Important qualities to look for in a spiritual director

October 10, 2011 by  
Filed under Patrick's Blog

Over the last 25 years or so, I’ve noticed with bemusement an unfortunate trend in the United States in which an increasing number of lay people arrogate to themselves the title of “spiritual director.” I regard this as unfortunate because, except in certain rare exceptions, lay people are simply not qualified or competent to serve as spiritual directors.

Even lay people who have some formal training in theology do not, by virtue of that fact, have the requisite qualities necessary to be spiritual directors.

I’ve seen some real messes result from lay people attempting to give spiritual direction to others. For example, Regnum Christi (RC), the lay movement associated with the embattled Legionaries of Christ religious order of men, had for years appointed numerous goodhearted, sincere, and wholly unqualified RC lay women to be “spiritual directors” for other RC lay women in the absence of a priest. As you might imagine, problems and misunderstandings ensued. Eventually, at least here in the U.S., the Legionaries and RC leaders abandoned the moniker “spiritual director” in favor of the less dubious “spiritual guide.”

My guess is that virtually all lay people who style themselves as spiritual directors (including those who are regarded as such by others, even by some deacons and priests), are really just confusing spiritual direction with counseling. That such a benign confusion is prevalent these days shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, upwards of three generations of Catholics nowadays are, by and large, woefully under-catechized in the doctrinal and spiritual teachings of the Catholic Faith.

This is not to say that those goodhearted  and sincere lay men and lay women who present themselves as spiritual directors are necessarily themselves woefully under-catechized (although some may very well be), but their laudable service to others, insofar as they seek to offer helpful advice of a spiritual nature, does not make them spiritual directors in the classical Catholic sense of the term.

Don’t get me wrong. By all means, Catholic lay people should strive to offer good counsel and spiritual advice when the need and opportunity arises. Counseling can be done informally or formally, such as in the case of a man or woman who is properly trained in the art of counseling (for example, having earned a master’s degree in that field). But counselling and spiritual direction are not the same thing. It’s proper and good for lay people to engage in the former though, in my view, not the in latter.

Now, since I am confident that my remarks here will elicit some push back from those who are convinced spiritual direction is indeed suitable for lay people, I’d like to advert to the wise and erudite advice on this question from the late Father Jordan Aumann, O.P. (1916-2007), who wrote Spiritual Theology, a masterful explanation of the ways and means of the spiritual life, including what to look for in a spiritual director. While he doesn’t come right out and declare that spiritual direction is not a suitable domain for lay people (except, as I’ve said, under certain, rare circumstances), I think you’ll see that the cumulative force of his explanation militates inexorably toward that conclusion.


PERHAPS NO WRITER HAS OUTLINED with such clarity and precision the technical qualities of a good spiritual director as have St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. She states that a good spiritual director should be learned, prudent, and experienced. St. John of the Cross also maintains that a director should be learned, prudent, and experienced, and he places great emphasis on experience.

Learning. The learning of a spiritual director should be extensive. In addition to having a profound knowledge of dogmatic theology, without which he would be exposed to error in regard to matters of faith, and of moral theology, without which he could not even fulfill the office of confessor, the spiritual director should have a thorough knowledge of ascetical and mystical theology. He should know, for example, the theological doctrine concerning Christian perfection, especially regarding such questions as the essence of perfection, the obligation to strive for perfection, the obstacles to perfection, the types of purgation, and the means of positive growth in virtue. He should have a detailed knowledge of the grades of prayer, the trials God usually sends to souls as they advance from the lower to the higher degrees of prayer, and the illusions and assaults of the devil that souls may encounter.

He also needs to be well versed in psychology so that he will have an understanding of various temperaments and characters, the influences to which the human personality is subjected, and the function of the emotions in the life of the individual. He should also know at least the basic principles of abnormal psychology and psychiatry so that he will be able to recognize mental unbalance and nervous or emotional disorders.

A priest should realize that, if he is not competent to direct a particular soul, he should advise the individual to go to someone who possesses the necessary knowledge. A priest incurs a grave responsibility before God if he attempts to direct a soul when he lacks sufficient knowledge. In recent times, with the wider dissemination of knowledge of mental illness, the priest must especially be warned that, as regards the field of psychiatry and the therapeutic methods proper to that branch of medicine, he is a mere “layman” and is incompetent to treat mental sickness. If he suspects that a penitent is suffering from a mental illness, he should direct that individual to a professional psychiatrist, just as readily as he would expect a psychiatrist to refer spiritual problems to a clergyman.

