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Spiritual Direction: An Idea Whose Time Has Come (Again)

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had
finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to
pray, as John taught his disciples.’

He went up the mountain and called to him those whom
he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom
he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to
proclaim the message. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with
you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ Come to me, all
you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will
give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I
am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your
souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with
you; And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when
you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame
shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One
of Israel, your Saviour… You are precious in my sight, and honoured,
and I love you.

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and
to another the utterance of knowledge through the same Spirit,
to another faith by the same Spirit… to another discernment
of spirits… All these are activated by one and the same Spirit,
who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD,
the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant,
thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.
I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
Then the LORD said to him , ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness
of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king
over Aram. So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat,
who was plowing… Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over

Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves
seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom…
they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together
with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus,
a proselyte of Antioch. The word of God continued to spread; the
number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a
great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. Barnabas
took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas
and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the
Lord. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him…

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of
God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate
their faith. You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is
in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many
witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach
others as well. And these are the ones sown on the good soil:
they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty
and a hundredfold.

Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to
all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command

Love one another as I have loved you.

Luke 11:1; Mark 3:13-14; John 20:21; Matthew 11:28-30;
Isaiah 43:2-4; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; 1 Kings 19:14-15,19; Acts
6:3,5,7; Acts 15:39,40; Acts 16:2-3; Hebrews 13:7; 2 Timothy 2:1-2;
Mark 4:20; Jeremiah 1:7; John 15:12.


Mark Link sent a letter to a number of students in
the high school where he taught. He invited them to * attend the
eucharistic liturgy once a week (in addition to Sunday) * give
10 minutes of each day to meditation; and * meet with a spiritual
director every week (or 2 weeks) to help them with their spiritual
growth, particularly with their prayer.

The response, he says, exceeded expectation. The
book on prayer he wrote for those students is still one of the
best around (YOU: Prayer for Beginners and Those Who Have Forgotten
How, Argus, 1976).

I met a pastor-friend in a shop. Asked what his goal
was for the coming year, his response was immediate: ‘To find
a spiritual director’.

In the words of William Barry, spiritual direction
is ‘that form of pastoral care which offers direct help to another
person to enable that person to relate personally to him or her,
to respond to God personally, and to live the consequences of
that relationship.’ (1)

John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul seemed to have this
sort of relationship with their disciples. Luther said every priest
ought to have a ‘father in God’. No one is an island. In our spiritual
journey two are better than one.

The Role of the Spiritual Director. The spiritual
director helps another Christian become himself or herself in
faith. He or she helps the other to recognize God’s working in
all the events of life. The seventeenth-century Benedictine mystic,
Dom Augustine Baker, wrote, `In a word, [the spiritual director]
is only God’s usher, and must lead souls in God’s way, and not
[his or her] own’. Spiritual direction is simply and clearly to
lead us to our real Director. The director shares my vision of
the Lord, and the Lord’s vision of me, and is the one to whom
I say regularly, ‘Keep me true to this vision; help me to be faithful.’
The director helps me to discover which ‘rumours’ are of God in
my life and which are not.

The best spiritual directors are highly skilled at
‘noticing’, listening and attending to the key interior movements
in a person’s prayer. However this is not just a mystical thing.
Because prayer covers all the major areas of one’s life, so does
spiritual direction. Thomas Merton told of a Russian spiritual
director who was criticized for spending so much time earnestly
advising an old peasant woman about the care of her turkeys. ‘Not
at all,’ he replied. Her whole life is in those turkeys.’ (2)

How does spiritual direction happen? As spiritual
direction involves two people listening together to the Lord in
the events and relationships of life, it is essential to be honest
about the directee’s ‘desire.’ What does he or she really want
with the Lord? What are the presenting – and the real – motivations
and problems? What are the ‘inner movements’ within the directee’s
life? Where is the ‘good spirit’ – God’s Holy Spirit – at work
and where might there be another spirit operating?

If a spiritual director is to help with these complex
issues, he or she will need some special spiritual gifts. First,
we must say that friendship is not a prerequisite for spiritual
direction, though love and trust are. ‘We come to God,’ declared
St. Augustine, ‘by love, not by navigation.’ The director doesn’t
usually give advice, but rather discernment and encouragement.
And experienced directors will be alert to the dangers of dependency
and transference. (The latter, put simply, involves the sense
of someone relating to us as if we’re someone else. Lots of emotion
is dumped on us which doesn’t belong to us).

Essentially the spiritual director discerns what
Ignatius called the ‘movement of spirits’, whether good or evil,
in the other. ‘Consolation’ is a life-giving movement towards
God, though it won’t always be pain- or struggle-free. ‘Desolation’,
on the other hand, might even be pleasurable, but leads away from
God, into chaos, confusion and turmoil.

