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Spiritual Direction: Honoring Near Occasions of Grace
By Albert Haase, O.F.M.
This age-old practice can satisfy the hunger for a deeper experience of God in your life.

Q U I C K S C A N

Sacred and Sensitive Discussions
Naming and Claiming God's Grace
Prayerful Preparation
Utmost Trust Needed
Characteristics of a Good Spiritual Director
Finding a Spiritual Director

ILLUSTRATION BY JULIE LONNEMAN

OVER 18 CENTURIES ago in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, Christians who took an acute interest in the spiritual life started seeking out elders for help in listening to the music of the Spirit in their lives. This practice continued two centuries later in Ireland.

By the 16th century, Ignatius of Loyola and his followers were offering spiritual exercises to sensitize people to their personal experiences of God. In the 20th century, Vatican II’s affirmation of the universal call to holiness ignited interest in things spiritual and mystical among the laity.

Today, many Catholics from all walks of life talk about having a spiritual director. I minister at Mayslake Ministries, a center for spirituality and spiritual direction in Westmont, Illinois, where people seeking this time-honored practice pass through our doors every day. It’s not just Catholics who are rediscovering spiritual direction. At Mayslake Ministries, we have mainstream Protestants, Evangelicals and a Unitarian coming on a monthly basis.

The topic is receiving media attention, too. Relevant Radio, a national Roman Catholic radio network, has a daily two-hour program called The Inner Life, which is specifically centered on Catholic spiritual direction.

In this article, I’ll explain what spiritual direction is, what directees do and how they get started.

Sacred and Sensitive Discussions

Just about any seasoned spiritual director will tell you that the term “spiritual direction” is imprecise and inaccurate. It incorrectly implies a teacher-student relationship in which the teacher (the director) instructs the student (the directee). It suggests taking notes, learning techniques and maybe even bending to another’s opinion or will. Worse, it indicates that the director knows how God acts in every person’s life, as if the directee’s task is simply to accept the director’s perspective and point of view.

Though there may be the occasional session when a director offers invitations and advice culled from his or her own experience, the primary focus is clearly not on the director but on the directee.

When I am the directee, I am challenged to become aware and articulate what God is doing in my life. The burden of spiritual direction is on me, not the director, as I struggle to answer the question, “What is God up to in my life?” That question, as mysterious as an apparently unanswered prayer, as exhilarating as the arrival of a new child or as riveting as one’s first love letter, has been the sole topic of spiritual direction through the centuries.

Grace—what God is up to in one’s life—is like that mysterious impulse that gathers geese in a flock to begin heading south for the winter. It is like the air we naturally breathe in and exhale, like that magical moment when a baby’s breath blossoms.

Commitment to spiritual direction requires dedication and devotion to a process of attention, discovery and articulation. As the directee, I make the commitment to spend some time every day tuning in to the music of the Spirit in my life. I attend to the action of God in daily events, as well as in the hopes, dreams, feelings, reactions and desires of my heart. Having discovered just how real and close God’s grace and action are in my life, I claim, celebrate and discuss the implications and challenges with my spiritual director.

Spiritual direction is hard work for me as the directee. It challenges me to become sensitive to and take seriously a dimension of life that some people only give a cursory nod to once a week. It also dares me to be open and honest about the many voices and spirits that vie for my attention and distract me from my awareness of God.

Speaking of the near occasions of grace that are in my life—as well as the near occasions of sin—is countercultural. In a world that glibly talks about the weather, the quarterback at last night’s football game, the sales at the department stores and the traffic on the way to work, spiritual direction truly stands out as a unique and sacred discussion. It revels in the closeness and the reality of God’s action in my life, even as it reveals some of my less-than-laudatory actions and feelings.

Honoring near occasions of grace is the essence of spiritual direction. It is a great tragedy that I hardly ever talk about how God is touching and calling me to holiness with those closest to me.

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Naming and Claiming God's Grace

Spiritual direction is a process that occurs on an ongoing, regular basis. There are a number of reasons why people want to commit to naming and claiming God’s grace in their lives:

To learn how to be attentive to God’s grace. Some people just are not reflective. Others, especially those going through midlife transition, begin to hunger for a deeper experience of faith. But they don’t know what to do or how to get there.

In spiritual direction, the director can offer suggestions or advice, and sometimes even share time-honored techniques that have helped directees throughout history grow in sensitivity to God’s presence in their lives.

As the spiritual director-directee relationship grows and develops a history, the director also becomes the memory and reminder of how God’s grace has touched the directee in the past. The directee builds up a history with the director while also building a history of awareness and consciousness of the near occasions of grace offered by God.

