What is Spiritual Direction?
Spiritual Direction: A Hunger to Know God
The journey to God is not meant to be a solitary journey. As we walk this earthly path we walk in communion with others. Often God’s desires for us are made known through the wise guidance, support, and loving challenge of another person. Every faith tradition in the world has seeker-guide relationships. Jesus, who drew people into relationship, walked with them, and illuminated their lives with the startling truth of His Father’s Kingdom, is the template for all spiritual directors in the Christian tradition. This resource guide has been designed to help you to understand the nature of spiritual direction and to give you some practical tools to help you to get started in your search for a director.
What is Spiritual Direction?
Spiritual direction is meeting with a trained and experienced director to reflect on how God is present and active in your life right now, and how God might be calling you into deeper relationship. God is the Director; the human director serves as the vessel through which the Spirit works to uncover and discover the Divine at work in your everyday experiences. The content of the direction session is simply your life: whatever aspect, story, or experience you feel moved to bring to prayer and reflection. You the seeker, your director, and the Holy Spirit meet in holy conversation so “you may have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
Above all, your spiritual director listens and helps you to come clear about the hints and guesses, the invitations, and the “nudgings” of the Spirit in your life. He/she helps you to be aware, to notice, to “wake up” to the spiritual relationship you have with God. Your director may help you with discernment, spiritual practices, methods of prayer, and at times suggest scripture and other spiritual reading that may enlighten your path. He/she is present as a compassionate, and respectful witness to the joys and sorrows of your journey. Together you pray for that “closer walk” with God. Prayer is part of your session and your director continues to hold you in prayer between sessions.
What Spiritual Direction is Not
Spiritual direction is not psychotherapy, counseling, or any other type of therapy. It is not
a dependent relationship in which your director holds all the wisdom and answers to your
problems. Your director does not “tell you what to do”, but rather helps you to discern
what God may be calling you to be or to do. God is already at work in your life. You
come to your session ready to be still, and together with your director, in the presence of
the Holy Spirit, to listen to the truths of your story as God reveals God’s self through the
everyday happenings of your life.
Who Are Spiritual Directors?
Spiritual directors have been called to their ministry. There is a yearning for “connectedness” in this human life. God calls us through interaction with other persons. We are meant to tell our stories. To do that, we often need someone with the gifts and wisdom to listen and to hear the holy truth underneath our story line. A spiritual director is first and foremost called, and gifted, and then seeks the training, knowledge, and skills to wholeheartedly respond to God’s prompting to be the vessel through which God’s Spirit can work.
Sometimes other names are used for a spiritual director such as guide, companion, or mentor. The director is not a guru, but rather a seeker him/her self who has, as Marjorie Thompson says, “traveled some distance along the path of the Christian life.” Your director also meets on a regular basis with a spiritual director and so on, as we disciples listen and pray each other into our divine potential.
Spiritual directors may be lay persons, clergy, or members of a religious community. They can be male or female, married, or single, of any religious denomination. The directors listed in this resource are all Roman Catholic. Qualities most evident in good spiritual directors are listening skills, compassion, the ability to both challenge and encourage, a knowledge of today’s Church as well as a solid grounding in the tradition of the faith, especially sacred scripture, and an ability to integrate it with everyday life. Seekers look for a trustworthy companion with a mature faith who is also on the journey, yearning for God, always growing and learning. Spiritual directors keep strict confidentiality. This is vital as it enables you to share openly what is on your mind and in your heart.
Most spiritual directors belong to peer supervision groups with whom they meet on a regular basis. The purpose of these groups is to provide the members support and feedback regarding their work as spiritual directors and to hold them accountable in their ministry. These meetings are conducted in a prayerful atmosphere, with attentive listening for the promptings of the Spirit. The focus of the sessions is the growth of the directors. Spiritual directors generally engage in on-going formation and enrichments that keep them growing in their ministry.
Be aware that spiritual directors have different “styles”, most often based on their formation and experiences in ministry. Some directors use the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius or adaptations of Ignatian spirituality. Some are specially trained to minister to persons in recovery. Certain institutions such as the Shalem Program in Spiritual Guidance or the Racine Dominican Spiritual Guidance Training Program form their graduates in a distinct approach to direction.
What is Expected of Me Between Sessions?
Directees often express a desire for guidance in their spiritual practices or their use of scripture or other spiritual reading. If you and your director surface some practices or readings that you might like to try, your guide will be checking with you to see how those practices are coming along. It is expected that the seeker will prepare for the upcoming session with some reflection. Reviewing one’s journal if applicable, or simply a quiet time of reviewing the past month is helpful preparation for the session.
What Happens in a Spiritual Direction Session?
A spiritual direction session typically lasts one hour and is held in a space prepared by the director, perhaps at his/her office, or at a retreat center, or the provincial house of a religious order. The space prepared is a place of quiet and prayer, set apart from the busyness of daily life. The seeker enters a safe and caring environment in which the sharing is confidential.
The session begins with a quieting of some sort as both seeker and director enter into the sacred time and space. Perhaps a candle is lit, a chime sounded, silence is held, spontaneous or other prayer is voiced. The seeker always determines the content of the session as he/she responds to an opening query from the director such as, “How has your month been?” or “How has God been working in your life these last weeks?” or “How would you like to begin?”
