Where is God in my life? To what is God calling me? What is God’s will for my life, and how do I discern it?
If you find yourself asking these questions, you may be a candidate for the ancient Christian practice of spiritual direction. Or, perhaps you sense God calling you to a deeper prayer life, or to a more intentional commitment to your own personal faith walk. Or, maybe God seems distant from you because of the many stresses in your life, or silent as you struggle with a difficult decision or grieve a painful loss. Or, God seems so far removed from your life that you doubt God’s very existence. Or, perhaps the term spiritual direction keeps popping up in your reading or your conversation, and you are curious, or skeptical or confused.
The reasons for seeking spiritual direction are many and varied, but one thing is certain: even if you do not know exactly what it is, if God is calling you to spiritual direction, the subject will keep recurring and your heart will not find rest until you have tried this life-giving and life-changing Christian discipline.
Christian spiritual direction dates back to the fourth and fifth centuries, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before that time, during the centuries of Roman persecution of the Church, enculturation and secularization of the church was not a possibility. With official status however the church fell prey to enculturation and domestication. Concerned for their own faith and for the integrity of the Church, some deeply devout men, and later women, felt called by God to leave their church communities and retreat to the hills and caves of the deserts of Egypt, Syria and Palestine, where Roman culture could neither influence nor dilute their faith. There they lived a simple life devoted to scripture study and prayer. These pious and holy people became the first “spiritual directors” of the Church. To these “fathers and mothers of the desert” came other people from surrounding villages and towns for guidance and discernment in matters of faith. This desert tradition of guidance and counsel has continued to the present time in monastic communities, and to a lesser extent with individual lay members in church communities. In recent years there has been a renewed and growing interest among lay members of Roman Catholic and Protestant faith traditions.
Spiritual Direction and the Director
At the heart of Christian spiritual direction is the belief that believers can grow in their understanding and doing of God’s will. Certainly this is what Jesus had in mind when he taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done.” But how do we learn to discern the will of God for our lives? And how do we live that out? Spiritual direction suggests a way.
The spiritual director has traditionally been seen as a person having the charism of discernment of spirits. Perhaps a better way of saying it would be to say the spiritual director has the “gift of helping us discern the voices in our lives that influence how we live out our faith.” Three “voices” of influence have been identified and described in Christian devotional literature since early in the practice of spiritual direction. Awareness and understanding of these voices will help us to discern God’s will.
First and most important is the voice of God—the “Indwelling Christ,” as St. Paul calls it—that seeks to inform us of God’s love for us and to conform us to God’s will. This is the voice of the Holy Spirit within us—sometimes obvious, more often obscure or hidden—whose presence and influence we experience by its fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This voice calls us continually to relationship with God, others and ourselves.
Who of us has not felt the restless yearning for the love of God expressed by the psalmist: “As the hart longs for flowing water brooks, so my soul longs for you, O God?” Who has not needed the understanding and intimacy of a caring relationship? Who has not needed self-understanding and self-acceptance?
This first voice reminds and reassures us of God’s love for us and God’s faithfulness to us. This voice gives us confidence to approach God in time of need and the courage and strength to reach out to others. This voice, in the process of discernment, reveals to us our gifts and teaches us how to use them in service to God and humankind. In spiritual direction we seek to know personally the loving Spirit within us, whose guidance and direction reveals God’s purpose and will for us.
Second, is the voice of our human wounds, addictions and sin. This is the voice of the blind spot or “log in the eye” that prevents us from hearing God’s voice. Who of us carries no wounds from past relationships and experiences? Who has not been tempted by our addictions to be distracted from our faith walk and drains us of our determination to do God’s will? Who has not been weakened by our own sin?
Teresa of Avila, fifteenth century founder of a Carmelite religious order of nuns, instructed her directees to “return often to the room of self-knowledge.” It is with this second voice that self-knowledge is sought and obtained. In spiritual direction we seek to know ourselves honestly so that, through the healing power of our loving God, our wounds might be healed and our sins confessed and forgiven. Released from the past and from our selves, we are free to do God’s will.
Third, is the voice of the world—the influence of people and “principalities and powers”—that entices us away from the voice of God and God’s will for us and tempts us with the glitter of wealth, prestige and power.
Who of us has not been seduced by the security of wealth or the glamour of prestige? Who has not been tempted or intimidated by the lure of power? St. Paul admonishes us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
It is this third voice, when confronted, that shows us our ongoing need for conversion and renewal. In spiritual direction we seek to confront the lies and prejudices of the world to see how they have come between us and our relationship with God, others and ourselves. Such confrontation shows us our need for God, who if we but ask, transforms and renews us and empowers us through our giftedness to be God’s transforming and renewing presence in the world.
From the above discussion we can see that spiritual direction is more about listening than directing. Perhaps the term spiritual director is a misnomer. The spiritual director does little actual directing. But using the gift of discernment, the director helps us listen to the various voices in our lived experience in order to discern the voice and will of God. The voice of God—the Indwelling Christ or the Holy Spirit in us—points the way to God’s purpose and will for us. “Spiritual direction, then, refers to the “direction” of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit turns out to be both the Director and the direction we seek. In spiritual direction, director and directee listen to the promptings of the True Director in order to find the “direction” or Way to God’s purpose and will.
What happens in the session when you meet with your spiritual director? How do you listen together? Spending an hour with your spiritual director is like being with a good friend and having the floor all to yourself. The director knows you well—perhaps better than your dearest friend—and accepts you as you are, “warts” and all. The director listens to your experience without judgment and with an ear that penetrates deep within your heart, sometimes touching a place that you hardly knew was there.
