Spiritual direction is a wise Catholic practice that began many centuries ago, its purpose being to help a person achieve a deep relationship with God, and thus live a life of real freedom, individuality, and love. By meeting and sharing on a regular basis with the director, the directee is taught how to discern the activity within one's soul of the Good or evil spirits, and is encouraged in his/her closer walk with Christ. The director may or may not also be the person's confessor.
Spiritual direction is not the same as modern psychotherapy or counseling. Psychotherapy deals with processes originating in some painful experience of a mental or emotional illness. The relationships operating are those of a doctor or healer with a patient. The process is terminated when freedom and emotional balance is achieved, and the patient can make normal contact with reality here and now.
Counseling focuses on a problem experience of ignorance or confusion. The role model is of a teacher who clarifies and imparts knowledge to a pupil or learner. The goal is to solve the problem and dispel ignorance and confusion. An example would be marriage counseling or career counseling. (In some charismatic circles,spiritual counseling, with the use of visions, directive prophecy, etc., has become popular, confusing the distinction between counseling and spiritual direction).
In the Catholic practice of spiritual direction, the relationship between the directee and God is primary. It is not the job of the director to reveal God's will and plans to the directee, but to help the person to interiorise and to learn experientially which voice or spirit is operating on his/her inner psychic and spiritual life. The main contribution of the director is to help sensitize the directee's listening and discerning faculties, so as to be in attunement with God's will.
Therefore, the first quality sought in a spiritual director is an overall holiness of life. The directee needs the mediation of a holy man/woman to bring forth new life in the Holy Spirit. Only one who has already passed through ascetical purification and has arrived at a certain, habitual union with the indwelling God can recognize the working of the Spirit and properly guide another along the same path. The director must not be swayed by the many psychological and spiritual forces that can often be released in such encounters during a sharing session. Directees can consciously/unconsciously be involved in a subtle game-playing, and only a humble, holy person can help the directee recognize such tactics and deal with them openly.
In all this, the director must take care not to usurp the role of the Holy Spirit. One's growth in spiritual life will be determined by one's willingness to plumb the depths of one's heart and enter into an aloneness with God; it is in the desert of one's heart that one has to strip oneself and come face to face with who one is and who God is. Hence the director must not impose upon the directee a timetable for his/her spiritual growth, but allow the Spirit, in his own time and in his own way (unique for this or that person), to lead him/her to the true freedom of the children of God, and to the habitual experience of true, deep, inner peace and the other fruit of the Spirit.
Finally, the director must keep all relationship between self and the directee subordinate always to his own personal relationship with God, and be cautious about any affection shown to him. If there is evidence (on the part of either or both) that there is a growing affection or strong attraction for the other, this matter must be taken up in one's personal prayer, and precautions taken so as not to impede mutual docility to the Holy Spirit.
In the context of Charismatic Renewal
Spiritual directors must encourage an openness to the charisms, but in an authentic and Catholic way! In the Old Testament, there were both true and false prophets. In the early Church, there were dissensions and various opposing teachers and practices. Throughout Christian history, seers and visionaries have appeared with messages from God or the Blessed Virgin, only to be proved to be 'hysterics', victims of heresies like 'illuminism' or 'enthusiasm'. Hence the Catholic Church is cautious of private revelations from people who claim, 'The Lord has given me this message...'
Over the last 2000 years, the Church has developed a large body of solid and prudent teachings to help us to 'discern' the activity of various 'spirits' in order that we may be truly guided by the Holy Spirit rather than any deceiving spirits. The teachings of Sts.John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola are especially helpful here.
