31 December 2008

On Spiritual Directors

When looking for a good spiritual director, it is standard practice to interview the potential S.D. first. The idea is not to weed out those who are going to challenge you or disagree with you. The idea is find one who holds and practice the Catholic faith as taught by the Church and is able to actually help you grow in holiness.

Ask the following questions politely. There is no need to be offensive or defensive. You are not an Inquisitor. You are not hunting heresy. If it turns out that the potential S.D. is some kind of New Age kook, you are obligated to keep that assessment to yourself. The obligation to confidentiality binds both the director and the directee.

A few cautions up front:

1). Do not be impressed with S.D.'s who have credentials in spiritual direction. Most spiritual direction programs in the U.S. teach their students amateur forms of guru-ism and occult gibberish.

2). Do not be impressed by titles like "Father," "Sister," "Brother," or "Doctor." Anyone holding any of these titles can be dodgy.

3). Do not be impressed by celebrity or ecclesial status. Abbot Father Dr. Alred Boniface Schultz of the St. Labyrinth Benedominican Monastery, author of 46 books on meditation and a national speaker, can be as big a moonbat as anyone.

4). Do not be impressed by the potential S.D.'s personal piety, orthodox theology, solid publishing record with the best Catholic houses, or his/her reputation for brilliant spiritual direction. Every director/directee relationship is different. What works for you, might not work for me. And being a good S.D. takes more than unwavering allegiance to the magisterium.

5). Do not be impressed by a potential S.D.'s willingness, even eagerness, to take you on as a directee. In fact, I would interpret any sort of "salemanship" on the part of the S.D. as creepy and immediately disqualify him/her.

Questions (with the qualification that he/she may say, "'Nunya."):

--Tell me about your spiritual life, your daily spiritual routine, your prayer life.

--What are your strengths as a S.D.? Weaknesses?

--Tell me about your experience as a S.D. How many years? What sorts of directees?

--How would you describe your relationship to the Church? The local bishop? The Holy Father?

--What do you think of commonly used spiritual direction tools like the Ennegram, labrynith?

--What do you think of personal devotions like the rosary, novenas, etc.?

--What authors/books do you regularly read and recommend?

--Have you had any spiritual direction training? Where and what kind?

--What's your understanding of the sacraments, esp. Mass, confession, marriage?

--How do you understand the relationship btw God and creation?

--How do you understand holiness, goodness, morality, sin, etc.?

--Do you use fasting or other sorts of penance in your direction?

--My biggest spititual difficulty is X. How would begin to approach this problem?

--My greatest spiritual gift is X. How would you direct me to use this gift?

--Generally speaking, from what sources do you pull from for inspiration as a S.D.?

Keep in mind that you are being interviewed as well. I have turned down potential directees b/c I didn't have the particular gifts to deal with their challenges. I have also been "fired" as a S.D. for being too theologically orthodox and for being "too hard."

Do you want someone who will "kick butt and take names"?
Or someone who will be more of a gentle listener, a guide?
Or someone who will function as a teacher, a model?
Or someone who will sympathize but challenge nonetheless?
Or someone who maintains an emotional distance and directs you?
Or someone who will "get in there with you" and fight?
Or someone versatile enough to shift among these as needed?

You really have to know yourself before choosing a S.D. But you also have to be open to change and growth. I find it very difficult to get a good S.D. because I need a "kick butt and take names" kinda director. I need someone who can look me in the eye and tell me how full of crap I am. Not many of those around these days. . .sigh. . .


  1. Anonymous8:12 AM

    I'm facing similar difficulties now that we're only 1000 miles away from Dallas. I would also need someone who really understands and appreciates my devotion to the brown scapular. I actually posted yesterday about why I wear a scapular. I wish I could get some good spiritual direction. It's just hard to know where to start.


  2. "Most spiritual direction programs in the U.S. teach their students amateur forms of guru-ism and occult gibberish."

    After I did my year long SEEL retreat I looked into a program for becoming a SD. Not only was it prohibitively expensive but also, IMHO, it was just plain silly. I'll stick to being an A.A. sponsor when called upon by a fellow drunk. Pretty much the same animal...

  3. I 'serendipitously' found my spiritual director at a local monastery. After tackling the first monk I could find after Compline (I was pretty desperate to confess), he graciously heard my confession and afterwards gently recommended for ongoing spiritual direction one of his brother priests that he thought was best suited for my temperament & life situation. There was never a formal 'interview' and the SD relationship with his personally recommended brother priest has been most fruitful since.

    So perhaps another way to find an SD is to seek out an order (or local parish) whose charism suits your needs/gifts, make a confession to any priest there, and then solicit any advice for finding a long-term SD based best suited for you, based on your confession(s).

    I am forever grateful to that priest who obviously knew his brother priests well, and had the judgment to discern my particular needs after only one confession!

