It is a rare week that one of my coreligionists doesn’t ask some version of the question, “I go to spiritual direction, why would I need a therapist?” While I do not presume to be able to perfectly explain the difference I do hope to offer some useful thoughts along these lines. I look forward to your comments to help us all understand this difference.
Both spiritual direction and therapy are concerned with matters of the heart. One clear difference between the two is that spiritual direction includes the forgiveness of ones sins, though we recognize even this is not necessary to spiritual direction but to the sacrament of confession which might include spiritual direction but does not necessitate it. Certainly though therapy does not admit of the forgiveness of sins. The forgiveness of sins might well be a good starting place for explaining spiritual direction.
Spiritual direction seems to have as its end the formation of virtues essential for ones growth in grace, the divine life. These graces in particular are faith, hope, and charity. These seem to belong firmly to spiritual direction and not at all to therapy. Psychology on the other hand seems exclusively to consider first of all psychological disorders. It would be outside the work of a spiritual director to work with someones schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
And yet between these two there is a tremendous number of things about which the human heart is concerned. The natural virtues, family dynamics, life cycle issues, all of these and more might well be brought up in the course of both therapy and spiritual direction. Perhaps here we need to make a second distinction about the manner in which each of these considers their objects.
In the first place therapists will consider these issues from the point of view of their clients emotional experience whereas a spiritual director will consider appropriate actions needing to be executed whereby the theological virtues are built and maintained. The therapist endeavors to understand these issues with a view to helping the client make decisions, acts of the will, whereas the spiritual director looks to these with a view to ones life of grace.
Thus both spiritual direction and therapy considers the movements of the human heart, and each has some work which is proper to it alone and of those things which they consider in common, the spiritual director looks to the formation of the theological virtues whereas as the therapist looks to strengthening the natural acts of the will.
Be sure to let me know what you think and help us all clarify our thoughts on this question!