Spiritual Direction—What Is It?

Written By Fr. Lawrence Carney

Very few people today know what spiritual direction is. In this article, the reader will learn about the practicality and necessity of direction. It will also be helpful to distinguish between direction for beginners, the proficient, and the perfect. Finally, what ought to be the qualities of a director, and the one being directed.

Practicality

The author once read Saint Thomas stating that one out of every ten males is called by God to the priesthood. Saint John Bosco asserted one out of five. Our human family falls very short in responding to the call from God. Imagine if Saint Thomas’s statement were a reality: every person could practically have a spiritual director because for every ten people, there would be a priest. Of course, the ideal would only exist if every priest lived up to his calling. In reality, it is very difficult to find a capable priest.

Saint Teresa of Avila says, “I say one out of ten thousand; for there are fewer men than we realize who are capable of this task.” As many of the faithful can observe, the Church and the world are in a crisis of faith, and this contributes to the fact that few can perform the art of spiritual direction. But if one sincerely tries to find a qualified director and cannot, she must then rely on direction from the Holy Spirit, for God does not require the impossible. If, however, one can find a good director, the road to deeper union with God is more concrete (no pun intended) and practical.

Necessity

The rest of this article relies heavily on Father Garrigou-Lagrange in his work The Three Ages of the Interior Life. Priests are mediators between God and men. Providence operates in a similar way in spiritual direction. Pope Leo XIII, in a letter to Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, wrote, “A most provident God has decreed that men for the most part should be saved by men.” Saint Paul was breathing out threats and overseeing acts of slaughter when Christ struck him to the ground. Saint Paul asked Him, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6). He was sent to Ananias at Damascus to learn what to do. “Arise, and go into the city,” the Lord said, “and there it should be told thee what thou must do” (Acts 9:7). God used a man to help the man Saint Paul.

The spirit of pride presents itself to the soul, “Don’t ask a priest; he is too busy.” Or, “There is no one with the competence who can direct me.” Saint Bernard says, “He who constitutes himself his own director, becomes a disciple of a fool.” He continues, “As far as I am concerned, I declare that it is easier and safer for me to command many others than myself alone.”[1]

Swallow the red pill and prepare to advance in the spiritual life. “A person having a good director whom he obeys completely and unreservedly will reach his goal much more easily and rapidly then he could alone.”[2] And Saint Vincent Ferrer, in addition to this, taught, “Even with the aid of a very keen intellect and learned books on spiritual matters. . . in general, all who have reached perfection, have followed this road of obedience, unless, by a privilege and singular grace, God Himself instructed some souls that had not one to direct them.”

Man’s complacency prevents his judging himself impartially, says Saint Francis de Sales. Likewise, a person in a closed room for a while does not notice the air has become vitiated, but someone who walks in all of a sudden can immediately know.

One needs a guide to climb the mountain of the spiritual life because the more one ascends, the more one must avoid the snares laid by Satan who wishes to prevent one from ascending. The devil hides behind the pride of souls trying to advance.

The Direction of Beginners

One of the first mistakes for beginners is giving up the spiritual life too early for reasons which are aptly explained by Our Lord in the parable of the sower (see Mt 12:1–23). But a wise director can guide them in prayer, asking them, at least in the beginning of the spiritual life, whether they made their prayers or not. Confessors can help souls from relapse into mortal sin this way. With a guide, it is easier for souls to bypass common pitfalls,[3] cover ground rapidly, and reach a life of union.

Other beginners take a secret pride in austerity. They look like immovable marble statues, signs of piety, but charity is not in them. They exceed the healthy limits of the practice of exterior mortification until they compromise their health. At the same time, what a pity if the director discourages or crushes in his directee a sincere and worthy desire for traditional asceticism, which is an essential part of the spiritual life.

Guides are needed to direct beginners who almost always will go through aridity. Saint John of the Cross once wrote, “Do we love the consolations of God, or the God of all consolation?” When the aridity is prolonged, difficult, and quite severe, a guide can give them a hand, “This happens to all of us on the way. The royal road of suffering is the sure path.” Temptations against patience and chastity usually combine with this challenge.

