Before we explain who the spiritual director is and what his or her job is we need to define spiritual direction. Although other religions have same or similar practice, everything in this article is related to Catholic spiritual direction.
What is Spiritual Direction?
Spiritual direction is not new, actually, it is very ancient. All religions from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Islamic have some sort of spiritual companionship. It is a part of Christianity from its inception.
There are hundreds of definitions of spiritual direction.
Let’s start with this one – Spiritual direction or guidance is process or the practice of helping another person recognize the presence and activity of God in their life, the process of growing and developing stronger connection and relationship with God and finally experience God more clearly in your life.
Spiritual direction as you can see involves two persons in session. On the one side spiritual directee (or seeker) or the person who is looking for direction and on the other side person who listens those sacred stories directee shares and guides this spiritual journey. Depending on a religion this person is called a spiritual companion, spiritual guide, spiritual teacher, spiritual advisor, the common used term is a spiritual director. A spiritual director can be a priest, religious or layperson but most important it must be someone you can trust!
Sessions consist of conversation, prayer and silence.
Although spiritual guidance involves sharing deepest secrets and sacred stories, listening and giving advice in private sessions from one person to another it is not a therapy or counseling.
Forms of Spiritual Direction
There are three forms of Catholic spiritual directions. The first one is formal regular direction, second is occasional spiritual direction and finally informal type of direction.
Formal, held in a regular basis spiritual direction has few strict rules to follow. Roles and responsibilities of a spiritual director and spiritual directee are defined thru written document - engagement agreement. The agreement defines fees and confidentiality. Spiritual director, in this case, is professional with a certificate.
The first rule is session duration. Usually, the session lasts from one to two hours.
After session duration comes frequency of meeting that is on a regular basis. Every meeting has been previously scheduled. Usually pause between two meetings is 3 to 4 weeks.
The occasional spiritual direction is set from time to time or when spiritual directee is attending a spiritual or religious retreat in the retreat center. Many religious retreat centers in California have certified and trained spiritual director available for those who participate in official programs or events. Usually, seeker meets spiritual director daily for one-hour sessions during the retreat.
Informal type of spiritual directions is not scheduled but irregular and they have no clearly defined session duration. Sessions are held between two persons who trust each other, and this form of direction does not include any fees.
All forms of spiritual direction can be one-to one or held in the group. Though vast majority are organized as private one-to-one sessions held at the serene and quiet place.
To close this chapter about spiritual directions read this simple and fantastic definition of spiritual direction given by Thomas Merton (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968), the American Catholic writer and theologian.
"Spiritual direction is, in reality, nothing more than a way of leading us to see and obey the real Director — the Holy Spirit hidden in the depths of our soul."
It is not quite possible to start your spiritual journey without any help and on your own. We all need assistance, especially when looking to find a specific way to understand God’s will for us and deepen our relationship with Holy. This can be hard for us to figure out on our own and that is why we need a guide and companion to assist us on a most important journey of your life.
Having a spiritual director or companion along the way is not necessary. But rest assured that you will find a connection with the Lord faster and much easier when having someone right next to you who knows how to listen to your spiritual experiences, who can make recommendations on how to pray, on religious book and finally – the spiritual director is someone who was already on a similar journey.
This brings us to our new question.
What Do Spiritual Directors Do?
Give advice and assist spiritual growth? Encourage us? Help us notice a personal reaction to God's presence? Yes, to all those questions. But first, they LISTEN! They spent time listening to you without any judgment and they ask questions to help you discover God in the day-to-day activities. So, they must listen carefully to those they direct and put focus on a conversation about the unique experience you have when feeling the presence of God.
Some don’t like to use the term 'director', because only God can be The Director, so rather they say 'companion'.
No matter which term you use, the first step in your spiritual journey is to find the one that is appropriate for you and that suits your spiritual needs.
How to Find a Spiritual Director?
Before you start searching for spiritual directors that can match your requirements, remember that it is important to feel connected with that person. Director needs to follow ethical guidelines, steps of the Church and teaching of the Faith.
