Sunday, December 9, 2012

Navigating the Interior Life

     The spiritual battle rages, day by day. In the bigger picture it’s obvious--heaven vs. hell; God, his angels, and saints vs. the devil.  In the mundane however, it often escapes us. There’s no question we want to one day be with God in heaven for all eternity, but getting there is a moment-by-moment journey, and as they say, the devil is in the details.

     For Catholics seeking holiness, some tools are obvious—Mass, prayer and the sacraments. But it is the little things that can trip us up and leave us wondering: How can I do better to live a holier life?

     In medicine, there is a cliché that states, “A doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.”  We lack objectivity when it comes to ourselves. To bring this example home in a sad and real way, my husband’s brother was a physician who did not have a personal doctor. He died of a heart attack two years ago at the age of fifty-two. In spite of getting regular exercise, he failed to realize that his arteries were blocking; gradually, without detection. Although he was a kind, compassionate, and highly intelligent man, objectivity for his own case escaped him.

Blind Spots

     As author Dan Burke describes it, we have blind spots when it comes to ourselves.  In his new book, Navigating the Interior Life, Spiritual Direction And the Journey to God (with Fr. John Bartunek) Burke begins by sharing an experience in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. He was fly fishing alone. Having come across fresh mountain lion tracks, Burke carefully surveyed the surrounding terrain before turning his attention on the river that rushed through the canyon before him. That, after all, was where the fish were—the goal—and where he needed to put his attention.  Focusing on the goal clouded his ability to keep track of what was around him until a feeling of unease mounted and “with a teeth-bearing growl” he quickly hiked back to safety.

     It is our blind spots that harbor spiritual attacks. ”The best among us work very hard to develop virtue and to avoid or eliminate sin, yet often have only a vague understanding of the fragile nature of our souls,” Burke writes. “Saints and sinners alike, we all have blind spots.”  He reminds us of Scripture’s warning:  “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in faith” (1 Pet. 5:8-9).

     Burke credits spiritual direction with forming him and keeping him on course. He is the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register a regular co-host on Register Radio , and the co-founder of the blog, Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction that he began with Fr. John Bartunek.  He had hoped that at least a few people would stumble upon it. When thousands responded the first year and tens of thousands the second, and then, hundreds of thousands from 190 countries, he knew he had hit a nerve.  Clearly, there were many like himself seeking greater union with Christ.

     Burke’s love for Jesus initially brought him to the Baptist church, and then after intense study of Scripture and the Church Fathers, he entered the Catholic Church. But the feast before him was daunting. There were so many spiritually rich ways to go. A wealth of written material offered information, but much of it had the potential to harm those unfamiliar with the Church’s teachings related to mystical and ascetical theology.  It is through spiritual direction that Burke says he made profound gains in his spiritual development.

What is Spiritual Direction?
     For many Catholics, the idea of getting a “spiritual director” is misunderstood. It’s not a private club, professional handholding or a counseling relationship.  Burke defines it as a relationship between the Holy Spirit, the director, and the directee with the main focus being union with God.

     “Do I really need it?” you might ask. After all, there are plenty of Catholic books and articles to guide us. And then there’s the Bible, and homilies at Mass.  Why would anyone need spiritual direction on top of that?

    “A more revealing way to ask this same question,“ says Burke, “is, ‘Can I be my own spiritual director?’”  He answers it by pointing out that we run the risk of losing our way without a guide.  He quotes St. Jerome, “Do not be your own master and do not set out upon a way that is entirely new for you without a guide; otherwise, you will soon go astray.”

     Burke points out that Jesus set up a world in which people need people through interpersonal relationships. Even Jesus put himself in the position of being born of the Blessed Mother and submitted to her care.  Scripture also shows that although Jesus revealed himself to St. Paul in a personal encounter on the way to Damascus, St. Paul was still told to receive spiritual direction from Ananias.

     Even if a person is convinced it’s a good idea to get a spiritual director, most do not know how to go about it. That is the very reason Burke wrote the book since he could find no guide when he initially sought direction.

     Navigating the Interior Life is such a guide, covering everything from how to find a spiritual director, what to expect, and chapters with spiritual helps such as a “Spiritual Self Evaluation” and one on the spiritual life as shared by some of the Church Doctors.

     Rev, C. John McCloskey, Church historian and research fellow at Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, DC, gives high praise to Burke’s book in the Foreword. As a priest of thirty years who has provided spiritual direction to a wide range of souls, he states that nothing is more important than the aggressive pursuit of advancing our relationship with God.

     “Why? Because death is inevitable,” he writes. “But those of us who are sincere practicing Catholics know that our most important work in this life is to prepare ourselves for the next one where we really will be immortal.”

     Navigating the Interior Life is personal in that it reaches our deepest most important self—the spiritual. It is a blueprint for seeking guidance and support, a compass to point the way, and is presented by a companion, walking alongside us on the journey.  Burke explains, “My hope is that this simple effort will provide a light on the path to the great, but often forgotten treasures that lie waiting for any heart who sincerely desires them.” 


Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband Mark have ten children. She is a communications specialist with Teresa Tomeo Communications, was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s "Amazing Grace Series"  , and has published over 600 articles, appeared on EWTN Bookmark program, EWTN Live, and Catholic TV as well as radio stations across the country. She is also winner of the 2011 Reader's Choice Award .  Her latest books, Big Hearted:  Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families, (Scepter Publishers) and children’s book, Dear God I don’t get it (Liguori Publications) will be released in Spring 2013.
To read more, visit Patti’s blog and website. Visit her author page on facebook and also GPS Guide to Heaven and Earth, Homeschool Heart and Big Hearted Families.

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