Knowing the Father’s Love

Detail of Christ on the Road to Emmaus by Roelant Roghman, c. 1650-1660 (Wikimedia)
Getting to God, and letting Him get to you and get you through life.

‘Allowing ourselves to be loved, especially in those areas that seem most out of control, most broken, most poor, and most unlovable, brings about a powerful encounter with a God who is infinite love,” Fr. Thomas Acklin, OSB, and Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB, two Benedictine monks at St. Vincent Archabbey and Seminary in Latrobe, Pa., write in their book Spiritual Direction: A Guide for Sharing the Father’s Love. “This helps our theology to become real and experiential in our lives,” they continue. NR’s Kathryn Jean Lopez talks to them about what exactly spiritual direction is and how it helps people to know God as father at a time when human hearts ache for direction.


Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is spiritual direction, exactly?

Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB: We define spiritual direction in the following way: “Spiritual direction is a one-on-one relationship between a director and a directee in which the directee’s relationship with God is the fundamental reference point.” Spiritual direction is an ancient art practiced in the Catholic Church going back to the desert fathers in the third century AD. Our definition of spiritual direction highlights the importance of the one-on-one relationship. A spiritual director is not a guru who has all the answers. A spiritual director is rather a person with a dedicated spiritual life who is willing to walk alongside another dedicated Christian and help that Christian to deepen his/her relationship with God.


Lopez: How is spiritual direction an art?

Fr. Thomas Acklin, OSB: Spiritual direction is an art because, as a relationship between persons, the individual and personal expression and sharing on the part of both director and directee involves an intimate communion between them and God. Yet there are no two diads, really triads, in the spiritual-direction process that are the same. This radical uniqueness of each relationship, as it involves more vulnerability and transparency, comes from the profound depth of the director and directee from which God speaks and from where he sustains each one and graces their relationship. In the most proper use of the word, therefore, the spiritual-direction relationship is a mystery, being interpersonal and bringing together the human and divine in a most personal way. The director and directee adapt common vocabulary into interpersonal meaning and develop some unique vocabulary of their own. It is more an art than a science because if a third human person sat in on a session of spiritual direction that has advanced in depth, he probably would experience difficulty understanding what the two are talking about.


Lopez: Is the “accompaniment of a spiritual guide,” a phrase you use, a better description? Is it something different from spiritual direction?

Fr. Hicks: The word “direction” can be misleading because it implies that one knows the direction and is simply pointing it out without necessarily having a relationship with the directee. “Accompaniment” is a phrase that has been used extensively by Pope Francis and appropriately describes a mutual relationship of reverence. Qualifying that this is a relationship with a “spiritual guide” distinguishes it from other forms of accompaniment that might be merely professional or psychological. While the spiritual guide might not be holier than the one guided, he should at least have substantial experience and know the territory. It makes me think of expeditions like that of Lewis and Clark, in which they were guided through unknown territory. The guide did not know every twist and turn, but he had some sense of the territory. By accompanying Lewis and Clark, he was engaging in a new and unique adventure as well. This is definitely the experience of a spiritual director who has the privilege of sharing in the absolutely unique spiritual odyssey of another follower of Christ.


Lopez: How is it a “new springtime for spiritual direction,” as you write?

Fr. Acklin: Beginning with Vatican II we are called to enter more deeply into a new evangelization. This was re-emphasized by Pope Paul VI in Evangelium Nunciandi, and was a constant theme during the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Many of us noticed that during the Year of Mercy called for by Pope Francis, many people returned to Mass and confession, and many programs of renewal are under way. All of this has stimulated a great desire to enter more deeply into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and to spread His love to others. Preparation is necessary for this, and the most important preparation is to oneself enter more deeply into a relationship with Him, to enter into deeper prayer. This has led to a strong desire on the part of many people to seek spiritual direction. It can be difficult at times to find a spiritual director, so the preparation of more people to offer this ministry is essential. Add to this the reality that our times are very unsettled. Secularism has spread so pervasively, often taking militant forms, leaving many people searching for answers, desperate for some way of dealing with the disquiet and emptiness inside themselves. Ultimately the programs of renewal, even including the liturgy and sacraments, need personal encounter as a follow-up. This follow-up needs the continuity of spiritual direction to develop in those who seek it a deep and personal relationship with the Lord and with His Church.


