Good and regular spiritual direction can help us work through some of the natural and dangerous currents in the spiritual life. By trusting God to redirect us and keep us afloat, he will help us navigate back to the solid ground of God’s presence.
Remember the joke about the Exodus? “Why did Moses and the Israelites wander 40 years in the desert?” The answer: “Because men hate to ask for directions!”
As a priest, who has been involved in the ministry of spiritual direction for more than half of my 33 years as a priest, I believe that the joke is on us. Although there are many reasons why priests do not continue in spiritual direction after ordination—i.e., time and availability of spiritual directors, to name a few—I am convinced that seeking out and receiving regular, one-on- one, spiritual direction is a graced relationship, worthy of our time and trust.
I would like to begin with a personal story that can serve as a paradigm of how regular, in-person, spiritual direction can act as a relational life preserver for us who are drawn, here and there, by the demands of contemporary ministry and the challenge of relationships.
Once, while vacationing on an Island in the Atlantic, I was informed that a hurricane was on a direct path toward the island. The next morning, I decided to go to the beach early, taking in some sun and bathing in the ocean, before the storm made landfall. That decision almost cost me my life. I learned, especially, to respect riptides: a strong current, opposing other currents, running parallel to the seashore.
With the sun shining and the waves kicking up, I noticed that surfers were out, so I dove in, unconcerned for my safety, swimming about ten yards off-shore. Suddenly, I was caught up in a riptide, rapidly drawing me toward a large formation of rock jutting out from the shore. Driven by a rush of adrenaline, I panicked and began swimming for the shore with all my strength. But the tide was stronger than I was; the tide had me in its control. The fear of crashing into the rocks was overtaking me, and I prayed: “God help me. Please!” From within came a voice—a memory that I recall to this day as being firm and clear—“Go with the rip.”
I let go. I stopped swimming, letting the tide carry me closer and closer to the rocks. Ten yards from the rock formation, the riptide suddenly let me go. I was free to swim ashore.
There is a current that runs in the spiritual life of a Christian, a current below the surface of human experience which moves the heart like no other. Jesus describes this inner reality of the believer this way:
If anyone thirsts, let him come to me; let him drink who believes in me. Scripture has it: ‘From within him rivers of living water shall flow.’
The image of flowing rivers of living water within every Christian is the reality of God’s grace, active in the life of a believer. Our life is a sacramental life, a life hidden in the resurrected Jesus, from which we, as priests, live and minister to others.
I admit that the Christian spiritual life would be easier if God’s current was the only current that ran beneath the surface of our experience. Even in the early stages of our relationship with God, we were aware that there are other, and often more deceptive currents—some being like riptides—that run against the current of God’s will for us, against the flow of God’s grace.
Often, we experience these tides as emotional swells, rising up in us interiorly, frequently affecting our behavior, and drawing us away from our desired direction. Too often, it is only after we have crashed onto the rocks that we call out for help, or our lives get so unmanageable that others have to step in to help us. St. Paul summed it up this way:
I cannot even understand my own actions. I do not do what I want to do, but what I hate… Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death? (Romans 7:15, 24)
We know the answer but we can easily forget that God is with us in every situation.
Think back to the enclosed environment of seminary formation, when the seed of our call was given time to grow in the fertile and receptive ground of an open heart. It allowed us to receive more and more of that life-giving water, nourishing us, body and soul, in a heart-to-heart relationship with the God who called us.
Remember, too, that spiritual direction in the seminary was obligatory. We didn’t have a choice; it is a necessary and fundamental part of our formation, a formation that would eventually lead, hopefully, to a transformation of self, a “new self” in God.
Our regular meetings with our spiritual directors held us accountable for our personal relationships to God, how we were relating to God in prayer. It also gave us a safe space in which to open up with a trusted other, sharing the high tides and ebb tides of seminary life, sharpening our awareness of God, and our need for reconciliation. In general, spiritual direction kept us relationally afloat, attentive in prayer, and moving in the right direction.
With ordination, we experienced a dramatic change in lifestyle. The safety net of a disciplined seminary structure was gone, leaving us free to pray on our own, making our own choices for spiritual direction. For many of us, spiritual direction soon became a casualty of our lack of time; our private prayer was relegated to something we tried to fit into our busy days.
Here are a few words of wisdom from St. Teresa of Avila, on why people do not continue to grow in the spiritual life, which can be helpful here. She says that:
- Some do not want to change their lifestyle;
- Their way of relating to God has dried up;
- Some think that they have already arrived at the summit.
I confess that I’ve been guilty of all three.
- Think of how easy it is for us to be drawn into a habitual lifestyle, potentially weakening our priestly identity, leaving our spiritual life atrophied;
- Think also of the times when the well runs dry in personal prayer, leaving us with no sense of where and how to draw water from within. I remember a priest once saying in spiritual direction that his prayer was like “being at a party with a picture of the person I want to be with.” What’s going on under the surface there?
Finally, there is a subtle current of spiritual pride that can rise up in us, so much so, that we think we have already reached the summit of the spiritual life—something akin to a case of being on “spiritual steroids.”
Remember that: “He who self-directs, has a fool as a guide.” Could God be inviting us to change the way we imagine him or relate to him in prayer?
