Spiritual direction provides guides for the soul

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How should I communicate with God? What is my purpose in life? Can I heal from wounds of betrayal and disappointment?

Because these questions are personal, difficult and sometimes painful, they frequently go unexplored. Spiritual direction, a practice as old as Christianity itself, is an opportunity for a faith-filled guide to help an individual ask such questions - those at the heart of human existence - and, in the process, deepen the seeker's experience of God.

Clergy and religious receive spiritual direction as part of their formation, but it is also a valuable practice for all Christians. "Everyone should get spiritual direction," said Thomas Merton, the 20th-century Trappist monk known for his writings on the spiritual life.

St. John Paul II wrote in "Christifideles Laici," the 1988 apostolic exhortation on the mission and vocation of the laity, that "recourse to a wise and loving spiritual guide," or spiritual direction, is crucial to "an ever-clearer discovery of one's vocation."

But what does this tool of the interior life look like, what topics emerge, and how does it help individuals on their faith journey?

Holy listening

The practice of seeking out spiritual aids or mentors is an ancient one. And in the church, spiritual direction has long been part of priestly formation; the Code of Canon Law requires seminaries to have at least one director. But it was in the 16th century that St. Francis de Sales "began the strong push to give direction to anyone seeking it," said Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father William N. Dougherty, a longtime spiritual director who resides at St. John Neumann Church in Reston. The Second Vatican Council offered a continuation of the saint's efforts, giving impetus to spiritual direction tailored to the individual.

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The church has a long, rich tradition and a wealth of wisdom for directees to draw inspiration from, including the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, among others.

Father Dougherty defines spiritual direction as "the help given by one Christian to another that enables a person to pay attention to God's personal communication with them and to respond."

Another way to describe it is "holy listening." For while the practice can vary in structure, it always includes ample time for a directee to share what is on his or her mind and heart.

As the directee speaks, Father Dougherty tries to "memorize everything, because the real purpose is to get them to talk about what their experiences are and how they feel need," he said. "Because they might not know at first what they are really looking for."

Father Dougherty makes observations based on what was said, asks a few clarifying questions and sometimes gives an assignment. For example, he'll ask a directee to practice lectio divina, a form of prayerful meditation on the word of God, or exercise a certain virtue.

One of the most important parts of direction, said Father Dougherty, is "paying attention to God as He reveals Himself." We can become self-absorbed and miss what God is telling us, he said.

To help people meet the Lord, he directs them to "privileged places," such as Scripture.

Father Dougherty then urges directees to try and understand what God is saying to them and decide how to respond. Prayer is integral to this effort, but he doesn't want people to see it as a duty or something done out of fear of God.

"People often think of God as controlling or as a judge," he said. "I want them to know Him as a friend or loving parent." Drawing on an image used by St. Francis de Sales, Father Dougherty said we should "imagine ourselves as a little child holding the hand of our father or mother, walking along and having the trust that our parent will take us to the right place - because why would a parent not?"

Sometimes people come to a realization during spiritual direction that prompts them to ask for the sacrament of reconciliation, but direction and confession "are two different things," said Father Dougherty. Nor is spiritual direction therapy; if issues surface beyond its scope, a director should urge the directee to see a therapist.

Father Dougherty, who sees people of all ages once a month for about an hour, emphasizes that spiritual direction is not one more requirement people should feel obligated to fulfill. Yet it can, he said, be especially helpful if you are dealing with something specific and can "greatly enrich the spiritual life."

In God's time

In Father Dougherty's three decades as a spiritual director, issues related to prayer - not knowing how to pray or feeling like one is praying incorrectly - arise frequently.

He reminds individuals to "pray any way that works," quoting from St. Jane Frances de Chantal, a close friend of St. Francis de Sales who endured seven years of spiritual dryness.

"You don't need a formula or a pattern for prayer," said Father Dougherty.

People also grapple with "feeling like they aren't doing the right thing," he said. They ask: "Am I being a good parent?" "Am I a good friend?" "Do I do enough good for the church?"

"It's usually a sensation that they should be doing much more, and they don't know what it is that is more," said Father Dougherty. "That's when they really have to listen to God."

Suffering also comes up in spiritual direction, but people "are pretty good at handling the big stuff," like cancer and death. "It's not the lions and tigers that get us in life; it's the gnats and fleas," he said, paraphrasing St. Francis de Sales.

Some people come to him struggling with faith, often wondering how God can exist amid so many tragedies. "My initial answer is that faith doesn't mean anything if it's not difficult," Father Dougherty said. "If we don't doubt, we never ask the real questions. When you're doubting, you're involved."

A doubting person is a perfect candidate for "vibrant spiritual direction," he added, "because they are usually anxious to make progress."

The practice also can help people recognize that they are, in fact, moving forward in their spiritual life. "People come in and say they go to church every Sunday and fulfill other faith responsibilities," but they don't feel they're making progress, said Father Dougherty. Spiritual direction helps them see their forward movement.

Father Dougherty said a spiritual director is not necessarily a better person or more spiritual than you, but they need to be a good match. Don't feel badly about moving on if they're not the right fit, he said. And any spiritual director should be well-formed in church teaching and Scripture.

According to Father Paul F. deLadurantaye, diocesan secretary for religious education and sacred liturgy, along with priests, religious brothers and sisters can serve as spiritual directors, as well as deacons and "properly trained and formed lay persons." Asking a respected priest for a recommendation is a good way to find a director, he said.

Father Dougherty points out that spiritual directors "don't solve anything."

"I don't have solutions," he said. "I have ideas of how to experience God, but it's definitely the Holy Spirit doing the work. And each person has to figure out why they wanted to share their pain and sorrow and feelings and what that means."

"God is sometimes very slow to answer the questions," added Father Dougherty. "And sometimes the answer is no, or not in this life. But usually it's different and better than expected, he said. "Then all you can do is be grateful."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016