Jean Vanier is pictured during a visit with members of the L’Arche coummunity in March 2011. CNS photo/courtesy Jean Vanier Association

Real ‘spiritual direction’ has defined boundaries

  • March 6, 2020

That Jean Vanier preyed on women who thought of him as their spiritual director is obviously a serious case of spiritual and sexual abuse. It’s also an illustration of the difference between real spiritual direction and mumbo jumbo, said Montreal-based spiritual director Jesuit Br. Dan Leckman.

“What happened with Vanier could never happen in actual direction,” Leckman told The Catholic Register. “I question what made him think he was a spiritual director.”

Real spiritual direction happens with a trained, accredited and supervised spiritual director, said Notre Dame Sr. Maureen Baldwin, director of field education, spiritual direction and student life at Regis College in Toronto.

“It’s our responsibility to do due diligence about the people we’re seeking support from,” she said.

Training for spiritual directors includes extensive work in Scripture, in counselling, ethics and especially professional boundaries, according to Baldwin. To find a qualified spiritual director, try phoning a reputable retreat centre. Consult a theology school such as Regis that trains spiritual directors or look for affiliation with Spiritual Directors International ( Not every priest, brother or sister has the relevant training to be a spiritual director, Baldwin said.

“Spiritual abuse — I mean, it can happen,” Baldwin said. “Someone who is having conversations about their spiritual journey is making themselves very vulnerable. We’re talking about issues that are at the core of our lives. They impact every part of our lives. When I enter into a relationship like that, it’s important that the people I’m doing it with have a knowledge base, a background to interact in that area. That’s not just a friend that I meet somewhere.”

Leckman was trained in Guelph at the world-famous Loyola House Retreat and Training Centre.

“The power dynamic we have with people is drilled into us,” he said. “I’m a natural hugger with anyone. But as a director, I’ve been taught to let go of this just because it may send mixed signals to the person I’m directing. Even having friendships with the people I direct is frowned upon. … Overall, we keep our distances.”

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