the St mary magdalen school of theology is  a network of women and men who read, pray, and teach the Christian faith. 

Inside Spiritual Direction

Inside Spiritual Direction

Third in our series on spiritual direction is the Revd Dr Graham Low's essay describes what you might expect from spiritual direction. Fr Graham is Assistant Priest at St Mary the Virgin, Iffley, Oxford.


Though I had discussed my spiritual life occasionally and informally for years, my experience of recognisable spiritual direction began during a quiet day just after I began training for ordination. The sister leading the day invited anyone who wished to discuss any points she had raised to speak with her. I was moved by what she said to us and so I hesitantly went to speak to her. I immediately found that I felt very free to reflect upon my relationship with God in a setting where I felt I was being listened to with care, interest, wisdom, love and complete attention. I was also prompted to think in new ways about prayer, and to see new connections between my life in general and my spiritual life. Thus began ten years of being accompanied by the same spiritual director not only in one-to-one conversations, but at significant events in both of our lives, as well as during week-long retreats with daily individual guidance from her. Something of the approach I was given was described by Mary Guenther [1] as a ministry of hospitality, teaching, and midwifery. 

As soon as I began parish ministry I realised that people were asking me questions about God’s activity in their lives: how to relate to God, how to pray, how to discern God’s will for them, how to live with sensing the presence and then the absence of God, and so on. I felt drawn to looking at these issues with parishioners but ill-prepared. Various people, including my own spiritual director, then encouraged me to train as a spiritual director, so that I might share my experiences with others. Thus I trained on an ecumenical course run at Worth Abbey. Though, as often, its general approach was Ignatian, the importance of Benedictine, and Carmelite traditions, and particularly the writings of Teresa of Avila, was noted. Lavinia Byrne [2] has edited a helpful guide to the main traditions of spiritual guidance for those who may wish to look at the backgrounds to various approaches to direction. It is worth pointing out that spiritual direction is a ministry for which there is no formal qualification, but it is one that a community of faith entrusts to a person, who is seen as having a relationship with God that can be positively reflected upon with others. As with most spiritual directors, I am in a supervision group which meets regularly.                 

Starting spiritual direction

Whenever I meet a person seeking direction for the first time I ask what they are looking for, and tell them what I may be able to offer. I then describe what I believe spiritual direction encompasses. We might note here that in their classic introduction to spiritual direction, Barry and Connolly [3] restrict the subject to reflection on the way a person prays. But I see this as a ministry of being alongside people who desire God in the context of their human life and experience as a whole and not just that of prayer. I say to people that the agenda for a meeting is not set by me but by the directee. My role is to listen, and sometimes to prod, or clarify what has been said. And I stress that I seek to do this in a tentative and inviting way. Though I am part of the process, my role is to accompany the directee in his or her discernment, in the light of the Holy Spirit. During a session I may also discern what is going on in the light of the Holy Spirit within myself, but I may only offer this to the directee, if appropriate. Furthermore I look for signs of movement by the Holy Spirit. Finally I attempt to summarise whatever has been said. I see people in my own home, unless there is a particular need to meet elsewhere.

If the person responds positively to these opening remarks, I mention some practical points. I usually see people for about an hour, every six to eight weeks, at my home, and at the end of meetings arrange a date for the next. I hold these people in prayer between meetings. I stress that three of us are present in the meetings: the Holy Spirit and the two of us. I note that this is neither counselling nor psychotherapy: it is not problem-solving, but a process in which the two of us seek to listen to God and to discern God’s activity and direction in the life of the directee. It is an ongoing process and may last for many years. I encourage people to prepare prayerfully about what they may bring to a meeting. I also say that the relationship is private and that neither of us should be mentioned by name to other people. Furthermore, I stress that whatever is said is confidential. I also say that from time to time it may be appropriate to combine spiritual direction with sacramental confession, as I am a priest. Nevertheless, many spiritual directors are not priests and many of my directees have gone to other priests for confession. Though I am happy to offer this sacrament at home, I always put on a purple stole to underline its sacramental character. Lastly, I mention that one of us may become uncomfortable with the other at a point of challenge or resistance, perhaps because of boundary issues, or because of differences in theological perspective. Certainly the relationship cannot always be expected to be entirely comfortable at all times, but if the discomfort is intrusive then either of us should feel free to discuss this, and if reconciliation is not possible, then the relationship may need to end.

Before a Meeting 

An essential feature of this ministry is that the director holds her or his directees in regular prayer, paying attention to any particular issues that may have arisen at meetings.

Whenever I am about to see someone I pray for the Holy Spirit to give me freedom to listen with as complete attention as possible to the directee. This may not always be easy as my attention may stray if I have other intrusive matters on my mind. The call here is to try to empty my mind for the directee. This is a ministry in which self-awareness is always important. I bring to mind points that have been noticeable in previous meetings, though I would only raise them in a session if this seems appropriate. I ask for the gift of discerning whatever God may be saying to both of us, and in whatever form this may happen. 

At Meetings

In a first meeting I begin by inviting directees to tell me something of their journey of life, and faith, and in particular how they think they may relate to God. This can vary from a systematic account of years of prayer, reading, reflection, liturgical practice and life in a worshipping community to a hesitant, and often sceptical, account of apparent glimpses of God’s activity (and often seemingly annoying inactivity), with curiosity and uncertainty about what these might mean and how they could be responded to, if at all. And as the account unfolds, emotions may be shown, body language may be expressive, and a temperament different from my own is to be recognised, and accepted even if this is a challenge for me. 

I begin most subsequent meetings with a time of uninterrupted listening.  The directee sets the agenda and reveals whatever he or she wishes. At times I may ask for clarification, but discussion at this stage may well interrupt an important flow of thought. As the listening goes on, I hope that the directee has a sense of being valued, of being really heard, perhaps for the first time in a long while. At times my past experience and intuition may indicate that a period of silence, a period of waiting, is appropriate after something has been said. This may allow the directee to think more deeply about a particular point, or to indicate that a new and deeper state of awareness has been reached, where words may no longer be needed. To encourage pausing or waiting can sometimes feel a risky strategy, but as Vanstone (1982) has so profoundly written, if we wait in silence then we may allow the Holy Spirit the space to be heard.     

Once the directee finishes speaking, I attempt to summarise the essence of what has been said thus far. Then I ask the directee to clarify, expand, and possibly begin to evaluate or interpret what has been said. This may well include some prompting with questions like: What was that like for you? Was this surprising? Do you feel different? What may this mean? Is this good or not? Where may God be in all of this? 

We are now at the point of the meeting where discernment is the central call, as we sift, clarify and evaluate. Here I may suggest a variety of approaches to help the directee. Many people find that writing a diary or journal of significant events, particularly of a spiritual nature, day by day, can help them to see changes or patterns which result from God’s activity within them. There is merit too in ending the day with an Ignatian Examen, where we open ourselves to God and look at what we have done, noticing activities that seem to call for our attention, and asking for the light of the Holy Spirit to guide us. Many people find Lectio Divina helpful in discerning ways in which God may be calling us to a deeper knowledge of him through slow and repeated reading of biblical texts, noting particular words that prompt our attention, and reflecting on them. The use of the Bible in spiritual direction more broadly has been helpfully discussed in a recent book by Hoare (2015). Other people will find help and encouragement in contemplating images of many kinds, as windows to God. Here I find that I often have a role as a teacher of one or more of these approaches, and also I hope to encourage people to find and interpret their own response. I try hard to resist the sometimes very strong temptation to jump in with my own interpretation of what may be happening to the directee.

It is not unusual for a directee to bring matters of confusion and of sometimes deep pain to a meeting. While ways forward may become apparent during a session, the director is not there to solve a problem, but to accompany the directee through a problem. It may be that we need to encourage the directee to seek specialist medical help. There are times when we find that we cannot penetrate the darkness. No words may come to mind. Instead silence may be all that is left. In this situation I have found that people with a catholic spirituality may find that silent contemplation of the Blessed Sacrament brings great solace and healing. And some people who are beset with profound guilt can find that careful preparation and sacramental confession brings them a great sense of both spiritual and emotional healing. In particular, I have found sacramental confession can be of great value to people who have had no previous experience of this ministry. They are usually very nervous about it at first, and some prior teaching and encouragement is usually needed.      

One cannot generalise about the course of any meeting. But the director may on occasion gently and carefully nudge people’s thinking and expression in a more focussed way towards a point where signs of God’s activity have already been perceived. As so often with every aspect of spiritual direction, deciding how and when to do this comes with experience. I often encourage people to do some appropriate reading between sessions.

An important task for the director at the end of a session is to summarise as positively as possible what has been said and discerned. On occasion directees raise a very important point at the very end of a session when there is no time for a response. In this situation I suggest that if it still seems appropriate the directee might raise it at beginning of the next meeting. However conscious I may be of the issue, I will not raise it myself at the next meeting. I think it is also important to end by showing clearly that this ministry has been grounded in friendship and in the love of God.                           


I note any significant points that may have arisen, and also how I feel. I do not keep written notes. 


I think that this is an essential part of this ministry. There are three patterns: one-to-one with an experienced spiritual director, in a peer group, or in a group facilitated by an experienced director. In each case people bring challenges of their ministry for reflection, for mutual support, and in complete confidence. This is a trusting environment in which there is often learning and growth at a theological level. It also provides a stimulus to improve one’s own practice. The identity of anyone who is being discussed is never disclosed.   

[1] Guenther, M. (1992). Holy Listening. Darton Longman and Todd.

[2] Byrne, L. (ed.) (1990). Traditions of spiritual guidance. Continuum.

[3] Barry, W.A. & Connolly, W.J. (1983). The Practice of Spiritual Direction. Seabury Press.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Ball, P. (2007). Anglican Spiritual Direction. Morehouse Publishing.

Hoare, L. (2015). Using the Bible in Spiritual Direction. SPCK.

Hoyle, D. (2016). The Pattern of our Calling. SCM.

Jones, A. (1999). Exploring Spiritual Direction. Cowley Publications.

Long A. (2006). Reflective Practice for Spiritual Directors. Grove Books.

Vanstone, W.H. (1982). The Stature of Waiting. Darton Longman and Todd.


Remembering his mercy: Marian doctrine and the Rosary prayer

Remembering his mercy: Marian doctrine and the Rosary prayer

God and Emotions series -- "God's Jealousy"

God and Emotions series -- "God's Jealousy"