Seeking spiritual direction

By  Sara Loftson, The Catholic Register
  • October 25, 2006

Seeking spiritual directionTORONTO - The art of decision-making often leads students to a crossroad, not knowing which way to turn. What university do I attend? What do I want to be? What is my vocation?

These are the type of questions Peter Baltutis asked before seeking the help of a spiritual director.

“It can be a confusing time or a very lonely time and you can feel like you are on your own making these big decisions,” said Baltutis. “I reached the point where I keep coming back to the same questions and whatever I was doing in my own prayer life had left me stagnant.”

With the guidance of a lay spiritual director, Baltutis, 27, decided to enrol in a first year PhD theology program at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College.

A spiritual director is someone who helps a person identify how the Holy Spirit is speaking to them in their day-to-day lives.

“It’s about listening to you and bringing you to an awareness of where God is in your life,” said Fr. Pat O’Dea, director of the University of Toronto’s Newman Centre.

He recognized a need for spiritual direction on campus and began to offer his services as well as a referral service to match students like Baltutis up with spiritual directors.

“A lot of times young people are searching for a faith, to understand their faith, to grow deeper in faith.... Another aspect is their personal and human growth. They are trying to discern where their life is going to end up,” said O’Dea.

O’Dea said young people who seek spiritual direction vary. Some have little to no faith background and are now in search of God or want to find God after having fallen away from the church. Others have been too busy to spend time working on their relationship with God, but now have a desire to grow spiritually. And there are those with an active faith life who are seeking to grow deeper or just have someone to talk to about it, he said.

“I think that sometimes we think spiritual direction is for help, but it’s also for sharing the joy of God in your life. It’s like a spiritual friend,” said O’Dea.

Spiritual directors date back to the fourth century when desert fathers and mothers, like St. Anthony of Egypt, began offering spiritual guidance to new desert dwellers struggling with prayer and temptations.

When monasteries developed in the sixth century, senior monks helped new monks to internalize the Benedictine rule. In the 16th century, St. Ignatius of Loyola developed a 30-day spiritual exercise to help seminarians discern God’s will in their lives.

Today, spiritual directors come in all shapes and sizes, from priests to religious brothers and sisters to lay people. But the one thing they hold in common is a formal background in a specialized area.

“Just by virtue of being a priest or sister doesn’t mean they can be a spiritual director,” said O’Dea, though these people can give initial advice and referrals.

“A lot of directors are doing this full-time given the fact that they’ve studied it and it’s their vocation to serve the church.”

Initially, the relationship starts with a few meetings to chat informally and feel out whether personalities and spiritual visions are compatible. It is also during this time that guidelines are set to determine how often and long to meet — generally meetings occur on a weekly, biweekly or monthly basis.

The hourly rate of a spiritual director varies anywhere from free to upwards of $50 per visit. But typically, directors offer their services to students at a reduced rate. Some charge according to a directee’s hourly wage, others will accept a modest donation.

Baltutis said that although he hit it off right away with his spiritual director, it’s important to shop around.

“I think the biggest key for the relationship is honesty and trust. It’s important to find someone you are comfortable with. It’s such an individual thing,” he said. “At first I was a bit more guarded and I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to reveal... but when I really opened up she was much more helpful.”

It’s a give-and-take relationship, said O’Dea, but the onus is on the person to provide as much information as possible to help the director guide.

“The director is mainly a listener and what they’ll try to do is hear them — mirror back what they’ve heard.”

A common misconception is that spiritual directors are counsellors. Where counsellors deal with psychological problems or specific issues using talk therapy or other techniques, spiritual directors offer tools to help people gain insight into their faith life.

During a session they may recommend authors to read someone like C.S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton, or encourage directees to experiment with different types of prayer such as Ignatian spirituality or Lectio Divina, a prayerful meditative way to read scripture.

Chaplain Paul Mayne-Devine provides spiritual direction to high school students at Holy Name of Mary Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont.

“It isn’t common but usually one or two students a year come to me. I don't think they are too young for it, in fact some of them are more ready for it than some of the adults who have come to me for direction,” said Mayne-Devine.

Chaplain Angelo Minardi of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Secondary School in Mississauga welcomes the opportunity to provide ongoing spiritual direction as it’s part of his formation while he studies for his spiritual direction diploma at Regis College in Toronto.

“I think that it is a great idea. I have always been an advocate for young people,” said Minardi.

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