Spiritual Direction and Confession

“Confession is not spiritual direction.”

This is a principle that I have followed and a maxim that I have often repeated.  By this I mean that in confession, people generally need only some brief counsel, encouragement, and absolution.  Of course, the sacrament of penance is private and personal, and there are many situations that would require something different.  But I had thought it a sound principle to distinguish clearly these two different activities.

I might have to revise this thinking in light of what I have learned from reading the Congregation for the Clergy’s recent document “The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy: An Aid for Confessors and Spiritual Directors.”  This document was dated March 9, 2011, but seems to have received very little attention.  This is probably for several reasons.  First, there is nothing controversial in it (unlike the 1997 Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life–which remains in my opinion the wisest, most useful, and practical instruction for confessors, not only on the particular topic it addresses but for the general principles it provides).  Secondly, it is not particularly original, for the most part simply drawing together what has been said about confession in various magisterial documents of recent years.  And finally, it has a rather low level of magisterial weight, coming from the congregation and not signed with the pope’s authority.

As the title suggests, the document treats of both confession and spiritual direction, and ties them together quite closely.  In fact, the document is divided into two main sections, one treating of each, and the connection between the two, and the urgency and value of each, is repeatedly highlighted.  It clearly envisions spiritual direction taking place as part of the sacrament of penance.

As a Jesuit, my own experience and training in spiritual direction has of course been rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, but also heavily influenced by the “religious experience” model of spiritual direction, of which Fr. William Barry, SJ, (author of The Practice of Spiritual Direction) is an important example.  He says,

“Spiritual direction, as we understand it then, is directly concerned with a person’s actual experiences of his relationship with God” (7).

The role of the director is to help the person notice better his spiritual experiences so as to draw closer into relationship with the Lord and to be able to discern God’s movements (and the Enemy’s counter-movements) in his soul.  As such, discussions in spiritual direction focus almost exclusively on personal prayer in this model.

My first formal spiritual director when I was an undergraduate at Boston College was a priest of Opus Dei, and it was a rather different (although in no way opposed or contradictory) model of spiritual direction, which I will call the “holiness model.”  Here, the emphasis was on becoming holy by cultivating a sacramental life of prayer, growing in virtue and eliminating vice, and living an apostolic life in concrete daily ways.  Prayer is an important part of spiritual direction in this model, but attention is also paid to one’s entire life, developing a “plan of life,” with goals that can be evaluated.

For the most part, this recent “Aid to Confessors and Spiritual Directors” has the holiness model of spiritual direction in mind.  The role of spiritual director is described as

“one who guides in making concrete applications, inspires generosity in self-giving, and proposes means of sanctification adapted to particular persons and circumstances, bearing in mind their specific vocations” (85).

The language of a “plan” with objectives to be met is repeatedly used:

“It is helpful to follow a plan that can be simply divided into principles, objectives and means. It is also useful to indicate where we want to go, where we are, where we have to go, the obstacles we can expect to encounter, and the means which we can employ” (91).

Discernment is prominent in its description of the purpose of spiritual direction, but again tying it to holiness and mission:

“Spiritual direction has always ascribed great importance to discernment of the Spirit leading to sanctification, the apostolic mission and communion in ecclesial life” (70).

Spiritual direction has an intellectual or doctrinal dimension as well as an apostolic one (132-133).

The preference of this “Aid” for the holiness model clarifies the matter of the relationship between spiritual direction and confession.  In the sacrament of penance, counsel about growing in holiness is absolutely appropriate and necessary.  When one goes to the sacrament frequently and to the same confessor, this is a genuine form of spiritual direction, which takes the form of direction in prayer, advice to grow in virtue and avoid sin, suggestions for reading, apostolic encouragement and direction.  Such direction can be done in a relatively short span of time which is multiplied when confession is frequent.  By contrast, the religious experience model is not suitable for ordinary confession, as it is a conversation of a different focus, which will necessarily require more time and depth than the sacrament of penance allows in its usual settings.

So I’ll have to start saying that “Confession is not the religious experience model of spiritual direction.”  Doesn’t have quite the same ring.  But the point is well taken: the sacrament of penance is a privileged forum in which the faithful can be helped, through sound (and brief) counsel, to grow in holiness.  Confessors should make the most of this occasion, and avoid the temptation on the one hand to say simply, “Thank God for a good confession.  Your penance is…” or “You are such a good person and you shouldn’t worry about these sins…”

A brief post-script:  The question of which model is better really isn’t a fair one.  Better to ask which is more useful, and that will be different for different people at different stages in their spiritual lives.  Most people–and certainly the kind of people that both this document and Pope Benedict have recently exhorted to profit from spiritual direction–will start off with and be very well served by the holiness model.  But those who wish and are able to devote themselves more seriously to prayer and discernment will have much to gain from looking more closely at their religious experience.

What is more important is mutual understanding and respect by the practitioners of each.  Each model can learn a lot from the other.  The religious experience model is sometimes too passive, with too little actual direction and attention to concrete facts of life that lead to holiness.  The holiness model is sometimes not attentive enough to movements of the spirit and a person’s experience of prayer.  My best spiritual directors have been those who were not strongly tied to either method, but incorporated the insights and strengths of each.  All true spiritual direction is ultimately orientated toward union with Christ, and each of these methods helps people toward that in their own ways.

5 Responses to Spiritual Direction and Confession

  1. frjoseph says:

    I was wondering you made the post on Confession and Spiritual direction

  2. Michael Reuter says:

    Hello Fr. Monnig,

    M Reuter here from El Paso. It will be great to read what you have to say. Remember to take a head break once in awhile while at Duke. God Bless. Norma says Hi.

  3. Good post Matt, enjoyed it and will pass it on, especially in Arab, Russian and Mexican communities. Look forward to seeing your investigative journalism and insights on new testament theology as it applies to 21st century living.

  4. […] Society, discipline and uniformity coincided with spontaneity and charism.  (This also relates to Fr. Monnig’s post about the “religious experience” and “holiness” models of spiritual […]

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