To deepen awareness of God’s grace. Some people are naturally reflective or practice a daily examination of conscience. Spiritual direction challenges the directee to discuss how God is acting in one’s life. The very act of naming these occasions of grace is a way of growing in deeper awareness and gratitude for them.

In the end, spiritual direction helps the directee to develop an examination of consciousness–-being awake and aware of the movement and music of the Spirit in one’s life.

To explore what obstructs our attention to God’s grace. Spiritual direction not only is a time to honor the near occasions of grace in the directee’s life, but it is also a time to confront the near occasions of sin. Sometimes a directee has developed habits or deliberately makes choices that hinder him or her from being attentive and freely responding to God’s grace.

Consequently, a spiritual-direction session might occasionally include the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

To name and honor near occasions of grace. This is the heart and soul of spiritual direction. The directee discovers the unconditional lavishness of God’s love, presence and grace in the very midst of the daily humdrum of life. The act of articulating and speaking about God’s presence and action in a person’s life becomes an act of adoration.

To find the grace offered in loss, grief, anger or fear. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a great 17th-century Jesuit spiritual director, once wrote, “Every moment we live through is like an ambassador who declares the will of God” (Abandonment to Divine Providence). While this is an exhilarating discovery in the midst of love relationships and job promotions, it certainly gives cause for pause in times of painful separation experienced in such things as deaths and broken hearts.

In spiritual direction, as the directee struggles with the anger of a loss or the fear that arises in a time of transition, he or she learns to surrender and trust in the mystery of grace.

To be conscious of God’s grace in a moment of transition. All change is stressful. Moving to another city, changing jobs, having surgery or becoming single naturally raises worries and concerns. Such experiences can result in the feeling of being abandoned or forgotten by God.

Spiritual direction challenges the directee to be sensitive to God’s grace even in the midst of life’s changes and adjustments.

To make an important decision in light of God’s grace. As the directee names and honors the near occasions of grace, he or she becomes aware that grace comes with the responsibility of a response. This leads to the topic of discernment, the holy task of deciding how to live one’s life in response to the action of God.

Such decisions include lifelong commitments such as marriage or religious life, lifestyle changes, and involvement in some form of ministry, outreach or apostolic activity. With the director, the directee discerns and decides how best to respond to God.

Prayerful Preparation

To help facilitate the awareness and articulation of grace in one’s life, the directee is invited to consider:

• A period of daily prayer and reflection which would include asking oneself, “What is God up to in my life?” Ideally, this should last for a minimum of 20 minutes. This period of daily prayer will provide the content that the directee brings to the spiritual-direction session.

• A weekly liturgical celebration with a Christian community. This reminds the directee that he or she is part of a larger community of faith that has been given a mission and responsibility by God.

• Nourishing oneself with the Word of God and the wisdom of writers. Praying with Scripture and spiritual reading provide images and vocabulary which help the directee speak about the movement of grace in one’s life.

• Performing acts of charity. Grace requires a response in action. And the tradition of spirituality speaks loudly and clearly that, as St. Thérèse of Lisieux summarized it on the day before her death, “It is love alone that counts.”

• Making an annual spiritual retreat of two overnights. Lovers and spouses have their nights out. We take vacation time away from our work to regroup and reenergize. In a similar vein, an annual retreat away from family and friends provides the booster shot for the spiritual life, especially when it begins to lose the attention it deserves.

• Prayerfully preparing for the spiritual-direction session by having a specific topic to consider and discuss. The burden of spiritual direction is with the directee, not the director. Thus, the directee needs to have a sense of what he or she wants to discuss. This, of course, is not to limit or take control of the discussion. Sometimes, unexpected twists, turns and issues emerge.

Utmost Trust Needed

As a directee, I typically meet on a monthly basis with my spiritual director for about one hour. Having prayerfully prepared, I bring to the session thoughts, reactions and issues that have arisen as a result of my pondering the daily question, “What is God up to in my life?” Depending on a directee’s lifestyle, this could include topics such as prayer, the sacraments, emerging feelings, relationships with spouse or children, or workplace challenges.

“The God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10) dallies and sometimes dances within every moment and situation in which I find myself. My commitment to receiving spiritual direction is a commitment to discover, attend to and honor that presence.

It is essential that I have the utmost trust in my spiritual director. An atmosphere of unbridled trust provides the acoustics of freedom and transparency to talk openly and honestly about my near occasions of grace, as well as my near occasions of sin.

Holding back because of feelings of distrust or fear of condemnation could be signs that this particular spiritual director and I are ill-matched. In that case, I need to end the relationship politely and search for another spiritual director with whom I can be open and honest.

