Spiritual direction, retreats are often Church’s ‘best-kept secret’

Quiet time, listening ear can benefit anyone’s journey of faith, experts say

Michelle Samartino | Special to The Michigan Catholic

Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap., is the director of the Capuchin Retreat House in Washington Township. Situated on 90 wooded acres, it is an ideal place for retreatants to find their way to God.

Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap., is the director of the Capuchin Retreat House in Washington Township. Situated on 90 wooded acres, it is an ideal place for retreatants to find their way to God.

Metro Detroit — Seeking answers to questions about your faith?

The Road to Emmaus tells the story of spiritual direction, beginning with two sad, lonely men walking along a road. A man appears and He joins them, listening to their story, giving them the opportunity to release their sorrow and to speak of their disappointment.

He also listens as they tell Him of the hope that they had in a man named Jesus and the sadness they were now feeling. This man listens and helps them to understand the events of their lives and also helps them to see things more clearly.

They begin to realize that in the midst of their sorrow, Jesus was walking along with them all the while.

“Each of us travels our own Road to Emmaus,” said Nancy Trudell, spiritual director at Holy Trinity Parish in Port Huron. “For some of us, the road is named clergy; for others, the religious life; but for most of us, we travel the road as a lay person.

“Our roads may have different names, but our destination is the same — to grow more deeply in love with the God who loves us more than we can imagine,” she said.

Finding a spiritual director can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be, said Patricia Cooney-Hathaway, professor of spirituality and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. “There are many opportunities for spiritual guidance through the normal parish life: the sacramental life of the Church, especially reception of the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation, homilies, scriptural study groups, retreats, and guest speakers.”

But when these opportunities are not enough, a spiritual director may be sought. “Spiritual direction occurs in a formal, one-to-one relationship between a spiritual director and the person looking for spiritual guidance,” Cooney-Hathaway said. “Its purpose is to help a person learn how to pay attention to the personal communication of God to him or her through their life of prayer and their efforts to find God in the midst of everyday life.”

Trudell agreed, and said our journeys are filled with hope, joy, desire, sadness and disappointments. “Sometimes we just need someone to help us to see things more clearly. A spiritual director becomes a companion, someone who walks our road with us so that we don’t feel so alone.”

Perhaps what is needed is to have someone who is there to listen.

“In a setting completely confidential, a person can share their life experiences, joys and concerns as they allow God to slowly reveal His plan for them, a plan of love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness,” Trudell said, stressing that a spiritual director listens with the full knowledge that it is the Spirit at work.


1-Cooney-HathawayWhere to start

If one were to seek a spiritual director, he or she should begin with their parish.

“Because life experiences bring us many twists and turns, a directee can remain more focused on their life and prayer experiences when meeting with a spiritual director every four to six weeks,” Trudell said. “However, this is something that can be discussed between the director and directee.”

She said spiritual direction is not about problem-solving; it is about growing in a relationship with God, “so that the directee with God Himself can uncover God’s plan for their lives.”

Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap., director of the Capuchin Retreat House in Washington Township, said retreats are an ideal way of finding answers to the many questions one might have — and more.

“The retreat house provides a quiet, peaceful atmosphere for people seeking to ‘retreat’ from their day-to-day work and other concerns,” Fr. Zelinski said.

The Capuchin Retreat House, situated on 90 wooded acres, provides organized retreats, mostly on weekends, he said, and one-day programs on different topics. There are also opportunities to spend time on private retreats, with staff members available for private consultation, spiritual direction and confession.

Directed retreats are also offered, in which a person may spend two to five days, or more, in silent reflection and then meet once a day with the director. It’s important to note, Fr. Zelinski said, that “we always believe that the real director of any retreat is the Holy Spirit.”

Many of the retreatants tell Fr. Zelinski and his staff that the main reason they come is for the peace and quiet away from radios, TV, newspapers and computers.

“It gives them a chance to really think about their lives and their relationship with God and with other people,” he said. “People get physical rest.”

It is clear, from his experience, that Catholics benefit from attending retreats; and he is also aware that many have never been to one.

“Many are surprised, on their first time, how much they really do like the experience and then wonder why they had not done it much sooner,” Fr. Zielinski said.

“I believe that people see announcements for retreats, for example, in their parish bulletin, and immediately think that is meant for ‘someone else,’ but they are meant for the ordinary person who wants to do something a little more serious about his or her spiritual life,” he added. “I would encourage people to visit a retreat center, simply to see the physical building and setting, as a way of becoming a little more familiar with such places.

“I have often heard retreat centers referred to as ‘the best-kept secret’ in a diocese or area of the state,” Fr. Zelinski said.

Spiritual direction is not about a particular religion; it is about growing in a relationship with God, Trudell added.

“God’s love for His children is not limited, but reaches out to everyone.”


How to find a spiritual director in the Archdiocese of Detroit

Detroit — Spiritual direction is considered a charism, a gift given by God to certain individuals in the community to help others grow in their relationship with God and service, said Patricia Cooney-Hathaway, professor of spirituality and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

“It brings about God’s kingdom of love, forgiveness and compassion in the world,” said Cooney-Hathaway, herself a spiritual director and author of several books. “It is considered a ministry within the Church.”

Spiritual direction is available for any person who desires it; the Second Vatican Council reminds us that all men and women, not just priests and religious, are called to holiness and ministry, she said.

Nancy Trudell, a spiritual adviser in the Blue Water Vicariate, echoed her thoughts: “A spiritual director helps a person to discern the constant stirrings in our hearts and to be more attentive to what those stirrings are telling us. It is simply all about falling in love with God who is constantly communicating with us and also about becoming aware of obstacles or wounds that may stand in the way of that.”

Sacred Heart Major Seminary’s Institute for Ministry keeps a list of spiritual directors which is updated every year, she added. And Manresa Jesuit Retreat Center in Bloomfield Hills also keeps a listing of directors who have received training there.

A person who believes he or she has a gift for spiritual direction must pursue education and formation in theology and spirituality, especially the Church’s tradition on prayer and the spiritual life, Cooney-Hathaway said.

In addition, he or she needs a basic background in developmental psychology so as to better understand the human nature within which grace works, she added.

She stressed, however, that spiritual direction is not psychological counseling.

“It is all about helping a person reflect upon his or her life experience in the light of faith, so as to learn how to better recognize the ‘still, small voice’ of God within the depths of our being, and in the context of our everyday lives, so that we may, through God’s grace, grow in wholeness and holiness to be a sacrament of God’s presence in the world,” Cooney-Hathaway said.

Of note are two formal programs that educate and form spiritual directors in the diocese: Manresa Jesuit Retreat Center and the Dominican Program in Spiritual Direction, which is housed at the St. Paul Passionist Retreat House in Detroit, and Visitation North Spirituality Center, on the grounds of Marian High School in Birmingham.

For a list of spiritual directors, call the Institute for Ministry at Sacred Heart Major Seminary at (313) 883-8500, and ask for Janet Diaz or a member of her staff.