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2005-2006 Annual Report

Is your faith on the Right Path?
Discover God’s Will through Spiritual Direction

by Tom Tracy

“Spiritual Direction is, in reality, nothing more than a way of leading us to see and obey the real Director - the Holy Spirit hidden in the depths of our soul.” - Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk

After her two sons reached their teens, Debbie Tomlinson knew her “nest” would soon be empty and she wondered what God had in mind for the next stage of her life.

At first, Debbie, whose youngest son is a senior in high school, thought about starting her own company. But she wasn’t quite sure if that idea was necessarily God’s plan for her. She prayed about it, and on the advise of a friend, she made an appointment with a spiritual director.

Spiritual direction, Debbie says in retrospect, isn’t necessarily about deciding what to do with your life, but rather discerning where God is leading you.

“Sometimes we need somebody else who understands how God is leading us,” she said, adding, “Sometimes when doors open we don’t want to go through, but a spiritual director can help gently push us through even when we feel unworthy. God’s plan for us can be much bigger than we ever imagine and spiritual direction can help us take that first step.”

After a year of personal discernment under the direction of Sister of St. Joseph Eileen Marie Flanagan, who has been a spiritual director in the Diocese of Saint Augustine for more than 20 years, Debbie decided not to start a company and instead accepted a position as a development executive for Inside the Vatican magazine. These days she’s helping orchestrate exciting new projects she never imagined being involved in.

“If it hadn’t been for Sister Eileen I would never have gone through those doors,” Debbie said. “It’s a true example of how God doesn’t call the equipped; he equips those he calls. I find myself every day having to step out of the boat and onto the water and focus on Jesus. God wants us to step out in faith, and when you do you will soar.”

In their regular meetings, Sister Eileen listens to Debbie and comments on how God is working in her life. One of her principal themes, according to Debbie, is to ask: What is God telling you? What is God doing here?

“It’s a time to tell our story with someone who is wise, loving, patient and caring and who guides you with her words, having you think about things mentioned,” Debbie said.

Spiritual direction is an honored practice whose roots lie deep in the Catholic tradition. Scholars usually trace its beginnings to the fourth-century desert fathers and mothers. Probably Jesus himself was the first Christian spiritual director, as well as Paul and we find it in the spiritual friendship of saints.

Not to be confused with pure problem solving, therapy or mental health counseling, spiritual direction aims to help a person become more deeply attuned to God’s presence in his or her daily life. Reconciliation and healing often result.

“Often people come because they have a desire to deepen their relationship with God,” said Cenacle Sister Elizabeth Hillmann, who along with three other members of her religious community in Gainesville provides spiritual direction for individuals throughout the diocese. “Others come with a desire to understand their troubles, or their personal problems, or the path they should follow.” They come, said Sister Elizabeth, because “they have a hint in their heart that they could handle their reality better if they had a better relationship with God.”

“Both St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila say that a spiritual director must be a good listener, and also possess theological and spiritual knowledge,” said Sister Elizabeth. Another requisite is an understanding that all spiritual growth is the work of God; that the primary relationship is between God and the directee, not the director and the directee.

“Benefits to the directee may include greater spiritual freedom, a deeper awareness of the love God has for each of us, a deepening desire to do the will of God and, in the words of St. Ignatius, “giving glory to God,” she added.

For Sister Eileen, a kind of regional ministry of spiritual direction developed after she finished a master’s degree in Christian spirituality, retreat and spiritual direction. Shortly after she began offering retreats at Marywood Retreat Center in Jacksonville. The retreats sparked an interest in lay Catholics who wanted one-on-one spiritual direction.

“Some were living in the far ends of the diocese and wouldn’t be able to come to Marywood once a month, so I said if you can get a group of people together I will come to the parish. I made it a ministry for the parish as well provided spiritual direction to individuals of the parish,” she said.

“More and more people seem to want one-on-one spiritual direction.” They seek an intimacy with God usually following a crisis or dark times. Or they are confused and don’t know if they are on the right track.”

Sister Eileen believes that above all, a spiritual director must be a good listener. And the spiritual director has to completely realize that it is really the Holy Spirit working through prayer who takes the credit.

And even qualified spiritual directors need - and should be in a regular dialogue - with their own spiritual guides. “It is really important that a spiritual director has training and knows their limitations: they are not psychologists, but they should have resources for people in need of psychologists or psychiatrists,” said Sister Eileen.

For example, a directee with an admitted drinking problem may be asked to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or similar 12-Step program while also pursuing spiritual direction. For Sister Eileen, each new directee reads a brochure on the purpose and process of spiritual direction and signs a simple agreement of understanding.
  From (l-r): Cenacle Sisters Annette Mattle, Rose Hoover and Elizabeth Hillmann. The ministry of the Cenacle Sisters has been retreats and spiritual direction almost since their founding in 1826. The Cenacle has been in Gainesville since 2000.

Spiritual direction is a growing ministry in the church, and some believe it is a significant part of the future of the church. For that reason, Marywood Retreat Center and the Center for Spirituality and Lay Ministry at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., are hosting a certification program in Spiritual Direction. It is a four-year formation process designed to support cultivation and the challenges of spiritual direction ministry. Candidates are guided by readings, quarterly reflection papers, written self-evaluations, personal spiritual direction and supervision of their work with directees.

Many universities and spiritual centers offer courses to train competent spiritual directors, according to Msgr. Vincent Haut, pastor of Resurrection Parish in Jacksonville, who helped bring the Sacred Heart certification program to the diocese. “I meet with a spiritual director once a month and most of the people I see in spiritual direction come once a month, but sometimes a person only needs to meet with a director once in a while or only during a time of special need,” he said. “The best thing about regular spiritual direction is an increased awareness of God’s work within one’s own life. It’s like anything in human life - the more you attend to it, the more you appreciate and recognize it.”

Sister Eileen adds a twist: “There are many people who do not see the need for spiritual direction. They feel comfortable with simply getting direction or advice through confession or with a friend or a spouse they can share their spiritual journey with on a regular basis,” she said.

Sister Elizabeth remarks that oftentimes the spiritual director also gains insights into his or her own relationship with God! “Sometimes one is in awe at the work of God in another.”
  Msgr. Vincent Haut, pastor of Resurrection Parish in Jacksonville.

Interested in pursuing spiritual direction? Call Marywood Retreat Center in Jacksonville, (904) 287-2525, for a list of qualified spiritual directors. For Sister Eileen Marie Flanagan, call (904) 823-9965 or email: The Cenacle Sisters provide spiritual direction as well as days and/or evenings of prayer in parishes - visit or call (352) 336-5102.