Sunday, May 15, 2016

Thomas Merton on Spiritual Direction and the Holy Spirit

Come Holy Spirit.

Today is Pentecost Sunday and what better day to comment on the benefits of spiritual direction. 

In his little book called Spiritual Direction and Meditation, Thomas Merton describes what he means by spiritual direction.

He calls it “a continuous process of formation and guidance, in which Christians are led and encouraged (in all of our special vocations), so that by faithful correspondence to the graces of the Holy Spirit, we may attain to the particular end of our vocation and to union with God.” Spiritual direction is not merely ethical, social or psychological, it is going beyond.

The spiritual director focuses on the life of the whole person, not merely the life of the mind or of the heart. According to Merton, the purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of our lives, to get behind the ‘self’ that we project to the world, and to evoke our interdividuality, our interconnectedness, moving us in the direction of holiness – which is the likeness of Christ in us.

The function of the spiritual director is to create a space for the Holy Spirit to help us discern what is truly spiritual in us. Part of this function is to help us discern the movements of our desires, the spirits swirling around in us, to help us sort out which inspirations come from the spirit of evil and which from the Holy Spirit.

Another part of this function is to enable us to recognize and follow the inspirations of the Holy Spirit in everyday life. A spiritual director creates an informal, trusting atmosphere in which a person can feel known and understood. Spiritual direction is necessarily personal and yet ever linked to the beyond.

How can we best take advantage of spiritual direction? “The first thing that genuine spiritual direction requires in order to work properly is a normal, spontaneous human relationship. We must not suppose that it is somehow ‘not supernatural’ to open ourselves easily to a director and converse with him or her in an atmosphere of pleasant and easy familiarity. This aids the work of grace: another example of grace building on nature.”

We need to bring the director into contact with our energy, with our real desires, as best we can, fearing not that nearly every effort we make to talk about our desires is couched or masked to please rather than to reveal. Being prayerful and open in the session with the director and the Holy Spirit brings us to a relaxed, humble attitude in which we let go of ourselves, and renounce our unconscious efforts to maintain a facade.  Merton explains that “often we ourselves do not know what we ‘really want’.” This gets to the key of what spiritual direction is about: the director is facilitating a space with the Holy Spirit to bring to light our inner spirit, “not as we are in the eyes of men, or even as we are in our own eyes, but as we are in the eyes of God.”  

“Direction will school us in being true to ourselves and true to the grace of God.”

In closing Merton asks how many vocations (religious and other) would be more secure if everyone could navigate the waters of life with the assistance of a good spiritual director.


  1. Wow, beautiful excerpt, what a powerful message it has hidden away, thanks for sharing this with us. Looking forward to seeing more posts from you soon, keep up the good work.

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