I’m a member of a large Blessed is She regional Facebook group. Questions related to spiritual direction often arise there. Women ask about how to find a director, seek recommendations for a director in their area, ask whether it’s proper to pay a director, and even ask what spiritual direction is in the first place.
While I am certainly not an expert, I can attest to spiritual direction's helpfulness. I feel I can offer insight for those who might want to explore it for themselves!
What is Spiritual Direction?
Spiritual direction is the process of working with a guide to help you in your pursuit of holiness. A spiritual director does just that. He or she directs you, sometimes over a short period of time (like at a retreat) and sometimes long-term.
Getting guidance at retreats is good, but having a long-term spiritual director who knows your interior life and your spiritual goals is even better. St. Francis de Sales puts it simply in his classic An Introduction to the Devout Life:
Do you seriously wish to travel the road to devotion? If so, look for a good man to guide and lead you.
This guide need not be a man, but priests certainly come to mind as apt spiritual directors. Many active and some contemplative religious sisters can also be directors. There are also institutes dedicated to forming lay people in the art of spiritual direction.
A spiritual direction session can cover any number of things: your prayer life, movements of consolation and desolation, spiritual joys and difficulties. All this, of course, requires a great deal of trust, humility, and honesty, which can be scary! But if you’re serious about holiness, finding a spiritual director is a great step to take.
How Do I Find a Spiritual Director?
Beg God to give you a spiritual director. That doesn’t mean you should sit around and wait for Him to drop one into your life, of course. But ask God to guide your search. He’ll give you the director He wants for you in time.
Beware of faulty spirituality.
Reading “Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age’” might help you make sense of new-age spirituality and why it’s problematic. The Catholic Church has all the wisdom a soul could need. But some spiritual directors turn to teachings and practices from other religions and even discard Catholic wisdom, which can be dangerous. I would advise everyone to stay away from such directors.
Start with who you know.
If you like your parish priests or know other priests in your area, consider asking one of them to be your director. Or, if you know any faithful religious sisters in your area, they might be able to help, too. Not all are trained and feel competent in spiritual direction, but it can’t hurt to ask. Having a pre-existing relationship with someone before asking them to be your spiritual director is helpful, but it’s not necessary.
If your priest is unable to offer spiritual direction, ask him who he knows. That’s how I found my director. Since I work for a parish pastor I knew it probably wouldn’t be wise to ask him to be my director, but he gave me the names of a few priests that matched my criteria (thoroughly orthodox and experienced in spiritual direction). I emailed one of them to arrange a meeting, and I’ve been seeing him ever since. Or, if you have friends in your area who have a director, ask them about their experience with that director and reach out to him/her yourself!
Search the web.
Some diocesan websites list directors within the diocese. If your city has a Catholic university or a public university with a Catholic student center, its website might list people who are able to give spiritual direction to students (and therefore, depending on their schedules, those outside the university, too).
Meeting with Your Spiritual Director
When meeting with a potential director for the first time or two, don't be afraid to ask questions of them and their experience. This can help weed out directors who might give you less-than-orthodox spiritual guidance.
Ask them, in person or via email, about their own prayer life or about their favorite devotions. If they are a lay person, ask them where their training came from and do your research on the place that formed them.
Ask how long they’ve been directing people.
A former mentor of mine said that one good question to ask is about their relationship with Mary. If they express that they don't really care about Mary or if they find her unimportant, or if they offer an opinion of her that’s clearly out of line with Catholic thought, run away!
What if We Don't Click?
If you feel a director isn't right for you, it's okay to look for another. I think orthodoxy should be the top consideration when looking for a director. But sometimes a director's personality or style just doesn't work with yours, and that's fine. Don't be afraid to be choosy if the first director you see doesn't work for you. Finding a spiritual director is like finding a therapist or a doctor. You want one who knows what they’re doing and who you’re comfortable with!
That said, be aware of the growing pains that can come with having a new director. Bearing your soul in spiritual direction is scary, especially if you didn’t previously know your director or if you’re new to spiritual direction. It might take more than a meeting or two to feel at ease with a new director. That was the case for me.
I didn’t know my current director at all before I started seeing him for spiritual direction, and I was honestly a bit intimidated by him for our first few meetings! One thing I did to alleviate this was to ask him some small-talk, get-to-know-you questions at the start or conclusion of our sessions. Before long we were laughing and joking with each other at our meetings. Now I feel I can talk to him without much difficulty.
Praying for Your Spiritual Director
When you’ve found a good spiritual director, make them worth your while and theirs. If your first session goes well, show initiative and interest by requesting another meeting. Obey your director. Follow their advice. Pray how they want you to pray. Pray for them. If they give book recommendations, read them. Be honest and open with them. Your director is (hopefully) wiser than you. Take their guidance to heart!
Compensation and Spiritual Direction
In my experience, most priests and religious do not ask for compensation for spiritual direction. It's part of their vocation and ministry. That said, while compensation might not be expected, it's always appreciated! I'm not sure there's a set amount that you "should" give to your director. Give what you're able. Give after every session, or give a set amount every few sessions. If your director is a religious priest, brother, or sister, any stipend you offer them will likely go to their community because of their vows of poverty.
If you want to give something other than money, you can't go wrong with gift cards for things like gas or groceries. Most priests and religious that I know also appreciate gifts of coffee, snacks, beer, and wine!
If you're unable to give money, assure your director of your prayers! I've arranged Masses to be said for my director and his intentions at my parish. A spiritual bouquet (offering to pray a novena or a certain number of Rosaries or a certain number of Masses for your director) is also a thoughtful gift.
May God bless you and reward you in your search for a spiritual director!
Do you have a spiritual director? What advice would you add to the above?
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Erin Daly is a 20-something Midwesterner who, in recent years, has lived in Iowa, Illinois, West Virginia, and Ohio. She's done everything from proofreading to tutoring to youth ministry. She is now a parish administrative assistant in southern Wisconsin. You can find out more about her here.