Periodically, perhaps every six months or so, my spiritual director and I review our relationship. I can outgrow a spiritual director just as I outgrow my clothes. Or perhaps the spiritual director has reasons he or she can no longer be a companion with me on my spiritual journey. In either case, the commitment to spiritual direction continues with another director.

Changing spiritual directors on a regular basis is an indication that something inside of me needs to be addressed. Perhaps I fear the sacred intimacy that develops over time with my spiritual director. Or maybe I fear the recurring exposure of my sinfulness. Perhaps I am mistakenly searching for something illusive (and nonexistent) that will instantly transform me into a saint. Or maybe I am really in need of counseling and not spiritual direction.

Spiritual direction is not for everyone. It isn’t cheap counseling or psychotherapy. And so, people in the throes of any kind of addiction (chemical dependency, food, sex, gambling, etc.) need to address their addiction first. Once the addiction has been admitted and addressed on an ongoing basis, spiritual direction often provides a nice complement to the 12-step program.

Furthermore, people in need of psychological counseling because of some emotional pain or trauma are ill-advised to seek out spiritual direction, at least initially. Counseling deals with coping mechanisms and making the necessary changes in life so the client can function on a daily basis. It is only then that the person has the self-possession and stillness to listen to the Spirit. With those two qualities, one can begin to work on the awareness and articulation of near occasions of grace.

Characteristics of a Good Spiritual Director

There are four characteristics to check for when determining if someone is worthy of the trust to become your spiritual director:

First, a spiritual director will have the ability and the passion to be a good, wise listener. The role of the spiritual director is that of a sacred listener who has box seats at the unfolding symphony of the directee’s life. The director listens with reverence and awe as the directee highlights and discusses the presence and action of God in his or her life. As the director listens, sometimes a probing question will arise to help the directee fully appreciate the mystery and music of the Spirit.

The second quality to look for is someone who has the ability to listen without being judgmental. God acts with each person in an individualized way, and the director should have the humility and openness to allow God to be God in the directee’s life. The director is called to affirm the directee’s unique path to holiness and to highlight potential obstacles along the way.

The third characteristic comes straight from the fourth-century desert, where spiritual direction first began taking shape. The director should not have an angry personality. Anger distorts openness to the directee’s revelations and reveling in near occasions of grace. Angry directors have to struggle to be objective and humble during the time of sacred listening. They might be able to hear what the directee is saying, but they are incapable of wise listening.

Finally, a reputable spiritual director will have experienced the midlife transition known as the “great divide.” Young spiritual directors might have the training and book knowledge needed to hear the Spirit’s music in another’s life. Some, such as the great Carmelite spiritual director of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, might even have an uncanny wisdom beyond their age. Such directors, however, are the rare exception.

It’s primarily after midlife that book knowledge is augmented with life experience. It is a treasure to have a spiritual director who can listen with the insight and experience of the midlife transition.

Finding a Spiritual Director

Priestly ordination is not a guarantee that one has been given the charism of being a spiritual director. Some priests are so overburdened with the demands of parish ministry that they do not have the time. Other priests have interests that lie elsewhere.

The history of spirituality, furthermore, attests that many laypersons and religious sisters and brothers have been graced with this gift. Nowadays, some have even gone through one- or two-year training programs. Thus, it’s a mistake to limit the possibilities for spiritual direction simply to ordained priests.

A good place to start looking for a spiritual director is by contacting local retreat houses run by the diocese, the Jesuits or the Cenacle Sisters. Convents, friaries, priories and the provincial headquarters of various religious communities can also offer suggestions. Some Catholic parishes have even hired trained spiritual directors to be part of the parish staff.

In addition, it’s worthwhile to pay a visit to the Web site of Spiritual Directors International (www.sdiworld.org), which offers an extensive, worldwide listing of registered spiritual directors. It also offers practical advice, including questions to ask any spiritual director you may be considering.

It is customary to leave a donation to help support the ministry of a spiritual director. Suggested donations range anywhere from $25 to $50. Many people find it appropriate to donate their hourly wage.

Remember that spiritual direction has had a long and esteemed history within Christianity. Entering into a prayerful conversation on a regular basis helps the directee to grow more attentive to the music of the Holy Spirit who, according to St. John of the Cross, is the one and only spiritual director.

 

Albert Haase, O.F.M., has preached parish missions and retreats across the United States and Cameroon, West Africa. For nearly 12 years, Father Albert ministered to Catholics in Beijing, China, while working as director of human resources for Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. He is currently an adjunct professor of spirituality at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, and director of the School for Spirituality at Mayslake Ministries. He is co-author, with his sister Bridget, of Enkindled: Holy Spirit, Holy Gifts (St. Anthony Messenger Press). His Web site is www.albertofm.net.


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