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

What is Spiritual Direction?

What is Spiritual Direction?

Mth Judith Brown starts us off on our series on spiritual direction with this "frequently asked questions" style essay. 

What’s in a name?

The name, Spiritual Director, can sound intimidating or have unwelcome overtones of spiritual power and authority. Many directors consequently prefer the old Celtic word, ‘Soul Friend’ (anmchara). This has the merit of indicating that what is involved is a freely chosen relationship of trust and openness with a more experienced/mature Christian, who stands alongside and accompanies the person who seeks him or her out. The old word also reminds us that spiritual direction is a very ancient tradition to enable and encourage the growth and deepening of faith and practice. Originating among the Desert Fathers and Mothers it came to our islands through Celtic monks.  At certain times in the history of Christianity it has been less significant in the lives of “ordinary” Christians who are not members of religious communities, but in our times it has revived as a ministry which has a very significant place across both Catholic and Reformed traditions in the lives of religious, priests and lay people.

However, it is important to recognise that the Holy Spirit is the “real director” in any relationship of spiritual direction. Both director and directee are engaged in listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit: so in every meeting there are three in the room.

Pablo Picasso.  Friendship . 

Pablo Picasso. Friendship

Who are spiritual directors?

Traditionally spiritual directors tended to be priests or religious, both monks and nuns. However, there are now lay people as well who have felt called to this ministry, who have had this calling affirmed by others, or to whom people seem to gravitate for help in their spiritual lives. Most of those, lay, ordained and religious,  who now practice spiritual direction have generally also received specific training for it. (Training in a the Ignatian tradition of spiritual direction is possible; and there is a network of directors and training programmes under the umbrella of the SPIDIR network which draws on many spiritual traditions. Most training is ecumenical in nature. Many Anglican dioceses in the UK keep a diocesan “list” of spiritual directors.)


What do “directors” do?

To begin to answer this question we need to remember that the objective of the direction relationship is to ask where God is in your life, what He is doing in you, and to help you perceive what that might be, and how to be more open and cooperative with the work of the Holy Spirit. Unlike many secular forms of inter-personal help, it is not crisis intervention:  director and directee work together in a much longer time frame.  Nor is it “problem-solving”/professional mentoring/counselling/life coaching.

In practical terms, after a preparatory “getting to know you” meeting, a director will meet with you regularly;  probably for approx. 1 hour—anything from every 6 weeks to every 3 months, depending on the rhythm of your life and work, and by mutual agreement.

Basically the spiritual director listens. S/he  may offer advice, may make suggestions about reading, ways of praying, the possibility of going on a retreat or quiet day etc. But always the objective is to stand alongside you and help you to come closer to God. You are of course free to accept or reject any suggestions. Although the director and directee are consciously “standing on holy ground” this sort of relationship does not generally feel sombre or “churchy”, but tends to be marked by joy and at times gales of laughter at ourselves. Perhaps the theological foundations of the relationship of direction is belief in the incarnation—God was made human in Jesus, but also that God continues to live the divine life in those who love him.  The whole of your life is where God meets you—so no subject is “off limits” and directors are used to hearing just about everything. (See below on the relationship between direction and confession.)  Sometimes new directees wonder what on earth they might talk about to a spiritual director, but they may well soon find that, though conversation will inevitably cover what might be called “spiritual practice” and the individual’s belief and experience of God, it will also spread out into issues concerning family and social relationships, work priorities and relationships, the use of time and other resources, the impact of failure, grief and loss, the development of various senses of vocation. Anything that helps or in contrast hinders a deepening relationship with God is on the agenda.  Of course the precondition of this sort of openness about one’s life is complete confidentiality. (Experienced spiritual directors know this and should make it plain to you at first meeting.)

Directors of course also commit themselves to pray for you—that’s part of the package. Hopefully you, too, will pray for him or her—for wisdom and for openness to the Holy Spirit. All good directors know that they can only do this work through the guidance of the Holy Spirit—and are often surprised and humbled at how that seems to happen when they least expect it.

There is a real question about how “direction” relates to or differs from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in those traditions which offer oracular confession?  One (Reconciliation) is a sacrament of the Church and the other (Direction) is not—thus only a priest can hear a confession and pronounce absolution, while a lay person may provide spiritual direction. The content of confession is sin, whereas the content of direction is as broad as life is. What this means is that it is possible to have both a lay spiritual director as well as an ordained confessor.  However, if the director is a priest it might make sense to use that person as a confessor, too, to avoid unnecessary duplication of conversations. Given that the practice of confession in the Roman Catholic church and in the Anglican tradition now tends to be less formal and impersonal than it was, this combination of confession and direction has become more natural and helpful. It is also of course possible (and normal in many Reformed traditions) to have a spiritual director, but not to practice confession.


How do you prepare to meet your spiritual director?

The most important thing to do before meeting your director is to pray—for insight into your life and your relationship with God, and for honesty and trust in the forthcoming meeting.

It is often very helpful keep a spiritual journal to see if there are clear patterns in your spiritual life, in your reactions to situations, if there are recurring issues in your life, or a persistent sense of calling.  This can then help to set the agenda for your meeting, for it is your time. An experienced director will often sense what you want to talk about and help you make space for this: similarly unplanned but highly important things may surface unexpectedly in a growing relationship of trust under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

You should also be prepared to work hard in between meetings at issues which emerge—by praying, perhaps going on retreat, reading, etc


How do you find a spiritual director?

The best way is by word of mouth and personal connection—ask your parish priest or mature Christian friends if they know of people who practice this ministry. Most Anglican dioceses keep a list of people who have trained for this ministry and are themselves receiving direction, but using an official list can be a rather hit and miss affair without some personal guidance.

It is normal to make contact with a potential director and arrange to meet for a preliminary “getting to know you” session to see if there is a good fit between what you are looking for and what the other person can offer. Don’t be afraid to say so if you feel it is not right at the outset, or you don’t feel comfortable with the potential director. But once you have begun to work with someone don’t flit about from person to person. There may well be difficult but necessary conversations; and running away from them is running away from the opportunity for new insights and for spiritual growth.  

Suggestions for Further Reading

Kenneth Leach (1977). Soul Friend. A Study of Spirituality. Sheldon Press.

William A. Barry & William J. Connolly (1982). The Practice of Spiritual Direction. HarperOne.

Henri Nouwen (2011). Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. HarperOne.

Gordon Jeff (2007). Spiritual Direction for Every Christian. SPCK.


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