Spiritual Direction and the Call to Greater Union with God

As someone who is both a spiritual director and one who has been receiving spiritual direction for many years, I read with interest Daniel Burke’s Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, sent to me by The Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program.

Burke and I share the conviction that spiritual direction is an important tool for helping us deepen our relationship with God. As I have told people who have asked me, I think anyone who is a regular pray-er, anyone who is committed to a life of discipleship and to deepening their life with God can benefit from direction. And I share Burke’s passion for sharing with others that which I have benefitted from.

I also agree with Burke both about the need to choose a spiritual director carefully and about the lack of knowledge/awareness many people have about what spiritual direction is. Thus, I think a book like this, that seeks to bring understanding of spiritual direction to a wider audience has great potential value. Having said that, there are several respects in which Burke and I part company.

The book begins with a chapter defining what spiritual direction is and what it is not. His description of what spiritual direction is correctly identifies that there are three parties to the spiritual direction relationship – the director, directee, and God, and that the central aim of direction is “to help guide the directee to purposely, consistently and substantively grow in their relationship with God and neighbor.” And I think some of the distinctions Burke draws are important, such as the distinction between spiritual direction and psychological counseling and the difference between spiritual direction and confession.

I do not, however, share Burke’s view that it is “sub-optimal” to have a spiritual director who is not a priest. While he recognizes that spiritual direction is not “the exclusive territory of priests and religious,” his ideal is a spiritual director that can also serve as confessor. I have seen this bias in others, knowing some people who believe that a priest, regardless of how little training in providing spiritual direction is superior to any lay person, regardless of how much training they have received. I do not share Burke’s view that the training in moral and dogmatic theology provides a sufficient basis for providing spiritual direction.

Given my training in Ignatian spirituality, I also don’t draw the sharp distinction I read Burke as drawing between the spiritual life of the directee and other aspects of their lives. While I agree that the “specific focus of spiritual direction is the spiritual life of the directee,” Ignatius’ emphasis on finding God in all things means there is virtually nothing that is completely divorced from our spiritual lives. Thus, unlike Burke, I think there is very little “elements, activities and interests that are peripheral” to the spiritual life.”

I had similarly mixed reactions to his chapters on finding a spiritual director and entering into a spiritual direction relationship. I think the most important criteria for a director is that the director himself or herself has experience in the spiritual life – that the director has a lived spirituality and is not someone who simply talks about faith and spirituality. (And I agree that there is an enormous difference between quoting from saints like Teresa of Avila and understanding their spirituality.) For me, a director’s view on “a few hot-button issues” are less important than they are for Burke. My job as a director is not to convince a directee of my theology – it is to help them grow in their relationship to God; the same is true regarding my relationship with my own director.

In his chapter on first meetings, I don’t disagree with a lot of what he suggests by way of preparing to meet with one’s director. However, I was taken aback by his claim that it is hard to get an appointment with a potential director. He asserts that director’s don’t make it easy to get an appointment as a means of gauging an interested directee’s seriousness and constancy. That may be Burke’s practice as a director. It is certainly not mine and it has not bene the practice with anyone from whom I have sought direction over the years – priest, religious or lay. When someone interested in direction calls me asking if I am available to take on a new directee, I have a phone conversation with them to determine if it makes sense for us to meet and then meet with the person. It may take some weeks for that meeting to occur given my schedule, but never would I either delay getting back to someone or do anything else to make it difficult for a person to see me.

The book contains a useful chapter on spiritual self-evaluation and of identification of “root” sins, useful not only for those seeking spiritual direction. A later chapter discusses stages of development of the spiritual life. While good, I wonder how useful some of it is for the primary audience of the book – i.e., those not yet in direction.

In all, there is much I thought beneficial in the book, but also a number of things that cause me hesitation about it.