The Call to be Spiritual Directors
How deacons can guide others to intimacy and relationship with God
A little over three years ago, Franciscan University of Steubenville piloted a new School of Spiritual Direction in response to a demand from both lay and consecrated members of the Catholic Church. This demand expressed a desire to be led deeper into the Faith through more than just Mass attendance and weekly adoration. It was a desire to be guided through the places of the heart, the depths of the soul and the intricacies of the movement of the Holy Spirit. In short, it was a desire to be directed through one’s spiritual life.
What Is Spiritual Direction?
Spiritual direction is best defined by William A. Barry and William J. Connolly in “The Practice of Spiritual Direction” (HarperOne, $16.99) as “a help given by one believer to another that enables the latter to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”
For anyone striving to live out the Catholic Faith, they know that sometimes discerning the voice of the Lord over the noise of the outside world, not to mention the noise occurring within our own heads, can be a near-impossible task. How can we be sure it’s the voice of the Lord? Is there a clear sign to look for? Am I truly growing in intimacy with God, or is this something else?
When one is boldly attempting to navigate the straight and narrow on their own, doubt and uncertainty can creep in. Temptations to second-guess yourself might keep you in one place longer than you need to be. Our minds are beautiful and wonderful things but can be a minefield of misdirection without proper guidance and training.
This is where a spiritual director comes in, who acts as a guide on your journey to intimacy and relationship with God. Just as a counselor works with clients to offer them guidance, new perspectives and alternate thinking patterns on the road to recovery, so, too, does a trained spiritual director help individuals journey toward a deeper spiritual life.
Who Can Be a Spiritual Director?
Franciscan University’s School of Spiritual Direction offers the opportunity to become a spiritual director to lay faithful, priests, deacons, religious, formators and catechists from all backgrounds and lived experiences. Each person a spiritual director will encounter comes with their own stories, experiences, joys and wounds. Therefore, faithful Catholics, regardless of vocation or background, can become spiritual directors with proper training.
However, while many people can bring something unique to the role of a spiritual director, I’d like to take a moment to focus on the way deacons in particular qualify as excellent candidates.
Role of the Deacon
As defined by the USCCB: “A deacon is … ordained [a] minister of the Catholic Church … as a sacramental sign to the Church and to the world of Christ, who came ‘to serve and not to be served.’ The entire Church is called by Christ to serve, and the deacon, in virtue of his sacramental ordination and through his various ministries, is to be a servant in a servant-Church.”
The ministry of a deacon is not to be taken for granted. They operate as ministers of the Word (via proclaiming the Gospel) and ministers of the sacrament (witnessing marriages, baptizing and conducting funeral services). In addition, they are ministers of charity. As “servants in a servant-Church,” deacons are “leaders in identifying the needs of others, then marshaling the Church’s resources to meet those needs” (USCCB). This is no simple task especially in a time when unrest and upheaval dictate the narrative of modern society, identifying and meeting the needs of the faithful is a challenging mission.
Keep in mind, deacons are people, as are all consecrated members of the Church. With human souls and minds, they still have to battle the temptations of the world. For this reason, it’s just as, if not more, important to offer them support and tools to battle against and triumph over the temptations of the flesh. After all, they are the ones to whom the lay faithful look to for guidance. But how can we expect to be guided if they themselves feel lost or conflicted?
This is why the training of a spiritual director is twofold. First, it is for the participant (in this case, the deacon), where he is invited into deeper prayer, self-knowledge and relationship with God. Through learning to accompany another person in their walk with the Lord, the deacon, in turn, will encounter God working deeply in his own heart. Through the classes, practicum, prayer and his own spiritual direction offered through a school of spiritual direction, he will hopefully experience greater interior freedom to better listen to and follow the voice of God in his own life. This leads to the second part, where the fruits that the Holy Spirit uses to move in and through him will impact his journey with another person.
A Cohesive Whole
Deacons undergo rigorous training in seminary, which is not overlooked; rather, it is expanded upon in spiritual direction training. Time in seminary focuses on the ideas of spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral (SHIP) as crucial elements of a deacon’s outreach. Not only does acting as a spiritual director touch upon each one of these concepts, but spiritual direction training allows deacons to deepen their personal understanding of each concept and intentionally put into practice this spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral ministry.
Additionally, the threefold role of a deacon (being a minister of word, sacrament and charity) is taken into consideration. Spiritual direction allows them to traverse deeper into the sacred liturgy and the sacraments, both for their own spiritual growth and as a witness to the growth of their directee. Plus, offering up their time to spiritually direct one or more people touches upon their vocation as a minister of charity.
Knowing how many spiritual directors come from a vocation of consecrated life, our goal is not to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Rather, the program recognizes the wisdom gained in seminary and strives to not only enhance this training but to provide an avenue through which the goals of these vocations can be met.
A doctor isn’t going to be very effective in caring for his patients if he himself is fighting a fever. So, too, a deacon isn’t going to be able to effectively meet the needs of the members of the Church if he himself isn’t having his needs met. This is where the program design at a school of spiritual direction comes into play. A spiritual director is only as effective as his or her own relationship with God. If that relationship struggles, how will that person be able to confidently accompany another on their spiritual journey?
By caring for the spiritual needs of our program’s participants, they in turn will be able to care for the needs of their future directees. Especially in the case of our deacons, they will not only be able to fill the need for spiritual directors in the Church, thereby meeting the needs of the people, but they will receive the guidance for their own life from Ignatian spirituality and their reliance on a deep and personal relationship with God.
ROBERT SIEMENS is director of the School of Spiritual Direction at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.
The Franciscan University of Steubenville School of Spiritual Direction offers a certification program that can be completed during the academic year in three consecutive years or in a condensed two-week, three-summer program format. For more information, visit https://institutes.franciscan.edu/school-spiritual-direction/.