What is Christian Spiritual Direction?

The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a person’s life, to get behind the façade of conventional gestures and attitudes which one presents to the world, and to bring out one’s inner spiritual freedom, one’s inmost truth, which is what [Christians] call the likeness of Christ in one’s soul.  This is an entirely supernatural (spiritual) thing, for the work of rescuing the inner person from automatism belongs first of all to the Holy Spirit.  (Thomas Merton

Most people would agree that spiritual direction means companionship with another person or group through which the Holy One shines with wisdom, encouragement and discernment. Some, however, expect this companionship to be of a professional nature, with a trained, supervised, and perhaps even certified spiritual director. Others see it as spontaneous and gifted, strongly resisting signs of professionalization.

Spiritual guidance can happen authentically in a vast variety of forms. The many forms can be divided into two major groups: Formal spiritual direction and informal spiritual companionship. Formal spiritual direction includes relationships that are explicitly defined as spiritual direction with a clear separation of roles between director and directee. Meetings are usually scheduled in advance on a regular basis, and a directee normally has only one formal director.

Informal spiritual companionship is characterized by a lack of structure and role definition. These relationships are not considered exclusive, and most people have several such companionships. Meetings tend to be irregular and spontaneous. There is nearly always some atmosphere of mutuality, and each person retains his or her own locus of discernment. There is no notion of providing a service, and fees are out of the question. (Gerald May, MD. Excerpted from Shalem News, Volume xxii, No. 1, Winter, 1998, “Varieties Of Spiritual Companionship” )

Spiritual direction is, in reality, nothing more than a way of leading us to see and obey the real Director — the Holy Spirit hidden in the depths of our soul. (Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, USA)

We define Christian spiritual direction as help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship. (William A. Barry, SJ and William J. Connolly, SJ, Center for Religous Development, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Spiritual direction can mean different things to different people. Some people understand it to be the art of listening carried out in the context of a trusting relationship. It is when one person is trained to be a competent guide who then “companions” another person, listening to that person’s life story with an ear for the movement of the Holy, of the Divine. (Rev. Jeffrey S. Gaines, Presbyterian, USA)

Spiritual direction is the contemplative practice of accompanying (or joining with) a person or group as they awaken to the spiritual in everyday life, and it is the shared intentions and supports for the directee to have a deeper relationship with spirit through all phases of life.

Spiritual direction is essentially companioning someone in his or her spiritual life. Other ways of describing spiritual direction include holy listening, spiritual friendship, sacred journeying. (Janna Larson, Roman Catholic, USA)

Spiritual direction, an ancient ministry of the church, is a relationship in which one person assists another, or others, in attending to God’s presence and call. Spiritual direction has been, and remains, particularly strong within Roman Catholic and Orthodox religious orders, and over the past twenty years Anglican and Protestant traditions have begun to recover it more fully. There is also growing interest in spiritual direction among other faith traditions, such as Judaism and Buddhism. Throughout Christian history, spiritual direction has traditionally been practiced by ordained clergy alone. In recent years, however, this practice has widened to embrace the spiritual gifts of non-ordained persons as well. Today, spiritual direction is regarded as a ministry open to all, not an order or office reserved for the few. (Presbyterian Church, USA)

Spiritual direction is the process of helping every believer realize her or his own soul freedom and to help everyone accept the responsibility of developing a relationship to God through Jesus Christ while in community. Some spiritual guidance practices that strengthen that relationship include spoken and extemporaneous prayer in formal and informal worship; participation in challenging learning communities; dialogue on scripture, faith practice, and mission; personal study and interpretation of scripture; silence, meditation and use of the labyrinth in some associated churches. (Rev. Catherine Fransson, Seattle First Baptist Church, American Baptist)

Unitarian Universalists offering spiritual direction accompany other seekers from diverse traditions, offering our skills, our caring, and discoveries gained from our own spiritual practice and training. Our perspectives are open and accepting, and our resources are rich, deriving from all the world’s faith traditions. (Ann H. Deupree, Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship)

Spiritual direction is a contact whereby someone accepts someone else as a guide on (a part of) their spiritual way. Someone seeks and accepts someone else as a guide on their own spiritual way and entrusts himself to his guiding authority. A sort of archetypal spiritual direction in the Christian tradition was practiced by the Desert Fathers (between 300 -600 AD). In the desert surviving as a human being and a faithful Christian was for most people only possible with a reliable guide. Spiritual guidance grew in a very natural way. Beginners looked for support from experienced fellow-travellers. They sought concrete advice. ‘Speak a word to me.’ They wanted clear directions so that they would not lose their way. (Gideon van Dam, Dutch Protestant Church, Netherlands)

Presbyterian spiritual direction requires a scriptural foundation and theological familiarity in our case with the Reformed faith and tradition, that’s our lens. But direction is primary interested in our universal spiritual experience and that necessitates the capacity and willingness to notice God through many lenses. Direction is not about telling people what to believe or how to act but working with the Spirit to discover, surface, name for themselves, and engage in what God is doing. (Rev. Kenton Smith, Presbyterian, USA)

