Faith on the Inside

Mosaic of Christ at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. (Alessandro0770/Dreamstime)
Preparing for the pope’s visit on an off-the-headline-radar level

When we walk simply and resolutely with our God, the path before us is simple, light, and marked by a predominant peace,” Dan Burke, with Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.T.L., writes in Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God

“Yes, Jesus did say that the path to Him is one of self-sacrifice and cross-bearing, but we must remember that the vast majority of difficulty comes from our own sin and need for purification, not because of God’s arbitrary imposition of difficulty upon us,” Burke emphasizes.

“Acquiring self-knowledge in the context of God” is the point of the book. “With that knowledge we know where we are, we know where the life-giving water is, and we have some sense of how to get at it.” 

Burke, founder of Catholic Spiritual Direction and the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation and executive director of EWTN’s National Catholic Register seeks to help people seek and know “how to find the great grace of having a loving relationship with Christ in this life that opens the soul in ways far beyond what it could ever imagine.” 

In preparing for the apostolic visit of Pope Francis to the United States next week, Burke talks about his book and the spiritual life. — KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: “Millions stand within just a few feet of the grace necessary to ascend to the heights of heaven in this life (with limitations, of course) and to meet the smile of God face-to-face in the next.” Who are you talking about? What’s the first/next step? 

Daniel Burke: Millions of Catholics are quick to claim their heritage as Catholics and even attend Mass on a regular basis, but polls reveal that most reject essential teachings that reflect an authentic relationship with God and the Church. 

Authentic relationships thrive when we live and love another within the boundaries of a covenant that guards, protects, and nurtures that relationship. When either man or woman given in marriage violates the covenant of love, they cut themselves off from the gifts meant for each other through that glorious covenant. So it is with God. If we reject the directions to the great banquet feast, we won’t find him there, and we will find ourselves impoverished — in the worst case, eternally so. 

The good news is that God is a patient lover who will never stop calling us to that great feast. If we will give our fiat to him as Mary did, or return as a wayward son to the Father, he will run to embrace us and welcome us home to the sublime reality that is a living and loving relationship with the God of the universe.

The first step in this relationship is one of simple submission to God and reliance on his power and grace for our salvation and eternal sustenance. The first step is different for everyone but they all look something like this: “You are God and I am not. Please help me.” With this cry of the heart we walk into his promised gift of strength as we pursue a right relationship with him and his Church through the sacraments and a life of prayer and self-giving.

Lopez: How is “the world constantly drawing us away from God”? Is it really that bad?

Burke: Yes, it is far worse than most think. The world incessantly and ruthlessly works to draw us away from God because it stands opposed to him and is constantly teaching, preaching, and reinforcing values through media, law, and education that fly in the face of what it means to live a Godward life. This pressure is unrelenting and seeks to defeat the soul in pursuit of God and draw it down the wide and easy path to destruction, as Jesus revealed in the Gospel of St. Matthew.

There is a worldwide epidemic of spiritual hunger for God, and many are awake and awakening to him and very much desire to know and follow him.

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt. 7:13-14).

Lopez: Do you find many Catholics who are consciously concerned with navigating their interior lives?

Burke: There is a worldwide epidemic of spiritual hunger for God, and many are awake and awakening to him and very much desire to know and follow him. We recently had a poll up at that revealed that among 12,000 respondents the vast majority desired a spiritual-direction relationship and less than 2 percent thought it was unnecessary. As well, we have grown to over 30,000 subscribers in more than 190 countries who read more than 2 million pages of content each year. At the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation ( we have seen our first fall course grow from 58 students just two years ago to over 285 students from more than 20 countries. It is clear that there is a deep hunger out there. If we had funding sufficient to support the demand, these numbers would easily be quadrupled on all fronts.

Lopez: Who should have a spiritual director? 

Burke: St. Bernard of Clairvaux is famous for saying, “He who takes himself as his own spiritual director is the disciple of a fool.”  This thought is echoed throughout the saints and the spiritual doctors of the Church. The issue is that the human person has an infinite capacity for self-delusion. 

St. Catherine of Siena reveals, in section seven of the Dialogue, the Father who notes that he purposefully designed us as insufficiently equipped to get to heaven on our own. 

Said another way, even apart from sin or self-deception we are designed in such a way as to need the help of others to navigate the narrow path to eternal life. There is no better or more important gift in the Church than spiritual direction to help us see and navigate that path effectively. 

Basically, if you have a pulse and you are serious about your relationship with God, you should have a spiritual director.

Lopez: You’re very clear that spiritual direction is not self-help as we know it. What is “bootstrap” spirituality and why is it so harmful? (Sounds very American?!)

Burke: Bootstrap spirituality is rooted in a perilously prideful and foolish belief that I can see my own blind spots and self-deception and mitigate them on my own. It is very American and rooted in Enlightenment and self-determination philosophy that flies in the face of our God-given design. 

