Just What Is Spiritual Direction? A Dialog of Sorts

As a pastor, I am supposed to be spiritual - whatever that means.  I am supposed to be more in touch with God than everyone else.  From experience though, I can tell you, we don't get a ton of guidance in graduate school in being spiritual - if it all.  On my own, I explored and learned about those practices that were supposed to be okay for us modern-day Christians.  Yet, as I searched, like many others have, I have come to find there is so much more to our spiritual practices (yes, even in Christianity...maybe, ESPECIALLY in Christianity) than we have realized or was past down.
       In a world now inundated with mixed and misunderstood messages on the meaning and purpose of lives, many have begun to seek more ancient paths. One of those paths is spiritual direction. This growing interest in spiritual direction crosses not only denominational lines but religious traditions. For the Christian faith, spiritual direction was practice in our Jewish heritage and has been practiced since the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. While it was part of our beginnings, spiritual direction became a side note to Church history. My own VERY Christian journey, has brought me to enter course work again in gaining Certification in Spiritual Formation in the United Methodist Church, to help others grow in their relationship with God through spiritual direction.  So today, as we return to the practice of spiritual direction we need to ask, “Just what is spiritual direction?”

Evidence of Spiritual Direction in Scripture & Tradition     
     The trappist monk, Thomas Merton wrote, “The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a [person’s] life...”  But where did we first get the inclination to do this, to seek out assistance?”  For the follower of Jesus Christ, we can find the beginnings of spiritual direction in the Old Testament.  We see there the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon to learn from his wisdom.  We see it in the counsel of Moses' father-in-law.
        Kathleen Fischer observes that Jesus lived a life offering spiritual direction to others. He did it with Nicodemus and the woman at the well (Jn 3:1-21 and 4:7-19). What is more, this was also patterned in Jesus’ life among the disciples (take your pick of verses!).   This is in keeping with Merton’s own description of what a spiritual director does. This work, “...helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations in his [or her] life, in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading...” What we have in Scripture is a history of practiced care for other people’s faith and work of God in their lives. This is significant for us as we consider advocating and practicing spiritual direction. It is not foreign to our Christian heritage but grounded in God’s revelation to us.  For those of us who follow in footsteps of John Wesley and the Methodist tradition, I noted recently here, Wesley was a director of sorts to his clergy and in his many letters and journals, his spiritual direction given to laity as well.
        Though the practice of spiritual direction was neglected in more recent traditions and centuries, we must note spiritual direction was a significant practice in the early development of the church. The followers of Jesus Christ in those early years, sought out the desert hermits, the abbas and ammas, for guidance. This seeking for direction in spiritual things continued in the monasteries and convents. The influence of directors such as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and St. Benedict attest to the lasting effects of spiritual direction on the Church universal.
       The resources available to us today testify to the enduring nature of the practice of spiritual direction. It is the continued, “...working with the Spirit...” on the part of modern practitioners of this ancient practice of carrying for the spiritual journey of others.  Spiritual directors are doing the work of being, in Merton’s terms, “God’s ushers.” 

Spiritual Direction Is Not Therapy 
       More recently, a gathering of religious leaders began working through this very issue of defining what is spiritual direction.  They started with identifying what it most certainly is not. Spiritual direction is not therapy. Therapy is about problem solving. Nor is it pastoral or Christian counseling. Both of these have as their focus a particular problem. These, Thomas Merton notes, are serious issues and should not be neglected. Therapy and counseling is a different work and not the area of a spiritual director. Spiritual directors ought be aware of their role and should be prepared to take steps to refer an individual to a licensed therapist when necessary.

Soooo...Just What IS Spiritual Direction?
        So if spiritual direction is not therapy or counseling; if it is not solving a problem, what is it? At the heart, spiritual direction, “...is helping the directee to grow in their relationship with God.” Where the first two practices focus on the problem, it is in spiritual direction that the focus is, in Father Keegan’s words, “...how the problem plays out in the directees’ relationship with God.” The real work is done by the Holy Spirit. A director must remember the primacy of the Spirit, for the role of the spiritual director is to aid the directee in helping them tell the story of God’s work in their problems and ultimately their lives.
       I am struck by Merton’s description that, “A true spiritual director can never get over the awe he [or she] feels in the presence of a person, an immortal soul, loved by Christ...”  This is a vital piece of what spiritual direction is about, for it is a humbling and sacred work. Spiritual direction is the work a director does in partnership with the Holy Spirit, to help a directee observe, reflect and respond to God in their everyday.  

