What is Spiritual Direction?

This fall, I begin the second of a two-year program to become a Spiritual Director. If your background touches any Catholic or Anglican traditions, you’ve likely heard of Spiritual Direction and things are clicking into place. If not, you might be puzzled as to why you’ve never heard of this. That was me just a few years ago, and now I can tell you it is profoundly impacting my life.

Spiritual Direction is the practice of meeting regularly with a Spiritual Director to help you deepen your relationship with God. 

That’s the most basic definition. But like anything worthwhile, it can’t be explained in a catch phrase. If you can, settle in for a moment to learn something new that’s actually very old? 

 

Meeting a Deep Need

We are not meant to walk this life alone. Inviting other voices into the facets of life is crucial. The believer can benefit greatly from several voices. When in pain, counseling and inner healing help us find the root of that pain and move forward into a fuller life. Discipleship and teaching is integral to believers being established in the Word and understanding their place in the kingdom and family of God. Pastoral guidance is helpful when looking for advice and accountability in the face of decisions. Mentoring is also a beautiful and formational experience for those young in faith longing to know the way they should go. And friendship is, in my opinion, the most beautiful source of personal encouragement one can give and receive.

Even with all these rich resources, a space is left empty: the space where we are known, yet free of obligation to know the other. The space where we can take the time to process the confusion of life circumstances illumined by the presence of Jesus. The space where we can freely ask the questions we don’t dare voice to family or clergy, unafraid of sounding heretical or jaundiced by Church Authority baggage. The space where we can sit in silence and JUST BE  in God’s presence, but not be alone. The space to vocalize our inner life without being judged or lectured or neatly answered or fixed or interrupted. Because if we just had the time and space, we could sort out lots of things, and get to the question behind all the questions. The space where we can explore the meeting of our true selves and the God who knows us better than we know ourselves. The space to go down deeper into the intimate places of divine connection and our deepest needs. 

This is an important space. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a companion holding the time and place for you to be intentional about exploring your inner life with God?

That’s what a Spiritual Director does. She hosts a practice that meets a need as deep and unspoken as it is necessary to a full life in God and in this world.

 

What is Spiritual Direction?

So how does this come about? There is no formula for Spiritual Direction; no one method. I have hesitated to talk about my pursuit of becoming a Spiritual Director because I’m still trying to figure out how to define it! But such mystery and freedom is exactly what draws me toward this work, because it is a ministry of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is all about mystery and freedom. 

That being said, here’s my first attempt to answer the question, “What is Spiritual Direction?”

The simplest definition is this: In Spiritual Direction, one attunes to the presence of God.

My Spiritual Director friend Dane Anthony states the premise in this way… 

“Spiritual Direction is rooted in two basic convictions: 1) that our relationship with God is of primary and fundamental importance to our life; and 2) that our relationship with God invades and informs all aspects of our lives and world, there is—ultimately—no separation.” 

With these convictions in place, Spiritual Directors help others in the important work of attending to God’s presence and revelation, and intentionally responding to him.

The program I’m studying under, Sustainable Faith, describes it as “a form of pastoral guidance that fosters in the believer an intimate communion with God. Growth in this communion is shaped through contemplation of Jesus, guided by the Spirit, and nurtured through a prayerful response to the invitation of God. Through regular meetings of conversation and prayer, the spiritual director helps another to notice the work of God in his life and respond to it as promptly, vigorously, joyfully and consistently as possible.”

The roots of this approach to ministry can be found in Paul’s letters to the early church. The desert fathers and mothers of the 4th and 5th centuries, followed by Ignatius of Loyola and other monastics, clarified the inner work. It’s been held close by the contemplative stream of the Catholic Church for several hundred years, only recently spreading into Protestant traditions.

 

What is a Spiritual Direction Session Like?

A director and directee meet together for about an hour every month (or more frequently if preferred) and spend time together. Each director has his or her own style, but a “typical” session might begin with shared silence, and end with a reading of scripture or poetry, with a conversation in between that is paced by the directee while both persons tune into the presence of God.

Spiritual Direction  differs from counseling and other familiar session-formatted experiences in that: 

The focus is not on a problem; it’s on the Spirit’s workings within the life of the directee, and her relationship with God.

The focus is on the present more than the past or the future.

