There are a few mailbag questions that keep popping up again and again, but this is the one I get the most frequently. I reply privately to many mailbag questions, but I think it’s time to put this answer here on the blog, in case it would be of interest to anyone else.
Spiritual direction is getting good advice from a Catholic you trust. Period. Spiritual direction can be given by a priest, a member of a religious community, or a lay person. It can be used to help a person discern a vocation to religious life, but it can also be used by married or single people who want to grow in their faith and make good decisions in their personal and professional lives.
In many ways spiritual direction, especially when given by a priest, is like an extension of the counseling a penitent receives during the sacrament of penance, but without the line of people waiting outside the door for their turn.
I have had different types of spiritual directors, and they’ve been good in different ways. I’ve seen a couple of different priests, I’m seeing a priest now, but I have also met with a mother of nine. She was really helpful with family stuff, but I have ended up preferring a priest in general. A bonus of seeing a priest is that I can have confession alongside spiritual direction. But anyone whose opinion you trust and respect can be your spiritual director. The person doesn’t have to have taken vows. Of course, you want to be careful to find someone who is going to give you advice that’s both practical to your state in life AND faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church. That’s not always a given, no matter where you’re looking.
A quick, insider way to know if a particular priest is going to be a good spiritual director is to look at how often he offers confession in his parish. You want to find someone who has a love for and devotion to ALL the sacraments, including confession. And time spent hearing confessions and giving advice to penitents, usually makes for excellent spiritual direction.
If you’re wondering where to start your search for a spiritual director, the best spiritual direction I’ve found personally has come through Opus Dei. Spiritual direction is a focus of their organization. Sometimes Opus Dei can be hard to track down. Not because it’s secretive, but because it’s all organized very locally, so it’s not like trying to find a fabric store, it’s like trying to find a sewing circle. You kind of have to talk to people. If you email me with your location, I can see if I can help. The Ignatian order also has a great devotion to providing spiritual direction. But again, it can be any trusted priest, member of a religious community, or lay person.
St. John Paul II’s first spiritual director was the town tailor. Not because he was a tailor, of course, but because he was a holy man, living out his faith. A good, knowledgeable Catholic, can help you become a good, knowledgeable Catholic. And can give you support and accountability.
Anyway, if you already have someone in mind, whether it’s a priest or just another Catholic mom whose family and spiritual life you admire, then just ask. You can just say you were wondering if he or she would be available to meet once or twice a month and be your spiritual director, to help guide you in your formation and help you make good decisions. If you meet with a priest, it would usually be in a church or other non-secluded place, often even in a confessional. If you meet with a lay woman, it could be anywhere. You can meet for lunch or coffee or, if you’ve got kids, at a playground.
I’d recommend that you read Introduction to the Devout Life, if you’re looking for good spiritual direction advice. At each meeting, you probably want to come prepared to discuss three topics, like “making time for prayer,” “not yelling so much,” “relationship with brother,” or whatever, then you just talk about them. Hopefully she (or he) would be able to give you some ideas of small things to work on until the next meeting, but you are not bound to obedience to your spiritual director unless you specifically take a vow of obedience to him/her. I’ve never done that.
It’s worked well for me to have a set date, like every third Thursday at 7pm at the coffee shop. If I have to call to set up a date every time, meetings end up few and far between.
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