a long, long time. And, we have touched on it in different posts on our site. In fact, you can find a veiled reference it in the Old Testament in Sirach 6:33-37: “If you are willing to listen, you will learn; if you give heed, you will be wise. Frequent the company of the elders; whoever is wise, stay close to him. Be eager to hear every godly discourse; let no wise saying escape you. If you see a man of prudence, seek him out; let your feet wear away his doorstep! Reflect on the precepts of the Lord, let his commandments be your constant meditation…” But, I’m not sure we have a specific post here dealing with just the historical development of spiritual direction in the tradition of the Church. That’s a great idea for a post. And, we may just do that in the future!

    • John

      Thank you Liz. I guess I’m trying to find an article dedicated to the DIRECTEE … and their qualities, proper disposition and expectations. There seem to be “nuggets” about the directee within the articles on finding a Director … But looking for more of a comprehensive on the directee. We tend to look at the Director not matching our requirements… but what about our requirements? Are we ready, properly disposed, understand more fully what direction is and supposed to be (and not be)? Obviously the director can/should help explain all this… but was looking to see if there was something devoted to it here. You guys do a good job summarizing, synthesizing, explaining and archiving, having a library of helpful reference materials.

      • LizEst

        Ah! Dan has a chapter in his regarding “How do I know if I am ready for spiritual direction?” in his book. Are you working on a school project?

        • John

          no just learning. been in/out of spiritual direction over some years … I will get the book. Thank YOU!

          • LizEst

            Nice! How many years have you been in spiritual direction (of and on)?

  • 7cathy17

    I once had a spiritual director/confessor and after our first meeting he stressed,it is not I who is the director but The Holy Spirit.i have relocated since but there are those moments when something he said come resonating back,and I know then I am on the right track.I an also reminded of Jesus telling St Faustina that he is the Director,which is something we should always remember.Maybe you are putting too many demands on yourself which is why maybe you feel the lack of progress.It is difficult @times but,Let Go and Let God work your spiritual life.You know all things things are possible with him.?Blessings in your search.

  • cate

    It is evident that you are truly seeking spiritual growth and are trying very hard to find the most “appropriate’ spiritual director. God must be quite pleased. What I have found, however, when I let go of my ‘criteria” for my life experiences and I totally and unconditionally surrender to God’s plan whatever that may be the answer by the Holy Spirit is shown. It however takes my time, patience, letting go of my plan for God’s plan, much faith ans trust. Usually with all good intentions and intense work on my part, I stand in God’s way and plan. Could it be that this is the spiritual direction that is being given to you?? Prayers for your total surrender which when achieved gives peace beyond any known. Peace and all good.

    • LizEst

      Wise advice, cate. God’s ways are so above our ways. …and another Scripture verse says to be stouthearted and wait for the Lord.

  • There are times when I feel like my director doesn’t understand my desire to be a saint. But then his guidance when I overreact, pressure myself too much or unwittingly give in to temptations to discouragement or to despair is always exactly I need to hear at the time. He is really good at discerning spirits, something I know I am not very good at. Are my doubts just me wanting someone to tell me I want to hear?

    • LizEst

      MariaGo – Have you told him you want to be a saint? If you have not done so, then state it to him plainly. As well, becoming a saint is not for the faint-hearted. It is hard work. A spiritual director helps us stay on track. Sometimes, we are going to have great consolation in hearing what we want to hear. At other times, we are not going to like what we hear. Take each thing your director says to you as a lesson, kind of like a mini school course. Learn from what he is saying. If you don’t understand, ask him to explain things to you again, or in more detail. Probably our biggest obstacle in spiritual direction is our ego, which can manifest in many ways. God bless you, Maria, as you continue on the road our Blessed Lord has laid out for you.

  • Kathy

    Very thought provoking article. Every time I think I’m not making any progress or feel I have disappointed God , I now take a step back and realize this is where He has allowed me to be. When I accept my short comings and wholeheartedly offer them to God – peace -hope- Love comes flowing in. God sees your desire to be united, He sees your heart. He has not left you out of the equation. Humility, humility, humility, and trust will help you be where you are and get you where you desire to be. “Be still and Know that I AM God.” How wonderful it is that you love God so much, to spend so much time with Him, perhaps He likes you just exactly how you are (at least for now). God is love. Peace and ultimate happiness to you.

  • B. Rickman

    I have noticed that women are good spiritual directors because woman have to be. They are sensitive to people because of our call to motherhood. We listen because we are built to do so. We “hear” things when people talk and have the ability to “look” at a situation in a different way. We spot problems that are often missed in hard situations. Women are spiritual directors by default.

    • LizEst


  • marybernadette

    ‘Fr. John, before I read this post, your comment about ‘lay spiritual’ directors are to be sought as it doesn’t need to be a Priest or cleric, resonated with me esp. as I advised a young man to see a ‘Priest’ because he is suffering with a bad case of ‘Scrupulosity.’ This poor man also suffers with ‘OCD’ so he is ‘debilitated.’ He is doing the right thing by taking medication to ‘relieve’ the symptoms as of course, it is important to get help from a competent doctor too. If it does not work out with the Priest then I assume he can look for a ‘lay person’ who also recognizes this condition?

    • Jim H

      This is a somewhat touchy area when there is at least partially a medical/psychological component to scruples and Religious/Devotional OCDs. A counselor may be desirable and I should mention that counselors can be fractured humans as well and can do potential harm as can a layman or laywoman who is in “over their head”. That said some people have a knack for helping others through these issues. Some have a counselor or advocate type personality and are able in some cases to be helpful. That said when someone senses that the person could be clinically depressed or otherwise in jeopardy there needs to be a parachute or mechanism that is mutually agreed upon (ideally) to get the person to the right professional. I suffer greatly from severe chronic pain, have suffered from oppressive scruples and OCDs Religious and light checking type things… In addition to this I was severely scandalized by the priestly sexual abuse scandals. On paper I shouldn’t have been shaken by it but as I have learned that is not how scandal works. Interestingly I am someone that people often confide in and open up to… I try not to give advice so much as to help the person see what options are available and also to help gently “readjust their side and rear view mirrors and peripheral vision” in the spiritual and practical sense to reveal blind spots that we all have.

      • LizEst

        … and thanks for sharing this as well. Interesting your comment on that’s not how scandal works. I’m sensing a bit of a comparison between that and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Is that somewhat in the ballpark?

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