summer 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 100-113.

Joann Crowley:
      Spiritual Direction: Orientation, Relationship, Process

As a process of mutual discovery and disclosure, spiritual direction opens new horizons of self-knowledge, compassion, and deep oneness with the Spirit of God.

Joann Crowley, I.H.M., is pastoral administrator at Holy Family Parish, Chicago. She received a masters degree with a concentration in spiritual direction from the Washington Theological Union and the Ed.S. from the University of Colorado.

The Spirit we have received is God's Spirit, helping us recognize the gifts God has given us (I Cor. 2:12)

SPIRITUAL direction is almost as old as religious tradition, yet, in our time, it is experiencing a re-birth that invites us to pay attention to its newness, as well as to its history, its present as well as its past, its contemporary rejuvenation, and the needs our society brings to it. It is at once an orientation, a relationship and a process, the coming together of two Christians to reflect on the experience of God in the life of one of them, with the intention of discerning the invitation that is being extended and the response called for.

Ideally, the one seeking assistance wants to maintain an orientation (which Sandra Schneiders calls a direction)(1) toward God and toward growth. This means that the Spirit is Director, and that direction refers to the guidance of the Spirit. Calling the human director "soul friend" or "spiritual companion" helps clarify this, but since the term "director," as applied to the human helper, has such a long history in Catholic tradition, I am using it here to mean the person who brings a special competence to the relationship.

The goal of direction is to deepen the relationship between God and the directee, and, in the process, for the directee to come to a greater knowledge of both self and God, in an increasing interiority. The directee encounters God in prayer, and shares with her or his director both that prayer experience and the way it affects daily life and thought, allowing the relationship between director and directee to be the place where one's life and prayer are examined, and where acceptance, affirmation, support and challenge encourage the directee's spiritual growth.

To describe spiritual direction as a process is to emphasize its dynamic, developmental nature. Something happens. Something changes. There is a growth and becoming. One enters direction with a certain element of risk, because it means opening oneself to learning what God wants, being ready to let go of whatever hinders growth, and dying to parts of oneself that may be cherished. It is freely submitting oneself to God's action, and trust in God's loving will. A fundamental choice for what God wills -- or at least a desire for such a choice -- seems essential for direction to be fruitful.


God, who is the primary director, speaks in many ways. We are surrounded by God, immersed as in an ocean. At the same time, God is also in us, in our bodies, our consciousness and unconsciousness, and in our deepest center. God is intimately present to each of us, and a relationship develops as we begin to pay attention to that Presence. Sometimes we don't recognize God, or know how to name the experience. There is in each of us an eros for union, a basic human drive which may be channeled into lesser (never fully satisfactory) desires, but it consistently moves us to reach out for the "more than" what we experience. Usually a decision to seek spiritual direction comes out of an awareness of a relationship with God and a desire to deepen it. The person feels an invitation, however subtle and unclear, that has a persistent, recurrent strength, and finally leads to seeking help in the journey.

God's relationship with every soul is unique. For Christians, God's self-communication may come through Christ, through creation, through the events of one's life, or directly, within the soul. Scripture becomes a living word for us when we spend time with it. At other times, God speaks in a rose or a river, and being present to them is to be open to the Word. Perhaps even more often, we hear God speak in the reality of our lives. Paying attention to my life, or to nature, or to the word of scripture, all share a common kind of awareness. This "paying attention" is a way of being open to God's constant reaching out to us. It is contemplation; it is response to God's continual attentiveness to us.

There are times when God speaks from within our very selves. Dreams and images from the unconscious can also be words of God. There are often times when I experience a word or feeling that wells up from my unconscious, and these words or feelings have been important ways of my being led. This gives me a deep respect for the struggles of others to hear God in their deepest center, or to grapple with dreams and symbols, to discern God's mysterious presence there.

Because we come to know this God of mystery in so many ways, and because we can easily fool ourselves, it is wise to share the experience of contemplating the Word with a director who helps in the process of discerning what is being spoken. Our relationship with God is within a community, and it is part of the work of the Church to help us to experience our relationship with God in the context of broader relationships. No one has travelled our particular journey, but because of our own life experience, we are able to give support to one another.


