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