Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Gift of a Spiritual Director

By way of encouragement, I wanted to relate a story to you from my recent journeys in the spiritual life. Of course, we all know that the great mystics of both the Christian East and West tell us that if we want to make serious progress in the spiritual life, we have to have a spiritual director (mother or father). This person needs to have a great deal of experience in the spiritual life. He or she does not need to be a priest or religious - although having a priest as your spiritual director can also provide the added benefit of being your confessor - nor do the necessarily need to be educated. But they do need to be people of holiness, who have a great deal of experience on the path of spiritual progress.

That's a tall order to expect from a spiritual director, especially in our day and age. Even in what we perceive to be the "golden ages" of Christianity, the saints of those times grieved over the lack of holiness in the world and said that it would be nearly impossible to find one person in a thousand that had the requisite experience to be a spiritual director. If that was true for their times, how much more so for ours!

Nevertheless, it seems to me that God puts the right people in our path along this journey at the right time. I've been fortunate enough to have a few spiritual directors, and a number of other encounters with holy people, that have come into my life at key moments. Throughout my struggles as a teenager I was fortunate enough to have Fr. Nestor, an Australian priest who had studied at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family, and was serving as an assistant pastor at my home parish. He help guide me through the years of "teenage angst" with all its struggles to discover one's purpose and vocation, to maintain one's chastity, to learn one's identity in Christ, and to develop a new sense of purpose and responsibility as one enters adulthood.

An congregation of priests, The Fathers of Mercy, in southern Kentucky were all very helpful in forming me in the Faith through retreats that they preached at local parishes near my home in Indiana. Fr. William Casey, the Minister General of the order at the time, one year invited me to come to their annual priests retreat. I was 17 at the time and actually had to leave the retreat a couple days early because I was flying to Ireland for a music competition. I don't particularly know why God put it on Fr. Bill's heart to invite me down for that retreat; all I remember is being both the youngest person there, and the only layperson. The retreat was lead by Fr. Benedict Groeschell, a Franciscan priest, author, lecturer, and psychologist who is widely known in the Catholic world thanks to his television programs on EWTN. It was Fr. Benedict who really helped me to embrace my personality. Up to that point I really didn't want to be myself. I felt that others were more talented, smarter, better-looking, or whatever than I was and that I had nothing really special to offer the world. But Fr. Benedict, with his background in psychology, helped me to discover who I am in a way that had never been revealed to me before. I was afterward able to embrace my personality and have since been working to develop myself along the lines of the great saints who had similar personalities. I only had the one meeting with Fr. Benedict, so I suppose my encounter with him could be likened to the pilgrims going out into the deserts of the Middle East or the woodlands of Russian to seek a "word" from the hermits and poustiniki who lived there, and then carry that word with them through their lives.

Out of all the directors I've had in the past, however, there is one that has probably had more influence on me than the others; Fr. Giles. Fr. Giles is a Dominican priest. He was a professor of mine while I was attending university at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and for some reason he took an interest in me. We used to share meals together, pray the Liturgy of the Hours together, talk about spiritual matters that were going on in my life at the time, and he would regularly hear my confession. One of the major themes that I learned from Fr. Giles is one that I have spoken of a number of times on this blog; patience. Calm down. Relax. It's going to be okay. Be patient. These were things Fr. Giles would say to me almost every time we would meet for direction. For me, the hardest part of graduating from college was leaving my spiritual father and going out into the world on my own.

God seemed to have different plans. When I moved to Ann Arbor, MI. to help my fiance prepare for our wedding, it wasn't long before Fr. Giles was transferred by his Minister General to serve the Dominican Sisters in Ann Arbor. About a year or two after my wife and I moved to Northern Virginia, I got a call from Fr. Giles informing me that he was being transferred to teach at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. - about twenty minutes up the road from where I was living at the time. In both cases it was good to be able to meet with my spiritual father to talk over matters that had been coming up in my prayer life and to seek his guidance. Sadly, shortly before my wife and I moved to Northern Kentucky, Fr. Giles was transferred to another part of Virginia. I don't know remember being able to meet with him before he left due to my work schedule.

Now that we have been settled in Northern Kentucky for a couple of years, I have noticed some themes that keep coming up in my prayer life. They are themes that seem to require some sort of action, but I'm not sure what, and I don't really know where to turn. So I have been praying for some time now that God would send me another spiritual director. I had been thinking of writing a bishop that I know and have had direction from in the past, but I know that he is busy and I don't want to importune him. I had also been thinking of speaking with a subdeacon at my parish, but again I know that he is busy and I didn't want to importune him either. Every time I would pray that God would send me a spiritual director I would hear this voice in the back of my head, "Be patient, Phillip. Calm down. It's all right."

One day, as I was driving a car to the local gas station to fuel it up for delivery, I turned on the local Catholic radio station. Mass was on. Usually I just skip through because I don't really like listening to Mass over the radio. But this time I thought to myself, "Well, even if I can't participate in the Liturgy, I can always learn something simply by listening to the prayers." It reached the point in the Mass where, during the Eucharistic Prayers, the concelebrating priests all take different parts of the prayer. Suddenly I heard a familiar voice over the airwaves. I didn't recognize it at first, and even when I didn't I couldn't believe it. Could it be that Fr. Giles has been transferred to Cincinnati, just across the river from me?! You see, Mass is broadcast from the local Dominican parish, so I suppose it wasn't a complete impossibility, but still a highly unlikely scenario.

When I arrived home that night I immediately jumped onto the internet to see if Fr. Giles' name had been listed at the local Dominican parish. Sure enough, he is there helping out with the novices. Naturally I immediately sent an email to him and have since met with him, with plans to meet again regularly in the future. As we spoke at our most recent meeting, we came to the conclusion that he had only been in town here for a couple of days before that broadcast. Isn't it funny how God works.

What's my point in sharing this story? We often despair over finding a spiritual director. We morn the fact that there are very few holy people left in this world that are capable of giving us solid guidance as we try to make our way along the inner path of holiness. But do we let that stop us from seeking guidance? And, above all, do we let that stop us from praying with sincere faith that God will send us a guide, trusting that He will send us one in His time? Or do we use this as an excuse not to seek spiritual guidance or to stop the search for a spiritual guide? Even if God sends you just one guide that you only get to meet with once for a brief moment, even that would be worth years of persistent prayer for the sake of growing in holiness. May heaven consume us!

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