How Spiritual Direction Can Help You Grow Closer to God
Sept. 9 issue feature: The Importance of Faithful Guidance for Your Interior Life
Picture this: A person, young or old, is practicing the faith yet naturally wants to grow in his or her relationship with Jesus and become closer to God. Can the faithful — or should they — turn somewhere for guidance?
They can. After all, didn’t Jesus send the disciples out two by two?
Saints like Teresa of Avila have said something in our nature necessitates external support for our development. She taught that God designed us on purpose to be dependent on others for our spiritual growth.
Spiritual directors or spiritual mentors can help us along this path. Even young people in college are proving they grow quickly in faith and more easily discern where God is calling them through excellent spiritual direction.
Ron Novtnoy defines spiritual direction as basically "guiding a person into a life that is truly under God’s dominion, under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and helping them to listen to the Lord’s word, discern God’s will, make good choices in their spiritual life and pursue virtue." He and his wife, Adrienne, are directors at the Cenacle of Our Lady of Divine Providence School of Spirituality, which is the spiritual direction program of the Marian Servants of Divine Providence, a private association of the Christian faithful in Clearwater, Fla.
To put it another way, Novtnoy says, a spiritual director can help persons on their spiritual journey "with guidance, reassurance and discernment and affirm them in their relationship with the Lord."
"The real spiritual director is the Holy Spirit. That’s No. 1," says Sister Susan Pieper, mother superior of the female branch of the Apostles of the Interior Life in Kansas City, Kan. This religious community’s specific charism is spiritual direction.
"St. Gregory the Great said, ‘The art of all arts is spiritual direction,’" says Sister Susan. She says that while artists use stone or canvas to create an image of spiritual beauty, spiritual directors work with human beings’ lives and souls to support those persons to become the saints they are called to be.
That means each of us. In a May 2011 address, Pope Benedict XVI said: "As she has never failed to do, again, today, the Church continues to recommend the practice of spiritual direction, not only to all those who wish to follow the Lord closely, but to every Christian who wishes to live responsibly his baptism, that is, the new life in Christ. Everyone … needs to be supported personally by a sure guide in doctrine and expert in the things of God. … [Spiritual direction] is a matter of establishing that same personal relationship that the Lord had with his disciples, that special bond with which he led them, following him, to embrace the will of the Father."
During a recent appearance on Register Radio, the Register’s weekly radio show on EWTN Radio, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., reflected on the Pope’s thoughts.
"I think he is encouraging all Catholics to do what is prudent … and that would be to have a spiritual director, spiritual mentor or guide in the spiritual life," noted Archbishop Naumann.
But, often, the problem is finding a qualified spiritual director.
To help people more readily find a spiritual guide or mentor to help them grow more rapidly in their spiritual life than they could on their own (his description of spiritual direction), Archbishop Naumann invited the Apostles of the Interior Life to join with the archdiocese’s own School of Faith to give spiritual direction and start forming spiritual mentors. This happened in stages that illustrate the need and benefit of spiritual direction.
Spiritual Direction on Campus
Mike Scherschligt, the founder and executive director of the School of Faith, which is an archdiocesan public association of the faithful, explains how hundreds of students at the University of Kansas attended non-credit classes at the university’s Catholic center every semester because they wanted to learn their faith.
"But we weren’t seeing their lives transformed," he says. "We weren’t seeing them grow in charity and in the life of Christ as we expected with just intellectual formation, so we decided we were going to put in equal emphasis on having a deeper life in prayer, an interior formation. Once the students began to take on the daily habit of deeper prayer, then we saw their lives transforming."
The students encountered God speaking to them, but they questioned: What were they supposed to do?
"They needed spiritual direction," Scherschligt says. The staff started giving one-on-one spiritual direction, but there was only a limited time for limited numbers.
At the archbishop’s invitation, Sister Susan sent three full-time sisters to assist with spiritual direction.
Soon, Archbishop Naumann asked the School of Faith to help with the formation of Catholic teachers. "As they did," Scherschligt says, "then we had a greater number of people looking for spiritual direction."
But with only six sisters available for spiritual direction, the Apostles of the Interior Life were asked to train more well-formed laity to meet the demand.
Nearly 70 participants from 11 dioceses quickly made up the first group of trainees for the initial program.
Attendee Mike Mies of Overland Park, Kan., calls the program "all-encompassing." It helped him deepen his prayer life, grow in holiness and knowledge of the faith, and get tools to grow in virtue.
"But, most of all, it has taught me who I am," he says. "I am a flawed instrument. But in the hand of God, I can be used to bring other men closer to his Son. Is there a more noble thing than this?"
Another participant in the program, Carol Kleinert, director of religious education at Mother of Perpetual Help Church in Maryville, Ill., notes that as they become more richly instructed "we will be able to pass that same information on to others in an effort to help them reach holiness, to which we are all called."
Already, the Apostles of the Interior Life Spiritual Mentorship Program is among what are considered the best three spiritual direction schools in the country. All of the apostles (there are also priests and brothers in this order, which was founded in Italy) as well as Scherschligt have advanced degrees from pontifical universities in Rome.
Sister Susan explains why the program is unique. It isn’t a course that teaches people to become spiritual directors. "We’re simply forming people to be spiritual mentors," she says.