This marks the passage from the purgative way to the illuminative way. Father Garrigou-Lagrange gives three signs:

  1. When we find no comfort in the things of God, and also none in created things.
  2. When the memory dwells ordinarily on God with a keen desire for perfection and the fear of not serving God.
  3. When meditation is not possible and one feels inclined to a simple gaze on God.

The Direction of Proficients

It should not take as long to direct advanced souls, because they know the terms of the spiritual life and can explain themselves better than beginners. The director observes the Holy Ghost working in the soul and oversees that it remains docile to His inspirations. The director helps the soul discern the spirits and also finds the dominant defect to be combated and the special attraction of grace to be followed.[4]

The soul needs to read and meditate on the Scriptures to recognize the importance of obedience. He who does not submit to obedience of superiors is called a species of idolatry: “like the crime of idolatry, to refuse to obey” (1 Kgs 15:23). Hidden pride and presumption may become the source of great illusions.[5]

A good guide is needed so the soul does not derail on his passage through the trials that lead to the unitive way. Generally, prolonged privation of sensible and spiritual consolations are difficult to navigate on one’s own, like chronic illness or living with a demanding personality. Strong temptations against faith, hope, and fraternal charity and even love of God often arise at this juncture. A director helps the soul to press forward rather than fall back at this time.

The Direction of the Perfect

God could guide all of us Himself, but to render us humble, He wills that we submit to His ministers. “St. Teresa felt the need of opening her soul completely to learned men, versed in the things of the interior life, to make certain of her docility to the Holy Ghost.”[6] Complete transparency before the director helps the directee to know when to be passive under the direction of God or when the Lord asks them to take action. Once a soul masters this, he can do wonderful things for the Kingdom of God and be open to receive great merit. The temptation is to be too active or too passive. The guide can direct the soul quickly to God by means of fidelity, abandonment, and profound humility on the royal road of suffering.

Qualities of the Director

Saint Francis de Sales lists charity, learning, and prudence to be necessary for the director. If any are missing, there is danger. He also needs to be a good psychologist, knowing the difference between spiritual sickness and physical sickness. Today, so many souls battle gut issues from pesticides and are told that they are psychologically disturbed when it is just imbalance of the endocrine glands or other physical malady. If the director cannot discern the dominant defect to be avoided and supernatural grace to follow, he must pray for light, and if he is humble, he will receive the graces of state.[7]

Duties of the Directed Soul

He ought to respect his director as the representative of God and avoid sharp criticisms and excessive familiarity. He must be docile in following counsel given; otherwise, he would follow his own will. The soul will not be mistaken in obeying wrong advice, unless he advises something contrary to faith and morals. “In that event a change of director is imperative.”[8]

Stay with the spiritual director God has given if you are being led on the narrow way which becomes broader and broader as we draw near the infinite goodness of God.

Conclusion

In a word, the purpose of spiritual direction is to lead the soul to God. The guide alerts the soul when it strays off the path. For further reading: beginners read The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life by Father Garigou-Lagrange; proficents and perfect read The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Volumes 1 & 2 by Father Garrigou-Lagrange.

[1] Epist. 87, no. 7.

[2] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, vol. 1, p. 256.

[3] According to Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, beginners have an inclination to pride, spiritual gluttony, envy, anger, and sloth.

[4] See Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, vol. 1, p. 260.

[5] See Saint John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. II, chap. 2: Certain Imperfections of Proficients.

[6] Life, chap. 13: “They who walk in the way of prayer have the greater need of learning; and the more spiritual they are, the greater is that need.”

[7] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, vol. 1, p. 262.

[8] Ibid., p. 263.

Used with permission from the author.

Father Carney was ordained for the Diocese of Wichita on May 26, 2007. After serving in the diocese for six years, he accepted the position as Chaplain of the Benedictines of May in 2013. He is a street preacher, parish missionary and retreat and conference director as well as the director of the League of St. Martin.