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What is Spiritual Direction?
by Philip St. Romain (all rights reserved)


It is helpful to have a companion with whom you can share your joys and struggles in living the Christian life. This companion may be your spouse, another family member, or a close friend.

When we speak of spiritual direction, however, we are referring to a relationship that is more specifically focused on helping you live in faith. A spiritual director listens and gives feedback about what he or she is hearing and sensing about the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life. This feedback is for your consideration only; the spiritual director is not a guru who tells you what to do.

The ideal of spiritual direction is soundly rooted in our understanding of Christian community. The Christian journey is not meant to be an individualistic, privatized spirituality. It is in community that we discover who we are and what we have to share. Spiritual direction provides an opportunity for a friendly and discerning experience of Christian community. As a community of two, you and the spiritual director attempt to discern what the Spirit is doing in your life and how you are being called to share your giftedness.

Spiritual Direction and Psychotherapy

From the foregoing, it should already be obvious that spiritual direction is fundamentally different from psychotherapy. A counselor is not concerned with your spiritual center nor with how the Holy Spirit is leading you. The goals of psychotherapy are different: they are usually to help you deal with painful emotions and to support you in making difficult choices about relationships.

A spiritual director may deal with the same issues but from a quite different perspective. Painful feelings may be discussed in terms of how they lead away from God or toward God. Difficult relationships are also reviewed to discern how God is calling us to love other people and ourselves as well.

Because spiritual direction and psychotherapy have different goals and emphases, it is possible to benefit from both at the same time. A person who is in counseling should not refrain from spiritual direction because of it. Nor should anyone choose a spiritual director over a counselor. In fact, spiritual directors who guide people away from psychotherapy are doing their directees a disservice.

It sometimes happens that a spiritual director is also a trained counselor. Even so, the director and directee need to be clear about precisely what is going on in their work together.

Finally, we note that psychotherapists generally meet with their clients once a week or more. Such frequent meetings are necessary to process the many feelings and attitudinal changes going on in the person's life. Spiritual directors, on the other hand, seldom meet with directees more than once every two weeks in the beginning of the relationship. After a while, once a month is usually sufficient.

The Agenda in Spiritual Direction

Some spiritual directors have a set agenda for time spent with their directees; most do not. You will usually be allowed to talk about anything you have on your mind. If your sharing seems to have nothing to do with living the Christian life, the director will eventually try to steer the discussion in that direction by asking how what you have shared is affecting your prayer life or your relationship with God.

Usually, the first few meetings will be spent just getting to know each other. The director will want to know all about your life. Telling your story to another in this way will help you come to know yourself better; the listening presence of the director is also a source of great healing. Because the spiritual director is not in the same role as a counselor, he or she may also choose to tell you much about his or her life and faith journey. This can help you see the director as a fellow pilgrim on the journey rather than as a guru with all the answers.

After getting to know each other, you and the director may decide on a few structured activities to work on, or you may agree to go through a book on spiritual growth together. Many directors are trained in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and use these in some manner with their directees. I like to use the Twelve Steps with people I work with. Others know a great deal about keeping a personal journal and may encourage you to keep one if you haven't already started doing so. Most directors these days also respect the fact that different human temperaments are drawn in different ways by the Spirit, so they might want to help you discover your personality type.

As you can see, many kinds of issues can be discussed in spiritual direction. Of paramount importance, however, is your life of prayer. A spiritual director is one who will hold you accountable for daily prayer. He or she will be interested in hearing what is happening during your prayer and will help you deepen your growth in prayer.

Choosing a Spiritual Director

We have already noted that a spiritual director is not a guru who will tell you what to do and what not to do. I would also like to make a distinction between a spiritual director and a sponsor in a Twelve Step program. A sponsor is one who has been in such a program for some time and can help new people learn how to recover from addictive involvements by using the Twelve Steps. This is a form of spiritual companionship, to be sure, but I recommend that your spiritual director be more than just a "big buddy" for the spiritual journey.

Ideally, your spiritual director should be a person with some formal training or experience in this area. He or she should have knowledge of the Christian mystical tradition and should be at least generally familiar with psychological development. Your director should be a person of prayer who has attended one or more eight-day silent directed retreats. Finally, he or she should also be in spiritual direction with another and should have already worked through painful issues from the past.

I consider these minimal requirements for a Christian spiritual director. Not many meet these requirements, but there are enough who do. Generally, the ministry staff at a retreat center are good resources for finding a spiritual director. Most religious communities also have a few qualified people. Diocesan priests can be found who meet the minimal requirements, and more lay people than ever are functioning effectively in this role.

If you do not already have a spiritual director and don't know whom to ask, I suggest you call your local retreat house. If you know of no such center, ask your parish priest for advice. Even after choosing someone, do not think you have to stay with that person. Agree with your director to give the relationship a trial for a while. Then, after a few sessions, evaluate whether you feel comfortable enough to continue.

Fees for Spiritual Direction

It is typical for Christians to view ministry as something they have already paid for in the Sunday collection. This holds true for many parish services, but that is the limit.

Spiritual direction is really a professional service; therefore, be prepared to offer compensation to your director&emdash;especially if he or she is not an employee of the parish to which you tithe. Typically, the director will suggest that you make a donation to his or her retreat center or religious community. Some directors are self-employed; in this case, your compensation would be given directly to the individual.

Seldom does a director have a set fee such as psychotherapists do, and you would probably never be refused for nonpayment. Nevertheless, I recommend a minimum donation of $35.00 per session. If this is more than you can afford, give what you can-even if it is a batch of cookies or a handwritten thank you note. You will feel better for giving something in return for this service, and your director will appreciate it, too.

Originally published in Handbook for Spiritual Growth, by Philip St. Romain, D. Min. Liguori Publ., 1995.