The directee has either experienced God in her or his life, or at least desires that experience. Even in cases where a particular problem is the immediate cause of seeking help, the choice of spiritual direction for that help is an expression of faith that God is acting in the person's life, and will reveal the way, and that another human being can aid that revelation. The directee needs to be open and trusting, i.e., to have the stance of a learner. One does not know the outcome, but comes in search of what life and prayer will reveal as God's will for them. The trust required is trust in the God always and forever present who gives us life and leads us through our own history. It includes as well, trust in oneself and in the director, with the understanding that oneself and one's life is the arena in which God acts for us, that others also mediate God to us, and that it is the one Spirit who, in us and in the other, is seeking to be revealed.

Phil, Kay and Alice were just such open seekers. Phil was almost forty when he was abruptly transferred by his religious congregation from a comfortable, rewarding teaching position and a compatible community to begin graduate studies in another city. He appreciated the chance to study, but was devastated by his loneliness and by the surprising new sense of darkness that he encountered in prayer. Kay was an enthusiastic young novice, eager to give herself to prayer and study, and to whatever God's will offered her, striving to do her best at everything, especially prayer and becoming a religious. Alice was a middle-aged, successful wife, mother, and career woman. Her crowded life left room for little else, and yet she wanted very much to learn to pray with the peace and satisfaction she remembered from her younger years. We will return to these three searchers, as we look more closely at the process of spiritual direction.


Brian McDermott has described Jesus as a parable of God's acceptance. He saw this in the prayer of forgiveness, where Christ died totally accepting those who rejected him. This act was possible for him because the acceptance he experienced in the depth of his being was complete and unconditional. He received all that he was from a constantly giving Divine Other, and his whole being was completely and continually accepted by his Father. This absolute acceptance of himself allowed him to offer acceptance in turn to those who had not found it elsewhere: the guilty, the rejected, the self-doubting, the sinner, the failure:

The worth that the creature has as God's good creature and which secretly is known by the creature, but in a distorted, self-centered manner, is liberated in an initial way as the freely offered word of acceptance works its way into the guilty person's consciousness.(2)
This is a model for a spiritual director: Jesus could communicate to others what he had received. When I experience myself as totally accepted by God, I can offer acceptance to a directee. When I am loved, unconditionally, I can love that way.

Jean LaPlace speaks of being confident enough in the secret zone of oneself to impart confidence in the other. He describes the depth the relationship must reach, to awaken the power of self-revelation, and he stresses the importance of the director's own ability to be herself or himself in the relationship, warm without engulfing, trusting without anticipating, knowing one's own limits and strengths, ensuring openness to any sharing that may come from the other's depths.(3) My trust in the other's power to discover God in themselves and in their lives, can only be genuine when I have experienced that power in myself, and I convey that trust by giving them an attentiveness based on that conviction.

This suggests that the director be a person of prayer and experience, knowing and being comfortable with self, accepting both gifts and failings. Having faced one's own sin and shadow enables one to help another face darkness without judging them. To be in touch with and able to identify feelings is also necessary, as is being able to stay with tears, helplessness, anger, sadness, .and fear.


Paradoxically, we are creatures who create our lives and our history. God is revealed in the creation, just as God emerges in the story of Israel and in the individual stories that make up the Old Testament. In studying scripture, I have been struck by these stories of a people creating their God-revealing history. I asked myself whether Hosea was discovering God in the story of his life, or if the living of his life was creating the God he discovered, and saw the possibility that both questions have "yes" answers. His prophetic book reveals that his own faithfulness in his turbulent marriage to Gomer helped him to understand both God's fidelity and Israel's unfaithfulness. Like God's own love, Hosea's was unwavering even as it chastised.

Hosea introduced us to the image of marriage to illustrate the relationship between Yahweh and Yahweh's people. Furthermore, as Hosea deepened his own fidelity to Gomer, not only was he more profoundly aware of God's faithfulness, but in that experience of faithfulness, God was made more present in his world. God is more-with-us because of Hosea's ability to be fully present to the loves and betrayals of his personal life, and to recognize the outpouring of unconditional love that is God in our world. We find God woven into the stuff of our lives, and by our choices we create our lives, where God is encountered.