Of course, there is some good to the idea that we must take responsibility for our lives. These instincts are good in that they mitigate a victim or hand-out mentality, but while they may work well in the workplace, they are terribly destructive instincts when it comes to our spiritual health. No one but a fool tries to self-treat cancer. However, concupiscence is a kind of cancer that breeds sin and narcissism, and it is always working in tune with the world and the devil to draw our souls to self-deception that leads to hell. 

These forces are far stronger than most understand; we cannot overcome them on our own. We need the help of the sacraments and other important means of grace like spiritual direction, spiritual reading, prayer, etc. to keep us tethered to the narrow path of Christ.

Lopez: To what degree is Pope Francis a spiritual director? Might we understand some of his morning homilies better this way? (If we’re not paying attention, should we be?)

Burke: If we want to tap into what is the very best that Pope Francis has to offer by way of wisdom, we will find it in his homilies, not in off-the-cuff responses to reporters. In his homilies we find the rich reality that flows from a heart given fully over to God. He reveals the path to heaven very clearly and also states with clarity the wiles of the enemy of souls as he seeks to derail our progress in holiness. In this way, he provides spiritual direction to all of us. 

For me personally he has challenged the way I see money and poverty. He has rekindled in me a clarity with respect to the need to lead with grace and mercy by presenting the saving work of Christ first, before we talk of what it means to live within a covenant relationship with God. 

All of these things are no doubt reflective of sound spiritual direction. However, I wouldn’t confuse his influence with the need for a personal guide in the spiritual life, one who will help us understand how we can best apply these teachings and overcome the obstacles that we will face when we do heed his admonitions. That’s what a spiritual director does, and why Pope Francis, while he may be providing spiritual direction at some level, does not take the place of having a spiritual director.

Lopez: Who should go on a retreat and when?

The future of Christianity in the U.S. is a bright one. Though the threatening and dark clouds of an ever-sickening culture are rolling in, there is much hope.

Burke: Jesus himself left us the example of the need for retreat. The busier we are the more we need to break away and refresh our love for God by breaking patterns of busy-ness that hinder our perspective and spiritual progress. I couldn’t conceive of any wisdom that allows for more than one year to pass without one. In the same vein as the idea of retreats and breaking away from the norm to encounter God in a unique way, the commitment to regular pilgrimage has waned as a norm of Catholic culture. This is one of the reasons that the Avila Institute is now providing annual holy pilgrimages. Next year, on the Monday following Easter, we will venture to Spain to explore the territory blessed by the feet of many great saints, most importantly St. Teresa of Avila. Folks can find out more at

Lopez: What is the future of Christianity in the United States in particular? 

Burke: The future of Christianity in the U.S. is a bright one. Though the threatening and dark clouds of an ever-sickening culture are rolling in, there is much hope. Why? First, the Church needs a culling down. Many cling to her as a means of social change and other distorted ends rather than as the divine instrument of God’s mercy to the world. As it becomes less comfortable to remain inside, they will jettison their loosely held faith for values they hold more closely to the heart. This will leave a remnant of true and strong believers who will light the path to renewal for all who truly seek God.

Lopez: How much of Pope Francis’s visit here will help form and guide that? Surely you hear the worries and frustrations people have about Pope Francis? Are you worried? Are you frustrated? How do you see and hear him? What might your advice be for those aggravated and confused by him?

Burke: It is true that Pope Francis’s communication leaves much to be desired. His style is in dramatic contrast to Pope Benedict, who was exceedingly clear on all matters and, it seems, at all times. However, Pope Francis’s style is also drawing many that would otherwise have little or no interest in the Church or the Gospel. 

To me, Pope Francis mirrors that aspect of Christ that drew him to sit and eat with sinners. No one in need was afraid to approach Christ for love and healing. In the same way, Pope Francis draws in those who are very far off the path. Unfortunately, the Christ that he rightly reflects often drives headlines and blog posts of “scandal!” by the Pharisees of our time who are often orthodox but who fail to understand the radical call to mercy proclaimed by the Holy Spirit through the Gospels and in particular through St. James when he said, “mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Lopez: When he talks about mercy — with a whole “jubilee” year dedicated to it — what is the message?

Burke: Just this: God desires a relationship with us. No matter what we have done, who we are, what color or race we are, how bad our lives are, how much we have sinned, God loves us and sent his only Son to die on our behalf in order to allow us to be reconciled to him. God wants to restore every broken heart to a place of peace and acceptance in his presence. He loves us where we are and meets us where we are so he can lead us into deeper union with himself. 

However, as Pope Francis has made abundantly clear, kerygma must precede catechesis. This means that the gospel of forgiveness of sins must be preached and accepted before one attempts to lead a soul down the path to holiness. I am completely given over to the Magisterium and consider myself orthodox both liturgically and doctrinally, but many in my camp seem to think that shouting at the sinner is an act of charity. The reality is that the only folks Christ reviled were those like us who would cling to a distorted orthodoxy that focuses only on justice and right external praxis rather than conversion of heart. Pope Francis seems bent on helping us to get this message right. 


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