What is spiritual direction?

April 12th, 2016

My first encounter with spiritual direction was unintentional. After engaging in a spiritual conversation with the owner of the Texas Hill Country bed and breakfast where I was staying, she gave me a copy of a poem by Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. “Don’t go away, come near. Don’t be faithless, be faithful,” the poem said. Titled “The Root of the Root of Your Self,” the poem invites the reader to discover his or her truest and deepest self as a being made in the image of God’s majesty by letting go of selfishness and fear. I later found out this owner was a trained spiritual director, and 16 years later I still have and treasure the copy of the poem she gave me. Another had discerned a new spiritual path for me and had given me permission to look inside my soul, discovering the vast treasure that awaits us all when we start a divine adventure.

What is spiritual direction? A number of definitions exist, but a common one is that spiritual direction offers a way to attend to God’s presence in one’s life in the context of a trusted relationship. Spiritual Directors International states, “Spiritual direction explores a deeper relationship with the spiritual aspect of being human. Simply put, spiritual direction is helping people tell their sacred stories everyday.” Leslie A. Hay holds a master of divinity degree and is a spiritual director, teacher and author of Hospitality: The Heart of Spiritual Direction. According to her, “The role of the spiritual director is to be a welcoming presence, as directees listen to God with the ‘ear of their hearts’ and become aware of how God is being revealed in the mystery of their lives.” According to Hay, the concept of spiritual direction isn’t new, but rather an ancient ministry that fell out of practice after the Reformation but reemerged in the early 20th century.

Spiritual direction practices can be found in almost all faith traditions and denominations. Other terms used for spiritual direction include spiritual companionshiptending the holy and holy listening or sacred listening. Sometimes misunderstood, spiritual direction isn’t counseling, therapy or financial advice. Most spiritual directors have training and spiritual formation experience, but formal credentialing isn’t required to be a spiritual director. Hay believes that spiritual direction isn’t in competition with religion but is rather a deepening of it. “Spiritual direction involves an inner work, focusing on one’s relationship with God. I believe that all of the material of one’s life is contained in prayer, and that spiritual direction is prayer lived,” said Hay. “For someone who has never tried it, I would tell that person that the time spent in spiritual direction is entirely focused on you and your spiritual life, which is a reflection of God’s love for you.”

What happens during spiritual direction?

Usually, spiritual direction involves a series of conversations where directors and directees meet for about an hour every month or so. Directees share stories about what is happening in their lives or where they might be struggling in their faith. Trust and getting to know each other might take time, so directees are encouraged to try several sessions. Directors act as a sounding board, offering feedback in a caring manner, not judgment or advice. Many spiritual directors will incorporate prayer or other practices into the meeting and might suggest “homework” assignments such as journaling, reading Scripture, reading books or poetry and worshipping with your faith community. Spiritual director and author Thomas Hart tells interested directees, “I will not tell you what you ought to do. I do not know what you should do. And it is not my role to lead to that extent. Your real spiritual director is the Holy Spirit.”

Spiritual direction can benefit anyone on his or her spiritual journey, whether a lay person or a clergy member. United Methodist bishop William Hutchinson believes that pastors can benefit not only from being trained in spiritual direction as they work with congregants, but also from being directees themselves. He believes these clergy tend to be “less reactionary, less judgmental, more centered, more reflective. They search for deeper answers.”

Hay believes that spiritual directors should be grounded in the practice of hospitality, welcoming all as Christ. They should also make sure they’re taking care of their own spiritual lives to be effective. “The calling to be a spiritual director is a humbling path to follow because it requires intentionality about our own prayer life, so we can offer deep listening, unconditional love and acceptance,” she says.

Because of her positive experience with spiritual direction, Cherri Johnson started the Spiritual Direction Training Program for Spiritual Leadership, a part of the Louisiana Conference of The United Methodist Church. She then sought to inject practices of spiritual direction into the life of the local church. She found that most churchgoers were familiar with the language of discipleship and practices of stewardship and Bible study, but the language of spiritual direction was foreign to them. Johnson believes that many of these spiritual practices are lost elements of early Methodism. “The inner journey of faith was superseded by a commitment to doctrinal certainties. The practice of spiritual direction offers a means to recapture a lost dimension of Christian life,” she said.

“How Is It With Your Soul?”

Spiritual direction can also happen in groups where people gather on a regular basis to support one another’s spiritual growth and awareness of God’s activity in their lives and in their communities. In the early stages of Methodism, small group meetings (referred to as “class meetings”) were a vital part of this Christian community. In his book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, Kevin M. Watson makes it clear that these groups weren’t information-driven but rather transformation-driven. Rather than being a gathering focused on curriculum or study, class meetings involved committed participants who discussed the state of their current relationship with God and how they were living out their faith. Participants actively participated in examining their own spirituality rather than just being passive recipients of information.

Started in England in 1742 by a group of Methodists, this practice was listed as a requirement of membership when Methodism became a formal denomination in 1784. So as The Methodist Episcopal Church grew in America, church members were very accustomed to meeting every week to talk about their lives as followers of Christ, where they were to “watch over one another in love.” Classes had between seven to twelve members, and men and women often met together, with both genders having leader roles. Content of the meetings focused on (1) holding people accountable to keeping the General Rules (do no harm, do good, and attend upon the ordinances of God), (2) giving to the poor, and (3) answering the question, “How is it with your soul?” (a modern-day rephrasing could be “How is your life with God?”). Watson makes it clear that class meetings were not accountability groups, where people confessed their deepest sins.

The decline of the class meeting is attributed to both the rise of the Sunday school movement and the rise of affluence among Methodists, who were then less comfortable sharing the details of their spiritual lives. Watson proposes a return to these transformative, life-changing groups that should be characterized by consistent attendance, active listening, interpersonal skills, confidentiality, humility and a willingness to be vulnerable. Regardless of the form spiritual direction takes, the goal, as the 18th-century preacher Peter Cartwright stated, is to have souls “made alive to God.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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