The role of director is much less central than that of a counselor. The Spiritual Director does not have the answers and is not trying to fix anything; the Holy Spirit is our guide and both directee and director attune to its leading.

Spiritual Direction is also unique from discipleship in that it is not teaching or advice-driven. It is more Spirit-centered than Word-centered. It’s more about questions than answers. 

 

What Does a Spiritual Director Do?

Mostly, she listens. For the directee’s truest self, and for the Lord’s ways laced within it.

A director also asks questions. Questions like, “Who is God to you right now? How do you engage with Father, Son, Holy Spirit? What is prayer to you? How do you hear God’s voice? What does His presence feel like? How do you approach scripture right now? What season are you in, and how are you finding God in the midst of it? What do you really need from God?” Then she listens for as long as the directee wants to talk, or consider the questions in silence. From there the conversation flows.

Spiritual Direction is compassionate, attentive, and confidential. Which is a good thing, because it is deep and personal. Spiritual Directors “help people notice and cultivate ways of knowing and being known by God.”

Spiritual Direction is mining for more in the treasure cave of the soul. The directee holds the pic-axe and does the work while the director holds the flashlight, illumining the jewel-laden corners of the heart the directee might not have noticed.

“Director” is actually a bit of a mis-nomer; the role is much less heavy-handed than that. God is the true Director. Spiritual Directors are servants of the holy, listeners with the job of being attentive to God, with and for the sake of another. 

A few more words for Spiritual Director:

Sacred Companion. 

Soul-tender. 

Host. 

Holy Listener. 

Trail Guide. 

And my favorite, Spiritual Midwife.

Margaret Guenther describes this analogy beautifully in Holy Listening

“Much of spiritual direction is in the company of those who are waiting, who cannot be fixed, repaired, or made right, and the spiritual director does well to emulate the midwife’s restraint. The midwife understands the process of birthing… she knows when she can assist and interpret and when she should merely be present. She intervenes only when necessary and helpful, never for the sake of “doing something.”

“ The midwife is present to another in a time of vulnerability, working in areas that are deep and intimate. It is a relationship of trust and mutual respect. She does things with, not to, the person giving birth. A midwife sees clearly what the birthgiver cannot see. She can encourage and interpret when the birth-giver feels she has lost control and failed.

“Spiritual direction is not a crisis ministry, even though the initial impulse to seek out a director may arise from a sense of urgent personal need. The midwife of the spirit is not an expert called in for the dramatic moments… She works with the whole person and is present throughout the whole process. She has time.  She offers support through every stage and waits with the birth-giver when “nothing is happening.”

 

Who Can Benefit from Spiritual Direction?

A mature believer who longs to be intentional in her faith and connect with God. Perhaps she has hit a wall, or a new season, or faces a decision, or sees a shift in the ways she used to understand herself or her God, and could use a little help processing the change. Perhaps she is simply longing for more.

 

The Fruit of Spiritual Direction in My Life

My personal experience over the past year and a half of receiving Spiritual Direction has been supremely rich. At first I considered it a luxury and felt guilty for spending time and money talking about my spiritual life. But now I wish we could meet every week; it would be well worth it. In the same way seeing a therapist gives you accountability and direction in doing deeper work, Spiritual Direction has brought an intentionality and perceptiveness to my faith that nothing else has, in my 35 years of walking with Jesus.  

During an extended wilderness season that has included more than one crisis of faith, I have discovered how comfortable God is with my questions – even the ones that insult His existence and the Bible I’ve been taught all my life to believe. I have been able to make peace with God’s silence. “God stopped speaking to me,” I bitterly defined the wilderness for a long time. But through conversations with my director I am coming to recognize His presence right in the middle of His continued “silence.” The more true statement is “God stopped speaking to me in the way He used to.” I see now that He has never stopped communicating with me. He is moving me forward, deeper still into Love, attuning different senses to the Spirit’s reality. Now I hear nothing, and I smile, and I know more deeply than I’ve ever known that God is with me.

 

Are You Looking for a Spiritual Director? 

If Spiritual Direction is new to you, I hope this explanation is a decent start. I’d love to answer your questions about it. AND I am currently seeking a couple directees to “practice on” as I train this year. Free of charge and under supervision and completely confidential, of course. Please pass the word and message me if you’d be able to meet regularly in my home in Franklin, TN, or via Skype/Zoom.

 

With joy,

Rachel

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