So the key gift a spiritual director will possess
will be that of ‘discernment of spirits’. He or she, as Kenneth
Leech suggests, will be one who can ‘read the signs of the times
and the writing on the walls of souls’. The spiritual director
will be a person of above-average faith, hope and love; of experience
(spiritual, theological, psychological, and in the life of prayer),
and of learning (steeped in Scripture and the wisdom of the spiritual

How Can I find a spiritual director? First, do some
reading in the area (see list below). Ask yourself: do I know
someone who fits the characteristics outlined by these authors?
Ask God for guidance, of course. Sometimes, if a more mature person
can’t be found, you can try mutual direction with a caring Christian
friend. Attend courses and retreats. Ask your local Anglican or
Catholic priest for contacts: their traditions have not excluded
this discipline, as most have.

Richard Foster suggests that while spiritual direction
can become formalised, it need not be. ‘If we have the humility
to believe that we can learn from our brothers and sisters and
the understanding that some have gone further into the divine
Centre than others, we can see the necessity of spiritual direction.
As Virgil Vogt has said "If you cannot listen to your brother,
you cannot listen to the Holy Spirit".’ (3)


Spiritual direction is quite different from distant
advice-giving… Spiritual direction is a ministry of sweat and
tears, not without agony and even moments of despair… [It] always
leads to a fellowship of the weak…

Spiritual direction does not mean that one spiritual
person tells another less spiritual person what to think, say
or do in order to become a more spiritual person. It is not the
knower speaking to the ignorant. Spiritual direction means that
two or more sinful, broken, struggling people come together to
listen to the direction of the Spirit.

Henri J.M.Nouwen, in the Foreword to Francis W. Vanderwall,
Spiritual Direction: An Invitation to Abundant Life, New York:
Paulist Press, 1981, p.x.

Competent directors [are] needed [because of] the
bewilderment so often expressed about how to pray. The question
raised by the anonymous pilgrim in The Way of a Pilgrim remains
as searching as when he raised it. Everyone told him he ought
to pray, but no-one told him how to pray, and the book is the
story of his search for an answer to that question. There are
countless books around these days on how to pray; indeed, far
too many. But it is significant that the Pilgrim found his answer
not in widely addressed sermons or teaching, but in one-to-one
discussion with others… He needed individual spiritual direction.

Gordon Jeff, Spiritual Direction – for Every Christian,
London: SPCK, 1987, pp. 10-11.

There are many similarities between spiritual direction
and psychotherapy, but they are fundamentally different undertakings…
[But] to attempt too strict a separation, to try to divorce mind
from spirit, would be artificial and not at all helpful. We are
human souls, with body, mind and spirit all reflecting facets
of our unified being. To look at the spirit without also addressing
the mind is as absurd as caring for the mind without attending
to physical health…

The most obvious difference in content between psychotherapy
and spiritual direction is that the former focuses more on mental
and emotional dimensions (thoughts, feelings, moods, and so on)
while the latter focuses more precisely on spiritual issues such
as prayer life, religious experiences, and sense of relationship
to God.

Gerald May, Care of Mind/Care of Spirit: Psychiatric
Dimensions of Spiritual Direction, San Francisco: Harper &
Row, 1982, pp. 12-13.

The spiritual director is concerned with the whole
person, for the spiritual life is not just for the life of the
mind, or of the affections, or of the ‘summit of the soul’ – it
is the life of the whole person. For the spiritual [person] (pneumatikos)
is the one whose whole life, in all its aspects and all its activities,
has been spiritualized by the action of the Holy Spirit, whether
through the sacraments, or by personal and interior inspirations.
Moreover, spiritual direction is concerned with the whole person
not simply as an individual human being, but as a son of God,
another Christ, seeking to recover the perfect likeness to God
in Christ, and by the Spirit of Christ.

Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation,
pp. 6-7, quoted in Kevin Culligan, Spiritual Direction: Contemporary
Readings, New York: Living Flame Press, 1983 pp. 219-220.

Theodora, one of the great female ascetics of the
desert, gave a good summary [of the qualities of a spiritual director]
when she said,

[Spiritual directors] ought to be a stranger to the
desire for domination, vain-glory, and pride; one should not be
able to fool them by flattery, nor blind them by gifts, nor conquer
them by the stomach, nor dominate them by anger; but they should
be patient, gentle and humble as far as possible; they must be
tested and without partisanship, full of concern, and a lover
of souls…

If we agree to work together [in spiritual direction],
I will ask him or her to do an inventory of oblation before we
meet again in two weeks. Oblation means offering. In the liturgy,
the oblation takes place when the offering of money and bread
and wine is raised before the altar. In personal prayer, oblation
is the offering of self to God. An inventory of oblation takes
place in six parts. I ask people to prayerfully hold before God
six different aspects of their being: their emotions, will intellect,
imagination, relationships and work. A time of prayer is set aside
for each of these six aspects…

Kenneth Swanson, Uncommon Prayer, NY: Ballantine,
1986, pp. 138-9, 151.