Below are some questions to ask yourself about nature of the relationship, tips and things to consider while looking to find a spiritual director. Different factors matter to different persons, so do a research and choose according to your needs.
- Does it have to be a priest? No. There is no guarantee that a priest would be a good spiritual director. Or at least, not good for you. Sometimes a layperson can be a better option. If you have a priest in mind, go to his church and attend his mass. See how he “talks to God”, how he communicates with other people in the church and then arrange a meeting and discuss everything you have in mind. Things below will certainly help you ask the right things.
- Where to look for good spiritual director in the first place? You can seek a recommendation from your parish priest, parish staff or ask someone you know has a spiritual companion. There is also the option to search online, as there are many online directories, like Spiritual Director International that lists spiritual directors in your area. Did you know that some spiritual directors even organize online spiritual direction sessions? According to the reviews from directees and online testimonials, they are doing a wonderful job. If you decide to travel, you can find a spiritual director in another city, even another country. This also depends on the frequency of meetings.
- How often will you see spiritual companion? Determine the number of meetings for the next several months. This is a good opportunity to set the session length as well. One to two-hour sessions are most common.
- Check educational ground. Ask potential spiritual companions about formal education and training in spiritual direction. Although education is not determining factor, it can be important. There are many theological schools and institutes in the U.S. who offer programs and certificates in this field. Many reputable spiritual directors who work in spiritual retreat centers have formal education.
- What about the experience? This is something that needs no clarification. Years of experience are important.
- Same spiritual tradition or not? You should be in alignment with your spiritual tradition. It is not the same to have a spiritual companion that is focused on Franciscan, Ignatian tradition or to have an eclectic approach.
- Don’t care about age and gender? These three should not be something to bother you. There are many examples where women have been wonderful spiritual directors to men. Same goes for the age - it really doesn’t matter if the spiritual director is older or younger than you.
- Do you care about same interests? Consider finding a spiritual director that shares same interests as you do – books, music, painting, etc. That way you can achieve stronger connection.
- Sign an agreement. If you are looking for formal spiritual direction on a regular basis, it would be good to sign a written agreement and set fees, relationship, session duration, time for sessions (schedule) and confidentiality.
When you are positive that you've found a few good candidates, call them and arrange the first meeting if they are available. Be open and let them know that you'll need a trial period to make the final decision.
After the first session (or a couple of sessions) is over, ask yourself these simple questions:
- How did you feel during the meetings? Relaxed? Scared? Pressured?
- How did you feel during prayer?
- Did you feel the presence of God during the sessions? What was the experience?
- How was the conversation? Was it too formal? Do you feel that you can say everything you want?
- What about the period of silence? Were they comfortable or not? Sometimes silence can give us more advice then words.
- Do you think about the director? Was he confident and supportive? Insecure? What are the benefits of his advice?
- If you found that something was not as it should be during the session, can you discuss it and can you overcome it?
You get the idea here. Honest answers to these several questions will give you a clear image and how you should proceed.
Spiritual direction sessions become an important part of your life. Evaluate carefully whether you think you can achieve a strong connection with your spiritual companion, whether you are getting where you want to be, or whether this is what you had in mind. In the answer to these questions is negative, stop and seek another companion.
The holy spirit is the foundation of everything. God is everywhere around us and He is the only Director. The spiritual companion is simply here to show you the reflection of God’s will, like a mirror. There is nothing to worry about. Just follow the will of the Divine and Holy Spirit as it will always guide you.
In the last decade, the vocation of spiritual director has exploded. We are witnessing many online programs and trainings for spiritual directors and a lot of people who are close to church and have strong religious feelings think that that is enough to be successful as a spiritual guide. But that is not always the case, and you should be careful when trying to find a spiritual director that will bring you closer to primary Director – Holy Father.