In his book, Speak Lord, I Hear, Fr.George Maloney, SJ tells us that the teachers of true Christian mysticism have always insisted on caution and discernment in judging the source of any mystical experiences. They insist that visions, voices, levitation, odors and sweet tastes in the mouth with gentle touches by angelic messengers, paroxysms of laughter, physical, violent convulsions, preaching and writing in an 'automatic', impulsive manner, swooning or a falling phenomenon, and other related experiences are never to be sought for in prayer (or in prayer-meetings!). No attention is to be given to physico-psychic effects, according to St. John of the Cross:
'It must be known that even though these apprehensions come to the bodily senses from God, one must never rely on them or accept them. One should rather flee from them completely, without trying to ascertain whether they be good or evil. The more corporal and external they are, the less certain is their divine origin. God's communication is more commonly and appropriately given to the spirit, in which there is greater security and profit for the soul, than to the senses where ordinarily there is extreme danger and room for deception... Whoever esteems these experiences is in serious error and extreme danger of being deceived. Or at least one's spiritual growth will be hindered, because these corporal perceptions bear no proportion to what is spiritual' (Ascent of Mt.Carmel, Bk.II, xi).
God is to be the center of all our strivings, never ourselves. At times a false peace can cover over areas of our lives that need to be reckoned with, in the presence of God, for healing, before we can go on to a deeper union with God. By focusing on how peaceful we are in moments of prayer or during such physico-psychic experiences rather than in being open to God's workings through the Holy Spirit, we can only delay future progress in the spiritual life.
If we see a holy life lived by a person who claims to experience God in deep prayer, we can recognize that the Spirit of God has met that person deeply and has transformed his/her life by grace and human cooperation. But we should always be suspect of the person who cares little to serve his/her immediate neighbor or who refuses to listen to any voice other than his/ her own inner one.
A good principle in the spiritual life is that the fruit of the Spirit usually appear as a unified growth. Their growth is one of greater unity of personhood in self-giving love, bringing about a progressive increase in basic well-being, joy, peace and consolation; whereas, Fr. Maloney points out, each fruit individually can be mistaken for other reactions that neither indicate the action of the Spirit nor flow out of love: patience can be a cloak for apathy, affability for crowd acceptance, long-suffering for cowardliness...
Christians can impede any desire for greater progress in the spiritual life by an over-riding attachment to false religious experience. The Church knows the power of hysteria and of self-induced physico-psychic phenomena, once the conscious control has yielded to an opening of one's unconscious through mental illness or prolonged introspection as a part of the pursuit of holiness. It also knows the power of demonic forces to communicate and even gain control over certain physical and psychic areas of a human being's life. Hence the urgent need for discernment.
Various criteria can be used to discern what is of the Spirit:
- Does the experience integrate with sound Christian doctrine?
- Can the person better live the Gospel in a stable, ongoing way, because of this experience?
- Does the receiver experience an increase of the love of God which results in more prayer and in more love for people, which in turn results in self-respect and self-confidence as well as in deeper respect for others?
- Does the experience produce an obsession with itself? Becoming attracted by and attached to such an experience may be a negative sign of it not being from God's Spirit. Is one separating the physico-psychic aspects of the experience from the spiritual area of deepening faith, hope and love and clinging inordinately to the sense-gratifying aspects?
St. John of the Cross advised us above that 'although all these things may happen to the bodily senses in the way of God, we must never rely upon them or accept them...' He explains that an authentic act of God will produce its effect upon one's spirit at the very moment as it appears or is felt. As God gives these happenings to us gratuitously, without any effort on our part, God also produces in us the effect that he desires by means of such an experience: 'It is as if fire were applied to a person's naked body; it would matter little whether or not he wished to be burned; the fire would of necessity accomplish its work.' (ibid.)
To conclude, we must encourage our people in the prayer groups to look for good spiritual directors and to visit them on a regular basis for sound spiritual direction. Their purpose must be to receive advice about the way in which they can personally discover God's plan for them, rather than expect the director to reveal God's will for them through visions or other means. In their walk with the Lord, it must the Spirit himself, working steadily and surely within their hearts, who must change them from one degree of glory to another, into the image and likeness of Jesus (2Cor.3:17f).