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Spiritual direction and the role of the laity

In the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila we have a glimpse of the two-tier spirituality that has been taken for granted by most spiritual writers for a long time. It might be put like this: The goal for priests and religious is to be holy, the goal for lay people is to be good.

Father Gabriel Bakkar, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, listens to a woman's confession during a block party June 13 at St. Crispin Friary in the Bronx borough of New York. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Lately I’ve been reading the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila. Although not always easy going, it’s a compellingly interesting book and, now and then at least, a surprisingly amusing one. For Saint Teresa, along with being a great mystic, was a down to earth Spanish woman of the 16th century with a down to earth way of expressing herself. That certainly holds true for what she says about spiritual direction and spiritual directors.

Toward some of these she expresses gratitude (“he left me comforted and strengthened,” “he treated me with great skill, yet also very gently,” etc.). But she is candid about the limitations of others. That includes warning readers against directors who “teach us to be like toads, satisfied if our souls show themselves fit only to catch lizards” and a little later railing against spiritual counsel that amounts to no more than “advancing at the pace of a hen.”

Teresa, it appears, was a mystic familiar with the manner in which toads catch lizards and hens meander, and she saw no reason not to introduce both into her explanation of high spiritual matters—very much to the reader’s entertainment, I might add.

But—and here I take issue with her—when speaking of those hens, Saint Teresa uses their odd way of walking as a metaphor for the kind of spirituality that she considers suitable for married lay folk. The essence of lay spirituality she sums up as no more than“walk in righteousness and hold fast to virtue.” But even though walking righteously and holding fast to virtue are good and necessary things to do, they fall far short of the higher realms of the spirit that Teresa is trying to describe, and these she apparently considers reserved to religious like herself.

Here we have a glimpse of the two-tier spirituality that has been taken for granted by most spiritual writers for a long time. It might be put like this: The goal for priests and religious is to be holy, the goal for lay people is to be good. And although the holiness of priests and religious requires spiritual direction, the goodness of the laity, considered from this perspective, does not. A handful of lay people may seek out spiritual direction, but the vast majority won’t, and there is nothing surprising about that.

Recently—very recently, as the Church measures these things—that has changed. New thinking has emerged about the laity and the spirituality appropriate to them. So, for instance, spiritual direction for the laity is a central part of the program of Saint Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. Saint John Paul II makes the same point in his important document Christideles Laici (“The Role and the Vocation of the Lay Faithful,” 58) when he specifically includes among the necessary elements of the spirituality of the laity“recourse to a wise and loving spiritual guide.” In the Pope’s thinking, it seems safe to suppose, such a person has a considerably more important role than helping lay women and men be spiritual equivalents of lizard-catching toads.

It hardly needs saying that spiritual direction for the laity is far—very far—from being a universal reality in today’s Church. Most likely that has always been true. But the situation isn’t all dark. After all, some lay people do make retreats more or less regularly, and people attending a typical retreat are offered an opportunity to “talk with Father.” In speaking privately with a retreat master, they get a measure of spiritual direction now and then. Moreover, at least some lay people actually seek out and receive spiritual direction on a regular basis.

Still, it remains true that most of the Catholic laity never, or almost never, receive anything that could properly be called personal spiritual direction. Several years ago some who aren’t happy about that, commenting on a short piece I’d published on the subject of spiritual direction, reported that they’d tried to find directors but either the priests whom they deemed suitable for this role were too busy or else they couldn’t locate suitable priests.

That aside, it might also be objected that if by some miracle all active Catholic lay people really did go looking for spiritual directors, there wouldn’t be nearly enough priests to go around. That’s true of course. But if a large number of laity were to seek direction, it seems reasonable to suppose the demand would soon generate the supply.Consider, too, that no iron law says spiritual direction can be given only by clerics or religious. Add spiritual direction to the list of ministries for which qualified lay people can and should be trained.

