One-Time Spiritual Direction in a Retreat Setting

I dropped my bags off in my room and toured the retreat center alone after my late arrival, tired but grateful for the chance to spend several days with 70 women who had set their weekend aside to deepen their relationship with the Lord. 

I knew it would be far from restful for me personally—I was giving six talks over two days with spiritual direction sandwiched between—but, I figured, our true rest is in the Lord, and doing His Will would be life-giving.  I hoped and prayed He would use me.  That’s why I was there.

Sitting on a table in front of the chapel entrance were the lists of names of the women who had signed up for spiritual direction—there were lists for both of the priests present, and one for me.  In the dim light, I studied the paper with my name on top. 

30-minute slots. 30 minutes with precious souls who I had never met, and might never see again.  30 minutes to hear some of their stories and what God was doing in their hearts.  30 minutes to offer a bit of counsel, encouragement, wisdom.  30 minutes to pray silently for the Holy Spirit to speak.  30 minutes to pray with them for the unfolding of His grace in their hearts.  

One half-hour of a woman’s life, a small pocket of time holding a bit of eternity, and carrying for me both a privilege and a responsibility.  I didn’t take it lightly.

On my way back to my room, I thought about another retreat, years earlier.  That time I had been the woman on retreat, signing my name of the form.  I had been the woman without her own director, wanting a word from someone wise, and seeing in that single meeting, however brief, the chance to be heard, received and understood.

But that time, It hadn’t gone well.

I remembered how hopeful I’d felt as I took my seat and had begun to share, desiring clarity from the experienced retreat master in the cassock sitting across from me. 

I explained to him that I was discerning writing a book.  Of course, I was busy with my duties as a wife and mom—and then, too, there was that invitation to work on an initiative for my diocese that had to do with marriage and family…

The priest, who had been listening silently, interrupted me and leaned forward.  “The world doesn’t need any more books,” he said emphatically.  “Don’t waste your time writing a book.”

I was stunned.

Deep in my heart, there were stories of confirmations and consolations around writing—there was a lifetime of discernment behind my question and a personal vocation that had already begun to take shape in my heart.  But without hearing any of that, the retreat master continued.

“Marriage and family is under attack,” he said.  “You should forget the book and work to protect marriage and the family.  Focus on that.”  He gestured with his hand, making a sweeping motion.  “We have millions of books—more than we can ever read.  Don’t write another book.”

Unable to explain myself, I stammered out a thank you and left quickly.

Walking outside, I regained my equilibrium.  I knew enough to realize that what I had received hadn’t been true direction.  What I had gotten was his personal opinion.  I reminded myself that even good retreat masters and holy priests aren’t always the best directors, or can just have bad days. (see St. Teresa of Avila’s own troubles regarding this in her autobiography, chapter XXIII.)

So I shrugged it off and went on to write a book.  (Oh, and I also worked with my bishop on that marriage and family initiative…turns out the Lord makes space in our lives for everything that He wants.)

I had also gotten some good experience on how not to offer counsel in such a setting. Or ever.  And a greater awareness of the sacredness of that small moment with another person, together asking the Lord to reveal His love and His designs and His Will.  Only one short meeting, and yet long enough to do much good, or much harm.

Many of us will have the opportunity to experience one-time spiritual direction while on retreat. It can be valuable, but there are certain cautions that experienced directors offer about what to expect and how to make the best use of that single meeting.

Fr. Jeremiah Shryock, CFR, often meets with visitors to the monastery in New York where he serves as chaplain.  Retreatants may have the opportunity to receive direction from him while there.  He admits that it is not the ideal situation.  “Spiritual direction flourishes in a relationship with someone,” he says, but when you don’t have that luxury, a one-time conversation is “better than nothing, in the sense that we all need someone to talk to.  And even more so today, when we don’t have enough spiritual directors. It has become something of a lost art.”

He suggests that when we have the chance to meet with a director once, we come prepared with two basic questions to make the best use of that time.  “Consider and point out to the director two things: First, Where do you perceive God in your life? And then, Have you been responding to Him?”  Those questions are starting points that can lead to different places, but they give the director something to work with.

 And ultimately, no direction can take the place of one’s ongoing conversation and dialogue with God, who is, after all, “the only One who has the answers,” Fr. Jeremiah reflects. 

Fr. James Brent, O.P., travels extensively leading retreats for college students and young adults. He too has the opportunity to meet one time with those looking for direction.  

He reminds us that retreat leaders going into these meetings don’t have the benefit of knowing either the movements of the Holy Spirit deep in our hearts or the ‘big picture’, that is the circumstances of our lives in which this divine work in unfolding.

“A one-time meeting is not normally the time to make major life decisions,” he warns.  “But you can ask for specific instruction about something in your prayer life. And beware of the temptation to tell the entire narrative of your life story.  That makes it hard for a director to sort out what is relevant.”

He suggests that “a directee in this circumstance should help facilitate the conversation by offering upfront any ‘trends’ in their heart.  That is, what has been bringing you excitement, peace and joy?  Where has the Holy Spirit been inclining your heart?  What tendencies have been unfolding within you that have been leading you in a particular direction?”

Then, he suggests, ask the director if what is happening inside seems like the Lord’s movement.  A wise director will look at your current situation and may encourage you to persevere and overcome obstacles and discouragement around this movement (because we can sometimes be afraid of where our heart wants to go), and perhaps give some advice about how to live according to it. 

The director may also warn against ‘going off the rails’— especially if something doesn’t correspond to one’s state in life.  But if it is about something important, he or she will also always advise the person to seek out further counsel.  After all, a one-time meeting is just not enough time to discern weighty things with any finality.

Fr. James’ most important piece of advice?  “Pray before your meeting that light from the Holy Spirit is given to the director.”

I’ll second that.  Know this, too: a good director is also always praying for you, whether you meet regularly or just once.  It is a privilege to be allowed into the interior life of another, even if for a singular moment. You see, that holy ground, take-your-shoes-off kind of encounter, gives the Spirit space to move in both the heart of the directee and the director.  And both should come away better.

Image courtesy of Depositphotos.

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