I experienced this particularly as I saw myself and directees Move through changes that required letting go of old images or felt senses of God, and moving on to new ones. The events of our lives often directly parallel the experience of inner prayer. 'Phil was abruptly jolted when he left job, community, friends, and what seemed like everything, to study in another city. He has been warmly accepted in his high school teaching assignment, and he enjoyed the camaraderie of a group of like-minded religious brothers. It was hard enough suddenly to be cut off from admiring affirmation of peers and students, but his sense of uselessness and self-doubt as he entered into graduate studies was overwhelming. Worst of all, where he had become used to an assuring, pervasive experience of God in prayer, he encountered now only absence and darkness. Yet, somehow, in the midst of losing the old warmth and comfort, he felt invited into a deeper relationship and faith. He began to recognize the control he had exerted in his own life, being "in charge" and successful, and while he had always experienced gratitude to God for his gifts, he had felt his own power rather than God's, his own competence rather than his need. His choices that brought him into these desert circumstances had an impact in God's self-revelation to him. Or did the Spirit lead him to the choices so he would meet God in a new way? It seems likely that these two movements happened simultaneously.

This kind of intertwining of God and the soul feels like God-wrestling to me. I encounter it in my own and in directees' lives, and I appreciated the willingness I found in my directors to be there with me in the struggle, not taking it away or hurrying me through, but letting me be there, feeling the embrace and the tension that Arthur Weskow says feels a lot like making love, and a lot like making war.(4) This story of ours is the substance we bring to direction. It includes our urgent longings, our sin and our goodness, our gifts and our failures, our joys and our fears.

Our feelings offer access to the Mystery revealed in our lives. They are the carriers of value and meaning, the avenue through which the Spirit speaks. I recognized in Kay, a young directee just beginning religious life, the headiness often used in our culture to keep a safe distance from emotions. Kay was an intelligent thinker. Her life had been academically centered and scholastically successful. She was on safe ground in dealing with ideas, and was stimulated by conversation that explored and examined concepts. Her well-educated parents had seen that her quick mind was challenged, and that she had every opportunity to develop her rational skills. Their own discomfort with emotion was unconsciously shared with her. But as I continually probed for how she felt, she gradually shifted to another level of exchange, and found that she wanted to risk being in that feeling level where she can more readily let the Mystery take over.

I also noticed Alice, in her constant busyness, leaving no space to encounter the meaning of life. Alice had been happily married for fifteen years. She balanced her journalist career with attentiveness to her husband and their child, and managed extensive involvement in volunteer and professional activities. Yet she had recurring feelings of guilt that she was not doing enough, and that she was not including God and prayer in her life as she wanted to. Her new ulcer had helped her see the hurriedness that rushed her past affectivity. Gradually she came to realize that her almost frantic pace was not allowing her to savor the graced presence that she missed and longed for, that was always there. She learned that taking time to listen to music was a good entry into prayer for her, and that she needed less, not more, activity to find herself, as well as to find the God who sought her.

Slowing down, to let the feelings speak, is an ongoing need in my life, too. When it gets scary to face my feelings, I can distance myself, and in doing so, move away from the Mystery into "safer" territory, where I'm in control. The process of focusing has helped me to enter into that inner bodily awareness that is a melding of feeling and rational knowing. When I turn off intellectualizing and analysis, in order to enter into the body's wisdom and look for meaning there, I have been amazed at how quickly the feeling I feared can shift, and reveal to me a new image or path or sense of movement that is Spirit in my life.(5)


Within the process itself, the contemplative listening of both may yield conversion, discernment, new meaning or deeper freedom and responsibility, or it may encounter an impasse, a place where there seems to be no way out. Even when we have avoided confronting it by many circuitous routes (busyness, chatting, changing the subject), the impasse remains. To enter into the darkness at such a time is to face the issue or the experience. It is here that being with the struggle is painful and frightening, and feels like abandonment and powerlessness and loss all at once. But if the director can be there with the directee, and if the directee can stay with the darkness, she will come through to a new place of insight or revelation. It takes a faith like Abraham's to experience that tension between what makes sense and what God seems to be asking, and when we are called to sacrifice our Isaacs, it helps to have a director there who knows the starkness of the night. Not to be alone at such a time can be a significant grace. The impasse will eventually yield to new meaning or to a conversion experience, if we enter into it.

