Spiritual Direction and the Art of Accompaniment

By Carol Lackie, Sisters Initiative Project Coordinator, Catholic Volunteer Network

While you were a volunteer it’s likely that you had many opportunities to grow in your faith and reflect on the ways that God is present in your life and ministry. After service, it may not be quite as easy. Without scheduled community prayer and periodic retreats, it’s now up to you to make room for spiritual growth. Spiritual direction is one way to introduce a consistent practice of deeper reflection. This article provides insight on what to expect from the experience of spiritual direction and the resources you need to get started.   

God calls us to community and companionship. We are not called to journey through life alone. This principle is at the very foundation of spiritual direction. Spiritual directors are not therapists, they are trained "companions" who support their directees through listening and discernment. 

One of my recent ministries involved vocation work with a congregation of religious Sisters. As part of that ministry, I was called to walk with women who were inquiring into religious life to discern whether they might have a religious vocation. One day, a fellow vocation minister suggested I could benefit from studying spiritual direction. I had no idea what this was all about but I thought that if it helped me in my work, I should look into it. For the next two years, I engaged in what could only be described as a transformational experience for me as I learned to appreciate the purpose and art of spiritual direction.

It might help to know that for most of my career life, I worked as a lawyer – someone trained to gather facts, ponder alternatives and come up with a solutions to problems. This was the lens through which I viewed the world, and more specifically, people in search of…whatever. Life to me was a series of problems to be fixed, questions to be answered, boxes to be tied up with neat little bows. The purpose of inquiry was always to “resolve and move on.”

In order to grasp the “art” and practice of spiritual direction, I had to let go of years of training. I had to completely re-envision what it meant to be helpful to another person as they journeyed their life’s path. I learned how to listen without a personal agenda regarding what the speaker should be saying or feeling – or doing! I learned how to be silent when asked for answers from someone struggling for direction. I learned how to be patient with another’s indecision and anxiety over which path to take. I learned how to be a gentle presence as my directees searched for the voice of God in the patterns of their own lives as they were living them. Above all, I learned to respect the journey of each person – trusting that God speaks to all of us and perhaps our greatest quest is to learn the language through which he is reaching out to us. 

My study awakened in me a renewed appreciation for the sacredness of each person’s story and, a respect for those that choose to witness to the discernment process of “the other” through the art of accompaniment as that person’s spiritual director. One of the most profound “take-aways” of my training in spiritual direction was directly related to this sacred, individual nature of the “other’s” journey – that is, the responsibility of the spiritual director not to insert his or her own perspective or inclinations into the directee’s observations, wonderings or inner conflicts. The obligation of the director is always to reflect those sharings back to the directee - to help the directee learn to decipher the meaning in his or her own particular life.

Another question came up during the course of my spiritual direction training and that was whether directors/directees can be friends. At first, to all of us future directors, it seemed as though this type of interaction could easily either begin in or lead to meaningful friendships. Our instructor tried to help us understand the challenges of such a situation. The purpose of spiritual direction is for the directee to explore his or her own, personal relationship with God. This is, most often, a nuanced connection and the directee must be free of external influences in order to see and begin to understand how God is reaching out to him or her. Without even realizing it, a friendship can layer over this effort a set of expectations or “predeterminations” that will only serve to confuse the directee and interfere with the process. By the end of our training, we all understood the need for keeping this very unique relationship separate from our “friendship circles.”

There are some wonderful resources on-line to help you further your understanding of spiritual direction.     

Ignatianspirituality.com, an on-line publication of Loyola Press, describes spiritual direction as “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship,” (William A. Barry and William J. Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction) and goes on to provide:

  • Spiritual direction focuses on religious experience. It is concerned with a person’s actual experience of a relationship with God.
  • Spiritual direction is about a relationship. The religious experience is not isolated, nor does it consist of extraordinary events. It is what happens in an ongoing relationship between the person and God. Most often this is a relationship that is experienced in prayer.
  • Spiritual direction is a relationship that is going somewhere. God is leading the person to deeper faith and more generous service. The spiritual director asks not just “what is happening?” but “what is moving forward?”
  • The real spiritual director is God. God touches the human heart directly. The human spiritual director does not “direct” in the sense of giving advice and solving problems. Rather, the director helps a person respond to God’s invitation to a deeper relationship.

Spiritual Directors International, www.sdiworld.org, is another great resource that will help you explore what spiritual direction is, how to find a spiritual director and also how to navigate or understand the fee structure related to spiritual direction. It is important to remember that you must feel comfortable with your director. Prepare yourself to interview several directors. If you do not have a sense that you can work with an individual - to keep looking. Keep in mind that the director has the same latitude when interviewing you.

Good luck! Spiritual direction can be an amazing tool for discerning your path and learning how to listen for God in your life. 

Staying Connected is a collaborative effort of Catholic Volunteer Network and the Catholic Apostolate Center