During your time with your spiritual director, you and your life are the focus of attention. Together you listen to your joys and sorrows, your daily challenges and needs, your wounds and addictions, your memories and hopes and dreams. As you speak, your director listens and observes, and reflects to you a word, a phrase, an idea, an image. And as you each listen with the aid of contemplation and silent and spoken prayer sometimes something connects or clicks or shifts within you: a thought, perhaps, or an image revealed, a feeling or a tension released in your body. At that moment you know that the Holy Spirit has touched you. The Indwelling Christ has informed you, and the will of God has come nearer and become clearer to you.
During your time with your spiritual director there may be laughing or crying, talking or silence, scripture reading or prayer. As the session draws to a close you know that your soul has been nourished and refreshed, even if stresses or challenges or questions remain. You know from past experience that there is hope for the future as you wait for God’s presence and purpose to be revealed. And you find that God has given you the “faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where you go, but only that God’s hand is leading you and God’s love is supporting you.”
Finding a Spiritual Director
If you decide to seek spiritual direction, how do you find a spiritual director? Probably the first and best resource is to ask someone who has a spiritual director. Word of mouth is a more dependable way to find a director than working from a list of directors you do not know, and making a “blind date.” A second resource may be your parish pastor. If you are a pastor, Bishop Olsen will provide a list of directors which may be obtained from Metro Chicago Synod headquarters (312/346-3486). Several Chicago area Roman Catholic retreat centers offer spiritual direction: Dominican Conference Center in River Forest (773/771-3030), Villa Redeemer Retreat Center in Glenview (847/724-7804), Divine Word International at Techny (847/272-1100), Fullerton Cenacle Retreat Center in Lincoln Park (773/528-6300), Carmelite Spiritual Center in Darien (630/969-5050), and Warrenville Cenacle Retreat Center in Warrenville (630/393-1231). You may wish to contact area centers for the training for spiritual directors, both in Hyde Park: the Institute for Spiritual Leadership (773/373-7953) or the Claret Center (773/643-6259). Another option is to contact the local chapter of Spiritual Directors International, which will provide names and addresses of its members (773/771-3030).
Usually it takes two or three sessions to decide whether a director is the “right” one for you. Many directors suggest that you come for direction two or three times before making a final decision. During this time you can find out about the director’s philosophy of spiritual direction and experience his or her “person” and style. Directors understand the importance of a comfortable relationship. You will also want to discuss frequency of meeting and fees. Meetings are usually held once or twice a month, depending on director’s schedule and directee’s need. Since many of the directors in the Chicago area make part or all of their living doing spiritual direction, remuneration is expected, although the fee is usually negotiable. No director, however, would turn someone away if the person could not afford even a small donation.
Spiritual Direction and Counseling or Therapy
From this discussion is should be obvious that spiritual direction is not the same as counseling or therapy. While counseling and therapy are oriented toward problems and their solutions, spiritual direction centers on the human/God relationship and how that relationship forms and informs our lives. Counseling and therapy look to the counselor/therapist for direction, whereas spiritual direction looks to the Holy Spirit for guidance in the discernment of God’s presence and will. While counseling and therapy are time-limited by problem and solution, spiritual direction is an ongoing process, because our faith journey is never-ending. Counseling and therapy follow a more or less predictable beginning, middle and ending, whereas spiritual direction is a continuous process of movement in God, with God, and to God.
Tertullian, one of the early Church’s theologians, said in the third century, “Christians are made, not born.” As Christians, we are in the process of becoming—of being formed by God into the image and likeness of Christ. We are pilgrims on the Way, longing for relationship with God, seeking to do God’s will. But we do have blind spots. And temptations never cease. Spiritual direction gives us opportunity to pay attention to God’s presence and activity in our lives and provides us direction in discerning God’s will. Spiritual direction offers us the time and place to look honestly at ourselves and our lives in an atmosphere of non-judgment, acceptance and
trust. Spiritual direction offers us a way to be intentional in our faith walk and gives us a “soul friend” to companion us on our Way.
A Short Bibliography on Spiritual Direction
- Edwards, Tilden. Spiritual Friend: Reclaiming the Gift of Spiritual Direction. New York: Paulist Press, 1980. 264 pp.
An early and excellent basic text on spiritual direction. After discussing its biblical roots, Edwards presents the essential practicalities of spiritual direction, such as what to look for in a spiritual director, how to be a director, how and when to do group spiritual direction, and how directors are trained at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C., where Edwards serves as director.
- Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978. 184 pp.
An essential guide for people feeling called by God to nurture intentionally their faith life. Foster describes twelve of the classical spiritual disciplines and teaches us how they allow us to place ourselves before God so that God can work in us to transform us. Chapter 12, “The Discipline of Guidance,” discusses the importance of spiritual direction in helping us discern God’s will for our lives.
- Guenther, Margaret. Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Boston: Cowley Publications, 1992. 146 pp.
A personal and relational perspective on spiritual direction, warmly presented from the perspective of the author’s own ministry. Under chapter titles such as “Welcoming the Stranger,” “Good Teachers,” and “Midwife to the Soul,” Guenther describes how the work of “holy listening” is done, using images from women’s experience to support the calling of women to the ministry of spiritual direction.
- Jones, Alan. Exploring Spiritual Direction: An Essay on Christian Friendship. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982. 135 pp.
A personal and conversational essay on spiritual direction, written from the author’s own experience as both directee and director. Jones uses images from classical and contemporary literature, psychology and spirituality in a way that relates him to the reader and illuminates the reader’s understanding of her own life experience as the arena of spiritual direction.
- Leech, Kenneth. Soul Friend: The Practice of Christian Spirituality. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977. 250 pp.
One of the best scholarly books on spiritual direction in recent years. Not only does Leech define and describe spiritual direction, he also discusses the history of Christian spirituality and shows the importance of psychological growth and prophetic witness in the development of mature faith.