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Spiritual Direction: Battling Anxiety

Father John Bartunek teaches how to overcome apprehension about submitting to the spiritual direction process.
by Father John Bartunek, LC | Source:
Question: Dear Father John, I am a new Catholic. I found your blog after searching for information on Catholic Spiritual Direction. My parish priest has found a director for me, a lady, whom I have not met yet. To be honest, I am somewhat terrified of sharing my thoughts and (things I learn) in person. I’m more of a writer. I don’t mind writing about that which I have learned as a result of overcoming trials-sorry to be vague here-it is embarrassing for me.

I don’t know if I can verbally sit in front of someone and talk about these things-though. Is it normal to feel apprehension about submitting to the direction process?

Answer: Totally, absolutely, positively normal. Let me get personal here for a moment. I have been a member of a religious order for almost seventeen years. In my first four years, I had weekly spiritual direction. Then every other week for the next six years. Since my ordination, I have been receiving spiritual direction monthly. Still, even after seventeen years, every time I prepare for spiritual direction, I have to battle apprehension, anxiety, and feelings of downright distaste. I have to overcome temptations to procrastinate or even to concoct some kind of vapid excuse not to go. This happens every time. And yet, I know from experience that it is ALWAYS well worth it to overcome those feelings. The results of spiritual direction, even when the direction simply consists of a spiritual report and a simple “you’re on the right track, keep going” from my director, never fails to boost my soul and strengthen me for life’s battle.

It may help you to reflect on some of the reasons behind this apprehension, and then look at some ways to avoid letting it paralyze you.

What’s Going On?

First, there are natural reasons. Certain people are somewhat shy or non-verbal by temperament – if you are a writer, this may be your case. And everyone, regardless of temperament, is nervous about being judged or misunderstood. When we open our interior nooks and crannies to someone, when we speak about our shortcomings and sinful tendencies, for example, we make ourselves vulnerable to ridicule or condemnation. Also, when we venture into conversation about these spiritual things, we come into contact with our own ignorance – not a pleasant aspect of ourselves to expose to others. Finally, if we are just starting, or if we are switching spiritual directors, all these reasons are exacerbated by the reality that our spiritual director is, basically, a stranger. (This last factor will lessen over time, if the director really is someone seeking to help you grow in your friendship with Christ.)

Second, there are supernatural reasons. We must never, ever, forget that we are not alone in our spiritual journey. God and his saints and angels are interested and on our side, but the devil and his minions are also interested, and they are not on our side. They are motivated by hatred for God. They express that hatred by trying to draw us away from his friendship. They know how valuable spiritual direction can be for our growth in that friendship. And so, their logical conclusion: “Keep those humans away from spiritual direction!” The tempter, therefore, will try to confuse us, try to stir up all kinds of ideas (e.g. I know more than my spiritual director, anyway, so why do I need to talk to her?…) and emotions (e.g. I am just so afraid of actually saying this about myself!…) that deflect us from following through on this worthy commitment. If we forget about this, we simply won’t understand half of what happens inside our heads as we prepare for spiritual direction (or any other time, for that matter).

There may be other reasons too, subjective ones, maybe deeper ones. Sometimes we have some subconscious fears or issues, specific to our own personality and upbringing, that can add to the apprehension. All the more reason to persevere, so as to allow spiritual direction to help us discover what’s really going on in there. In your particular case, a subjective factor may be the newness of Catholic spirituality. If you converted from Protestantism, you are used to a very private spirituality, a relationship with Christ that is just “me and God.” If you converted from Orthodoxy, you are used to an extremely public spirituality, one that often doesn’t dig too far into the depths of self-analysis, preferring to bask in the glory of liturgy and tradition. In either case, the kind of interpersonal dynamic that happens in spiritual direction would be new, and therefore uncomfortable.

Brass Tacks

So, what to do about all these obstacles?

  • The most helpful thing is to have a simple, firm structure that you follow, both in preparing and then in having spiritual direction. You should work this structure out together with your director, but we have made some suggestions here.
  • Then, don’t forget that your spiritual director is only one-third of the ingredients. You and the Holy Spirit together constitute the other two-thirds. The Holy Spirit will always do his part, so if you do your part, you are two-thirds covered, regardless of how well you may or may not connect, humanly, with your director. The mere act of preparing for and going to spiritual direction exercises all the great Christian virtues – humility, faith, hope, courage, charity… So, even if no mighty insights emerge, you will be a better Christian after each direction than your were before.
  • Finally, keep looking for ways to improve your spiritual direction. For example, you mentioned that you express yourself well in writing. Well, you can discuss with your director the possibility of sending a kind of spiritual report a couple days before your direction, summarizing the previous month. Then the director can use that as the outline for what you talk about during direction. Or, to take another example, you can agree to start every direction by speaking about the good things that have happened in your spiritual life over the past month – this can help get the ball rolling. In short, keep adjusting, keep looking for ways to maximize the effectiveness of this longstanding means for spiritual growth. This will help you be proactive, thereby lessening the apprehension that can assail you as you seek to follow the Lord more closely.

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