Spiritual direction: What it is, where it came from, and how to learn more

Interested in spiritual direction? Here’s a piece I put together with editorial right-hand man Steve Gertz back in the Christian History days. Links are old so no doubt some will not work:

Got Your ‘Spiritual Director’ Yet?
The roots of a resurgent practice, plus 14 books for further study
Chris Armstrong and Steven Gertz

Christian counselor and popular author Larry Crabb took the trouble to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. But now he believes that in today’s church, therapy should be replaced by another, more ancient practice—”spiritual direction.”

This is one of the classical Christian spiritual disciplines Crabb and others from a wide variety of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox backgrounds are examining and recommending anew in a biannual journal, Conversations: A Forum for Authentic Transformation, just launched this Spring.

Crabb is not the only modern Protestant digging into this historical mode of spiritual growth. Jeannette Bakke, author of Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction (Baker, 2000) said in a Christianity Today interview, “Evangelicals are listening for God in ways that are different from our usual understanding of discipleship. We are looking at many Christian disciplines, including prayer, silence and solitude, discernment, journaling, and others. … Spiritual direction is one of these disciplines many evangelical Christians are learning about and exploring.”

What is spiritual direction?

Spiritual direction is a voluntary relationship between a person who seeks to grow in the Christian life and a director. The latter is not, notice, a counselor or therapist. Rather, he or she is a mature Christian who helps the directee both to discern what the Holy Spirit is doing and saying and to act on that discernment, drawing nearer to God in Christ.

The focus is on intimacy with God, not on the solving of clinically identified psychological problems. The whole sinful orientation of the self, not any particular dysfunction, is the “problem” to be addressed. The director helps directees identify ways they have sought satisfaction and fulfillment from sources other than God, in the process pushing God aside. Directees are led to hear the Holy Spirit (the “real spiritual director”) calling them back onto the right path. The director’s role is one of coming alongside, rather than dictating a program. The relationship thus shares some features with the Celtic ideal of a “soul friend” or “anamchara.” However, its nurture usually flows only one way.

Being a good spiritual director requires not a doctorate but mature theological knowledge, a degree of holiness, and a knack for discernment.

How did spiritual direction develop in the church?

Spiritual direction has a long and honored place in Christian History. In the New Testament this sort of discerning, directing relationship can be seen with Jesus and his disciples, for example, or Paul and Timothy. And spiritual mentoring continued in the early church, through a spiritual lineage from apostles to bishops (tradition has it that the second-century bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, was personally discipled by the Apostle John). In fact, spiritual direction was particularly critical before the formation of the canon, when the oral word passed down through bishops complemented the letters circulating in the church that eventually composed the New Testament.

John Cassian (ca. 350-435) provided some of the earliest recorded guidance on the process of spiritual direction. Influenced by the Egyptian desert ascetics, Cassian introduced an intentional process of mentoring into the monasteries. He put every novice under the care of an older monk and warned that great care should be taken in choosing spiritual directors. St. Benedict worked Cassian’s concerns into his influential Rule, and by the end of the seventh century, spiritual direction was firmly associated with monasticism throughout the West.

Spiritual direction was limited to the monasteries for the next four hundred years, until the emergence of the Dominican order of itinerant friars in 1216. Dominicans emphasized teaching and preaching Christian doctrine, and these activities soon expanded into a regular program of caring for and counseling souls—particularly in spiritual discernment and perfection. Since many of those who received the ministry of the Dominicans were laymen in the emerging medieval cities, the practice of spiritual direction spread rapidly beyond monastery walls.

Spiritual direction as practiced today—especially in the Roman Catholic Church—owes its greatest debt to the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). Loyola encouraged the practice of individual and group retreats. Participants worked through his famous “spiritual exercises” in a program spanning four “weeks” (these have subsequently been stretched or compressed to fit various timeframes).

