This fall I was invited to assist a retreat house staff in the establishment of a training program for lay spiritual directors. I am not sure how my name was drawn out of the hat—these days, when my name comes up in the chancery, it is usually followed by “isn’t he dead yet?” But, still alive, I slipped in my dental plate and drove down to the campus. It was a very interesting meeting; all of the participants were considerably younger and had real jobs, not blogging, and thus joined us via Zoom. As I was sitting there, though, I became aware of my own poverty on the subject of spiritual direction, quite embarrassing when one considers that I have been a seminarian, a pastor, a confessor, a theology instructor, and a licensed mental health counselor in multiple settings, from a downtown service church to a boys’ shelter to an alcoholism treatment center. One would imagine that in that soup of experience, an expertise in spiritual wisdom and guidance would naturally rise to the top. But as my fellow parishioner and ESPN celebrity Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.”
So, what are we talking about here? Wikipedia’s treatment of spiritual direction is good: “Spiritual direction is the practice of being with people as they attempt to deepen their relationship with the divine, or to learn and grow in their personal spirituality.” It adds: “Spiritual direction is widespread in the Catholic tradition: a person with wisdom and spiritual discernment, usually but not exclusively a priest or consecrated [religious] in general, provides counsel to a person who wishes to make a journey of faith and discovery of God's will in his life.” Father William Barry, S.J., who has devoted a half-century to the theology and practice of spiritual direction, describes his work in considerable detail in this 2016 America feature story.
Unfortunately, despite my age and experience I am still a mere child in the art of delivering spiritual direction. The old Latin maxim is true: Nemo dat quod non habet. “You can’t give what you don’t have.” At least this new consulting project has helped sharpen for me my many inadequacies on my own journey to God’s heart, such as the absence of a focused personal tradition and discipline in seeking God in stillness. I am restless in prayer and meditation, like the kid or the batboy hanging around the dugout for tidbits, souvenirs, and inside gossip on baseball instead of going to clinics and learning what a lethal fastball really sounds like when it crosses the plate next to your head. Fortunately for me and the Church at large, the true historical spiritual mentors have left us remarkably good notes. I just “Primed” A Science of the Saints: Studies in Spiritual Direction  by Robert E. Alvis. The first chapter addresses spiritual direction among the “Desert Fathers and Mothers,” the earliest Christians to flee the decadence of the Roman Empire, particularly city life, for an austere life of prayer, penance, and wordless communion with God. This would be the era of St. Jerome, St. John Cassian, and St. Benedict, roughly 300-600 A.D.
As religious orders developed and multiplied throughout Europe, the ministry of spiritual direction became institutionalized, at least for clerics and religious, and probably for royalty and the rich. Spain’s Queen, Isabella, was profoundly influenced by her personal priest. It is interesting to note, though, that by St. Teresa of Avila’s day [1515-1582] the line between spiritual advice offered inside and outside the confessional was not always clear, and in her autobiography, she speaks highly of the advice she received from confessors as well as priest spiritual directors outside the sacrament. St. Francis de Sales [1567-1622] coined the phrase “spiritual direction,” and he provided a structure for it that is widely respected today in the Salesian tradition.
I can’t give a detailed history of how and when lay persons in the United States began to seek spiritual direction, or to administer it, for that matter—no historian, to my knowledge, has tackled that so far--though Father Barry, in the aforementioned America piece, recounts how he and several other Jesuits established an institute in the early 1970’s to teach lay persons how to become spiritual directors. Vatican II [1962-1965] certainly helped the cause with its teaching that all Catholics are called to a life of holiness by virtue of their baptism, not just those in orders and/or vows. Prior to the Council—and for a while afterward—the popular wisdom had it that clerics and religious were the ordinary providers of spiritual advice and, for that matter, the only ones who were expected to frequent this kind of counseling on a regular basis, too.
If there is one historical figure who opened the door to lay pursuit of deeper personal spiritual searching in the United States, a strong case can be made for the Trappist monk Thomas Merton [1915-1968]. Having entered the monastic cloister in 1941, Merton’s writings on the spiritual life—including his conversion autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain  and New Seeds of Contemplation —remain in the top 1% of Amazon bestsellers as of this writing. This is even more remarkable when one considers that his main body of work was completed before the end of Vatican II in 1965; his work successfully bridged two eras of Church life. Merton died in 1968—accidentally electrocuted by a faulty fan—but his writing served as a template for future generations of spiritual writers and Catholic laity seeking deeper communion with God beyond the obligatory guardrails of minimal observance.
