There are many descriptions of spiritual direction and many viewpoints for a description but as I search I find it difficult to find one succinct statement that expresses the nature of spiritual direction.
Perhaps the difficulty in description is the diversity of the experience. While the modern, western, practice of spiritual direction is based in Christianity I am confident it is something that has been occurring, naturally and formally in every religious tradition for thousands of years.
From the beginning I would like to offer my own bias about the language of spiritual direction. I recognize it is from the need for continuity that we use the term and that we speak of “God”. I would prefer to find a less intimidating term like, companion, friend, or even mentor. The Anam Cara or soul friend implies the entwining of souls with the Divine and is the image and basis I will chose for my own practice.
In my own simplistic definition spiritual direction is, “The seeking of the divine with a soul friend who is also a seeker but who is willing to support your journey without imposing on you, their own. “
Some of the strongest examples of spiritual direction which I know come from the ancient Hebrew texts in the stories of Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha. Each of these leaders mentored their second in command until the second became more capable than the first. Then the leader stepped away and allowed the combined wisdom to move forward with the Spirit of God as their guide.
Jesus was the prime example of spiritual director and taught his disciples to do the same. Like the Egyptian Eunuch who rode with Paul when we seek for a mentor the Lord will provide one and they will travel with us for only as long as we need them.
The most straight forward explanation of spiritual direction I have found is from the Statement of Purpose of “A Code of Conduct for Spiritual Directors”.
It states: “Spiritual direction is an ancient ministry, a unique one-to-one relationship in which a trained person assists another person in search for an ever-closer union of love with God.”
William A Barry and William J Connolly of the describe the Ignatian experience this way: “Spiritual direction is “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 growing intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship”. [i]
The assumption of the Ignatian philosophy is that God longs for us first and because of that longing we are aroused to long for God. (Janet K. Ruffing, RSM, Spirutal Direction – Beyond the Beginnings.)
Part of explaining spiritual direction is finding authority which recognizes it. Recently Pope Frances has been encouraging the use of spiritual direction in the Roman Catholic Church and uses the symbol of the three chairs to signify the presence of two plus the Holy. Many church traditions, most notably the Anglican in Canada, have required their leaders have spiritual direction on a regular basis for many years.
While doing some of my own spiritual practice during lent I ran upon a “40 Day Journey with Kathleen Norris”[ii], modern day mystic. Reworking some of the questions she asks in day two of the study I come up with a good foundation for what spiritual direction should be.
It is a place, with a person who allows seekers
- to express doubts about faith, tradition or practice of their faith
- to express negative thoughts, moods, feeling, or concerns about faith
- encourages seeker to explore what they believe and wrestle with the questions of faith.
Norris also quite eloquently expresses the call of the spiritual director as I see it. That is, to support and “to pray for people who have questions about their faith but don’t know where (or perhaps how) to ask them. “
There are many how to’s and don’t do’s of the art of spiritual direction. It is not therapy, or counseling. Both of those imply the person needs “to be told” what they should do. While a spiritual director may offer suggestions and make observations as many counselors do, there is a basic understanding that the “directee” needs to find and has the ability to find their own answers. They are quite capable of seeking and hearing the voice of the divine. Perhaps all they need from the mentor is the assurance of that.
The anam cara simply listens to the person with the heart of the Divine and speaks truth and wisdom which is filtered in prayer and humility, knowing always that the Divine is the source.
[ii] 40-Day Journeywith Kathleen Norris, Kathryn Hausesen, editor, Augsburg Books, Minneaplois, MN