Painting: Ludwig Passini, “Ein ernstes Gespräch”, before 1903
The problem with finding a holy spiritual director is that they are often hidden. Here are the secret signs to look for…
What is the role of a spiritual director? The spiritual director is part counselor and (if he is a priest) confessor. The best term I have heard for spiritual director is “soul friend.”
A soul friend is a person to whom you can confide your fears, your longings and your desire for spiritual growth. He or she may be more advanced than you are, but that is probably a question not worth asking because the answer is so complicated.
A soul friend walks with you on the spiritual adventure. They accept you just as you are, but love you too much to leave you that way. They challenge you but you will also challenge them.
The problem with finding a good spiritual director is that you are looking for a holy person, and the problem with trying to find a holy person is that they are hidden. The treasure is buried in an ordinary field. The pearl of great price is in an ordinary oyster among a million other oysters at the bottom of the bay.
Too often we go for the celebrities. We mistake fame for holiness, or we are inspired by a great preacher or teacher and mistake a speaking gift for holiness. A person who writes or communicates well is not necessarily holier than anyone else.
Sometimes we see a person engaged in helping the poor or being kind and mistake kindness for holiness, or we meet a person who has a naturally engaging personality and who has learned good manners and we mistake good manners or a pleasing appearance for holiness. Perhaps we meet a professional religious person—a priest, monk or nun—and we see their religious clothes and like their caring, religious manner and think that is holiness.
It may be, but then again it may not be. That holiness is hidden goes with the definition because a holy person is humble, and a humble person is not only self-effacing, but their humility is really expressed in the fact that they are being themselves, and a person who is truly himself or herself does not attract much attention. They fit. They blend in. They belong. This humble, holy person does not attract much attention because they are taken for granted—like a blue sky or like the grass growing.
Furthermore, if you seek out the humble person and hope they are holy, and ask them for direction or guidance they will probably chuckle and tell you to move on because they really don’t think they have much to offer you. They will listen to you kindly, but chances are, they will dismiss your request, and you will have to keep searching.
It’s more complicated. If you are looking for the holy person amongst the professional religious, and among those lay people who are so pious that they make the professional religious look like amateurs, then you are also likely to be disappointed.
The holy person may be hidden there, as he or she may be hidden anywhere, but just because the person does lots of religious stuff doesn’t mean they are holy. Indeed, if the holy person has taken the Lord’s advice and prays in secret, and washes their face and appears joyful when fasting, then the outwardly ‘religious’ signs may be indicators otherwise.
Instead, I look for secret signs. I look for the person who is contented and joyful. I spy out the person who listens more than they talk. I look for the person who has learned—really learned—to recognize and love the face of Christ in five ways: in the Church, in the person of the priest, in the Eucharist, in the Sacred Scriptures and in the face of the poor. I look for the person who responds to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in simple obedience and without fanfare. I look for the person who accepts suffering and knows how to turn it into something golden.
If you find a person like that, then you’ve found the secret treasure, the hidden garden, the pearl of great price.
Make friends with that person and you may have found your soul friend.