Conversion is ongoing, and emerges from self-knowledge. If knowledge of self is analytical and impersonal, it will not result in conversion; it must be the intimate, subjective knowledge that accompanies the interior search for the image of God that we are. There is a death /resurrection dimension to it: something in us dies, in order to give birth to a new reality. Death is painful, and we naturally resist it. We don't want to feel helpless or meaningless or inadequate, but as we move into the deserts of our lives, we touch the boundaries of ourselves at the far reaches of what we can be. It is here where we are in tension, that breakthrough happens, and we gain new insight into our oneness with God and all of creation. As we dare to plunge more deeply into our own lives, the more richly unique and personal they become.

Discernment is an ongoing process in direction. Both parties are trying to discover the presence and action of the Spirit in the directee's life. From time to time they may be seeking to reach a specific decision by discerning the movement of the Spirit in the directee's prayer and experience, and at other times they may be unwrapping the meaning and the challenge of daily encounter with evil and with grace.

Meaning emerges from within the person who seeks her or his own truth. Reflecting on or re-telling one's story is a way we enable this to happen. In seeking a director for myself, I felt awkward about approaching three people, but I learned that each repetition of my story clarified it for me, and allowed me to see it in a new light. This helped me value letting directees say what they need to say, even if initially it seems scatter-shot and disorganized. In the telling of the story, truth is revealed. In putting the inner reality into words to share with another, an objectification happens, that often sheds a clearer light on an incident or situation. If necessary, the director can help this process by clarifying and focusing with the directee. As a result, there is a new sense of freedom, as if old shackles, previously unrecognized, are loosed. Knowing that we are, indeed, free to choose, and that no one else ultimately determines our choices, is an awesome insight, and with it comes awareness of our responsibility in the ongoing process of our lives.


Dangers may be met in the spiritual direction session, and the wise director needs to be alert for them. Control is common in director and directee. Kay controls by intellectualizing; she is comfortable on that level, and moves to it whenever we approach scary feelings. Phil observes his control tendencies in the effort to keep his life neat and organized, resisting moving into those parts of himself that have always seemed unacceptable, and have therefore been denied. Alice controls by filling her life with busyness, so that her accomplishments will hide her inadequacies. I was initially afraid of exercising too much control with directees, but I have come to appreciate that fear of controlling was more of an issue for me than was control. It is important not to assume too much with beginners, and it is not controlling to offer them structure if they need it and want it. If it is their agenda, I can be helpful by interventions that help them focus and face their issues.

We don't recognize our own best defenses, so we need someone else to help discern them. On the other hand, sometimes we need defenses; it is important to be gentle about helping the directee discover them. If there is an internal conflict operating, and a defense rises to protect the person from it, the director can share the conflict and re-express it in ways that break its link with the defense. Love, trust, and acceptance must be established by the director before emotional defenses can be let down.

A danger my director has pointed out in me (thus enabling me to see it in others) is that of anticipating grace. This moment is all I have, and I have the grace I need for it. When I look ahead and worry about what will be, or when I fear what I think is coming, I am moving out of the realm of grace, and inviting worry and confusion and untrust. Kay discovered that her concern about how she would handle next year's ministry and living assignment led her away from facing the immediate challenge of recognizing the self-will and independence that were revealed in her impatient reactions to her novice mistress. The inner fear she felt was a clue not only to fears of next year, as she first thought, but, more importantly, to the fear of self-revelation. Peace returned when she let go of the future and turned to the present, with faith and trust that tomorrow's trial will bring tomorrow's grace.


Positive results of spiritual direction are countless, and often the director won't see them. I have several times received an insight that came from a seed planted by a director long ago. At a time when I was in touch with feeling grateful for nature and life, a director suggested that I was, myself, a gift. That idea didn't speak to meat all, until several years later, when I was in a hospital working with dying patients, where I daily encountered patients whose gift of their innermost self to me was a sacred and profound experience. At the same time I was receiving daily affirmation from peers and from the patients with whom I worked. It was a radical change for one who was more used to being the questioner or the confronter, and so challenging more than receiving other's lives. In that brief, rich period of feeling unconditionally loved and appreciated, being "gift" suddenly had meaning, and I could feel the total gratuitousness of all we are. I no longer confused the gifts I receive with the gift that I am. The seed of that idea could only have germinated in the soil of appreciation and affirmation.

