Friday, October 15, 2010

What to look for in a spiritual director

Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, October 15th
It is well known that St. Teresa had to overcome numerous difficulties in the spiritual life. Among these difficulties, finding a good spiritual director was particularly challenging – ultimately she became acquainted with St. John of the Cross, who at the age of twenty five became her confessor and director (she was fifty two at the time). And yet, in spite of these difficulties, St. Teresa insists that spiritual direction is part of the ordinary life of the Christian – something to which nearly every person should avail themselves at some point during their journey. In particular, the Church herself encourages all those who strive for a special perfection in the spiritual life to entrust themselves to a director – all the faithful are required to receive some direction in the spiritual life through at least a yearly confession.
Even if we admit the normalcy and occasional necessity of spiritual direction, there is yet the great difficulty of finding a spiritual director whom we trust. What are the characteristics of a good spiritual director? The Catholic Encyclopedia offers helpful guidance in this matter.

Knowledge of the spiritual life
A good director must have a sound knowledge of the science of the soul – he or she must know the various spiritualities of the Church’s tradition and, more importantly, must have a firm grasp of the fundamental principles of the spiritual life. In this regard, St. Teresa is famed for having advised that, if we must choose, it is better to have a learned director than a holy one – since one who is learned will be able to advise the safest course to take in the spiritual life, but one who is holy (without being learned) will not know of any spirituality beyond his own.
Faithfulness to the Church
Since the primary way in which God’s guides his holy people is through the pastors of the Church, a good director must be orthodox – faithful to the Church in every point upon which she has pronounced her judgment. Even in those matters of faith and morals upon which the Church has spoken only in her ordinary (and not infallible) Magisterium, the spiritual director must submit to the Church’s wisdom with a spirit of religious obedience and must never contradict her judgment. A spiritual director who lacks a love for the Church and her pastors (and especially for the Pope) will serve only to lead souls astray – such a director is a thief or a robber and has not entered the sheepfold through the gate.
Prayer and mortification
The principle means of progress towards spiritual perfection consist in the exercise of prayer and mortification. Within these two principle works, there are many and varied directions in which the Holy Spirit might lead the soul. However, without a true commitment to prayer and mortification, the spiritual life will be dry and barren – a desert wasteland without water. Prayer provides the primary matter to be discussed in spiritual direction. Without contemplation, without at least a movement toward the interior life, there can be no true direction. Thus, any good spiritual director will advocate the life of prayer (and even contemplation). Moreover, in order to grow in prayer, mortification is needed. Thus, these two – prayer and mortification – must be an essential part of the program of direction.
Errors to be guarded against
Jansenism – this heresy required an unattainable degree of purity of conscience before allowing penitents to receive Holy Communion. The drive for perfection need not be tempered, but an over-reliance upon the personal conscience of the individual (requiring perfect rather than merely moral certainty) is a grave error. While a good director will lead the soul to perfection; he will also guard against an excessive reliance upon the soul’s esteem of itself, trusting instead in the grace of Christ given through the sacraments of the Church.
Quietism – this heresy required men to deaden all their faculties, to avoid rational thought, to cease all study of the divine mysteries, and even forbade the taking of vows or the performance of works (including all sensible devotions, like the Rosary). Any good spiritual director will advise means of growing in various prayers and devotions – among these, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, meditation upon Sacred Scripture, and the Most Holy Rosary hold a certain pride of place. A good director will not degrade the intellectual life, but will direct the soul to unite the search for truth with a true spirit of love.
Montanism – this heresy held that, once led by the Spirit, the soul no longer relied upon the teachings of the Church or the guidance of her pastors. A good director will always lead the soul into a closer union with Christ, through the Church which is his chosen instrument of salvation.
Spiritualism (after the Spirituali) – I coin as a heresy the concept that, in order to be a saint, one must be a religious consecrated by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. We are called to live the spiritual life within our vocation, not without it! Thus, a mother is meant to be a saint as a mother, not as a nun – this means that her interior life will be nurtured in a different way than the nun’s. St. Josemaría Escriva has done much to bring to light the vocation of the laity and their means to attaining holiness – through work and prayer, in accord with their calling in life. A good director will always take the circumstance of daily life into account and will help each soul to live out her particular vocation in Christ.
Can I change spiritual directors?
The Church insists upon the right of the faithful to choose from any number of approved directors – one is always free to change directors. There are certain circumstances where this is most advisable: if the director varies from the clear teaching of the Church or abuses the privileges of direction, the individual being directed should change directors. However, we must be careful not to avoid a director simply because he or she is challenging us to grow. If the director has not clearly erred, it is best to remain – or, perhaps, one might discuss the possibility of a change with the current director and follow his advice in the matter.
It is important not to try and find the perfect spiritual director – he probably does not exist; rather, he is the Holy Spirit! Remember that St. Teresa of Avila was directed by Fr. Domingo Bañez, who is reported to have fathered an illegitimate child – but he was the most learned man in Europe, a master of the spiritual tradition, and served her as a good director for a time. The principles enumerated above serve as a sort of measure against which a director can be judged.
Does my director have to be a priest?
There is no reason why a director should have to be a priest, but there is a certain safety in having a priest director. In general, men should not be directed by women and clergy should not be directed by lay faithful – likewise religious should generally be directed by religious and not by diocesan priests or lay people. However, there can certainly be exceptions to the norm. A well educated and faithful lay woman would make a much better director than an ignorant, dissenting priest. Moreover, many priests today do not take time for direction – thus, many faithful will have to look elsewhere.
In any case, there is no need to be discouraged! If you feel the need for a director, and if you are convinced of this need but cannot find anyone suitable, you must pray and fast – merit a director through your good works, trusting that the Lord will provide everything which is necessary for your salvation if only you ask him with zeal, humility, perseverance, and a steadfast faith.