  4. Anonymous11:36 AM

    What a fine list! I wish I had this in hand when I met my current spiritual director, because over time I came to realize that his answers to some of these questions indicated that he was not the right director for me.

    I'll definitely take this list with me as I interview potential directors in the next few months.

    I think that I need a director who will challenge me, as I my undeveloped virtues are hindering my spiritual life.

    May the Holy Spirit direct us all in 2009 and forever.

  5. I've only known one priest who could tell me I was full of crap with a word and a glance. He was bold and he was orthodox...but shockingly he left active ministry *sigh*.

    I was looking for a good confessor for my adult Goddaughter and I would always ask just one "interview" question: is it a mortal sin to use artificial contraception? Never got the right answer. *double sigh*

    I've got an SD now sorta by chance. I don't have any particular issues - I just look at the culture and see that it is a dung heap and I say to him, "I think I'll shovel some of that dung with THIS shovel. What do you think?" Then he usually says, "Yeah, that's a good shovel. I'll shovel too." Kind of symbiotic really.

  6. What do you think of the idea of the Holy Spirit being the best S.D.? IOW, what you read, what people say, etc. If any questions arise, you can always make an appointment with your parish priest?
    I'm looking for a program to train to become a S.D. Any suggestions what I should look for?

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  8. I was lucky in that my Pastor fit the criteria. An old school priest from Spain with a mystical prayer life but also with tons of practical advice. Somebody you can't fool and he won't let you fool yourself.

    Though really it seems you need a good spiritual director to find a good spiritual directory. Your caveats are quite excellent.

    Have you ever read "Seeking Spiritual Direction: How to Grow the Divine Life Within" by Fr. Thomas Dubay? He makes many of the same points you did in a solid book on the subject.

  9. Having just recently been through this search (my terrific director is on sabbatical leave this year) - I would suggest a couple of other questions:

    - How do you feel about combining confession and spiritual direction (if your director is a priest - I've had terrific directors who were not ordained)? [No right answer here, just a right answer for YOU...]

    - Will the director be willing to meet with you for a few sessions to see if you will suit each other, and be willing to discuss it if you or the director feels it does not? No? Run. In the long run, you need to be able to be frank with your director and trust that the director will be likewise with you. This applies if you want a "kick butt" director or not.

    Why? Because at some point you may need a hard push, and you must be able to hear that as "you need a push" and not "this isn't working". And because if the relationship isn't right for you, a good director should be able to help you articulate why and thus help your search for the right one.

    I've been blessed with good directors all along my path, including one who wasn't "right for me" but who did help me figure out why and who might be. That is good direction!

  10. Anonymous3:36 PM


    Thank you so much for the beautiful post on how to interview your SD.

    I never asked questions when I went into my first spiritual direction session with my SD, a Jesuit priest and professor of music at a local college that I attend. I realize now that I should have asked more questions and been much more honest with him. Unfortunately, my own lack of openness was what did the thing in.

    Father or other readers, what do you think about having God as your SD? Is this a cop out or not? Just curious.

    God bless,

    Brother Juniper

  11. Thank you for this excellent advice. I also loved your post on Spirtual/Catholic Reading. I am an avid reader and your guidelines are helpful for this revert Catholic relearning her faith.

  12. Excellent Father! Thank you. What I find is that some priests are reluctant to commit themselves as one's SD. The one that did accept me was just too nice. I didn't really get spiritual direction especially in the sin department.

  13. Anonymous8:04 PM

    These are very good questions all. When a parishioner comes to me asking about SD,(I, as a rule, do not offer SD to parishioners because it could lead to a conflict of interest) I tell them, when looking at a priest, go to a few of the Masses he prays. You will get a good understanding of his leanings and belief (especially in his attendance to rubrics). I also tell them that the purpose of SD is to help you to continue to grow in both the faith and the practice of that faith.

    I tell them to be cautious of priests who are trying to make you a disciple of themselves and take a one size fits all mentality. I also tell them to ask the priest if he himself goes to SD. I am personally suspicious of those who do not.

    AS Fr Philip allayed, understand you too are being interviewed. In my probationary meetings ( and I call them as much) I watch for three things: is the person authentic or trying to impress me, is the person loyal to church teaching themselves, and is the person a person of their word (if I ask them to read a particular Scripture passage or book will they do what they say they'll do or try to bluff me).

    AS I rule I do not hear the confessions of my SDs specifically because I do not want to ever be in a position where I am left to wonder whether I heard something in the context of SD or confession.

    Rrealize that a SD is not a replacement for a Messiah nor a Greek chorus meant to leave you unchallenged. He is to have no other agenda than that of Christ. He or she is not there to 'fix' you. They are there to help you see the will and movement of God in your life and to help you evaluate your response and to grow in deeper and more devoted obedience to the will of God in all things. A SD who does not challenge oftentimes can be very dangerous.