Lopez: What does spiritual direction have to do with Pope Francis?

Fr. Hicks: God has given special gifts to different saints for the benefit of the Church. For example, Saint Thomas Aquinas made an incredible contribution to the intellectual tradition and the foundational structures of a systematic theology. Saint Francis continues to inspire us in his radical poverty and imitation of Christ. Saint Ignatius of Loyola was a master of discernment and formulated extensive teachings on the movements of the Holy Spirit in the prayer of a believer and on the dimensions of the spiritual life. As the first Jesuit Pope, Pope Francis brings the riches of his spiritual father, Saint Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) to the universal Church through his papacy. He has demonstrated repeatedly how deeply formed he has been in this Ignatian tradition, and he has indicated that the dimension of discernment of spirits is the primary contribution he makes to the universal Church through his papacy. The Ignatian tradition has been one of the most formative influences on spiritual direction of future priests in seminary formation and in the spiritual formation of consecrated men and women in religious orders. Thus, while previous popes have been outspokenly supportive of spiritual direction at various points in their ministry, Pope Francis rises one level above them in understanding, appreciating, and even shaping the practice of spiritual direction through his papacy. He went so far as to say, in the manifesto of his papacy, Evangelii Gaudium, that the whole Church must be formed in the “art of accompaniment.” He surely envisions various levels of intensity in this art of accompaniment, but in this statement he promotes the concept of spiritual direction as a universal value in the Church today.


Lopez: What does spiritual direction have to do with “sharing the Father’s love?”

Fr. Acklin: Jesus came to proclaim and accomplish the Kingdom of God. To do the will of His Heavenly Father within his filial love was what animated everything that Jesus did. When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan, His Heavenly Father recognized and acknowledged Jesus as His only-begotten Son, as His beloved Son, at the same time as the third person in the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, hovered over Jesus in the form of a dove. Jesus points to the Father, and it is the Father who sends the Son and the Holy Spirit. There is no way to know Jesus without knowing the Father, and Jesus shares His Sonship with us by teaching us to pray “our” Father. Jesus teaches us to ask everything of the Father in His name, and to call God Father using the same intimately familiar name He uses, ABBA, beloved Father, daddy, papa. Thus the beloved Son reveals to us His beloved Father as “Our Father.” Spiritual direction will help prayer to deepen by emphasizing these realities, and by seeking to incarnate them in our lives.


Lopez: What does “sharing the Father’s love?” mean for someone who didn’t know his father or had a strained relationship with her father or worse?

Fr. Acklin: Sadly, the number of people with “father hunger” or ambivalent or negative relationships with their fathers is increasing exponentially. Working in a counseling center in an inner-city Catholic school revealed four out of five boys had no regular relationship with their birth father. Philosophers like Ludwig Feuerbach or Sigmund Freud suggest that God is only a projection of the images of our own father, made omnipotent and called God. It actually is true that relationships with our father and our mother enter into our images of God, but it also works the other way around. God the Father is real, and is revealed to us by the Son, and in the Holy Spirit who empowers us to pray, “ABBA Father,” as Saint Paul tells us. This can bring about a transformation and healing of deficits, negative or abusive experience, and absences of our earthly father. Some people initially relate to the Son Jesus or the Holy Spirit but cannot bring themselves to relate to God as Father because of the painful or angry reaction they have to the very idea of Father. Prayer and spiritual direction often heals this over time, and not only enables a deeper relationship with God the Father but leads to healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation with one’s own father.


Lopez: What is “cultivating interiority” and how is it done?

Fr. Acklin: Prayer is the best way to cultivate interiority. Without a relationship with God, a person may already be introspective, thoughtful, and imaginative. A person may be a poet, a lover, an artist or a philosopher. A person may love ideas and be attentive to things of the heart. But without cultivating a relationship with God, the interior life has no direction, no fundamental meaning and purpose, no center. For this center to truly radiate all the rest of the interior life, the relationship with God, with which ever person is born in their depths, must become explicit, intentional, and personal. The relationship with God can become the most “real” relationship I have, illuminating everything else, interiorly and exteriorly. This relationship with God can lead to a love that transforms all love, that unifies truth, that opens the eyes of the heart to what is good and beautiful.

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