What is Spiritual Direction?

Many people wrote, emailed, or messaged me wanting to find a spiritual director. They had read some writings by the saints or spiritual masters who told them the best way to grow in their spiritual life is to find a director who can guide them. Those suggestions are good and true, but it is crucial to discern whether the person is spiritually ready for spiritual direction or they are only seeking some short-term pieces of advice and guidance. As a priest and an avid spiritual director, I would like to share with you seven introductory thoughts and pointers on spiritual direction — what it is and what it is not. I am not claiming to be an expert but I would like like to share with you some personal directives before you or someone you know want to begin the process of trying to find one right away.

 

  • Spiritual direction is not for seeking a solution or answer.

Just as one cannot expect full healing and rehabilitation when one is in a triage, one cannot expect to come to spiritual direction seeking an immediate answer and solution. Too many people are looking for ways to seek immediate remediation for their problems when coming to a priest or someone they trust for help. Just like the emergency room’s triage treatments are only meant to stop the trauma and somewhat normalize the situation, one cannot expect to come to God to seek immediate satisfaction as to go back to normalcy right away. For every encounter, situation, or hurt, our soul needs time to make sense, be healed and transformed with time and patience. We are not machines that can just be programmed and pushed back into normal operation in a short time, it takes time to get the appropriate holistic and integral rehabilitation and reformation of the heart and soul. The life of faith and its formation (and restoration) needs time in order to unpeel, understand, and reform to what is originally meant to be. Therefore, before one is contemplating the possibility of a long-term reformation and rehabilitation of the soul through spiritual direction, one needs to build up spiritual and prayerful endurance with times to pray, reflect, and discern the will of God throughout the day and regularly as a seeker of His divine presence in one’s life. Before the integral stretching of one’s heart and deepening of one’s soul through spiritual direction, one needs to personally seek and dispose of one’s self for the personal, intimate, and transcendental journey to come. Good spiritual habits are necessary to habituate and prepare the soul for the spiritual life and its lessons.

  • Not everyone who wants spiritual direction is ready for it.

Spiritual direction is hard because it requires one to be honest, genuine, and vulnerable in looking at one’s self, with all one’s blessings and challenges, past hurts and their origins, current situations and what is really going on in life, future hopes and plans in light of God’s love and will for us. The process is hard because it requires a lot of self-reflection and genuine honesty to look at one’s self as it is instead of what one wants to be or hide behind a persona. We had all done it in one way or another, in one stage or another in our own life. It is hard, and many times, very emotional, to love, accept, and see ourselves as we are instead of the persona or things we had learned to create for ourselves in order to be someone or to cope with life. It is hard because sometimes looking back and seeing ourselves as we are and to embrace ourselves in its imperfections, brokenness, and challenges really hurt. As a matter of fact, it has always been hard for us as human beings to love ourselves as we are! One has to be ready to be opened — or at least willing — to look deep from within. Healing comes holistically by finding one’s self from the past, in light of the present, and full of hope for the future with all its baggage and opportunities for redemption, reconciliation, and transformation. All of these sound good for one who is simply reading, but it is hard for the one who truly embarks on a spiritual healing and rehabilitation journey. Not everyone is ready.

  • The spiritual director is not there to tell you what to do but to discern with you what God is trying to invite, teach, or say to you at this moment.