In the Middle Ages not even the greatest saints attempted
the depths of the inward journey without the help of a spiritual
director… Spiritual direction is a beautiful expression of divine
guidance through the help of our brothers and sisters…

The relationship is of an adviser to a friend. Though
the director has obviously advanced further into the inner depths,
the two are together learning and growing in the realm of the

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Sevenoaks:
Hodder & Stoughton, 1980, p.159-160.

Three gifts in particular distinguish the spiritual
father. The first is insight and discernment, the ability to perceive
intuitively the secrets of another’s heart, to understand the
hidden depths of which the other is unaware…

[He] uses few words or by his silence, he is able
to alter the whole direction of [another’s] life…

The second gift of the spiritual father is the ability
to love others and to make others’ sufferings his own. Of Abba
Poemen… it is briefly and simply recorded: `He possessed love,
and many came to him’. He possessed love – this is indispensable
in all spiritual fatherhood…

`As God himself knows’, Varsanuphius insists to his
spiritual children, `there is not a second or an hour when I do
not have you in my mind and in my prayers… I care for you more
than you care for yourself… I would gladly lay down my life
for you…’

A third gift of the spiritual father is the power
to transform the human environment, both the material and the
non-material. The gift of healing, possessed by so many of [them],
is one aspect of this power. More generally, the starets helps
his disciples to perceive the world as God created it and as God
desires it once more to be. `Can you take too much joy in your
Father’s works?’ asks Thomas Traherne. `He is himself in everything.’
The true starets is one who discerns this universal presence of
the Creator throughout creation, and assists others to discern

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition at its best, the
spiritual father has always sought to avoid any kind of constraint
and spiritual violence in his relations with his disciple. If,
under the guidance of the Spirit, he speaks and acts with authority,
it is with the authority of humble love…

Many people imagine that they cannot find a spiritual
father, because they expect him to be of a particular type: they
want a St.Seraphim, and so they close their eyes to the guides
whom God is actually sending to them. Often their supposed problems
are not so very complicated, and in reality they already know
in their heart what the answer is. But they do not like the answer,
because it involves patient and sustained effort on their part:
and so they look for a deus ex machina who, by a single miraculous
word, will suddenly make everything easy.

Kallistos Ware, ‘The Spiritual Father in Orthodox
Christianity’, in John Garvey (Ed), Modern Spiritualit: an Anthology,
London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985, pp. 45-52, 55.

Tom MacGreggor [a pastor] soughthonestly to find
a way to fulfil the role of spiritual guide. What would be his
agenda in offering spiritual guidance? In his journal he made
the following list of priorities:

1. Recognize that Christ is the true director of
souls. 2. Offer myself to be his agent with each person. 3. Listen
deeply to the life that is being shared with me. 4. Look for signs
of the presence of God in the story I hear. 5. Ask questions that
will help the person seeking guidance to confront his or her life.
6. Share my own life with the person. 7. Suggest different ways
issues may be confronted. 8. Respect the freedom and integrity
of the person seeking guidance. 9. Pray with and for the person.
10. In all things seek the will of God.

Ben Campbell Johnson, ‘The Pastor as Spiritual Guide’
in Pastoral Ministry: A Focus for Ministry, Philadelphia: Westminster
Press, 1988, pp. 112-113.

A woman in a London flat was told of her husband’s
death in a street accident. The shock of gried stunned her like
a blow, she sank into a corner of the sofa and sat there rigid
and unhearing. For a long time her terrible tranced look continued
to embarrass the family… Then the schoolteacher of one of her
children… called… and sat down beside her. Without a word
she threw an arm around the tight shoulders, clasping them with
her full strength. [One cheek touched the other]. Then as the
unrelenting pain seeped through to her the newcomer’s tears began
to flow, falling on their two hands… For a long time that is
all that was happening. And then at last the [widow] began to
sob. Still not a word was spoken and after a little while the
visitor got up and went…

That is the embrace of God, the kiss of life. That
is the embrace of his mission, and of our intercession. And the
Holy Spirit is the force in the straining muscles of an arm, the
film of sweat between pressed cheeks,the mingled wetness of the
backs of clasped hands. He is as close and as unobtrusive as that,
and as irresistibly strong.

John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit
& the Christian Mission, London: SCM Press, 1972, p. 243

O Christ, my Lord, again and again I have said with
Mary Magdalene, ‘They have taken away my Lord and I know not where
they have laid him.’

I have been desolate and alone.

And you have found me again, and I know that what
has died is not you, my Lord, but only my idea of you, the image
which I have made to preserve what I have found, and to be my

I shall make another image, O Lord, better than the
last. That, too, must go, and all successive images, until I come
to the blessed vision of yourself, O Christ, my Lord.