It is my contention that good and regular spiritual direction can help us work through some of these natural and dangerous currents that are active distractions in the spiritual life. Simply by trusting God to redirect us and keep us afloat, he will help us navigate back to the solid ground of God’s presence.
An example of how good one-on-one spiritual direction can help facilitate God’s saving grace is demonstrated in the following exchange between “Fr. E” and a trained spiritual director.
Fr. E., a priest for the last 14 years, came in for direction an “emotional mess.” The problem started five weeks ago, escalating steadily, creating so much internal confusion and distraction in his life that he sought spiritual direction.
Fr. E. began by saying that a young woman had a crush on him while working with him in a parish during a summer assignment before his ordination. Five weeks ago, she called to say that she was in town, and had decided to look him up, hoping they could catch-up with each other over dinner.
Instinctively, he said “yes.” When she arrived at his rectory that evening, it was obvious that the young, teenaged girl, he met fifteen years ago, was now a full-grown, attractive woman.
Fr. E. recounted the emotional confusion that occurred during dinner when he felt her leg touching his leg under the table, which he acknowledged by looking at her. Her slight, but knowing look, made it clear to him that the touch was deliberate. Later that evening, an innocent goodnight kiss on the cheek went wrong, going lip-to-lip. The next morning several long emotional phone calls drew him in, over his head. Every day, for the next five weeks, they talked on the phone. He began receiving long intimate letters, as well.
After listening to Fr. E.’s description of how he became an “emotional mess,” the director helped the upset priest return to some of those initial feelings that he had that first night. The spiritual director highlighted and underscored some of Fr. E’s interior attractions and distractions that the priest felt in this woman’s presence. The director then gave Fr. E. the time and space to name some of the feelings around those attractions and distractions. They included his fears, his feelings of being seduced, as well as both the confusion and the elation he experienced. After exploring some of his feelings with the director, Fr. E. noticed that his fear was connected to a sense that these reactions were “disrespectful” of his vocation. The director let Fr. E sit in silent awareness of this insight. Then, the director tossed the bewildered priest a “spiritual life-preserver.” The director asked Fr. E.: “What do you want in this relationship? And, how do you see God in this?”
Now, let me discuss here the four ways that spiritual direction drew Fr. E. into accountability with his true desire before God, by prayerfully discerning the spirits at work within him in regard to this relationship with the woman—some drawing him to God, others sending him to the rocks.
- The well-timed cast of the life preserver was now in front of Fr. E.: “What do you want in this relationship?” He had been invited to be drawn in peacefully, shifting his focus from this emotional riptide and confusion, towards the deeper current of his true desire before God, in a contemplative context.
- Letting go of the emotional riptide allowed Fr. E. to look at, and feel, something other than his confusion. The director had honored Fr. E.’s experience by giving the priest time and space to be drawn in spiritually, to open up interiorly, and to relive the experience; and then to get into the riptide, naming what was happening to him there.
- The direction had also focused Fr. E.’s attention on his deeper desire, inviting him look reflectively at how God was present in this experience. The invitation, asking him “How do you see God in this?” could draw Fr. E. into relational prayer, inviting God to respond. It shifted the focus from his personal desire, to receiving from God the nourishment of the Lord’s promise and desire to “let him drink who believes in me.”
- Spiritual direction helped Fr. E. to get below the surface of his every day experience in this confusing riptide of his emotions, seeking out, instead, that living water of God’s grace, bringing the priest faith and hope.
The process of spiritual direction is to trust in God: trusting that God is in the experience, and trusting that the director has the good of the one directed as his primary goal. Remember, God can get us ashore, recalling also that “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.”
Walter Hilton—an esteemed writer of devotional materials, and spiritual director during the late 14th and early 15th centuries in England—devoted a great deal of time and energy helping people interpret emotion. Regularly, Hilton would recommend that we should assume a stance of detachment in responding to emotions. Hilton was not suggesting that we be indifferent to our emotions, but that we should see them for what they are: “ever shifting materials for discernment.” (Three Spiritual Directors For Our Time, by Julia Gatta, pg. 25.)
It is good to remember that emotions are powerful, but also can be ambiguous. Self- awareness and self-knowledge play an important part in directing our emotions. However, they can also get the better of us. It is not a sign of weakness to seek another’s help in guiding one safely through the confusing ambiguous, multi-faceted reality of emotions.
“Lord, your ocean is so big and my boat, so small.”
Good spiritual direction is all about helping us discern God’s presence in our lived experience, while responding to his invitation to relational growth. When we get stuck in our emotions—both the highs and the lows—regular spiritual direction is a way of helping us stay the course of our vocational choice, making a decisions leading us to the solid ground of God’s love.
Understand that, if spiritual direction helped keep us afloat and moving in the right direction during seminary formation, we can be sure that this graced practice will also help steer us through the joys and sorrows of our ministry in this secular world of ours.
If you would like to start spiritual direction, or learn more about receiving spiritual direction, or training for its practice, go online to the website for The Institute for Priestly Formation, which offers wonderful programs and workshops on receiving, as well as giving direction, in the Catholic tradition.