There are varied historical streams of influence on spiritual direction in the Anglican tradition. First there is the recognition that parish clergy are entrusted with the “cure of souls” or pastoral care. Secondly, there is the practice of sacramental confession. Thirdly, Ignatian spirituality has shaped the practice of many Anglicans over the years. Today, the majority of directors are probably women. The marks of a director are love, kindliness and a real compassion. The language used is one of healing and growth rather than that of the law court with its judgment, condemnation, and punishment. The pastoral roots of the Anglican tradition mean that its practitioners are counsellors, confessors, and physicians of the soul, not judges. There is warmth and a lightness of touch. (Canon Peter W. Ball, UK)

Spiritual direction in the Anglican Tradition is somewhat like the Anglican Church itself — a combination of many paths which have been handed down over the centuries. Traditionally the “Anglo Catholic” segment of the Anglican Church has always had a form of spiritual direction. There are still some directors from that old tradition which held that the director was also one’s confessor. Just as direction is becoming more sought out in other traditions, we too are experiencing more people looking for directors and so now there are both Evangelical and “Anglo Catholic” seekers. Spiritual directors here in Ontario are trained in Franciscan, Beneditine, and Ignatian traditions, and the Anglican way is to combine these traditions and others as it seems necessary for a directee’s needs. Certainly directors in the Anglican Church are aware of a special attachment on the part of some Anglican directees to the Prayer Book and the spirituality of the daily offices. (Dana Fisher, Professor at Trinity College, Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

Spiritual guidance is being present in the moment, seeing and honoring the sacred mystery of the soul of another. It is witnessing this mystery and reflecting it back in word, prayer, thought, presence, and action. Spiritual guidance is modeling a deep relationship with the Divine and standing in faith and love with the other as that relationship unfolds. Spiritual guidance is a journey of deep healing and an affirmation of Holiness (wholeness), the Sacred, and the Mystery of all of life. (Carol A. Fournier, MS, NCC, Interfaith Spiritual Director/Guide, Silver Dove Institute, Williston, Vermont, USA)

Traditionally Lutheran spiritual direction is concentrated on sin. Luther said faith alone can free us from sin. So what people are looking for is salvation which to most means the experience of bliss. Consequently the spiritual director’s first task is to help the directee discern what is sin and what is not. The next task is to help the directee to realize that in spite of suffering peace is the sign of grace. Since the 1950s many retreat houses have been built, and lay people as well as priests direct there. Lay people can also give the absolution of sins. There are no formal guidelines for spiritual direction and no guidelines for training. During the last two or three decades the Lutheran Church has been looking more and more towards the Roman Catholic Church for inspiration. Many of us have attended courses in spiritual direction in Roman Catholic institutions. (Eva Basch-Kahre, psychoanalyst and spiritual director, Lutheran, Sweden)

Anglicans think of the entire spiritual tradition of the western church up to the 16th century as a common Christian inheritance, shared with Roman Catholics and with the churches which are heirs of the Reformation. Spiritual direction in the Anglican tradition seeks to balance the path of the individual in the context of community, in a way which honors and benefits from the inheritance of the whole church catholic, and in a way which tries to keep prayer and justice together. It is a tradition which Anglicans are glad to share with members of other communities, in keeping with our commitment to the oikoumene, to the whole church in the whole world. (Donald Grayston, recently retired vicar of St. Oswald’s Anglican Church, Port Kells, Canada)

Spiritual direction is the facilitation of one’s spiritual formation through a covenanted relationship with another, formalized in regular meetings for inquiry, conversation, and reflection around one’s personal experience. The spiritual director is one who, by virtue of personal holiness and spiritual maturity, helps the directee to pay attention to the presence and work of God in her or his life. Within the Wesleyan/Methodist theological tradition of Christianity, holiness of heart and life is the goal with an interconnected system of spiritual direction for all as the means toward that end. The sharing of stories in small accountability groups or through public testimony, and the linking of personal devotional practices with service among the poor are emphasized as means of grace. (Rev. Douglas Hardy, PhD, Church of the Nazarene, Kansas City, Missouri, USA)

Spiritual theology has to do with living the Christian life instead of thinking about it…. The counseling movement, even within the church, became heavily psychologized and became almost exclusively therapeutic, so what people were dealing with were problems. If you had a problem you went to a counselor. But spiritual direction in a sense doesn’t begin with a problem. Spiritual direction deals much more out of health and an identity of Christian holiness, so I think it’s an obvious response to the failure to transcend. (Excerpted from a 1995 interview of Eugene H. Peterson, Evangelical, Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada).

The greatest teacher is silence. To come out of interior silence and to practice its radiance, its love, its concern for others, its submission to God’s will, its trust in God even in tragic situations is the fruit of living from your inmost center, from the contemplative space within. The signs of coming from this space are a peace that is rarely upset by events, other people and our reactions to them, and a calm that is a stabilizing force in whatever environment you may be in. God gives us everything we need to be happy in the present moment, no matter what the evidence to the contrary may be. A good spiritual director helps us to sustain that trust.  (Father Thomas Keating, Summer 1997, Part II lecture notes)

Want to know more about Christian spiritual direction?

Check out Spiritual Directors International’s “What to Expect in Christian Spiritual Direction” pamphlets. Click here for more information.


About Alex Colao

“Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.” View all posts by Alex Colao

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