The first week draws participants into a frank consideration of their own sin and its consequences, the second focuses on Christ’s life on earth, the third on his Passion, and the fourth on his Resurrection. Loyola also drew up rules to accompany the weeks—for example, the second week comes with guidelines for identifying and rejecting the workings of Satan in their lives. All of this Loyola intended should be directed by a mentor who is “prudent, discreet, reserved, and gentle.”

Since Loyola’s time, Catholics have continued the practice, shaped further by such writings as the seventeenth-century’s St. Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life.

Protestants, on the other hand, have emphasized the direct, unmediated nature of the individual’s relationship with God in Christ, and they have thus tended to be suspicious of the function of spiritual directors. This, however, seems to be changing today, at least among Protestants unsatisfied with what Crabb calls the “standard ‘evangelical’ means of spiritual growth”: moral vigilance, church attendance, and busyness in a variety of programs, conferences, methods, and ministries.

How can I find out more about spiritual direction?

Such prominent Protestant writers on spirituality as Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and James Houston have written on the subject in recent years. One excellent place to start is Eugene Peterson’s valuable guide to books on Christian spirituality: Take and Read: An Annotated List (Eerdmans, 1996).

In his chapter on spiritual direction, Peterson offers a broad definition of spiritual direction that includes all forms of spiritual friendship—”the prayerful attention that we give to another person as a spiritual being and the accompanying prayerful conversation” that develops out of this attention. Then he says, “By watching/reading the masters at work, we come to appreciate how important it is to learn and practice this art.”

Here are 14 books in which Peterson finds “the masters at work:”

1. Frederick von Hugel, Letters to a Niece (1928).

2. Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship (twelfth century, available in a 1974 translation by Mary Eugenia Laker, S. S. N. D.)

3. Francis de Sales (1567-1622, Catholic), Introduction to the Devout Life and Letters of Spiritual Direction (1988 translation by Peronne Marie Thibert)

4. Samuel Rutherford (a seventeenth-century Scottish pastor), Letters (available in an 1891 edition)

5. Kenneth Leech, Soul Friend

6. Martin Thornton, Spiritual Direction (1984)

7. Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation (1960)

8. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (a French Jesuit), The Divine Milieu (1960)

9. Gerald May (a psychiatrist who “knows the difference between psychology and spirituality and disperses some of the fog that confuses them”), Care of Mind/Care of Spirit (1982)

10. Jerome Heufelder and Mary Coelho, editors, Writing on Spiritual Direction by Great Christian Masters (1982)

11. Francis W. Vanderwall, S. J., Spiritual Direction: An Invitation to Abundant Life (1981)

12. Douglas V. Steere (a Quaker), Together in Solitude

13. Ralph Harper, On Presence (1991)

14. Martin Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel (translated in a 1955 by Theodore Tappert)

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine. Steven Gertz is editorial coordinator of Christian History magazine.

2 responses to “Spiritual direction: What it is, where it came from, and how to learn more

  1. Alex, a great point. Many of us spiritual directors would see Jesus directing His followers throughout the Gospels. One passage in particular where we see this is Jesus’ interaction with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, where Jesus is opening up the eyes of these two disciples to ways that God might actually have been at work all along during Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (let’s remember that hindsight is 20/20) while exposing the disciples’ false beliefs about who Jesus is and what His ministry was supposed to be.

  2. Thank you for posting this article on spiritual direction. I hope you will clarify some terms you have used. You defined spiritual direction as Spiritual direction is a voluntary relationship between a person who seeks to grow in the Christian life and a director. The latter is not, notice, a counselor or therapist. Rather, he or she is a mature Christian who helps the directee both to discern what the Holy Spirit is doing and saying and to act on that discernment, drawing nearer to God in Christ..

    I wonder if Jesus was doing spiritual direction with his disciples and whether what Paul had done with Timothy (which you mentioned spiritual mentoring) can be considered spiritual direction. You also mention certain early bishops were discipled.

    Appreciate if you will clarify spiritual direction, spiritual mentoring and discipling.

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