Friend or Doctor: The Role of the Spiritual Director

By Fr. Sean McDermott

Velázquez Diego Rodriguez -- St. Anthony the Abbot and St. Paul the Hermit

When you read about Spiritual Directors, there seems to be two different visions or models: a spiritual friend or a spiritual doctor. On the one hand, Andre Louf envisions a Director to help the penitent listen to the Holy Spirit and gently prompt him in the right way. On the other hand, the Very Rev. Tanquerey, Fr. Reginald Ward, Fr. Martin Thornton, and others define the Director as a doctor; he must diagnose and treat. These seem to oppose each other, for the vision of a doctor approach is more invasive and active than Louf's quiet accompaniment. However, I think these complement each other, and it is helpful to see how Louf's Cistercian background comes through strongly. Looking a little more closely will help us understand the role of the Director on a deeper level.


In his book, Grace Can Do More: Spiritual Accompaniment and Spiritual Growth, Andre Louf writes that a Director has the important yet quiet role of showing a penitent not how to do more, but how to hear the Holy Spirit. "Specifically, one of the most important tasks of a spiritual accompaniment will be teaching the brother/sister to remain exactly at the right place, available and dedicated to an untiring and interminable wait. God is always very close to us, not only close to, but within us, at the heart of ourselves, at the heart of our heart. We are the ones who are elsewhere, and sometimes very far away, even as we look all the while for God in places where it will always be far more difficult to meet him" (37-38).


According to Martin Thornton in his book Spiritual Direction, the purpose is "a partnership to the Glory of God and the more efficient furtherance of his work by personal progress." It is the role of the director to draw out the gifts/talents of the person. In his book The Spiritual Life, the Very Rev. Adolphe Tanquerey writes that Direction naturally goes beyond the causes of sin in order to find remedies and then to encourage the virtues to oppose those faults. Therefore, it involves finding the means to foster eradication of sin and the fostering of virtue. Likewise, Fr. Reginald Ward writes in his book A Guide for Spiritual Directors: the Director is the "physician of souls whose main work is to diagnose the ills of the soul and the hinderances to its contact with God" (8). He encourages the definition of Jeremey Taylor: "Guide for souls --to guide and comfort, give peace and to conduct, to refresh the weary and to strengthen the weak, and therefore to use their advice is that proper remedy which God hath appointed."


When looking at these two visions together, I see more a complementary vision. There is a need to diagnose, and in order to do that, the Director must take action to find out about the penitent's life and present spirituality. But the director must bear in mind, that treatment can only be encouraged, never forced. This is where Louf is so helpful. A soul's growth in virtue can never be the result of the Director's exertion or force. Rather the Director can only point, listening quietly to the Holy Spirit and in doing so, teaching the penitent how to do so as well.


Fr. Sean McDermott is Curate at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar.

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