One very important ingredient for vibrant spiritual life is to find a good spiritual director. For many people this person will also be their confessor, but this is not necessary. It is possible to have a separate confessor and spiritual director. It is even possible to have a lay person who acts as a spiritual director.
St. Teresa of Avila shares some advice on this topic in her work, The Way of Perfection. She suggests that first of all a spiritual director should combine both learning and spirituality. Having said this, she goes on to tell a story about a man she had as a confessor who had a “complete course in theology” but who departed from the Church’s traditional teaching in his counsels to her and caused “a great deal of mischief” in her interior life. As result of this experience St. Teresa advises that we should be free to change our spiritual director if they are not helping us. This freedom was more difficult for St. Teresa’s cloistered nuns than for the average lay person. The current Code of Cannon law specifies that all the faithful are free to choose the lawfully approved confessor of their choice (CIC 991). We are free to go to the confessor we feel helps us the most, even if they are not our parish priest.
St. Teresa advises that since “it is difficult to know which confessors are good, great care and caution is necessary.” One danger she highlights is that of vanity. One very obvious sign of vanity is someone who champions their own personal views or “I believes” over the “We believe” of the Church. Is the confessor or spiritual director willing to “think with the Church”? Again the Code of Cannon Law specifies that “In administering the sacrament, the confessor, as a minister of the Church, is to adhere to the teaching of the magisterium and to the norms laid down by the competent authority” (CIC 978.2) Clearly we would desire the same standard for our spiritual director, if they are not also our confessor. Another point along the same lines is the problem of some confessors not wanting to hear confessions which are frequent and only consisting of venial sins. The Church encourages all the faithful to confess even their venial sins (CIC 988.2). We receive specific graces to overcome the sins we confesses. By his own example and words Pope John Paul II promoted the practice of frequent confession. He notes,
In the name of the Lord Jesus, let us give assurance, in union with the whole Church, to all our priests of the great supernatural effectiveness of a persevering ministry exercised through auricular confession, in fidelity to the command of the Lord and the teaching of his Church. And once again let us assure all our people of the great benefits derived from frequent Confession (Ad Limina Address to Canadian Bishops, November 1978)
One common concern I hear is that while a particular priest is evidently both holy and “thinking with the Church”, I am told he is too young, or too inexperienced to be the director of someone who is older. Here I would point to St Teresa’s example. At the age of 52 she took St. John of the Cross to be her director. At that time he was only 25 years old! This is roughly the equivalent of a young priest right out of seminary. I think we must trust in divine graces. The Holy Spirit will guide our director to help us. We should pray for our director and trust in God’s ability to use them for our benefit. While it certainly is difficult to find a good spiritual director, it is well worth the effort to find one.
On the Feast of St. Lawrence of Brindisi,