Explains Scherschligt: "We train laypeople in the Catholic spiritual tradition, the principles to discern God’s will and principles of virtue, so that they can give other laypeople catechesis in the interior life. We’re giving laypeople these solid principles so that they can give them to other laypeople and then be a source of accountability and encouragement."
"Our program is simple," emphasizes Sister Susan. "It’s not complicated and heady stuff. It has to be simple and clear to the spiritual mentors so they can transmit it to others. In the end, it’s simple things people need. Jesus was simple — and extremely profound."
She affirms another important point: "Every time we go to spiritual direction, our life is changed. Most of the time, we don’t see fireworks, effects right away, but what’s happening is in the depth of my being. My prayer life is better. God is at work."
That’s exactly what she sees happening at both the University of Kansas and Texas A&M, where her sisters also give spiritual direction. She herself offers monthly spiritual direction for faculty, staff and spouses at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. (included in our College Guide).
"It’s important especially with young people," she affirms, "because young people are so ready to give their all to God once they understand. Wonderful things happen."
Spiritual direction strengthens practicing Catholic students’ faith.
It can also help students have conversions.
"Kids were drinking hard core on weekends, and we see them leave that way of life," Sister Susan says. "Some start to go to Mass every day and confession every week. We see how these kids radically change their lives. Now they are impacting society because they’re living incredibly holy lives."
Sister Susan has seen vocations come about as spiritual direction placed the seed for discernment.
"The question comes up, and many choose their vocation, whether to the married life, the priesthood or consecrated life," she says. "So a big piece of spiritual direction is discernment. At that age, they make a lot of fundamental decisions for their lives. That’s why spiritual direction is so essential and valuable to that age."
Novotny concurs. "It’s helping fellow Christians to identify how God is speaking to them and to know what God’s will is for them in life."
Indeed, from the Holy See, the Congregation for the Clergy’s 2011 document titled "The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy: An Aid for Confessors and Spiritual Directors," states: "The principal objective of spiritual direction is therefore to discern the signs of God’s will for our journey of vocation, prayer, perfection, for our daily life and for our fraternal mission."
Naturally, spiritual direction helps adults of all ages. Some seek it from the other two top schools in the country, where people can also study in formal programs to become spiritual directors themselves. They are the aforementioned Cenacle of Our Lady of Divine Providence School of Spirituality, which is run in association with the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality in Denver, established by the Oblates of the Virgin Mary.
All three schools are concerned with helping people answer the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness.
The Lanteri Center’s executive director, Father Ernest Sherstone of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, makes an important clarification.
"We’re not here to solve your problems and to make decisions for you," he says. "We’re here to help you grow in Christian maturity and discernment so that you and the Lord can make those decisions."
Instead, he identifies spiritual directors as sympathetic listeners who will help people recognize and respond to God’s presence in their lives.
At the same time, he sees spiritual direction as a growing need and a growing ministry "because people are more intent on growing in their relationship with God. Ninety percent of the people who come here basically say they just want to deepen their relationship with God."
The idea is for those who study there or elsewhere to become spiritual directors in order to help their own Christian communities.
"We like them to go back into their parish and say to their pastor they received this formation and (ask): Can they be of service to the parish?" says Father Sherstone.
More than 300 people who have graduated from Our Lady of Divine Providence School of Spirituality are now in more than 40 states giving spiritual direction. In 2008, Joan Lawlor of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., graduated as a qualified spiritual director.
"This is something we do in service to Our Lord and to Our Lady," she says. She was inspired by the school "to reverence each soul the Lord entrusts to me. One of the teachers said, ‘You’re on holy ground.’"
Finding a Spiritual Director
Still, it isn’t easy to find a fine spiritual director. Be very careful of any spiritual direction using centering prayer, Eastern mysticism, non-Christian mixes or other teachings not faithful to the magisterium or Catholic teaching.
Novtnoy suggests checking if anyone on your parish staff does spiritual direction. Often, the diocese has a list. Naturally, his school recommends their own graduates who live near the seeker.
Sister Susan suggests not going far from home. First, go to confession several times to a priest, and if that seems to be a good fit based on confessional counsel, ask if he’s available for spiritual direction. If not, ask if he can suggest someone he knows, whether a fellow priest, deacon, solid religious or strong faith-filled layperson. Then have interviews to make sure the person is a good fit.
Stresses Sister Susan about spiritual directors: "A must: Are they prayerful people in love with the solid teachings of the Church? Do they have formation to do it? They need some sort of formation. They’re hard to find, and that’s why we need to form as many people as possible."
Archbishop Naumann suggests asking your pastor, if available, or a monk or sister in a nearby monastery.
He also recommends as a resource RCSpiritualDirection.com, founded by Dan Burke, the Register’s executive director. Burke’s book Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God (NavigatingtheInteriorLife.com) will be published this year by Emmaus Press. It gives the hows and whys of growing in the spiritual life and provides a framework for effective participation in spiritual direction.
"It is an advantage if you can have a spiritual director who also can be your confessor," Archbishop Naumann strongly counsels. "This is a great blessing. Regular use of the sacrament of penance or reconciliation is one way that you can find a lot of good help and guidance."
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.