        Spiritual direction is personal. If spiritual direction does not “go beneath the surface,” little understanding will result nor life change. A directee must make a director aware of their thoughts, feelings and desires. Spiritual direction takes place not in a hurry but in its own time, at the pace of the directee. Releasing in unhurried fellowship the deep parts of our being is in Thomas Merton’s words, the releasing of, “...the Holy Spirit hidden in the depths of our soul.” 
          No hiding or evading will benefit spiritual direction. The benefits, the help of spiritual direction cannot be experienced when a directee holds back. Most often, it is the directee who seeks out a spiritual director. 
In the Wesleyan tradition, this type of direction is part of a covenanted relationship. The character of the spiritual director is key. Rev. Douglas Hardy notes, that the help a directee receives from their director comes, “...by virtue of personal holiness and spiritual maturity". This is not all that surprising when noting the Wesleyan faith tradition comes from an Anglican heritage. Peter Ball describes this language as, “...one of healing and growth...” and the director who practices brings with them a “...warmth and lightness of touch.” 
         Patience, honesty, covenant and compassion are expressed as consistent needs in spiritual direction. We find words such as ‘process’ and ‘formation’ used in trying to describe a person’s growth in understanding God. It is Thomas Merton who puts them both together in describing spiritual direction as, “...a continuous process of formation and guidance...”  Regardless of all that we say, it maybe the word “continuous” which is most important. Something is always happening in our souls but it is in spiritual direction where we find a ‘holder’, someone to mark time and tell story, alongside a directee as we explore more.
        Spiritual direction need not be conducted by an expert or an ordained clergy. Both a lay person in an informal relationship or a trained director with a formal structure can offer spiritual direction to the Church.  What is more, both lay people and clergy can benefit from being part of some type of spiritual direction, be it one on one or in a small group setting. Merton notes that laypersons with a special calling or ministry ought to be involved in some spiritual direction. However, for the clergy, through spiritual direction they ought to be “...taught the meaning of [their] vocation, its spirit, its aims and its characteristic problems.” 
        Spiritual direction is about assisting people on their spiritual journey. At a time when so much of the attention of pastors is upon leadership skills and church growth, it is no wonder spiritual direction has, in Marian Cowan’s words, received, “...a burst of new life..."    Spiritual direction is all about the spiritual realm. I think a further study of interest would be to find out if what people are looking for in clergy is a more effective leader or a more spiritually-aware pastor. Thankfully, spiritual direction is not something designated as solely the realm of clergy. The “burst of new life” may well be the rescuing the church needs from its swing so far to productivity. So we need to remember Merton saw a need to rescue spiritual direction in his day. With our temptation to develop systems and guidelines and anoint experts, spiritual direction may need to constantly be rescued!
        So while an expert is certainly not required, the spiritual condition of a spiritual director must be considered a vital link in this practice. Simplicity and faith are recommended by Merton.  Personal holiness and spiritual maturity are the characteristics which Douglas Hardy looks for in a director. The practice of personally seeking after God is the deep work which a director must be about if he or she is be a guide to others. I was particularly struck how Thomas Merton describes a contemplative. He writes, "A contemplative is not one who takes his prayer seriously, but who takes God seriously, who is famished for truth, who seeks to live in generous simplicity, in the spirit." In spiritual direction we must address the primacy of God, be it in our own lives as directors or in our lives as directees.
       It is hard to miss a consistent theme of an ecumenical nature surrounding spiritual direction. Certainly the statements coming from Anglicans and Wesleyans show a natural agreement. Yet one can hardly dismiss easily the varied denominations and sects in the articles written and posted on Spiritual Directors International.  The reality is spiritual directors come from many religious traditions even if those traditions do not agree on fundamentals of faith. There is a camaraderie here, even among those in Christ’s Body who have a history of animosity. We dare not avoid recognizing Merton’s thoughts which appear so consistent with both Scripture and this cloud of witnesses. Spiritual direction appears to be a place where the Body of Christ can gather together and truly benefit from the wisdom and experience of others.

May I Ask? What are your thoughts on spiritual direction? Have you considered spiritual direction? Would you consider participating in spiritual direction? 

May I Suggest? Meet with a Spiritual Director to consider if it is right for you. The Fellowship of United Methodist Spiritual Directors is a great place to begin as is Spiritual Directors International.


Trudy Graves said...

Nice! Blessings to you on your own journey! I have discovered exactly what you so eloquently spoke-there is so much more!

Ken L. Hagler said...

Thanks so much Trudy! I'm glad the words resonated.

I'm curious, if you had an opportunity to explore spiritual direction in your lay speaking ministry? Assuming your in the Missouri conference, is it a part of conference discussions or opportunities?

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