Katherine Dyckman and L. Patrick Carroll speak of two crucial births in the individuation process: (1) when people move into adulthood, freeing themselves from the authority of father and mother, and fusion with them, and (2) when they pass through middle-age conflicts, and allow their deeper, true self to emerge.(6) Currently, I am observing both of these. Kay, who has always lived with her parents, is experiencing liberation from parental authority, and I want to be gentle with her as she begins to assume her personal values, and to accept responsibility for her life. A symbol of that is the change from primarily reciting old familiar prayers, to her own choice of daily centering prayer. Alice is coming to see that her overscheduled life is a way she resists facing the reality of who she is. As her self-acceptance grows, she may be able to quit proving herself, and be more fully present to her real life choices. Phil seems to be emerging amid middle-age conflicts and becoming his true self. He is experiencing an invitation to surrender control to God and to the movement of the Lord deep within, and I can see his growing faith and trust as he journeys into this new birth. It is at these transition points that a spiritual director can be most helpful for an individual's faith development.

Growth in the spiritual life is sometimes accompanied by a "letting go" process, letting go of obstacles that were perceived as cherished values. I shared with my director my own experience of letting go of an image (felt experience) of God through much struggle, to find that God was still there, in a new, much more profound way. God had been intimate friend, lover, a silence that embraced me in solitude and seemed to call me deeper into contemplation. But as that "divine unknowing" became more consoling and more profound, there came with it a disturbing invitation to risk returning from comfortable solitude to more intensive immersion in human suffering, to leave the protective niche of separation and distance where I had found God, and to reach out to the pain and distress of sick and dying people. What felt like leaving the God of the mountain was indeed, a movement toward the God who chose to touch me in human pain and love, and to draw me closer to Godself there, in the present incarnation, and to reveal there parts of myself that had been suppressed in a calmer, more controlled environment.

When I went on to express fears about letting go of a close but conflictual personal relationship, my director suggested that perhaps I was shown the experience of letting go and not losing God, to help me let go in this other relationship. Just as the "call" to respond to human need had drawn me away from treasured solitude and intimacy, so also the realization that previous commitments required moving away from a love that was becoming closed-in and exclusive, was able to lead to a deeper, more open-handed friendship. In each case, letting go actually opened me to encounters of greater depth and growth, more inclusive and richer in the surprise revealed by the risk of letting go. The connection was in my life, but I might have missed making it myself, and therefore missed the encouragement to make a break that was actually a new connection.

Relationships with others are a key element in spiritual life. Growth will be reflected in a renewed sense of church or family, or in a closer community, or in a realized global connection. Trust (in God and in people) and joy increase, as does the ability to own one's freedom and responsibility.

Outcomes may feel negative as well. When Kay left a session, telling me she had felt good when she came in, but now was sad, we both knew it was okay. She had faced her loneliness for her parents, her first Christmas away from them, and decided to tell them she missed them on the next phone call instead maintaining her usual jovial front, to pretend the loneliness away.

To share another's experience of God is a gift and a grace for the director, who is as much recipient as is the directee, in this graced relationship of sharing life's process. Two journeys meet at this encounter, and the mystery of deepening union occurs in each. There is a great longing today, for Christians to be able to reflect on their own lives with another person who will continue to listen in faith. My increasing awe and faith and sense of mystery continue to draw me into this ministry, which, I believe, needs to move into a more central place in the Christian experience.

  1. Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, "The Contemporary Ministry of Spiritual Direction," Chicago Studies 15 (No. 1, Spring, 1976).
  2. Brian McDermott, What Are They Saying About Grace? (NewYork: Paulist, 1984), p. 15. McDermott develops the idea of the grace of acceptance on pp. 12-20.
  3. Jean LaPlace, Preparation for Spiritual Direction (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1975), pp. 57-62.
  4. Anthony I. Waskow, God-Wrestling (New York: Shocken, 1978).
  5. Dr. Eugene Gendlin's process of focusing is related to spirituality in Peter A. Campbell and Edwin McMahon, Bio-Spirituality (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1985).
  6. Katherine Dyckman and L. Patrick Carroll, Inviting the Mystic, Supporting the Prophet (New York: Paulist, 1981), p. 39.