In a world of many self-help books and professional services, mixed with a consumeristic way of life, immediate gratification, and the likes, it is hard for one to be patient in the spiritual direction process. Many want to come to spiritual direction like going to the doctor’s office or emergency clinic, expecting to receive a “magic pill” or immediate treatment so they can be normal again. Too many people only like to receive a (temporary) medicative solution instead of recognizing the problem and look at ways to change the present lifestyle. Yet, spiritual direction holistically try to look at what is going on in order to find the appropriate means through careful and prayerful discernment. Too many people treat God and spiritual matters like a Buddha to be rubbed, a fortune cookie to be broken, a quick fix, or something that can be attained and achieved with minimal efforts or investments. We are used to having things our ways or do something objectively to get the result that we want. Yet, real spiritual direction is not any of those. It is a respectful, timely, prayerful, and spiritual journey that needs time to understand, unpeel the layers, get to know one another (director-directee), trust, learn, and willing to let God lead beyond our natural, projected, and humanistic expectations. The director has to be very careful in making sure that he or she is not opening something that the directee is not ready to receive, else it would do more harm to the person than helping him or her. That, hence, creates a lot of frustrations for the directee because he or she likes to have things given and told right away. It is not the place of the director to tell you what to do, unless it outright wrong or endangering your soul and faith journey. It is his or her mission to guide you to pray, listen, and discern God’s will as you are able. This holistic learning process is personal and intimate so it takes time to learn (and re-learn) as life gives us.

  • Spiritual direction is long-term and takes a lot of efforts.

Since the human person is complex and unique, the spiritual director is there to help the person to see another perspective, to embrace a bigger picture or horizon, to hold the reflecting mirror so the person can see him or herself as he or she is, and to find the proper thing to advise as the person is able to accept and embrace at the time. The answer that one would like to hear is not always the thing that one is ready to hear just yet. It is important that the spiritual director gauges, understands, prays, reflects, and discerns what is important and proper to say to the directee at the time. It is also crucial for the director to learn to be patient and trust in the Lord so He can work in His own time instead of trying to push a particular timing or agenda. As I have said earlier, not all are ready as they think they are, so it is important to gauge the aptitude and discern when is the right time, else a rush could cause and opens something hurtful or dangerous to a person’s spiritual life and dampened his or her spirit. Many times, it takes a very long time to overcome an obstacle, to understand what is going on, or to embrace a particular stage of life. The two greatest virtues for both director and directee to put into practice are prudence and trust, allowing God to guide and work things out in His own timing — and we trustingly follow.

  • One who seeks spiritual direction needs to be honest, genuine, and able to be vulnerable with themselves, with God, and their spiritual director.

I had seen people coming into sessions trying to find something to talk about or trying too hard to impress the spiritual director. That is not how it is supposed to be! Sometimes people treat spiritual direction like a therapy or counseling session where one has to find something positive, negative, or enlightening to say. That is not the purpose! Sometimes people talk round and about with unrelated matters as if to show that they got things handled and are fine. It can be frustrating for both sides when the director tries to lead and guide the person to reflect on the deeper levels, but he or she ignores or changes the subject because it is something they do not want to deal with. That is not what spiritual direction is meant to be, and many times, just wasting time! One has to be honest enough to talk about what is really hurting, moving, or challenging him or her. It is important to be genuine in being one’s self instead of simply trying to “play the game” in order to get the time over with or to find something to talk about. Spiritual direction cannot be effective if one is not willing to be vulnerable as to peel back the cordial, effective, or human layers of protection and its persona in order to truly be real with the director, with him or herself, and with God. Just like a physician cannot truly help someone who does think that he or she has a problem or only are forced to come in, a director cannot initiate something meaningful for the person to seek true understanding and discernment if one only likes to remain casual. In spiritual direction, the directee is the one that has to be humble, willing, and desiring to receive the grace given beyond what can be controlled or comprehended by human calculations, understanding, or reservations.

  • The process is organic and holistic for we are complex human beings with many layers.

It takes time to build up the trust between director and directee. It is important to come into spiritual direction with an open heart, humble spirit, and genuine desire to receive divine assistance. One has to recognize that he or she is not in control but can only dispose of one’s self to be honest and genuine, as well as the humility to receive and embrace what is by God. Without humility and willingness to receive, one’s heart and soul will not be big enough to embrace the magnificent and healing grace of God. The amount of grace can be received depends on how much one is willing to be honest and humble to receive. It is important to remember that God gives to each person differently and appropriately, so it is proper not to be demanding and getting frustrated with what could have been, should have been, or would have been for us. God gives, we give thanks. If God does not give as we hope, we trust in knowing that His gift is appropriate at this time and that His love is enough for us. The end goal of spiritual direction is not to be able to get what we wanted or hoped for but to be content, abide, and trust in the essential and life-giving relationship that the Lord has and willed for us. In order for that to happen, we have to peel off all the things that we had built for ourselves in order to see ourselves as we truly are deep from within. It then leads to the healing and cathartic step of loving one’s self in all its brokenness and imperfections as God loves us. The journey will lead us to, then, better discern, reflect, and pray about what is going on in our own lives as to live a childlike faith that trusts and loves instead of being childish with demanding or selfish expectations.

