By Fr. Thomas Acklin, OSB
Over the last few months, Fr. Boniface Hicks and I have had the opportunity to teach for several weeks from our book on spiritual direction, Spiritual Direction: A Guide For Sharing the Father’s Love. This has given me a chance to re-read and rethink in the process of teaching from the book and elaborating on issues surrounding spiritual direction.
This has led me to the conclusion that the heart of the book is the emphasis on our interior life as consisting most fundamentally of a personal relationship with God. This personal relationship with God is a reflection of the interpersonal, inter-dependent relationships of the persons of the Trinity—which are so intimate and involve such an infinite gift of each Divine person to each of the others that they are One God.
The goal of spiritual direction and the very purpose of being human is to enter as deeply as possible into this personal relationship with God. This is the reason that Jesus indicated that the first and the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.” The second commandment flows from the first, to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we truly put God first and grow in our interior life into an ever more intimate and totally self-giving relationship with God who infinitely gives himself to us in love, loving our neighbor and loving ourselves will come naturally. The whole life of prayer and the whole interior life is encompassed in this ever-deepening relationship in the love among the persons of the Trinity which manifests itself in prayer (both communal and personal).
Spiritual direction is first meant to facilitate this relationship with God and second to deal with issues in our relationships with other people we love, as well as others whom we may love less but who are also in our lives. It also has to do with our relationship with ourselves and how we come to grow in the life of virtue, resolving obstacles that stand in the way of love that is truly self-giving. Spiritual direction is also a relationship between two people which becomes extremely personal. Personal and deep love involves vulnerability in which there is openness and self-disclosure on the part of the directee to the director who, while not ordinarily disclosing a great deal about himself or herself, nonetheless is vulnerable in the sense of total receptivity to the other person. The Holy Spirit works very powerfully in this relationship, making it transformative, because it takes place in the spirit and because it involves so much vulnerability.
This book which Fr. Boniface and I wrote on spiritual direction is unique because it attempts to show examples of the process of spiritual direction. In doing so it deals with many actual aspects of the spiritual direction process. These include interiority, listening, silence, vulnerability, communication, and solitude. The examples intend to show how the process of becoming more vulnerable, of learning to listen, and of entering into silence, not only deepen our relationship with God but facilitate the relationship between the two persons in spiritual direction. Indeed silence is what allows the words we speak to have meaning because it is their ground and background in the Word of God who speaks in silence. The examples are an attempt to show the marvelous transformation that takes place through genuine spiritual direction, leading a person always deeper into their relationship with God, which in turn deepens and puts in proper context other relationships.
It is necessary more and more to die to self, even to forget self—in the sense that the focus must be first on God, so that self and personal relationships with others may be seen in light of that most fundamental relationship with God. It is impossible to exaggerate how totally the interior life of a person is changed by getting these priorities straight, by becoming free from inordinate narcissism and self-absorption, becoming free of any tendencies to make gods of self or of others, and instead seeing all of reality in light of God’s love.
We hope that this book will enrich those who read it: whether they are spiritual directors or those who want to better understand the process of spiritual direction in which they are engaged, or both. It has been written prayerfully and reflectively, and presented humbly as an attempt to more profoundly fathom the depths of the Father’s love as it is poured out to us in Jesus Christ. More than improving technique, it is hoped that the book helps people to draw closer to the Lord and to love self and others in light of Him, our first Love, for Whom God has created us and without Whom we always labor under the feeling that what is most important is missing.
Fr. Thomas Acklin is a spiritual director and theologian who serves as a professor at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, PA. He co-wrote, with Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB, Spiritual Direction: A Guide for Sharing the Father’s Love.