Archbishop George Appleton, quoted in Gordon Jeff,
Spiritual Direction – for Every Christian, London: SPCK, 1987,
pp. 39-40.


For your prayer, why not write a personal letter
to the Lord expressing your response to the above. It might go
something like this:

Dear Lord,

I envy those disciples of yours, watching you, listening
to you, learning from you, day and night for three years. I echo
their request: ‘Lord, teach me to pray!’

Teach me how to relate to you in deep honesty. Teach
me how to understand and accept my real self. Give me courage
to explore the inner recesses of my being and not be afraid of
what I find there. Walk with me gently through the paths of my
memories; minister to me with your healing touch where I am bruised;
help me to understand that in the dark night you may seem to be
silent but you are not absent.

Lord, lead me to someone who can be Christ to me.
Give me trust when I open my life to that person. Give me faithfulness
and honesty when I relate the areas of my life I am ashamed about.
Give me confidence that if I confess my sins to you and that one,
I am cleansed and forgiven. Prepare the person of your choice
to receive me, welcome me, love me: but I will not expect miracles
– just the companionship of another along my spiritual journey.

Lord Jesus, you welcome sinners, you love those who
haven’t yet ‘arrived’, you are gentle and humble and will help
me carry my burden if I am willing to share it with you. You are
the conqueror of the spirit world: guard me from evil spirits,
help me to open my life to the good spirit, the Holy Spirit.

I am weak: help me to become stronger; I am tired:
give me more spiritual energy; I am a child in the faith: help
me grow to maturity. For your glory, Lord. Amen.


A Benediction: May Jesus of Nazareth, who is still
looking for disciples, find you and claim you; and may you respond
to his call, and follow him all the days of your life. To him
be glory for ever and ever. Amen.


ENDNOTES: 1. William A. Barry, "Spiritual Direction
and Pastoral Counselling", Pastoral Psychology, 26 (1), 1977,

2. Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation,
quoted in Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, H & S,

3. Ibid., 161.


A footnote: Contemplation and conversion.

Spiritual directors try to encourage a contemplative
attitude in those who seek direction. True contemplation causes
us to forget our surroundings, and the passage of time. It is
an experience of transcendence, of self-forgetfulness, of absorption
in the contemplated object. It involves us in wonder, gratitude,
and joy. Because the Lord is invisible, he is sometimes hard to
‘apprehend’; because of his ‘otherness’ he is hard to listen to.
So true contemplation goes beyond words, into the realm of the
imagination. Much verbal prayer can be self-absorbing. True contemplation
is ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’ with something or someone
other than the self as the object. Reflection rather than analysis
is the primary mode of contemplation.

Agnes Sanford says (in The Healing Gifts of the Spirit)
to people who say ‘I can’t find God’ that they should do some
simple things they like to do, that will put them in the way of
God ‘so that he can find you’. Above all, scripture and nature
can be means for this to happen. One of the richest experiences
of my life resulted from my director’s suggesting I imagine I
am Peter in the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Try

An important corollary of spiritual direction is
an attitude open to ‘conversions’. Whereas most of us believe
we are truly converted to the Lord only once, there is a sense
in which we are experiencing transitions, movements, conversions,
all our lives if we are growing people. Henri Nouwen (Reaching
Out) writes for example about moving from loneliness to solitude,
hostility to hospitality, illusion to prayer. Connolly talks about
moving from disappointment to receptivity. And there is a constant
movement in a Christian from sinfulness to forgiveness.

John of the Cross teaches us how to cope with the
‘dark night’, when we feel we have nothing to hang on to. How
can we know this experience is from God? He says there are three
signs: an inability to pray the way I used to; a sense of going
backwards; but also a genuine desire for God. Although such an
experience is painful, God is there, he says. (That is why we
need a discerning spiritual director in times like these: otherwise
we might be tempted to wallow in despair.)


Further Reading: Start with one or two of the following:
Mark Link’s You and/or Breakaway (Allen, Texas: Argus, 1976/1980)
or Francis W. Vanderwall’s Spiritual Direction: An Invitation
to Abundant Life, New York: Paulist Press, 1981, Alan Jones, Exploring
Spiritual Direction: An Essay on Christian Friendship, Minneapolis:
Seabury Press, 1982, Gordon Jeff, Spiritual Direction for Every
Christian, London: SPCK, 1987. Then read one or two of these more
advanced books: William A. Barry & William J. Connolly The
Practice of Spiritual Direction, New York: Seabury, 1983, Kenneth
Leech, Soul Friend: A Study of Spirituality, London: Sheldon Press,
1977, Morton Kelsey, Companions on the Inner Way: The Art of Spiritual
Guidance, New York: Crossroad, 1983. A more technical book is
Gerald May, Care of Mind, Care of Spirit: Psychiatric Dimensions
of Spiritual Direction, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982.


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