In doing so, bear in mind that what we call spiritual direction occupies a place on a spectrum of activities. Spontaneous, informal spiritual direction takes place all the time in a variety of settings—the home, the workplace, the neighborhood, in hospital waiting rooms, in classrooms, in bars. All of us are, or at least have the potential of being, everyday spiritual advisors to our family and friends. And that simply underlines the practical relevance of the famous line in the first letter of Peter about being “ready always with an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3.15).

This, too, is part of Saint John Paul’s message. Rejecting the idea that lay people lead “two parallel lives”—on one track the spiritual life, on another the everyday life of family, work, and social relationships—he writes: “Every area of the lay faithful’s lives, as different as they are, enters into the plan of God, who desires that these very areas be the ‘places in time’ where the love of Christ is revealed and realized for both the glory of God and service of others” (Christifideles Laici, 59).

Discerning God’s will for oneself in all these settings is an important, even urgent, task for every individual. It is appropriate subject matter for the spiritual direction of lay people quite as much as clerics and religious. The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful, John Paul writes, is “an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live it” (ibid. 58). Spiritual direction can be a big help. Today, I think, Saint Teresa of Avila would agree.

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About Russell Shaw 294 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. I agree with virtually everything the author says. Perhaps as indicated in the photo caption the only remaining opportunity for Laity to receive spiritual direction today is in the confessional. Our culture has changed. Not the words of Christ. It’s unnecessary to enter into an exploratory examination of self to discern God’s will. He said what we must do. Be Holy for I am Holy (1 Peter 1:16). And our modal is his life.

  2. I’ve seen the effects of “spiritual direction” offered by certain secular institutes. It’s really spiritual MANIPULATION. For one thing, because they believe that celibacy is a higher state and that racking up vocations makes them holier, they counsel single people to stay single. They also counsel directees to join the secular institute and give it their money. Thank God there aren’t many “spiritual directors.” The marriage and child-bearing rate even among Catholics is abysmal enough.

  3. interesting, but are we not all called to “walk in righteousness and hold fast to virtue.” That is the same tier for everyone….I missed the quotes on where the Church Doctor says there is a two tier system….the Lord calls those in the priestly and religious life to a special consecration of holiness in contrast to those in the world in the way that they are not to be of the world….this is not a two tier system but a deeper call and vocation in being called to imitate the Lord in both the dimensions of not living in the world….both, all, are called to perfection but the priests and religious in a deeper and more profound obligation and life…’to those who have been given a greater obligation to be holy, greater holiness is expected…all are called but some are chosen”….the Lord is not exhorting a two tier system, just a blessed calling of vocation to imitate Him in righteousness and virtue….”some 20, some 40, some 80 and some 100-fold”…

  4. ?!?!?! I really believe there is a misunderstanding here! Having read St Teresa and St John of the Cross for many years, I have never seen in them a two-tiered spirituality like this author thinks they perceive. The factual reality unfortunately is that most lay people do not advance far or fast in the spiritual life. Let us admit that is true–but it’s not how it has to be or is meant to be or what St Teresa thinks has to be. Both St Teresa and St John of the Cross say that all people are called to contemplation and Christian perfection. One statement she makes for instance in the 3rd mansions of the Interior Castle, directly contradicting the article author’s mistaken interpretation is: “And believe me the whole affair doesn’t lie in whether or not we wear the religious habit but in striving to practice the virtues, in surrendering our will to God in everything, in bringing our life into accordance with what His Majesty ordains for it, and in desiring that His will not ours be done.” In the 20th century Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange retrieved this teaching of the two great Carmelite Doctors and proclaimed again the universal call to contemplation and Christian perfection, which was then the basis for the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the universal call to holiness. Make no mistake: the intellectual history of the universal call to holiness LEADS BACK TO ST TERESA. She refers in her writings to some married lay people who were truly holy and spiritual, similarly St John of the Cross clearly thought so. Both gave spiritual direction to lay people, married or not, based on the premise that they were called to holiness and Christian perfection.

