Lessons From A Monastery: Spiritual Direction

Lessons From A Monastery--Spiritual Direction
“…A spiritual director is, then, one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in their life…”
–Thomas Merton

The role of the spiritual father or mother in monastic life is, well, like the role of a father or mother in a family. In essence irreplaceable, a necessity, an icon of God’s parenthood. When joining a monastery vows of obedience are made to the Abbot or Abbess, and he or she takes a certain and serious level of spiritual responsibility for the new monk or nun. A relationship of spiritual parent and child is established.

The monastery where I attend Sunday liturgy and other services throughout the year is small in size and number, creating a feeling of “family” that is not always present in larger parishes or religious communities. My family and I have been blessed to receive direct and more often indirect spiritual guidance over the years in many different ways from each of the monks. One of the greatest gifts received has been in being given a safe place to be myself, a place to learn and grow, and a place where I have been encouraged to take my baptism seriously and be a responsible Christian. Never by any force at all but by being treated respectfully and not infantilized. The witness of the monastic life, even in times of struggle, is itself a gift and a blessing to encounter. I could never say only one monk has given me guidance, I do however have a specific monk I go to for formal spiritual direction. I asked him to share his thoughts about guiding people. Fr. Maximos Davies is a monk and priest at Holy Resurrection Monastery—he had a lot of wonderful insight.

I asked Fr. Maximos to give me a general explanation of what spiritual direction is about:

“The hallmarks of authentic spiritual fatherhood are: mutual accountability, honesty with as little hypocrisy as possible and Holy Indifference. There needs to be clarity every time (are you going to confession or direction?). Direction is not sealed like confession. It is confidential but if a serious issue comes up, it is not sealed. Most of the time confession and direction happen at the same time, but not always and it should be made clear which you are doing. In confession I have authority to bind and loose, direction is different. As a spiritual director I do not have authority but accountability.

There is mutual accountability between the spiritual father and child. I will be held accountable for what I say to God and you, and vice versa. With accountability everyone is honest with one another. I also respect the adulthood of my spiritual child. I need to be honest, say what needs to be said, and leave it to the person to accept the advice or not. I must have Holy Indifference to the child’s response, this doesn’t mean I don’t care but it is a way of respecting my spiritual children as being children of God and not slaves; which prevents dependency too. It is not my job to interrogate or keep track between sessions. As a spiritual father it is my job to first pray as much as possible for my spiritual children, truly listen, and give honest advice. I am not meant to be a savior, only God is our savior.”

There is sometimes a tendency in those seeking direction to try and imitate the level of obedience and manner of relationship between a spiritual father and a monk. I asked Fr. Maximos if there is a difference between the relationship of spiritual father and a non-monastic versus a relationship between monks. Fr. Maximos had a lot to say about this:

“Total obedience between a spiritual director and non-monastic is not okay. It is a sin for a monastic or clergyman to claim over the life of a married person or parent something which is owed to the sacrament of marriage. The sacrament of marriage prevents that kind of obedience. It is also an insult to the sacrament of marriage, a couple is crowned as king and queen of their family on their wedding day, the primary way of being saved is through the sacrament of marriage and family life. A married person cannot give something to a spiritual father that is owed to their spouse. Now, receiving spiritual direction should be an outgrowth of the sacrament of marriage. A couple should get guidance when needed, just like a king would seek counsel, but it is counsel which is sought, I am not the authority or decision maker.”

In our discussion, Fr. Maximos outlined some red flags that might come up with a spiritual director. “Abuse of authority can be an issue. Remember the hallmarks of authentic spiritual fatherhood: mutual accountability, listening to issues and responding honestly, and Holy Indifference. An over scrupulous director can be a problem; do not let scrupulosity into your own heart. The Holy Spirit can still be at work in this director and a person can learn from them, but have prudence. If the director gives you unreasonable advice or asks something of you that you can’t fulfill, you are responsible to explain that to them, you must be honest too—mutual accountability. If the director doesn’t have respect for your concerns and doesn’t take you seriously run as far away from them as you can.”

Since Fr. Maximos is my own spiritual director, I know his guidance is sincere. I have been curious to know what being a spiritual director means to him personally and this was my opportunity to ask: “I am consistently amazed how often I am able to help someone while giving counsel by what I say without any preparation or without thinking things through. When I stand at the altar table to consecrate the bread and wine into the Eucharist, I know by faith the Holy Spirit is active. But when giving spiritual direction, I can feel the Holy Spirit when sitting face to face with another human being. There is a kind of dimension to the work in the way the Holy Spirit manifests Himself. Especially when I can speak to a person and tell the truth and be indifferent, it brings a joy to me that I don’t experience in any other aspect as a priest.”

Having been given spiritual direction like this, I have reflected on my own role of mother many times over. Having seen God’s love, compassion, and mercy for me through my own spiritual fathers, I have come to have a deeper understanding of my own responsibility for the spiritual upbringing of my children. Especially in realizing the serious need to show the love of God to them, to respect their relationship with God, and to guide and help them with compassion and mercy to be responsible Christians. Though I love my children very much, I am not naturally motherly; it takes effort to display what are considered normal motherly affections.

Being given such care, understanding, and loving compassion in my own moments of weakness has really helped me to strive to be the same way with my own children. There have been times I have seen the eyes of Christ lovingly looking at me while receiving counsel with Fr. Maximos; I have asked myself, ‘do my children ever see the same look in my own eyes towards them.’ Just like in spiritual direction I know it will be by the Holy Spirit that this love will be made manifest, and this gives me hope as a mother, because even with my own limitations and faults God can work through me.

This article was originally published at Catholic Exchange.

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