Spiritual Direction in Retreat Centers
So far, you've learned that retreat centers that organize spiritual and religious retreats usually offer spiritual direction. Spiritual directors in these facilities are always people with a lot of experience, proper pastoral education and a valid approach to spiritual direction. Of course, there is no one-solution-fits-everyone's-needs but their experience is a good start if you are at the beginning of your “spiritual project”.
At Old Mission San Luis Rey retreat center, a team gathered around Pat Julian offers spiritual direction for their visitors. Pat is the director of the programs & retreats and has been working as a spiritual director for more than 20 years with the focus on contemplative prayer. She is also a member of the Spiritual Directors International and a former spiritual director at Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale.
The video below will show exactly what happens in a spiritual direction and what’s spiritual director's job during the session.
Retreat center of Old Mission San Luis Rey is located in Oceanside, California. It is nested in beautiful hills with a divine look at the ocean. Mission’s private gardens are the perfect place to find your wisdom about God. Spiritual direction sessions are 50 minutes long. A donation is requested for each session and can be discussed between the companion and the guest.
For more information on spiritual direction in Old Mission San Luis Rey Retreat Center or to schedule an appointment, call (760) 757-3659 x123.
How to Become Certified Spiritual Director
Now, let's talk more about those who think they would be good spiritual directors or companions. Let start with the spiritual director training and certification.
There is a great number of spiritual director training in the U.S. All provide candidates with practical knowledge they require to help and guide other Catholics on their journey to deepen the relationship with God.
Spiritual Director Training
We put together a list of top 5 spiritual direction programs in California and the U.S. Programs vary from Dominica, Protestant, Franciscan, Ignatian or Benedictine spiritual tradition.
#1 Mercy Center Spiritual Direction Formation Programs
For more than 25 years spiritual institute of Mercy Center Burlingame, a ministry of Sisters of Mercy organizes several spiritual direction programs. Two years of the Art and Practice of Spiritual Direction and one year for foundational certificate program Sacred Journey.
Center also offers Supervision Practicum for experienced spiritual directors who want to improve their skills even more. For more information about the programs click here.
#2 San Francisco Theological Seminary
Art of Spiritual Direction is flagship program at SFTS. The school praises itself with more than 300 graduates from this program who become not just spiritual directors with a diploma, but retreat leaders and social activists. The program combines spiritual practice and study.
Interesting is that students need to participate in the same retreats that serve the certificate program. First among them is the Art of Contemplative Listening. This retreat will teach the participants the most important role of a spiritual director- TO LISTEN. Between retreats, the students will also be in the spiritual direction. More about Christian spiritual direction program at SFTS find on this link.
#3 Aquinas Institute of Theology
The Graduate Certificate in Spiritual Direction is created to provide spiritual growth of those who are seeking to serve as spiritual directors. Students of this program will not only gain theoretical and practical knowledge about Christian spiritual tradition, but also identify potential issues of spiritual guidance together with their peers. The certificate is not a license for practicing spiritual direction but is an evidence of training in this area.
All students who are interested in graduate Certificate in Spiritual Direction have the option to study online or in the campus. Campus students can complete the program within one year. More about program objectives and requirements can be found here.
#4 Institute of Pastoral Studies of LOYA University of Chicago
IPS of LOYA University of Chicago offers Graduate Certificate in Spiritual Direction. This certificate is on master’s degree level, meaning that it is crafted for candidates that have master’s degree in theological or ministerial studies. The program consists of courses, such as Foundation of Christian Spirituality, Ignatian Spirituality, Essentials of Spiritual Directions, Introduction to Spiritual Praxis, Contextual Education and few more.
Curriculum and program requirements are shown at this link. Some degree programs can be completed online.
#5 Saint John’s School of Theology
Certificate in Spiritual Direction at Saint John's School of Theology from Minnesota prepares students to accompany those who are seeking God in their life. The program focus is on listening and exploration of all practical and theoretical issues in spiritual direction. It is distinctively in Benedictine tradition.
The program consists of 12 credits in core theology (can be completed online), 10 credits in art and skills of spiritual direction and 8 month-long supervised practicum. Program summary, admissions, and coursework options are available at this link.