Summer 1988, Vol.40 No. 2, pp. 128-134.

Hilda Montalvo:
      The Spiritual Director as Mediator of Meaning

The art of spiritual direction requires letting go of the desire to control experience so that directors can mediate life's meaning and those in direction can be free to grow.

Hilda Montavo teaches at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida. She received her M.A. in religious studies at Barry University, and was regional director of the Office of Lay Ministry for the Archdiocese of Miami. Her article was on finally a program paper for the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Washington, D.C.

SPIRITUAL direction is an intuitive, creative art that has as its goal helping others become authentic human beings, able to respond fully to the God who calls them forth and gifts them with life. All true artistic accomplishments presuppose a system of principles and methods that are so internalized and habitual that the resulting performance appears natural and spontaneous.

Bernard Lonergan proposed a method of theology that is especially compatible with spiritual direction for it focuses not so much on content as such as on the process of coming to consciousness. An authentic human being is aware that "the world has meaning not only by experience but also by understanding and commonly, by judgment as well."(1) By recognizing and using five "transcendental precepts" which for Lonergan are basic in integrating one's intellectual, moral, and religious life, the spiritual director can mediate for the directee greater awareness of meaning at different levels of perception: at the empirical level, "be attentive"; at the intellectual level, "be intelligent"; at the rational level, "be reasonable"; at the moral level, "be responsible"; and at the religious level, "be in love."


It is the task of spiritual directors to be in touch with their own stories, with their own ways of experiencing, naming, being reasonable, being responsible, and being in love. Attentive directors are continually being surprised by God's ways and are therefore not tempted to impose their own experience on others. At the same time, personal experience and a basic knowledge of psychology and theology are invaluable in helping their directees integrate these dimensions and become capable of responding to God to the fullest.

We tend to identify ourselves with our thoughts and feelings. One of the tasks of "being attentive;"(2) Lonergan's first precept, is to stand back and allow them simply to happen without trying to control them. The space or silence that bridges one thought to another, or one feeling to the next, is consciousness itself, which does not depend on our'doing; but simply on our'being.' Once we have experienced the fact that we are not our thoughts or our feelings, but that we exist and especially that we are alive in the silence, we become free to distinguish between pure experience and the naming of that experience.

The Hebrews instinctively knew that to name was to control. Once one has defined and categorized an experience it assumes a quality of substantiality and truth. To give up these cherished beliefs is a death, not only to oneself but to one's traditions and sense of rootedness.


Spiritual directors can be life-giving when they help their directees distinguish between the experience itself and the naming of the experience. Because of our normal reluctance to "let go and let God," it is not unusual to feel fear when beginning to pray. It is also not unusual to call this fear "the devil." Without denying the existence of the devil, the spiritual director can help the directee rename the experience.

For instance, Jane had been told as a child that she was either of God or of the devil. She was also gifted with an active imagination and a predilection for signs and wonders. When she first started experiencing an active, loving God breaking into her life (the fifth transcendental precept: "be in love"), it was reasonable (the third precept) for her to name (the second precept) her negative feelings (the first precept) as the devil. She had therefore been tempted to avoid all prayer (the fourth precept: responsibility which leads to action) out of fear of the consequences. By clarifying the intellectual notions, Jane became free to act authentically and to continue to respond to God.

Gina, on the other hand, experiences a loving Spirit and hopes to become fully human by opening herself to this Presence. When she first started to pray quietly, she became panic-stricken at the thought that she might also be opening herself to the evil spirit. Once she understood that she was experiencing fear of the unknown -- letting go of thoughts and feelings - and that she always had freedom to choose whether to continue to pray, and more basically, to choose between good and evil, she was able to continue to be open to unnamed experiences.

Once the distinction between experiencing and naming is understood, one is much freer to experience without naming and thus to put one's trust in the Lord. This "unknowing" that is so difficult to describe is found at the heart of all the spiritual masters: Teresa's dwelling places, the dark nights of John of the Cross, etc. An unnamed, imageless experience is beyond control, beyond understanding. It is both death and resurrection. It is death to one's self-identification with one's thoughts, images, and feelings; death to one's unpurified needs and desires. It is resurrection into a new way of being and seeing, a conversion that affects the intellectual, moral, and religious ways of being in the world. It is the goal and purpose of Jesus' life: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10).


The third precept, "be reasonable," includes the culture, language, theological expectations, and the physical, mental, and emotional makeup of the individual. It is practical and logical and can be used to advantage in spiritual direction. It is the area of common sense. There is no point in addressing a situation of spiritual aridity or total "scatteredness" when the problem may be simply physical, e.g., menopause, or lack of exercise and an appropriate diet. It is also the most dangerous in the sense that it is very tempting to stay at this level where there is control and understanding and never allow the issue of personal relationship with the Lord to surface.

