Getting Spiritual Direction Right

It requires careful reflection by those who would learn from it

What happens when you google “spiritual director near me”? You’ll instantly find an assortment of spiritualists and their handy contact information. Not what you are looking for? Better keep looking and look elsewhere. Take your time.

A priest friend who is a spiritual director at a Benedictine Abbey says that while good spiritual directors are not quite so rare as hens’ teeth, they’re not just a phone call away. No wonder. Spiritual direction involves holy listening and a docility to the Spirit. Indeed, my friend’s first and guiding resolve in becoming a spiritual director was simply to “do no harm.” From the outset he also knew that his giving spiritual direction would depend on his also receiving spiritual direction.

He’s quick to praise the classics of spiritual direction. A top recommendation is St. Francis De Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life. Full disclosure: my wife recommends it as well! Dipping into it, I was delighted to read that St. Francis thinks that chess (which I take to be an art disguised as a game) is a praiseworthy “mental activity.” He does add the caveat that “after playing for five or six hours” exhaustion and “over-anxiety” are the consequences. I’ll vouch for that.

Spiritual direction, at its best, can bring grace and friendship together. And this happy consequence, by way of easy transition, brings to mind Raïssa Maritain’s classic memoirs Adventures in Grace and We Have Been Friends Together (1942, 1945). Today her reflections often appear in Magnificat.

A convert from Judaism who escaped the Nazi occupation of France, she was no stranger to suffering. In her Journal she wrote, “We walk in darkness, risking bruising ourselves against a thousand obstacles. But we know that ‘God is love’ and trust that God is our light.” If we do not know this, it is the first lesson we need to learn.

But Raïssa goes on to say, “I have the feeling that what is asked of us is to live in the whirlwind, without keeping back any of our substance, without keeping back anything for ourselves, neither rest nor friendships nor health nor leisure – to pray incessantly and that even without leisure – in fact to let ourselves pitch and toss in the waves of the divine will till the day when it will say: ‘It is enough.’” Should this feeling, despite the eloquence of its expression, be something for us to share?

Good spiritual direction, and spiritual reading, requires careful reflection by those who would learn from it. Such reflection requires drawing distinctions. Yes, surely, living the Christian life “in the whirlwind” can require us to risk our every temporal good. The martyrs teach us this, though martyrdom is not a kind of spiritual athleticism.

Even so, living the Christian life ordinarily calls on us to encourage friendship and to care for our health. Even leisure has its virtue. St. Thomas Aquinas explains why. “Augustine says: ‘I pray thee, spare thyself at times: for it becomes a wise man sometimes to relax the high pressure of his attention to work.’ Now this relaxation of the mind from work consists in playful words or deeds. Therefore it becomes a wise and virtuous man to have recourse to such things at times. Moreover the Philosopher [Ethic. ii, 7; iv, 8] assigns to games the virtue of eutrapelia, which we may call ‘pleasantness.’” (ST II-II, q. 168, a. 2)

But leisure goes beyond diversion. Josef Pieper’s classic Leisure the Basis of Culture links leisure with the space that allows for the celebration of the liturgy. Moses’ first demand of Pharaoh is the freedom to set aside time for worship. Modernity goes wrong when it substitutes the vacuity of the “vacation” for the fulness of the “holyday.”

Another clarification: We do well to distinguish between an understanding of “the divine will” as a species of determinism and the surprising choreography of Providence. I’ve heard my priest friend, in a quick comment, say that “nothing happens by accident.” Not so. Like miracles, at least a hundred thousand accidents happen every day. Nonetheless, accidents are not at odds with Providence. Again, Thomas draws careful distinctions. He writes, “The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity, happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency.” Contingency includes chance (ST I, q. 22, a. 4 ad 1), and every mode of being leads us to the Creator.

I submit, gentle reader, that neither Raïssa Maritain nor my priest friend would dismiss such proposed clarifications as logic chopping. After all, it is Jacques Maritain who entitled his master work The Degrees of Knowledge: Distinguish to Unite.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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