What Is Spiritual Direction?
A twenty-four-year-old man approaches a priest and says that he is troubled by a vague uneasiness about the course of his life. Successful in a satisfying job, he enjoys a vibrant social life, has a number of close friends, and is in love with a young woman who reciprocates his love. During his college years he gave up religious practice; but now he finds attendance at the liturgy and participation in a particular liturgical community very rewarding. He is, however, uneasy. Is it possible that he has a vocation to the priesthood? What can the priest do for him?
A married woman of forty attends a talk on prayer and then approaches the pastor who gave it. The woman has two children, ages ten and eight. Her husband works for the telephone company. She finds herself more and more irritable with her husband and children. She feels hemmed in and resentful. She and her husband have joined a couples' group at their church. "But God still feels so far away," she says. What can the pastor say to her?
A forty-five-year-old sister makes an opportunity for a conversation with another sister who has a reputation as an able retreat director. She enjoys her work as a high school teacher and likes her community. "I keep hearing sisters talk about prayer," she says, "and I don't know what to make of it. It seems to mean so much to them. Are they exaggerating? I've always prayed regularly, but it's been a duty. Am I missing out on something?" What can the other sister say to her?
A priest about forty years old asks another priest for some help. He feels he has a vocational crisis. He doesn't pray much any more, nor does he get any satisfaction from preaching and presiding at the liturgy. He feels lonely most of the time. Recently he met a widow of thirty-five and found her very attractive. Now he finds himself thinking about her a great deal and wanting to be with her whenever he is not occupied with parish duties. He wants help. What can the other priest say to him?
A married businessman of fifty approaches his minister after church and asks to talk. He is successful, has a good marriage and family, and is a devout Christian. Lately, he says, he has been troubled by the "worldliness" of his life style and by the ethical implications of some of his business dealings. After some discussion it becomes clear that he is concerned about the will of God for himself and about the quality of his relationship with God. How can the minister help him?
A thirty-five-year-old divorcée stops by her neighbor's house. She says she'd like to talk. She has noticed that her neighbor regularly goes to church and that a number of people seem to trust her a lot. This has given her the courage to confide in her. The divorced woman reveals that she has a crippling disease that will gradually incapacitate her. She feels that God is punishing her for her sins, and yet she thinks God is unfair and unjust. "I'm angry at him," she says, "and that makes me feel even more guilty." How can her neighbor help her?
These are only a few examples of the people who approach other Christians for help. Those they approach will respond in a variety of ways.
One could ask for more information and try to help the person understand the causes of his or her malaise. Understanding is usually helpful. One could merely listen sympathetically and offer what little encouragement one can to another human being in pain. Sympathetic listening is very helpful to someone who is troubled. One could help a person see what the consequences of his state in life are and how those consequences might dictate a course of action. One could help another understand that God is not a harsh taskmaster, but a loving Father, and this theological clarification might be enlightening. One could refer the person to someone else with more knowledge or skill. All of these ways of proceeding could be helpful to the people who have just been described, and all of them could be called pastoral care. They could not, however, be called spiritual direction. Instead, spiritual direction is concerned with helping a person directly with his or her relationship with God. It may well be that in each of the human problems mentioned earlier the most fundamental issue is that relationship and its underlying questions: "Who is God for me, and who am I for him?"
Even among spiritual directors, however, we may not find agreement on the kind of help that would be most useful for these people. Various approaches are possible. Let us look at a few.
The neighbor of the divorced woman might undertake a careful explanation to help her realize that God is a forgiving and loving Father, that her illness does not have to be seen as punishment for sins, but one of the sufferings that all humans must expect. The sick woman might benefit a great deal from realizing that her conception of God is not the only possible one for a Christian.
The priest in the first example might ask questions about the young man's past and present way of life, his view of God, his freedom to choose the priesthood, his health. He might ask how the question of a possible vocation to the priesthood arose. Then he might suggest that the young man call the vocation director and perhaps visit the seminary and ask God's help to choose his will. If asked directly, he might well say whether he thought that the signs of a vocation were present or not.