Someone who is entrusted with the service of directing souls recently asked me for advice on how to meet this “daunting obligation” of assisting others in their relationship with God. Specifically, he mentioned a passage from the Rule of St. Benedict that he had been reflecting upon: “More will be expected of a man to whom more has been entrusted. He must know what a difficult and demanding burden he has undertaken: directing souls...” (Rule 2:30-31). In view of the Church’s current observance of National Vocation Awareness Week, I thought part of the answer was worth sharing, along with some additional thoughts on the practice of spiritual direction itself.
As Christian disciples, we are all advisers of one sort or another. As
St. Paul says, we are “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1Corinthians 4:1), each member of the Body of Christ serving the Head. And yes, as Benedict writes (in reference to the monastery’s abbot, but applicable to all Christians), it is an awesome responsibility. Jesus also stresses this, perhaps most notably in Luke 12:48: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” While Benedict was (and is) a great spiritual “adviser,” he takes his cue from Christ—always. The Rule, after all, is built upon the foundation of the Gospel.
The most important thing that “those entrusted with much” can do is to first of all be authentic disciples. In order to lead, first we must follow Christ our Head. The passage from
above is an indicator of that: first, we are servants, then we are stewards. After all, as St. Paul also writes, “What do you possess that you have not received?” (1Corinthians 4:7) This echoes Christ himself, who told his disciples: “I am the vine, you are the branches…Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). St. Paul
So, the key task of the adviser—or steward, as it were—is to always sit at the feet of the Master in order to learn—a task that will not end is this life. The word “disciple,” after all, comes from the Latin word meaning “pupil.”
Being an authentic disciple entails nothing surprising, nothing unusual—immersing oneself in Scripture and prayer, partaking of God’s grace in the Sacraments, being faithful to the Tradition of the Church, and participating in the community of believers. It means incorporating the Gospel message into our very being so that we grow into Christ, our Head through love (cf. Ephesians 4:15). The very first words of the Prologue in Benedict’s Rule address this key posture of the disciple. First, and always, we must listen. Then we can speak (advise), but we must always circle back and listen to the Master first.
So, what should one do in order to be a faithful adviser? Be a faithful disciple first and foremost. Pray. Read Scripture and other spiritual works. Participate in the Sacraments—especially the Eucharist—and life of the Church, and remain united to its Tradition. Live the Beatitudes. Practice virtue daily. Strive for holiness out of love for Christ. Maintain an open mind and heart willing to perceive and receive all the ways in which God manifests himself in our daily lives. Listen to the Word, and then do it.
After all, while we each have vocations (either as a monk, married person, etc., etc.), and we each have particular tasks and ministries in building up the Body of Christ, we are all disciples—pupils—of Christ, at whose feet we sit in order to listen (cf. Luke 10:38-42).
As for the specific practice of spiritual direction, the Holy Spirit is the principal “director.” Primarily, spiritual direction is a forum in which the Holy Spirit is invoked to freely operate so that the directee may discern the movement of God in his or her life. One of the first things I tell a new directee is: “There are three persons in this room: you, the Holy Spirit, and I—and I am the least important of the three.”
Though he or she may not express it in such terms, the directee comes to a spiritual director seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit; the director simply provides a human face, a listening ear, and—to be sure—guidance when it is called for. It is essential that this guidance be firmly rooted in Scripture and the living tradition of the Catholic faith, as well as in the spiritual director’s own life of prayer. The emphasis is more on “spiritual” than it is on “direction.”
Spiritual direction is not equivalent to psychological counseling. These are two distinct realms of dialogue, although there are certainly areas where the two intersect with one another. In the case of spiritual direction, the focus is always on the directee’s relationship with God and how God is working in his or her life. A spiritual director may on occasion recommend to the directee counseling by a qualified professional.
Spiritual direction is also not a manner of faith sharing such as members in a Bible study group may experience. Rather, it is the means by which one’s intimate disclosure of his or her interior life, offered in full freedom and all honesty to a trusted (and trustworthy) director, aids one’s self-understanding in relation to God.
Often, this understanding develops with the director merely listening to the directee—who, by the light of the Holy Spirit, sees more clearly by simply expressing what is already written on his or her heart. God himself is the origin, path, and destination of our seeking, and an open heart will not fail to ultimately find him.