Jesuit Father Joseph Tetlow is the director of Montserrat Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Dallas, Texas where he gives retreats, workshops and writes. Before his came to Montserrat, Fr. Tetlow spent several years in Rome as head of the Jesuit General’s Secretariat for Ignatian Spirituality, guiding the efforts of 250 Jesuit retreat houses. Widely considered one of the Jesuits’ leading authorities on spiritual direction, Tetlow shares with National Jesuit News some of his thoughts on what being a spiritual director means to him in this piece:
Who is a spiritual director? “Someone people go to for spiritual direction.”
And how do you know who’s a good spiritual director? “Someone people keep going to.”
There’s a lot of truth in that old saying. But it leaves a lot out. I’ve been giving spiritual direction one way or another for fifty years: to scholastics, tertians, retreatants, priests and religious, lay men and women. I still find it mysterious that people come to me, and I to another (only a fool gives it without getting it). But I see three things that help people to come: charism, position and being a listener.
People come because you have a charism. Many have gifts that draw people to them for companioning or guidance. They can be helped with some formation. Jesuits have put a lot of energy into that and now our lay colleagues have taken it up. Certainly we need a lot more spiritual helpers; at Montserrat, we cannot help all who ask.
The second clear reason why people come: a position you are in. A number of years ago, a priest came to tell me that he was thinking of taking a leave to decide his future. He came to me as spiritual director of clergy. We worked and prayed together for a long while and he remains a good pastor.
People need to know that telling you something is like dropping a stone in a well. It goes nowhere. I don’t even tell who sees me. They also need to feel that you can handle whatever they have to tell you. What that might be differs vastly. In the past few months, I’ve helped a man split from his business partner, a priest choose holiness, a woman deepen her prayer and a person contemplating suicide choose life.
A Jesuit at Montserrat, as at any Jesuit retreat house, is placed to help a lot of people.
A third reason people come is that you’re known as a listener. “Listen first and then listen again” begins the seminar on ignatian direction that I run at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. This listening isn’t a skill or habit the director has – it isn’t about the director at all. It’s about the people who come: they have to leave you consoled that they have been listened to and heard. It’s the first way you help people know God: you let them know they are heard.
Charism, position and listening are basic to all spiritual direction. But in my experience, Ignatian direction has to be ready to go beyond them. It is distinctive in several ways that suit it to our time. Here are four big ones.
First, the Ignatian spiritual director wants passionately to help people know Jesus Christ. It is not first of all about choosing a vocation or reforming life or making spiritual progress. It’s not about “who I am.” It’s about who Jesus is in my life. That’s what you can give them – if you have it to give. Nemo dat quod non habet. So know Jesus better, love Him more, and let the disciple “grow like the Master” (Luke 6:40).
Second, the God we seek is an active God. I recently sent a woman another director’s phone number because her prayer of quiet sought the God of quiet. Ignatian spirituality seeks the busy God, active in all things, creating us momently. This realizes the third point of the Contemplation: intimate knowledge of God always acting in His gifts. We bring people to Jesus of Nazareth who said that He could do “only what He sees the Father doing.” (John 5:20). The Father doing.
Then, third, we offer “discernment.” We don’t own the word. In the Catechism, obeying conscience requires discernment. But we mean a specific discernment: the movement of spirits. We talk about it a lot, not always entirely accurately. Some discern to find out what they authentically feel and desire, expecting that to be God’s will. Some work out how consolation or desolation connect with serving God. But in my experience, not many get as far as genuine discernment of spirits in everyday life.
It’s a cultural thing. Secular Americans cannot comprehend the idea of a spirit different from mine within my self, working busily for its own aims and purposes. It took me decades to really grasp the discernment of spirits and I still work at it. Many directors I know, if they do grasp it, are not so zealous to apply it.
A final, fourth, mark of Ignatian spiritual direction: you actually direct people. You don’t do it all the time with everyone. Most of the time, you are accompanying or guiding. But at times, you direct. You tell a desolate woman to change her prayer as it’s mainly self-absorption. You instruct a young Jesuit not to change his current way of praying. You challenge a married woman, telling her that she would be wise to break off a relationship that is disturbing her marriage. You do none of this easily or without reflecting, and never harshly or judgmentally. But you do it.
Truly directing goes against American expressive individualism. We yearn to know and have “what I authentically want,” so no one can tell us much of anything. Sr. Marian Cowan, C.S.J., a justly renowned director, prefers to talk about “spiritual companioning.” That’s how most of the Episcopalian and Methodist theologians I teach think. It is fruitful and probably what any of us do most of the time.
And it’s very Jesuit, the reason the first Jesuits were the First Companions. But look what happened when they made the Spiritual Exercises. Master Ignatius directed them, surely at a balance to let the Spirit work directly. Each elected a way of life and kept it secret. Then one day on Montmartre, they all told what they had chosen individually: a life of apostolic poverty, Jerusalem, Rome. The same choice. It might have been a miracle, but probably not. Before and outside the retreat, Ignatius directed them.
So I go back to where I started. It’s a mystery why a person so incomplete and imperfect – who is more correct than most when he says at Mass, “I have sinned through my own fault” – it’s a mystery why people should come to such a person. It’s humiliating. It’s profoundly gratifying. And it’s a very insistent way to die to self.
You can listen to an interview with Fr. Tetlow from the 2009 Spiritual Directors International Conference in this video.