    • Elizabeth, apparently you have not gotten the memo. 🙂

      //Sarcastic font on// Those who follow spiritualities other than Opus Dei do not understand their own spiritualities: only those in Opus Dei may authoritatively define the other approved Catholic spiritualities. (To be fair, it is a characteristic that you find in other more modern spiritualities as well.) And here is what they know that we don’t know…really, can’t know. There was Pentecost, and then there was something about the creation of Christendom and beyond, but that really didn’t count for any thing. Really, we skip ahead to Opus Dei which superseded all other approved Christian spiritualities and is the One True Spirituality. Except that if you say that to an Opus Dei member, he will be very offended, and tell you that you COMPLETELY misunderstand (because the expertise flow can only go one way :-)…but then will continue to TALK as though he believes that Opus Dei is the only REAL spirituality.

      Oh, and all of those collected sermons? And writings for 3rd orders? And novels? Pay them NO attention! Nobody got Christ before us!!! //Sarcasm font off//

      Look, I get it: followers of other spiritualities were probably a handful too when their founders were still alive–or only recently dead. Still, to imply that the lay martyrs throughout the centuries didn’t get this whole Christ thing is…absurd to put it mildly. Especially at a time when catechesis is horrible, attitudes tend secular, and scandals abound.

      • Steve, thanks for your excellent comment that explained perfectly and made me laugh. Now that you bring it up, I HAVE gotten that memo from Opus Dei cooperator priests locally and just did not know Mr Shaw was Opus Dei! Now I understand well. Thanks. I have definitely been told for instance about how Opus Dei is suitable to teach Carmelites about spirituality because St Josemaria was a confessor to Carmelite nuns at one time.

  5. For there to be more priests, if not religious, to be available for spiritual direction, Latins need to rethink their practice of megaparishes.

    The days of “one city, one bishop” must be ended for cities beyond a certain size if the Church is to be reformed. Not all critiques of the Constantinian Church are off-base.

  6. Having just returned from an annual Opus Dei silent retreat last 4th of July weekend at Thomas Aquinas College, I come away pleased of the excellent spiritual direction given at every activity of the 3-day experience.

    From the retreat priest who gave 10 outstanding meditations throughout the weekend to the talks on how to sanctify our families, homes, and workplaces given by the lay members of Opus Dei, the lay men were treated to lay spiritual formation that would last, not just for the year, but more likely for life. The spiritual direction was both enlightening and humbling!

    What is pertinent to readers of this article is that the spiritual direction was all practical advice on how to give to God in every relationship we have in our lives—every relationship.

    It was difficult for me to find a well-formed spiritual director true to the Magisterium here in the largest diocese in the U.S. But, God finally blessed me with a lay director who’s been outstanding from the start.

  7. With spiritual direction like this, lay people are better off without it. Holiness is not two-tiered. I believe that the necessity for a spiritual director is overrated. Some of us get our spiritual direction directly from Scripture. It is a more sure word of prophecy. The goal of any spiritual direction, in whatever form it takes, is to point us to dependence on Christ. If it does not do this, it is useless. The best spiritual direction is one that eventually weans the person away and is no longer needed.

  8. James Devereaux in his response to I will see you there: Reflections on the universal call to holiness – Catholic World Report MAY 14, 2021,
    wondered how, he, a married man, father of ten children could achieve the holiness of St. Francis. Three times it flashed through his mind, “What are you waiting for?” He “fell to his knees” and he says, “I placed my trust in the Lord, Jesus Christ, and His Church. God’s grace was sufficient for even a person with a wife and ten children.”

    James continues, that through the goal of perfection his cup is filled with gratitude for the blessings he received over the past forty eight years and the blessings are continuing. He does not tell us about the routine, the difficulties, the sufferings, the trials and the tribulations. He is grateful to live in the Lord, Jesus Christ, still fulfilling his vocation as husband, father and grandfather to this very day.

    James has given me spiritual direction by the testament of his life lived by placing his trust in the Lord, Jesus Christ, not just at the moment of the first inspiration, but on a continuing basis. Following that trust in Jesus brought him the direction he needed. He does not go into detail about the path. He apparently kept Christ before him from day to day, knowing that this trust would give him the strength for the daily fare he would encounter.

    John 16:22 “So also you now indeed have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice; and your joy no man shall take from you.” Douay-Rheims Bible

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