By Fr. Sean McDermott
Fr. Martin Thornton (1915-1986) was an English priest, writer, and Spiritual Director. His early books were marvelous, practical interpretations of Anglo-Catholic theology. I highly recommend his books Christian Proficiency, English Spirituality, and Pastoral Theology (also published under the title The Heart of the Parish). This post is based on Fr. Martin Thornton's book, Spiritual Direction, a wonderful treasure trove of sage advice. Thornton is known both for his practical theology and his frank opinions on parish life and spirituality. I have benefited from his wisdom and hope this post will encourage others. Here are Fr. Thornton's top ten bits of advice to those seeking Direction, distilled from his book, Spiritual Direction.
1. One has absolute freedom of choice when choosing director.
Remember that Directors do not have to be clergy. There is no compulsion whatsoever when choosing a director. Though a local would make Direction easier, one does not need to choose their own priest or someone nearby.
2. Give priority, when choosing, to competence.
While this might be hard to find out quickly, Thornton's point is that your choice of Director should be not be influenced by convenience (place/age/etc.) but by the Director's skill. Directors should be under direction themselves and should have experience before giving Direction to others.
3. If you find difficulty/sloth/sin, etc. the cause of any particular reticence or embarrassment to a particular priest, then something is wrong.
Direction depends on openness, so if you find somethings hard to discuss with your Director, then something within the relationship is not right. There could be many reasons for this from a desire to please your Director to ones own pride. If a difficulty does come up, then one might need to seek another Director.
4. Make the move yourself.
Like so many things in life, one must make the first move to contact and ask for Direction. The Director should never ask to direct (a sure sign of an incompetent Director).
5. Try not to be fussy.
At the same time, every Director is still human, and one must not have too high of expectations. Direction takes time -- therefore, one must be patient and not fussy over small things.
6. Use your spiritual director.
Directors should be consulted when one has questions even outside the normal meetings. One should not wait to ask a key question when an answer might help in the present moment!
7. Do not fear about finding it hard to talk.
Getting used to Direction and expressing one's spiritual life takes time. Do not worry if this is hard at first.
8. There is no obligation to meet (especially since you are the one that has to instigate the meetings!).
While it is good to set up a pattern of meeting, if there is no need to meet, you do not need to feel obliged. Direction is not like Confession where one has to habitually make Confession.
9. It is good to separate confession and direction, and both of these might even be outside your parish priest, but it is good just to let your parish priest know.
This is really two pieces of advice in one. First, Directors and Confessors should be separate people. Given that Directors do not have to be local or clergy, this should not be a hinderance in our day of age. Second, you should inform your parish priest from whom you are receiving direction.
10. Seek direction when things go well -- "Prayer is positive adventure."
Direction need not be a crisis help line. A lot of growth can be made in our spiritual lives when things are going well. In fact, it is the hard work and discipline done during this time that will help us during harder times.
Fr. Sean McDermott is Curate at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar.