I’m a huge fan of counseling and have been seeing a counselor and will continue to see a counselor, but last year in grad school, my program director suggested I enroll in Personal Spiritual Formation. I was not quite sure what this course really is but it sounds intriguing so I did. I didn’t know this is what I exactly need in addition to the regular sessions I have with my Christian counselor.
After the semester, I found myself wanting companionship as a result of the course I took so I found my way to a spiritual director.
In its simplest form, a spiritual director is a person who holds prayerful space for someone else. The task of the spiritual director is not to literally direct a person, which is often a misconception about spiritual direction but to remain attentive to the spirit of God on behalf of someone else.
God is the director, and the process of spiritual direction is a practice of helping people become aware of what God is up to in their lives.
What is spiritual direction?
How is it different from or the same as fill in the blank? Blank as in pastoral counseling, Christian counseling, discipleship, therapy, coaching, mentoring, soul care, friendship, or Bible study?
If you want to know more specifically about the history of spiritual direction, you might begin with our Catholic friends from whom we have much to learn about spiritual direction. suffice it to say for now that spiritual direction is not new, though many have never heard of it.
While it’s becoming a bit more mainstream among Protestants, it’s certainly not a regular part of most Protestant traditions, including my own. It’s not only for one religion or denomination, and in fact could be helpful for anyone who is seeking God, but does not associate with any particular faith tradition.
Before we go further, it could be helpful for you to know that I am a Bible-believing, speaking-in-tongues, Spirit-filled, grace-clinging, born-again Christian. I was converted from Roman Catholicism when I was 15. I believe that we are saved by grace and not by good works. The gospel is Jesus period, NOT Jesus + blank and by blank, I mean good works. We can never be saved by good works because if we are, then that just means that Jesus’ death on the cross was not enough. I did not know anything about spiritual direction until well last year. I love this practice and what it has to teach us. So keep that in mind, but let’s go ahead and define our terms.
Rather than start with spiritual direction, let’s narrow it down to the word, spiritual or spirituality. It covers a lot, and like most words, it of course has the ability to be misused and misunderstood, or at least it can be used in many contexts to mean many different things for many different people just like the word Christian for example.
For our purposes, we’ll use a definition by James Bryan Smith, who says spirituality at its most basic level is simply lived life. We are, all of us, spiritual beings.
If our lives were a pie chart, we might be able to divide them up into categories of work, play, relationships, personal development, exercise, even church, but we cannot put our spirituality in a slice on the chart any more than we can put our physical bodies in only one slice.
We cannot go anywhere or do anything without our body, and we cannot go anywhere or do anything without our spirit. So body and spirit don’t go on the pie chart, body and spirit are the pie chart.
Like the old days of overhead transparencies, you draw a pie chart of your life, rhythm, and our activities on one, and then you take another one and you lay on top of that, maybe some of my generations is with me in that example.
Spiritual formation is the process by which our spirit is formed. Dallas Willard compares spiritual formation to education. Everyone gets one but the question is, what kind? You get an education even when you never go to school, is this a good education, a whole-hearted or full one? Probably not, but it’s still an education.
The same goes for spiritual formation. We all, every single human on earth who was, is or will be, everyone gets a spiritual formation. The question is, is your spirit being integrated into wholeness or disintegrated, which we might call malformation?
When I talk about spiritual formation, I’m mostly going to be referring to Christian spiritual formation. This is the process by which our spirits are formed into the likeness of Christ.
With that in mind, Pastor Tim Keel says,
“Spirituality is about the development of practices that integrate us over time into the fullness of who God has created us to be as humans created in his image.”
Richard Foster and Emily Griffin say,
“Spiritual formation, or maybe more precisely, the spiritual disciplines, are a series of concrete actions that will gently move us to transformation in Christ. It’s worth noting that the disciplines themselves, whether personal or communal like prayer, Bible readings, silence, solitude, even spiritual direction, are not transformative alone. Rather, these are practices that put us in a position to see, hear, and pay attention to what God is up to in us and in the world.”
This is what Gary Moon and David Benner say in their book called Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls, they say,
“At the heart of spiritual formation is becoming aware that God is everywhere and learning to practice his presence and yield to his transforming grace.” They also say, “To be alive is to be in relationship with God. And in the process of spiritual formation, each is unavoidable, given breath and consciousness, but all formation is not good formation and all relationships do not lead to transforming friendship.” With that in mind, here are a few specific definitions of a spiritual director.
This first one comes from Thomas Martin who says,
“A spiritual director is one who helps another to recognize and to follow the inspirations of grace in his life in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading him.”
Another firm writer, Barbara L. Peacock in her book, Soul Care in African-American Practice, she says,
“Spiritual direction is the practice of discerning the activity of God in the life of another.” Another comes from Margaret Gunther who says, “Spiritual direction is Holy listening. Not that the listener herself is Holy, but that the listening is.“
How does spiritual direction differ from blank?