  • Humility, perseverance, and courage (with proper discernment of time and patience) are three important foundations as one grows and faces the different struggles and stages of life.

This is important to remember, and I will say it again, that we have to be humble in order to embrace what God has given us, else the Devil and his minions will come in to stir up our self-centered worries and agitate us, which leads us to doubt, question, resent against His loving goodness. As we grow and journey in our everyday life, we will find that things are not and should not be constantly all-amazing or earth-shattering. Euphoric joy and happiness are not meant for the long run, it is actually the gift of contentment as to seek the divine in the present moment, to love Him with extraordinary love in the midst of many ordinary matters, all done with loving perseverance and faithfulness. We learn as we mature spiritually not to seek the appealing, temporary hypes or highs but to simply dwell in God’s most simple way of showing you and I that He loves us. Of course, this world is always trying its best to distract, makes us worry, plants distrust, division, and doubt in our mind as to get us away from God’s real love and His goodness. That is why, through mature and prayerful discernment (learned through trials and errors), we learn to fight the spiritual battle against the different forces and spirits well with the courage found in the Lord and His faithful love. Hence, the ultimate goal of the spiritual life is knowing who we really are and Who really loves us and wills our good so that when we are lost, we learn to be honest, prayerfully recognize, humbly discern, and courageously return to the One who nourishes us.

 

I hope my limited knowledge and sharing of what spiritual direction is and what it is not was able to help you discern and see when would be the right time to begin the journey. I am just speaking about things generally so please do not make a blanketed assumption. Real and personal details are to be determined and discerned with your spiritual director! No matter what you decide, it is always important to begin some types of spiritual formation and habit-forming practices as to prepare and stretch your soul for greater attentiveness and to be in tune with what God has to say and what He is doing in your life. Even if you are unable to begin spiritual direction right now, you can always learn and have the saints as your spiritual guides by reading their writings, learning from their examples, and put into practices their particular paths of love for Christ and our neighbors.

We can all begin with prayer. We are all called to pray! Therefore, do not be afraid to take the time to silent yourselves, open your hearts up to God, lift up your souls, and listen to what He has to say. Little by little, we can all learn to be more apt, prepared, disposed, and ready to receive greater things from the Lord. Just like athletes who have to prepare, challenge, stretch, and push themselves each day for the end goal, we have to do the same spiritually by fortifying, deepening, and expanding our souls as to receive what God has prepared for us in grace.

We all begin small, but with perseverance, courage, and humility — as well as time and patience, God is able to bring into fulfillment what He has begun in us if we trust in Him. We will definitely go through many blessings and struggles, trials and hardships as well as moments of loving grace, but God is always with us. Just as we need to train ourselves physically to tone and strengthen our muscles, our soul and its spirit have to be holistically exercised in conjunction with our humanity in order to truly mature and be rounded with what God wants us to be. We have to be willing, yet patient, as to activate the gifts and understand the lessons that God has for us at each stage of the journey as to overcome the obstacles that are present or had presented themselves to us.

Whatever your spiritual journey might be, I wish you well and pray that you will spend the time to properly discern, understand, and put into practice God’s will in your life. It is always important to practice the necessary spiritual exercises that nourish and strengthen our souls against the temptations of the Devil and of this world as we persevere and fight the battle well. I would like to end this little guide with Saint Ignatius of Loyola‘s own words and his personal prayer from The Spiritual Exercises:

“Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. Take my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. Whatsoever I have or hold, You have given me; I give it all back to You and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will. Give me only your love and your grace, and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.”

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