Guest post by Deacon Dominic Cerrato, Ph.D.
Spiritual direction is a great way to grow closer to Jesus Christ and His Church. This is particularly true when there is a good “fit” between the director and directee. That said, simply going to spiritual direction for its own sake is not enough. Spiritual direction is not an end-in-itself, but a means to an end; intimate communion with our Lord through growth in the interior life.
To better appreciate this important distinction, consider this analogy. When we’re sick we typically visit our primary care provider to seek relief. If our provider prescribes a particular procedure, drug or therapy and if we don’t follow this counsel, we shouldn’t expect to get better. Simply put, we need to actively participate in the therapeutic process if we are to be healed.
The same is true for spiritual direction. For spiritual direction to be effective, for the directee to draw closer to Jesus, he or she must actively participate in the process. There is nothing more challenging as a spiritual director than to have a directee come to direction unprepared hoping that the director, by his intercession and counsel, will fix the problem. Authentic spiritual direction requires work on the part of the directee. This is not at all to suggest that grace is not operative. In fact, it assumes grace to be in effect such that the “work” represents the directee’s response to a divine initiative already begun in his or her life.
Here are five key ways to better prepare and participate in spiritual direction.
Approach the Session in a State of Grace Spiritual direction helps the directee to hear God more clearly and follow Him more faithfully. These essential aspects of the interior life are significantly diminished if we are not in a state of grace. The state of grace is the condition of a person who is free from mortal sin and living in an ever-deepening friendship with Jesus Christ. If the director is not a priest, then the directee should seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation prior to the session. If the director is a priest, then Reconciliation can take place during the session.
Keep a Journal or Notebook We can tend to think of our encounters with God as separate and disconnected events. Like occasionally bumping into someone we know while out shopping, the relationship lacks a sense of continuity and intimacy. Nothing is further from the truth when it comes to God. He is ever-present and always communicating His love to us. By keeping a journal or small notebook and recording these events, we begin to see that they are not fragmented messages, but parts of a larger conversation. Writing them down enables us to see patterns and these patterns can be brought into spiritual direction to discover, in a deeper sense, God’s plan for our lives.
Prioritize What You Want to Talk About Spiritual direction occurs in sessions that are, by their very nature, limited. If it has been a while between sessions, the directee may want to discuss several things. By prayerfully prioritizing the list, he or she can ensure that the most important things are addressed making the session fruitful and effective.
This prioritization can also have another effect. It can help us to distinguish the more important aspects of spiritual growth from the less important aspects. Too often we are distracted and confused by the many spiritual challenges we face. Prioritizing our talking points within the context of prayer and meditation refocuses our spiritual life so that the secondary aspects don’t diminish the primary enabling us to make real progress in the spiritual life.
Recognize that Spiritual Direction Is Not Pastoral Counseling Properly understood, the primary focus of spiritual direction is the directees’ relationship with God and concerns the promptings of the Holy Spirit. In this respect, it is aimed at the salvation of the directees’ soul through a response to our Lord’s personal initiative to follow Him. Consequently, direction always takes place within the framework of prayer and spiritual intimacy.
Pastoral Counseling, on the other hand, seeks to address, struggle through, and resolve problems in our lives and relationships within a Christian context. Where spiritual direction tends to look forward toward growth in intimacy with Jesus Christ, pastoral counseling tends to look backward toward healing past hurts. That said, both must bring the directee/client into the present.
Because the interior life must, by its very nature, express itself in the exterior life, the life of our choices and actions; spiritual direction also includes pastoral guidance. This involves sound, practical, and prudent counsel by the spiritual director to the directee regarding their choices and actions. This insures integrity and consistency between the faith we believe and the moral life we live.
While there is some overlap between spiritual direction and pastoral counseling, the focus, emphasis and gifts of the spiritual director and counselor are different and address different concerns. The person should understand these differences and not seek pastoral counseling in spiritual direction and vice versa. However, in some cases, a person may benefit from both provided they are consistent in their Christian approach as with the Pastoral Solutions Institute.
Work on the “Take Aways” Effective spiritual direction should always leave the directee with spiritual and practical “take aways.” This is to say that during the course of direction the directees discover something about their relationship with God or themselves and, through prayerful discussion with their director arrive at certain remedies. These remedies are suggestions made by the director to aid in the cultivation of the directees’ interior and moral life. In all cases, this counsel simply represents suggestions made by the director to the directee to prayerfully and prudently apply to his or her life. In the Catholic tradition, the director may never bind the directee under spiritual obedience, only offer good counsel. These “take aways” are the directees’ homework and represent the basis of conversation for the next session.
For moral information on spiritual direction or pastoral counseling, visit the Pastoral Solutions institute at https://www.catholiccounselors.com
Deacon Dominic Cerrato is the director of Pastoral Solutions Spiritual Direction Services