Being A ‘Soul Friend’

by Canon Stuart Wilson, Vocations Promoter

Being a spiritual director (SD) is quite an unusual thing to do. It’s an awesome responsibility to be helping someone on ‘the way’. Helping someone to choose the path of holiness which will hopefully bring them closer to Christ in the heart of the Church.

Many Christians consult a spiritual director - not just the religious minded and most certainly not just the holy joes! More people have a spiritual director than you might imagine. It seems to me that if you go regularly to confession to the same priest then he, in a way, gets to know you well. He gets to understand who you are and what you are. He has, over a period of time, grown to know you at the deepest level: the soul level. One of the older terms for a spiritual director was ‘soul friend’. He was a friend who walked with you on your journey through life, on your Way.

There is a (renewed) popular pursuit at the moment of walking the Camino (the Way) to the great city of Compostela in Galicia in Spain. This walk dates from ancient times and many people begin the walk from various parts of Europe. Some people walk the route alone as they want to be alone with the Lord and find out more about his purpose in their life. I am told that it is not easy to be completely alone as so many people walk alongside you or catch up with you. You can ignore them but many recognise in those who walk with them a soul friend. Your companion is someone who listens, who walks alongside without saying much but who will make the odd comment and maybe even offer that inspired piece of spiritual advice. You might call your companion your soul friend.

I think he represents the real Soul Friend, the Holy Spirit, who speaks to you and walks with you, the companion who joins you.

In seminary, every seminarian needs a soul friend as he walks the pathway to priesthood. He needs someone who will listen. Maybe in the seminary context the soul friend whom we call the spiritual director does all of that and a little more. A seminary spiritual director befriends, encourages, but also challenges, and hopefully points the seminarian forward towards a life lived by embracing the classical Christian virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility. All this takes time and that is why the spiritual director is usually resident, to be available, to advise, to challenge, to befriend, and occasionally to persuade those for whom he is responsible to be a little easier on themselves.

When I was young, I was told about that amazing quotation that was spoken by the Curé d’Ars. He said a ‘priest is someone who folds back the curtains of heaven but loses himself in the furls’. It has always been for me a good description of the work of a priest: to show someone the way forward but not to get in the way. 

I have been an SD for two and a half years at the seminary. There is no formal training for the work, but usually it is a priest with a long experience of being a man for others, and who can exercise total discretion. The SD is asked to keep confidential what he hears so that he will be known as someone who can be trusted. He will be a man with good pastoral experience as well as a desire in his own life to grow in holiness and to want that for others.

Occasionally the SDs from our English seminaries gather together to enjoy friendship, to listen to a speaker who will help them in their work, to pray together and to support each other. Recently we had one of our meetings at the seminary in Wonersh near Guildford, where spiritual directors from Oscott, Allen Hall and Wonersh met together.

We had a really good day during which we gave thanks to God for our ministry and we prayed for the grace to continue to serve our future priests. We especially ask Mary, the Queen of the Clergy to pray for us and befriend us.

Mary Queen of the Clergy pray for us, and, dear readers, a prayer from you for our seminarians at Allen Hall would be greatly appreciated. God bless you all.

Photo: Mazur/Catholicnews.org.uk