My personal and professional background is rooted in the Franciscan Order, which in my time was heavily invested in downtown shrine churches [round the clock], educational institutions including colleges, and retreat work. There was a heavy demand for confessional ministry in these venues, as well as “pastoral counseling” as we called it then, which could be one meeting or periodic sessions with the same priest. I cut my teeth in these settings. In my seminary there was a popular elective called “Diagnostic Planning and Thinking,” a cross between basic theology, psychology, and social work which enabled us to discern what kinds of help an individual might need. It was particularly popular for those of us then giving youth retreats. After ordination I conducted retreats for communities of sisters in New York State and New England, where there was an unspoken expectation that every participant would have an hour meeting for spiritual direction with the retreat master, which might or might not include the Sacrament of Penance or “a general confession.” I don’t think I would have the stamina today for those intense 16-hour days anymore; I barely did in the 1970’s. In one retreat house, the retreat master was expected to offer a 5:30 AM Mass for the sisters working the kitchen!
By the time I moved into parish pastoring, c. 1980, I was seeing the national decline in confessions. For a discussion on this trend, see Sin in the Sixties: Catholic and Confession 1955-1975  by Maria C. Morrow. Pastoral Counseling requests from parishioners and others, however, increased [or remained steady], and in 1984 I began a four-year master’s degree program at nights at Rollins College, and earned the degree in counseling in 1988. I have to say, however, that to my detriment I was neglecting my own need for spiritual direction or guidance. It is easy for a priest to justify that—the demands of a busy parish, alcohol abuse, the excuse that “I read a lot” for my preaching and work. And no, I did not have a spiritual director.
Curiously, the first powerful structure of personal spiritual input for me came in the form of AA, 32 years ago. As many of you know, Alcoholics Anonymous has a strong religious component of daily meetings, prayer, daily examination of conscience, open discussion, penance, reconciliation, and sponsorship. For me, this was buttressed by two years of weekly therapy with a licensed psychotherapist who happened to be an Episcopalian and challenged me on my need to recover [or, in some cases discover] my spiritual roots. She had me reading St. Augustine’s Confessions and possibly Merton. I can’t say the texts alone changed my life, but the atmosphere of personal interaction with a Christian counselor was challenging and fruitful. Although I was seeing this therapist for compelling clinical depression and anxiety diagnoses as well as vocational discernment, it is very true that there was a significant spiritual component to our work that opened the door for a more energetic embrace of a spiritual life later.
That was over three decades ago. Next year I will be celebrating my silver wedding anniversary to a woman of great faith and humor. I think the role of the husband-wife dynamic in spiritual growth is not sufficiently emphasized in our general Catholic practice. Prior to our marriage my pastor sent us on a four-day retreat to a Trappist monastery in South Carolina as our “pre-Cana” marriage preparation back in 1998, thus beginning an attraction to the wholesome structured life and spirituality of Merton’s Trappist monks. In very recent years the wisdom of Merton and the dedication of the monks have focused me considerably. About four years ago Margaret and I joined an online group with four other “alumni” of Trappist retreats to reflect together upon assigned readings from Merton, Richard Rohr, and next year, Joan Chittister. The group experience has been particularly helpful for me in the sense that I read and reflect upon the material not only for myself but for my group confreres. There is a healthy sense of church to all this, though we are of different denominations. The reach of the Trappists is truly ecumenical.
This long personal detour of mine highlights, I hope, the eccentric and lengthy routes many of us take to find God, when in fact God is always there and waiting for us to be still, trusting, and humble of heart. For whatever reason, I habitually wrestle with a tendency to be “all Martha” and “no Mary.” Merton, in New Seeds of Contemplation [p. 255] provides an antidote. “One of the first things to learn if you want to be a contemplative is how to mind your own business. Nothing is more suspicious, in a man who seems holy, than an impatient desire to reform other men.” Or in Jesus own words, “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.” To dare offer advice to those who seek it requires the heavy lifting of beams from one’s own experience of life.
Which brings us around to the question of spiritual direction for Catholics at large. Do Catholics know what it is? Does or should every Catholic adult have a spiritual director? Are people pounding on church doors looking for spiritual directors? And, to my original question, who should be providing this ministry? There are, in the United States, possibly several hundred programs for training lay spiritual directors ranging from graduate degrees at major Catholic universities to on-line preparatory programs provided by religious communities or lay associations. They vary, obviously, in intensity and quality. Some offer accredited B.A.’s and M.A.’s while others offer “certificates.” I can find only one “clearing house” for spiritual direction certification, The Canadian Council of Professional Certification. The program I am looking at is a one-year certification program. Is this enough? How does one screen applicants? Who pays the tuition? [$4000/year is not uncommon.] Are we coming upon an age where payment for spiritual direction is the new norm? Obviously, this is a ministry that raises as many questions as answers, and I will take a closer look at these in the next installment.