    Be aware that many SDs have a limited number of directees they will take on at any time.

    Finally, spend some significant time in prayer through the deciding process. A good SD will tell you when things are not working and when you might well benefit from another. But, you need to be equally spiritually cognizant as well.

  14. I find that a lot of folks try to use the 4-5PM-ish confession slot for what really is spiritual direction and I've had "confessions" that lasted 5-10 minutes... without a single sin being mentioned, and then when I prodded the individuals after dispensing advice if they had anything to confess, a few would say something akin to "Well, I haven't really sinned,I just needed advice."

    I must admit to being *quite* tempted to assign a most severe penance at that point. :)

    So my added caveat for any reader is: the regular parish-wide confession slot (or a communal penance service) is NOT the time for spiritual direction. Be willing to make an appointment if it's not really convenient for the priest. We're often available when it's convenient for you!

  15. Faith,

    I really can't emphasize enough how incredibly dodgy most spiritual direction programs are...you might ask your SD if he/she could begin training you one on one. You do NOT need a degree or any sort of certification to be a SD. There's a movement underfoot to turn spiritual direction into a credentialized industry dominated by the new age wingnuts. Avoid it.

    Fr. Dismas and Fr.Bill,

    Excellent advice...I completely agree.

    Br. Juniper,

    God is everyone's SD. But since He has chosen to interact with His creation thru instrumental causes, it is important for us to have flesh and blood SD's...otherwise, for some reason, "God" always seems to tell us exactly what we want to hear.


    Generally speaking, a SD is a good idea if you need to be pushed or held back or challenged, etc. I'm not ready to say that every single Catholic needs a SD. I would avoid using a SD as a therapist. The difference btw a SD and a therapist can be difficult to discern but basically a SD is always going to lead you to God, through God, out from God, etc. A therapist is going to spend time on you as you w/o much reference to God.

  16. Faith, one more thing about SD programs.

    If you find one that you are interested in, I'd love to see it.

    I can't say that I know every single program out there, but the ones I'm familiar with are dodgy at best.

  17. Father Philip,

    thanks for all of this wonderful advice.

  18. Anonymous11:12 AM

    Fr. P,

    Some dioceses have set up SD formation programs. Are you familiar with them in general?


  19. There is an excellent book (as far as I know) on spiritual direction by Fr. Thomas Dubay. He also has some wonderful videos like Deep Conversion/ Deep Prayer available from EWTN. com

    Also Father, I really like your post. I just have to say that I have a difference of opinion with you on keeping info about a Spiritual Director being a new age kook to yourself. If you are warning people so they don't fall into the snare, I think it is important and necessary to do so.
    (One of the reasons I am glad I am not a religious... I believe that have a lot more freedom to say what I think I should)

  20. Thanks for this great post, and the great comments too. I see how sensible it is, but I doubt I could bring myself to interview even one person like that, much less interview several until I found someone suitable. It's so tough to be assertive, especially with a near-stranger.

    I've spoken with some priests who were wonderful directors for other people, but they couldn't help me much because I could hardly communicate what was on my mind. It's pretty frustrating. Probably drove them crazy, too. :)

  21. Rachel Gray,
    I totally agree with you! I could never go through such a rigorious interviewing process.

    And I always do better writing letters/email than I do in person. In person I tend to follow too many rabbit trails and get lost in the discussion....never to address the actual problem I'm having. Writing and reviewing makes sure that I focus on what I really need to say.

  22. Anonymous6:35 AM

    Great guidelines, Fr P. Thank you. Much better than starting out with the first SD to which you are referred, using a "probation period". By that time, if you find out that the guidance you are receiving is bizarrely New Age, you will have already begun to feel guilty for your suspicions and for "judging" the director. Much time can be spent chasing your own tail and you may develop a bias against the whole idea of spiritual direction as a result. :)
    For this very reason though, I wonder at your instruction, "if it turns out that the potential S.D. is some kind of New Age kook, you are obligated to keep that assessment to yourself. The obligation to confidentiality binds both the director and the directee."
    If I hadn't told a priest, finally, I might never have broken free from my confusing situation. I would still be apologizing for doing as the Church teaches and recommends and seeking to strengthen wrong practices.
    When I sought spiritual direction, I had already been running on a New Age detour. The SD was even more deceived and accepting of such things than I was, which was frightening, considering that she was a nun. I can't say that she helped put me back on the right path, but in running away from her guidance and towards trustworthy priests, I was knocked over eventually, by the Truth. (I am reminded to pray for Sister and for all those who swallowed the New Age poison I had been drinking.)
    God works in mysterious ways to recover His straying sheep. Blessed be God!