Prudence. This is one of the most important qualities for a spiritual director. It comprises three basic factors: prudence in judgment, clarity in counseling, and firmness in exacting obedience.

If a spiritual director lacks prudence, he is usually lacking several other virtues as well. Prudence enables an individual to do the right thing under given circumstances. Spiritual direction is not concerned with the general doctrine of spiritual theology, nor with theoretical situations that one may imagine, but with the individual soul placed in concrete circumstances at a given moment or in a given phase of spiritual growth.

The director is not called upon to make decisions regarding general doctrine; most people could find such answers in any standard manual of spiritual theology. The director’s role is precisely to recognize the particular circumstances of a given situation and to give the advice needed at that moment. In order that the advice be prudent, a spiritual director must have the empathy by which he is able to place himself in the given circumstances and must have the patience to listen attentively. Of the various factors that militate against prudence, the following are especially common: lack of knowledge of the various states of the ascetical and mystical life, lack of understanding of human psychology, prejudice in regard to particular states of life or particular exercises of piety, lack of humility, excessive eagerness to make a judgment.

The second characteristic of prudence in the spiritual director is clarity in the advice given to the one directed and in the norms of conduct prescribed. In order that he may be clear in his direction, he must. possess clarity in his own mind. In speaking to the soul he is directing, he should avoid any vague or indecisive language, but should always express himself in concrete and definite terms. He should resolve problems with a yes or a no and, if necessary, he should take the time for further deliberation before making his decision. If a soul perceives that the director is not sure of himself, it will lose confidence in him, and his direction will lose all its efficacy.

Moreover, the director should always be sincere and frank, without any partiality or selfish motives. It would be a serious fault if a director were to avoid offending the person directed lest that person should go to some other priest for direction. Those priests who place great importance in attracting and retaining a large number of followers are, by that very fact, disposing themselves to failure as spiritual directors. The director should never forget that he acts in the name of the Holy Spirit in directing souls, and that he must endeavor to treat those souls with kindness and- understanding, but with firmness and utter frankness.

The director must also take care that he does not become the one who is directed. Some persons are extremely competent in’ getting their own way in everything, and even the director is in danger of falling under their power. For that reason, once the director is certain of his decision and the course that should be followed; he should state his mind with unyielding firmness. The individual must be convinced that there are only two alternatives: to obey or to find another director.

But the director should not forget that he should never demand of a soul anything that is incompatible with its state of life or vocation, its strength, or present condition. He should realize that there are some things that can be demanded of advanced souls but could never be required of beginners; that some things would be perfectly fitting in dealing with a priest or religious but not with a lay person. Excessive rigor does nothing but frighten souls and may cause them to abandon the road to perfection. There is, therefore, a world of difference between firmness in demanding obedience and an excessive rigidity that discourages the soul of the penitent.

Experience. This is one of the most precious qualities of a good spiritual director. Even if he is less perfect in knowledge and somewhat deficient in prudence, experience can make up for these deficiencies. This does not mean that the experience of the director must necessarily flow from his own spiritual life, for he may obtain the benefits of experience from his observation and direction of others.

As regards the personal experience of the director, if it is a question of the guidance of the average Christian, he needs little more than the experience any priest can obtain from the faithful fulfillment of his duties in the sacred ministry. If it is a question of advanced souls who have already entered the mystical stages of the spiritual life, it is desirable that the priest himself have some experience of those higher stages. If he lacks this, a delicate sense of prudence, coupled with competent knowledge of the mystical states, will suffice in the majority of cases.

But personal experience alone is not sufficient to make a spiritual director as competent as he ought to be. There are many different paths by which the Holy Spirit can lead souls to the summit of sanctity. It would be a serious mistake for a director to attempt to lead all souls along the same path and to impose on them his own personal experiences, however beneficial they may have been for himself. The spiritual director should never forget that he is merely an instrument in the hands of the Holy Spirit and that his work must be entirely subjected to the Holy Spirit. If, through a lack of understanding of the variety of divine gifts and the multiplicity of roads to perfection, he were to force all souls to travel by the same road, he would become a veritable obstacle to the workings of grace in the soul.

Moral Qualities of a Spiritual Director . . . (continue reading)