But you might be wondering “Okay, but how does this differ from things I already know about pastoral counseling, Christian counseling, discipleship, coaching, mentoring therapy, friendship, Bible studies, so many things?”
There’s a reason you’re asking this question. It’s because each of these roles while distinct, share a common thread, all can fall under the umbrella of what we would call soul care. And all of these practitioners (myself included as a Christian counselor) whether professionally trained or personally called, probably share some common characteristics.
Coaches, pastors, counselors, disciplers, mentors, therapists, friends, teachers, and spiritual directors have many characteristics in common, namely compassion, excellent listening skills and a genuine care for the wellbeing and health of people. In fact, as a counselor myself, we are called people helpers.
All of these roles want to help though, I would say in different kinds of ways. Therapy and counseling are often, though not always, crisis-driven. Whereas someone might arrive at spiritual direction in crisis, that could be true, but generally, it’s less of an outward circumstance and more of an inward desire to deepen.
In fact, I know some spiritual directors who might refer you to see a counselor or a therapist, depending on what you’re talking about in direction. A counselor or therapist may spend time with a client coming up with strategies or dig deep into the story you’re believing because of your family of origin. Whereas a spiritual director might listen as you talk about these things, but I could imagine, at least in my experience, the director would do less by way of providing strategies.
Spiritual direction is always about paying attention to where God is moving now or what God is up to here.
In both a therapeutic relationship and a spiritual direction, empathy is necessary. The difference for spiritual directors is instead of being empathetic with the client, they are primarily empathetic to the spirit of God.
Other roles like mentors, disciplers, and teachers also may share characteristics of a good spiritual director, but traditionally these roles tend to be more didactic in nature, more teacher-student, more, “I have something to tell you, or I have something that you want me to hold you accountable for.” Those are needed and necessary roles, but they’re not technically spiritual directors.
For what it’s worth, I see a spiritual director and I see a counselor. All of those roles have been integral to my own formation and have offered a distinct benefit for me in various seasons of my life.
Spiritual direction is not really focused on content. It’s less about theology and more about experience. A spiritual director is not going to teach at least not directly. In fact, it’s quite normal for time with a spiritual director to be spent in a lot of silence. This might be uncomfortable for some people because we’re not accustomed to holding silence for very long. It’s not natural always for some of us to be more contemplative. We’ve been conditioned to think that silence is scary or in silence, something must be wrong.
But the truth is, as Parker Palmer says,
“The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting and trustworthy conditions. The soul is like a wild animal, tough, resilient savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we’re waiting for may well emerge.” (Let Your Life Speak book).
And I’d say spiritual direction is kind of like walking quietly into the woods, and a good spiritual director is not leading the way for you but is walking prayerfully beside you, waiting with you, as you wait for your soul to emerge.
Spiritual direction is a counter-cultural practice of co-listening for anyone who wants to deepen their awareness of and relationship with God. It allows space for curiosity, discovery, and held silence. It’s a space where no one is the expert here where both people submit to the movement of God, where one person listens with rather than talks at.
In its purest form, I believe spiritual direction is our human way of making up for what has been lost. I believe these listening relationships are what we’re actually meant to do for each other, not special circumstances where only some people need help listening for, or paying attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit. No, I think that’s something we all need, but we’re not getting it. Spiritual direction is one answer again.
Thomas Merton says, “You don’t go to a spiritual director to take care of your spirit the way you go to a dentist to have him take care of your teeth. The spiritual director is concerned with the whole person.”
Ruth Haley Barton writes this, “There are a few places where the soul is truly safe, where the knowing the questions, the longings of the soul are welcomed, received, and listened to rather than evaluated, judged, or beaten out of us.”
The day I meet with my spiritual director for the first time, he introduces our time with silence and invites me to close our session when I’m ready by saying my own prayer. I wanted a place free of expectation and that’s what my spiritual direction sessions have been. Almost a year has passed since that first meeting and I no longer panic at the held silence that always begins our time together. Now I welcome it, but it’s been a learned practice.
Here’s a short reading from a book called Sacred Companions by David Benner that might help frame it up a little bit more:
“Spiritual directors function like guides more than teachers. They accompanied others on the journey, not as experts but as companions. Having escorted others on similar journeys, they’re sometimes in a position to offer assistance in selecting the best route. Furthermore, because they know the region where you and they are journeying, they may be able to help you put the journey in perspective to see where you are in terms of where you’re going, but the way they best facilitate the learning that’s important to the spiritual journey is by continually orienting themselves and you to the spirit.”
In closing, here are a few lines from a blessing by John O’Donohue called For Beauty:
“As the ocean dreams to the joy of dance, may the grace of change bring you elegance. As clay anchors a tree in light and wind, may your outer life grow from peace within. As twilight pervades the belief of night, may beauty sleep lightly within your heart.”