Bernardus said...

Dear Fr. Reginaldus,
I would not know where to begin a search for a spiritual director, though I often feel deep inside the need for such a person. Too often I rely, lately, on priests like you, Fr. Mark Kirby(Vultus Christi), or Fr. John Zuhlsdorf(WDTPRS) for advice through reading their blogs. That is dangerous because of distance and separation from one on one contact. My own parish(Capuchin Franciscan) are not spiritually inclined and seemingly weak in orthodoxy. It is sad there are not more available like you. You are pretty challenging on paper.
Could you give some advice on how or where to start my search. This post seems God intended for me because of that need for someone to act as a sage guide in my spiritual life.
You are constantly in my prayers. Please pray for me.
Mary, Holy Mother of God, pray for us and obtain for us many and Holy priests.
Ernie Bragiel

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Bernardus (Ernie),
In regard to your search for a spiritual director: Do not be discouraged! The Lord will provide; moreover, he himself will shepherd his sheep!
I agree that it is very dangerous to use clerical blogs as 'spiritual direction'...but take what is helpful and leave the rest.

I will try to get a post together on what to do if you cannot find a spiritual director...
In the meantime, let me just say this -- through prayer, mortification, and works of mercy you can merit a good director (if direction is truly necessary for your spiritual growth). So do not be discouraged. Persevere in your prayer.

Remember, the Lord takes care even of sparrows, and you are worth more than many sparrows!
Blessings and prayers to you! I will pray for you in a special way this week.

Bernardus said...

Fr. Reginaldus,
Thanks for your support and prayers.
I know I need to grow in my prayer life; to develop a deeper intimate relationship with God.
I am not quite understanding the idea of mortification,though. Please elaborate or point me to the Church's teaching.
Thanks for the wisdom.
You are continually in my prayers.
Ernie B

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Check the following short article from the good people at
It should give you the basics for the topic of mortification...
No need to read the comments...the article is what is good.

Peace in Christ!

Anonymous said...

In Dallas, unless one is an official catechist, teacher, or staff at a parish involved in teaching/preaching the Faith, it is next to impossible to find a spiritual director. There is a great shortage of priests, the priests are overworked, and there isn't much in the way of interest to try to provide people who could be spiritual directors. It's a shame, but the degradation that occurred in this diocese over the last 30+ years has left few with the ability, or interest, to act in that role.

I would greatly value prayers helping me to find one.

Nick said...

Montanism seems to be the heresy most espoused by false prophets, and spiritualism seems to be an error most believed by perfectionists and those suffering from scruples. Not to generalize, of course.

Seraphim said...


I don't know as much about spiritual direction in the West as in the East, but two points that you might find interesting:

(1) All the faithful in the East are supposed to have a spiritual father or mother.

(2) Disobedience to one's spiritual father or mother entails automatic excommunication, at least in the more authentic Eastern practice (Greek Catholics may have become Latinized on this, unfortunately).

In Christ,


Megs said...

Dear Fr. Reginaldus,

I was wondering if you would kindly elaborate as why you "In general, men should not be directed by women?" I find the topic of spiritual direction impotent and would like to learn more about it.

Pax, Mary G.S.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Megs (Mary G.S.),
First, I only mean that generally speaking women should not direct men (not as an absolute rule, but as a general idea).

The reason for this has to do with human anthropology -- the man is the head of the woman. Therefore (generally), it does not seem to me that a man should be subject to a woman in the direct and personal manner of spiritual direction.

A second reason is more practical: Generally, men will not respond well to a woman having such authority over them, especially in spiritual matters.

Even if the man does accept it, there is also a danger to chastity. In fact, some priests say that men (even priests) should never direct women and that women shouldn't direct men -- but that men should have men and woman should have women.
I don't go this far (because I think that the priest has to be shepherd and father to all the people in the parish, men and women), but I do think that there is extreme danger in having mixed-gender direction when the man and woman are similar in age. (this goes even for priests with either lay women, married or not, or nuns).

I know that the whole relation between man and woman is a bit controversial these days ... Bl John Paul II's theology of the body is helpful in this regard -- showing the proper relation of man to woman as head to body (unity and even a certain equality, but also hierarchy).
I hope that this helps ... and, please remember, I do not mean any of this as absolute law ... I only say "in general" ... still, I would caution.

Peace to you! +

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Reginaldus,

I am aghast at the content of your post. This arbitrary statement "The reason for this has to do with human anthropology -- the man is the head of the woman." really does a disservice to many women religious and faithful Christian.

In which Gospel did Christ say this?
THis kind of thinking is what is turning people away from the RCC .
Shameful and ignorant.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Shameful and ignorant,
I assume that is your pen-name.

1 Cor 11:3, "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God." ... vs 7, "The man indeed ought not to cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the gory of man."

Now, are you such an arrogant heretic as to deny that St. Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit of Christ? Or will you humbly retract your statement?

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Reginaldus,

Would you please be so kind as to give the reference where St. Teresa of Avila said a learned director is to be preferred to a holy one?

Benedicat tibi Deus!

Black Pilgrim

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Check interior castles, 8th chapter of the 6th mansions - about 2/3 of the way through.

Anonymous said...

Gratias tibi ago!


Post a Comment

When commenting, please leave a name or pseudonym at the end of your comment so as to facilitate communication and responses.

Comments must be approved by the moderator before being published.