Much work must be done at this level. Any technique, such as journal writing, story-telling, imaging, meditating, etc., can be used to help the directee perceive God's call and respond. It is up to the director to listen sensitively for patterns of denial and acceptance and to help the directee find God in all events. Obviously directors must be in touch with their own stories and must have done this work themselves. Although the surface similarities between the lives of director and directee may be nil, the deepest call or core experience must be recognized and acknowledged. If this does not happen, the direction relationship is unlikely to work.

Because the work done at this level is so necessary and fruitful in terms of clarity and insight, it can be difficult to discern whether the directee is 'stuck' here and avoiding the deeper call of the Lord to become an authentic human being.

Carmen is a middle-aged sister who has "read everything," has taken every course available, and speaks the "right language." She finds it very difficult to pray and knows that she is projecting unresolved family problems onto the sisters of her community. She seeks to stay at this third level because even though it is very painful, at least it is familiar and she is in control. She is terrified of the consequences of entering both the first level and the fourth: the first because she fears losing herself in God and giving up control, the fourth because she fears changing her behavior and having to ask for forgiveness from her community. Her image of being a good, pious sister, with its 'shoulds' and 'oughts,' is so strong that she is enslaved by it. The spiritual director can help her to identify these images and patterns and can be present and available to her as she begins to trust the Lord in quiet prayer. The fourth level will take care of itself. When there is change of heart, there is inevitably change of behavior.


The fourth precept, "be responsible," is the level which has been most overemphasized by the Church. Discernment is still spoken of in terms of moral decisions when this is just one aspect of the whole. It is not unusual to discover that some directees confuse spiritual direction with decision-making and expect their directors to help them discover God's will for them. God is present within the decision-making process itself, and in a sense, the result is immaterial. It is the process that is redeeming. Emphasis on action can lead to the idolatry that we are building God's kingdom when the truth is that God works through us, and usually in spite of us.

The core of Christianity is relationship, not law. All actions flow from this. Questions on moral issues such as birth control, abortion, etc., should be personalized by helping the individual see where God is present in his or her decision-making. It is obviously necessary for the magisterium to maintain orthodoxy and orthopraxis, but it is also the prime responsibility of spiritual directors to enable Christians to see beyond specific issues to the God who has become incarnate within events and people and places.


The greatest contribution that a method such as Lonergan's can make to these times, especially in Catholic circles, is its insistence on the priority and validity of religious conversion -- that metanoia which permeates all levels of life: experience, intelligence, reason, and response. "Being in love" is the recognition of God's transcendent call and gift. It is the experience of being broken unto/into by God, an event that occurs at the mundane level of life which is then named or made intelligible, is compared and analyzed to assure its reasonableness, compels towards good action, and is again informed by God.

The result of this attitude, this expectation of conversion, of being surprised by God, is an openness, a willingness, an appreciation that is contemplative by nature, even at the intellectual and moral levels. Instead of emphasizing 'our' struggles, 'our' decisions, 'our' actions, the attention is on God and God's way with us. To live with this disposition is to live in a world "mediated by meaning."

Therapists, pastoral counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists can work to advantage with the first four transcendental notions, identifying, clarifying, evaluating, helping to decide. But "over all these virtues, put on love, which binds the rest together and makes them perfect" (Col. 3:14).

Invariably there comes a time when despite all our work, we come to a dead end. This is the time -- and it is different for each one of us -- when surrender to the Lord becomes truly possible. Then we take the problem, or the question, or the relationship, and simply sit with the Lord, allowing our feelings, our thoughts, simply to be there, in God's presence, and we are attentive to God's movements, silent in the presence of mystery. And, although the situation itself may not change, everything has changed. This is metanoia.

The task of the spiritual director is to be aware of God in her own life at all levels and thus enable the directee to be mindful of God in his. With this kind of attitude, all actions can become contemplative. We are not so much building the Kingdom as discovering it and creating it. Beauty becomes more valuable than productivity, depth becomes more beautiful than superficiality. Chronos time becomes kairos time, the profane becomes sacred. We live, as Teilhard de Chardin would say, in a "divine milieu." Spirituality is simply living in this world "mediated by meaning," and spiritual directors can be mediators of this transcendent reality.

  1. Bernard Lonergan, S.J., Method in Theology (Minneapolis: Winston Press, Inc., 1979), p. 77.
  2. Cf. Tad Dunne, S.J., Lonergan and Spirituality: Towards a Spiritual Integration (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1985). Chapter Four of Dunne's book is especially helpful in this area.