  23. The director/directee relationship is confidential.


    I understand that not "warning others" can cause some harm; however, each of us is responsible for our own formation in the faith. A SD is a help, a guide. A SD cannot replace a well-conscience or a knowledge of the faith. Warning others about a potential New Age kook based on info you have thru spiritual direction violates a confidential relationship. You wouldn't want your SD telling other SD to avoid you b/c you are a Papist Kook.

    Sorry. I'm not bending on this one.

  24. Papist Kook. I would be honoured! If those other SD listened to the New Age guy, and avoided me because I liked the Pope, he would be doing me a huge favour as they wouldn't be much good as SD's anyway. I would do better to be without.

    Even psychologists keep confidentiality unless there is something that would endanger someone else or the person themselves, so in the same way I would not hesitate to warn others if they could be putting their soul in jeopardy unwittingly. If the SD told me that he was into really bad stuff, I would report him. There's no seal of confession on my part as a lay person. Silence has gotten into some of the huge messes we are in now, with all due respect Father.

    God bless you,

  25. Adele,

    I'm not talking about criminal behavior or harassment...all I mean is that your judgment about a particular SD should be kept confidential if sharing your judgment requires you to divulge info shared in the session. So, it would be improper for you to go running to family and friends and tell them not to go to Sr. Moonbat 'cause she believes in Earth worship. You might say, in charity, that Sr Moonbat just wasn't right for you. SD is not under the sacramental seal of confession...but it comes close.

  26. Anonymous4:07 PM


    Do you believe one must have face-to-face contact with their SD? If one lives in an area greatly lacking in orthodox priests, would you recommend communication via email as legit and enriching, or damaging?

  27. Amy,

    First, I don't think that a SD must be a priest or a religious. There are excellent lay SD's out there.

    I don't recommend email SD. I have a couple of directees from U.D. that I direct via email, but I know them well from many face-to-face sessions before I moved to Rome.

    If you really need SD and the only way to get it is through email, then do what you must. So much of SD is about tone, facial expression, affect...none of which is captured by email. If you are looking for simple answers to specific questions, email is OK, I guess...

  28. TIA,

    I'm not familiar with any diocesan programs for SD. The ones I know about are all university based. If you have info on a program, I'd be happy to look at it.


    I don't everyone needs a SD as a matter of course. Much like a doctor's visit, a visit to a SD can be limited in time and scope.

    Generally, SD can be most helpful during dry periods in your prayer life or when you are needing some help discerning God's will for you. I'm thinking here of times when you need to make a major decision like a change in vocation or some crisis in faith.

    Priests and religious have SD's as a matter of course b/c we deal with so many people who depend on us to be level-headed and "in the game."

    For the average Catholic layman, a regular SD is not strictly necessary. If you have a good SD, hang on to him/her with monthly visits. Come prepared to get down to business and don't waste time with trivial problems. Get to the meat of the issue ASAP!

    Remember: SD is not a time for friendly visits or chit-chat. Do your homework and listen. I've "fired" directees before b/c they never did their homework. I guess my professor side got a little put out! :-)

  29. Anonymous6:51 PM

    Fr. P,

    My diocese has a program in place to form spiritual directors: http://austindiocese.org/department_home.php?id=16

    Are you familiar with such programs?

    Thanks In Advance

  30. Augustine,

    The info on the link is not sufficient...contact the brother in the charge of the program and ask for a booklist or some sort of reading packet that might help you understand the approach of the program.

    I've never heard anything dodgy about Austin. I've taught some of their seminarians.

  31. Anonymous7:57 AM

    I see and accept your point about confidentiality, reputation, etc, Fr P. But it does open up a whole new field of ministry. There are destructive SD-directee relationships. Too many people have taken bizarre detours from truth because their spiritual director "said so". And, on the other hand, what about the SD's who are saddled with directees who begin every other sentence in a group setting with "My spiritual director says...".
    Therefore, in addition to the very useful info about choosing a spiritual director, guidance about the right way to be in or exit such a relationship (and self Q& A addressing good reasons for doing so?) would be appreciated by many, I think.
    Confidentiality, obedience, and the element of challenge to the directee indicate the need for a potential exit plan. As much as the relationship needs commitment to work, it's not a marriage.

  32. Anonymous11:09 AM

    Indeed, Bp. Aymond a solid shepherd and we are very blessed to have him.

    Happy feast of the Epiphany!

  33. Father, thank you for illuminating the questions to ask a potential SD.I really made me think. One size never fits all.

    Are you familiar with Father Chester Michael ?

    here in Charlottesville Va.. I am discerning attending his two year SD program in the spring.

    Also my blog is up and running now for two months. http://emmaustalk.blogspot.com/

    It is my daily conversation as I walk along each day with Jesus and a Saint.

    Keep up the great insights!