As the session unfolds, the seeker brings his/her lived experience into the light of prayerful reflection. The director listens, witnesses, and helps to clarify, at times challenges, and draws out the “God thread” in the seeker’s story. The director may pose questions such as:
- How were you called to trust God in this experience?
- How is your heart? What lies heavy on your heart? Is your heart opening? What is restricting your heart?
- What do you desire? For what do you yearn?
- What does this have to say to you about God? What does God have to say to you about this?
- Is God nudging you to some action in your life? Is God asking you to wait?
- For what are you most grateful? Least grateful?
- What are your hopes and dreams for tomorrow?
- How would you like me to pray for you this month?
As the session draws to a close, the director may summarize what he/she has heard in your story or may emphasize an insight the Spirit has brought forth in the session. He/she may recommend prayer forms, scripture, spiritual reading, or spiritual practices for the next month. Perhaps the director will share a poem or prayer with you to end the session. You, your director, and the Holy Spirit may sit in silence for a few moments before leaving.
What are some practical details about Spiritual Direction?
Seekers and their directors have a committed relationship and so punctuality and respect for each other’s time is a given. Life being what it is, sometimes appointments have to be rearranged. Advance notice is always appreciated. Most sessions last for one hour and often your director will have another seeker scheduled shortly after your hour ends.
Keeping the time frame can be challenging (the richness of our spiritual journeys overruns the cup and so we may be tempted to go on past the appointed time), but the time frame needs to be held as closely as possible. Sessions are generally scheduled every four to six weeks. If it seems there is too much that needs saying in one hour, sometimes a session every two weeks is appropriate. Some seekers might desire more frequent sessions during a period when life is especially tumultuous. For some seekers every other month works best. These arrangements can be discussed with your director during your initial conversation and adjusted as needed throughout the relationship.
Most directors charge a fee. Some have a fee range and you choose what is best for you within that range. Here in Southeastern Wisconsin expect to pay a fee in the $30 to $55 range for a one hour session. It is helpful if you have the fee prepared ahead, i.e. the cash ready or the check made out. Some directors do not charge a fee for the first “come and see” session. Often there is a reduced fee for students or retired persons. Financial concerns can usually be worked out. Generally a person would not be turned away because of inability to pay.
The decision to enter the relationship must be done prayerfully and must be a “good fit” for both seeker and director. Some directors ask that once you have entered into the spiritual guidance relationship, you commit to it for a period of four to six months in order to give it an adequate chance to develop. Other directors ask each time, “Would you like to schedule another appointment?” The decision by either party to withdraw from the relationship is to be respected by both persons.
How Do I Start My Search for a Spiritual Director?
This resource includes a directory of spiritual directors that have indicated they are open to take new directees. They are all qualified, Roman Catholic, trained, and experienced directors. The group includes both male and female, lay, clergy, and religious individuals.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee provides this directory to assist you in seeking a spiritual director. The inclusion of a spiritual director in this directory does not imply approval or endorsement on the part of the Archdiocese. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is not responsible for these people in anyway or for any claims that may arise as a result of the use of the information provided. Rather, the Archdiocese recognizes that these people are Catholics who have received training or have experience in the area of spiritual direction. You are urged to inquire into the qualifications of any potential spiritual director.
This directory is provided as a tool. It does not include all the spiritual directors in the archdiocese.
In addition to using this directory, you may wish to ask your pastor, parish staff, or other people who have spiritual directors who they might recommend. It is suggested that you compile a list of several names and then ask yourself some preliminary questions:
Does it matter to me if my director is a male or female? Lay, clergy, or religious? Married or single?
Would I like a director who is older than me?
Would I like a director whose primary work is professional ministry?
How far would I be willing to travel to meet with my director?
Are there any other preferences that I need to attend to?
Once you have reflected on these questions and compared your answers to your list of potential directors, you will start to narrow the selection down to three or four individuals that seem most promising. You are ready to make your personal inquiries. We recommend that you do these by phone or in person rather than by e-mail or letter. One thing to notice in the initial conversation is how comfortable you are expressing yourself to this individual, and how he/she listens and engages your questions.
There is an inquiry sheet included in this resource guide. It is designed for you to use as you make your inquiry. Notice that it covers areas such as background, training, experience, style, fees, etc. You can frame these questions in your own words; perhaps there are other questions you would like to ask as well.
Once you have made your personal inquiries, it is time to consult the Holy Spirit. Take these individuals to prayer for a few days and ask for divine guidance in selecting the spiritual director who would be right for you at this time. Trust the Spirit’s promptings and then make your follow-up phone call to set up your first appointment.
Part of the first session is usually an introductory time in which the director may explain some general information and also ask you for a brief summary of your spiritual journey to date. There is usually some time left to begin to look at God’s present workings in your life. Some spiritual directors consider the first session as an introduction only and ask you to pray and discern more before you call for a follow-up appointment.
How Do I End a Commitment with a Spiritual Director?
Not all seekers and directors are a good fit for each other. Experienced, qualified directors are very aware of this. It is always best for both parties to be honest when one or the other senses the relationship is not life-giving or has come to a natural end because of human limitation or life changes. The seeker/guide relationship is grounded in mutual respect and so the “ending conversation” usually turns out to be a graced time that is not as difficult as one might anticipate. There is something to be grateful for in every relationship whether it has lasted a short or a long time. An individual may need different directors for different stretches of the journey. Professional spiritual directors are attuned to that reality and so ending the relationship is not taken as a personal critique.