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An Introductory Course in Christian Spirituality

Spiritual Direction as a Tool for Discernment
What is spirituality?
Christian Spirituality...
What are spiritual disciplines?
Contemplative disciplines
Reflection and Discernment
Prayer and Worship
Moral Action
Course Instructor

Spiritual Direction


I don’t do well driving in strange cities. Not long ago my family and I spent several hours driving around the Washington, DC and Silver Springs, MD area trying to find the home of my wife’s cousin. We would get thoroughly lost and then stop at a gas station and ask for directions. The directions were helpful but didn’t relieve me of trying to apply them as we searched for certain streets and tried to make the appropriate turns. We got lost several times more and each time stopped again to ask for directions. Eventually, we made it to our goal.


Spiritual direction is something like the process described above. It is a resource to help us on our spiritual journey. It is a long term spiritual relationship that is meant to provide companionship, accountability and guidance on one’s life journey to the Kingdom. Its focus is on the on-going conversion of the directees. It helps the directee to discern the signs of his or her vocation, to place him or herself in an attitude of ongoing conversion, to bring to maturity in the person traits proper to Christian spirituality and to nurture a balanced synthesis of state in life, profession and Christian faith.


The spiritual director is not meant to be primarily a teacher or therapist. Yet, at times the director may teach certain skills to the directee. The director may ask the directee questions similar to those asked by a therapist. However, the goal is different than the goal of a teacher or therapist. The goal of the spiritual director is to encourage spiritual growth and transformation. To do this it may be necessary to teach the directee skills of reflection or contemplative prayer. It may be necessary to have the directee read spiritual classics and to discuss the implications of those classics for the directee. It may be necessary to ask probing questions to help the directee effectively reflect upon his or her life experience and its impact on the spiritual journey being made. Further, while the therapist may see pain as something to relieve a person of as soon as possible, the spiritual director may see the pain as a means to greater spiritual growth by working through it rather than masking it with medication.


Not long ago I surveyed a fair number of Catholic deacons about their experience of spiritual direction, among other topics. Most of the deacons found that spiritual direction was a good reality check for them. They could discuss what was going on in their life with their spiritual director, especially their relationship with the Lord, and get good feedback. They also felt that spiritual direction was a good source of encouragement as they faced the challenges of their ministry. Others reported that spiritual direction helped them to understand themselves and their relationships with God and others much better.


For anyone serious about spiritual growth a spiritual director is important. Much of the spiritual journey is counter cultural; relying just upon books and the assumptions common to our society is not always wise or effective. Further, we are often in denial and blind to our own needs and faults. The objective perspective of a spiritual director often provides insight that we would never have come to without the prodding and questioning of a spiritual director.


The specific approach to spiritual direction usually reflects the personality of the director and directee, the training of the director and the needs of the directee. Always the ultimate focus is the directee’s relationship with God and its development. Some directors focus on the prayer life of the directee as the key factor to understand and dwell upon. Others take a more holistic view encompassing the range of characteristics of the spiritual life. Both approaches are valid and have a long history.


So, how does one go about finding a spiritual director? Spiritual direction is a gift given to some people and not to others.  A spiritual director can be anyone; a lay person, religious, or cleric. Ideally, the person exhibits this gift in his or her interaction with others and people are drawn to the person. Almost all clergy and religious have some formation in Christian spirituality. The amount and quality of formation depends on their interests, related ministry, and additional formal training. All clergy and religious should be capable of problem focused pastoral counseling; as clergy and religious are often approached with problems to be listened to and assisted with. Individuals may or may not be comfortable with or skilled enough for spiritual direction even though hold an office in the Church.


So, start with your parish. If you are seeking a spiritual director, check with your pastor. If he is uncomfortable in being your spiritual director, look for other clergy or religious associated with the parish with whom you would be comfortable and who would be willing to mentor you. Retreat houses often have staff who are willing to serve as spiritual directors or know people in the diocese who serve in this ministry. Also some retreat houses and Houses of Prayer offer group spiritual direction, which draws upon peer group interaction as a form of spiritual dirction.


Third Order groups, Lay Contemplative Associates, and other pious associations relating to prayer and Christian spirituality often provide some form of individual or group spiritual direction to their members. These groups are frequently affiliated with major religious orders (Benedictine, Franciscan or Jesuit) and influences by these religious traditions. Even individuals with a natural talent and trained in spiritual direction are available in many dioceses. If you are not sure how to contact a spiritual director in your diocese, ask your pastor. The chancery office probably has a list as well.


What are the qualifications for a spiritual director? First of all, the person must have the spiritual gift of spiritual direction. He or she should have also had enough life experience and be sufficiently mature to take on this ministry. After all, you can not give what you do not have. Formal training in spiritual direction and theology is extremely helpful. A number of institutes offer such training and certification. Training can also be obtained through related degree work and practical ministry in the field. In choosing a spiritual director it is best to look for one who has formal training—either in a degree program or in a certification program. One hopes that he or she also has the gift for this ministry.


Normally, you will approach a person you wish to have as a spiritual director and ask if he or she is willing or able to serve in this role. If there is a positive response, an initial meeting is usually scheduled to get a sense of what the directee wants out of the relationship and what the director is willing and able to provide. It is also an opportunity to see how they interact and if both would be comfortable with the relationship. If they are agreeable then a time will be set for beginning regular meetings for spiritual direction. This initial interaction involves no commitments on the part of anyone.


Is there cost involved? This really depends on the spiritual director. He or she will let the potential directee know about any cost during the first meeting. Some spiritual directors are clergy or religious and derive the greater part of their financial support from another ministry. They do not expect any income from spiritual direction. Others depend on a variety of income sources, including the time they devote to spiritual direction. Even in these cases the cost is not outrageous. Just be sure to discuss this aspect of the relationship during the first meeting


Reference Materials:


Allen, Joseph. Inner Way: Eastern Christian Spiritual Direction. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

Barry, William, and William Connolly. The Practice of Spiritual Direction. New York: The Seabury Press, 1983.

Dougherty, Rose Mary. Group Spiritual Direction: Community for Discernment. New York: Paulist Press, 1995.


Edwards, Tilden. Spiritual Friend: Reclaiming the Gift of Spiritual Direction. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.


May, Gerald G. Care of Mind Care of Spirit: A Psychiatrist Explores Spiritual Direction. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

Care of Mind/Care of Spirit
Gerald G. May

Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction
Margaret Guenther

The Practice of Spiritual Direction
William A. Barry

Inner Way: Eastern Christian Spiritual Direction
Joseph J. Allen

The Pastor As Spiritual Guide
Howard L. Rice

Group Spiritual Direction: Community for Discernment
Rose Mary Dougherty

The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction
Eugene H. Peterson

Spiritual Mentoring: A Guide for Seeking and Giving Direction
Randy D. Reese

Click here to visit Along the Way, a site of reflections, homilies and stories by the author of this website.

(c)2005. Richard Shewman. All rights reserved. The contents of this website are the intellectual property of the author and may not be reproduced, aside from fair personal use for the purpose of individual study, without the written permission of the author. includes ads on the top of each page as a way to keep expenses down the cost of websits. Most of the time the ads are appropriate to the content of the website, sometimes not. Please be informed that I have no control over the banner ads and that I do not endorse any particular products mentioned there. However, any of the links to placed in the content of the pages are for books with which I am familiar and which I recommend to the reader.