Spiritual direction is a discipline in which we seek the help of another to discern the presence and activity of God in our everyday lives. Following Jesus is not a religious task. It is a way of life. A disciple’s whole life is dedicated to following Jesus, and a spiritual director will help a disciple discern the voice and activity of God in both big and ordinary moments.
This discipline could not be more important in our world today. We tend to live very compartmentalized lives, splitting it into segments like work and family, physical and spiritual, and so on. This segmented view is not only false it is dangerous. The facets of life are deeply intertwined. Our work, family, physical, and emotional lives cannot be compartmentalized, and they are all spiritual.
There is no area of life untouched by God and our relationship with him. When we only expect God’s presence at church or in quiet times, we will not experience the fullness of his grace because we don’t expect his presence in the ordinary. A spiritual director will help us find God in our everyday life, and merge our compartmentalized segments into a single focus, following Jesus.
Spiritual direction has a couple of forms. In a close, personal relationship with a fellow disciple it can be informal. We have friends who know us well and help us see the activity of God in our lives. It is a reciprocal relationship that typically grows from an existing friendship. This informal relationship is commonly referred to as a spiritual friendship.
There is also a formal version of spiritual direction. This is a relationship with someone trained in the art of direction and experienced in listening to the Holy Spirit while also listening to us. Both the informal and formal are valuable, but this resource will specifically deal with formal spiritual direction.
History of spiritual direction
The formal practice of spiritual direction can be traced back to the desert fathers and mothers, a group who left society for a community in the desert of Egypt to seek deeper intimacy with God. Writings refer to a leader giving words of direction to younger followers in the desert. It is from this foundation that Saint John Cassian wrote the first known guidelines for spiritual direction. He recommended an intentional relationship with an older monk for every novice.
For hundreds of years, spiritual direction continued within monasteries, convents and parsonages. As directed by Cassian and those who came after him, elder priests, monks and nuns would intentionally develop their younger brothers and sisters. But in the middle of the twentieth century, spiritual direction developed into a practice for the laity and began to be practiced in the Protestant church.
In the thirties Dawson Trotman founded the Navigators and championed the need for mentoring relationships. Then in the fifties, psychology grew in popularity, and many protestant churches embraced the ministry of pastoral counseling. The focus on mentoring and counseling paved the way for spiritual direction to be practiced by lay people and Protestants, and the practice of spiritual direction began to gain larger acceptance.
As more and more people started looking for direction, programs sprung up to help train directors. Many colleges and ministries offer certificate programs for men and women to receive formal training in this practice. And now not only do lay people receive spiritual direction, but they offer it as well.
How does spiritual direction differ from counseling and mentoring?
The desire for guidance, growth, and healing is so ingrained in who we are as human beings that it is no surprise there are various facets to these forms of relationships. Perhaps the three most common are mentoring, counseling or psychotherapy, and spiritual direction. There are common elements between the three, but there are also clear differences. Each has a unique focus and purpose to the relationship.
Mentoring is a common practice in the modern evangelical church. People like Dawson Trotman encouraged us to have people in our lives that are further along the journey of faith and to meet with people who may not be as far as we are. There is a great deal to be learned from our brothers and sisters in the faith. Mentoring focuses on receiving from the mentor. He or she offers support and wisdom often in the form of advice in a particular area of life.
Counseling or psychotherapy is a place for us to process the experiences of life, including past hurts and pain. It has a particular focus on our emotions and specific formational experiences. You may, as I have, delve into pain from your childhood and work through the positive and negative lessons from your pain. A trained counselor will help you work through addictions and help establish a healthy emotional life.
Spiritual direction is similar to mentoring in that it is a one on one relationship that helps us grow in our faith, but it is different in that the spiritual director will offer less advice. He or she is more of a guide, helping us discern God’s activity for ourselves. A director is focused on listening to the directee and the Spirit and asking questions. Spiritual direction is also similar to counseling in that we may work through pain and sin. However, it is different in that it is specifically focused on deepening our relationship with Jesus, and it will include reflection on the ordinary experiences as well as the deeply emotional and impacting events.
What is spiritual direction?
Being a disciple is walking with Jesus through the ordinary everyday experiences of life. The apostles lived with Jesus. He helped them see the kingdom of God and live in it more deeply. He corrected them when they needed correcting (Matthew 16:23). He taught them to pray (Matthew 6:5-15). And he used everyday experiences like emotions (Matthew 8:26), taxes (Mark 12:13-17), and hunger (John 4:31-38) to deepen their faith and relationship with God.
Being a disciple hasn’t changed for us today, but it can be difficult to discern the voice of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in our everyday lives. This is where a spiritual director is valuable. A spiritual director can help us sort through our experiences, the emotional highs and lows, the questions and struggles, and find God’s presence in it all. A director is not a stand in for God, but he does help us hear God’s voice and meet with him.
The role of the director is to listen. She listens to you and the Holy Spirit, and asks questions to help you uncover where God is moving. What is he doing in your life? What is he teaching you, and how is he forming you into the person he created you to be? Ideally the director will lead you to discover this for yourself by asking questions and following the lead of the Holy Spirit.
Some have referred to spiritual direction as “holy listening.” Theresa Blythe describes spiritual directors as “field guides.” They are people who observe the terrain of our experiences, point out interesting features, and invite us to think more deeply about them.
“We don’t walk the walk for you,” writes Blythe, “but we observe the walk with you aware that God is leading the way and is in relationship with you all the time. The field guide knows the walk with God somewhat because the guide has walked his or her own path, and has walked with others like you. At the same time, the field guide knows that no two walks are ever the same and approaches your experience of the walk with God with humility and wonder.”
Thomas Merton wrote, “Spiritual direction is, in reality, nothing more than a way of leading us to see and obey the real Director — the Holy Spirit hidden in the depths of our soul.”
The ordinary everyday events of life are rich with opportunities to grow deeper in relationship with God. From pain and struggle to gifts of grace and joy and everything in between, God is present in them all. At times it can be difficult for us to see where God is moving in these experiences. A spiritual director helps us sift through them and hear from God.
Talking with a director can be like training for us. It will help us develop eyes and ears to find God in the ordinary events of our day. The more we process with the director, the more aware we become in the moment and the better equipped we are to live in deeper relationship with God.
A director can also help to guide us to grow in specific areas of faith. If our prayer life feels dry, she can help us explore the dryness and make helpful suggestions to deepen our experience in prayer. Or if we are struggling in a particular area, he may suggest a particular discipline, and help us to practice it.
Finding a spiritual director
The best way to find a director is through a recommendation. Check with your friends or post something on social media. Someone who has personal experience with a director can be enormously helpful.
The next best place for a recommendation is your church. If you belong to the Catholic or Orthodox branches, your local parish or diocese will certainly be able to help. If you’re from a protestant branch, ask your church. Someone may know of a spiritual director right in your congregation or even on staff. If not, they may be able to point you to someone. If you are not from the Catholic tradition but are open to meeting with a Catholic director, you can contact a local church or diocese. In my experience most Catholic directors are open to a non-Catholic directee.
As spiritual direction is growing in popularity, there are more and more programs to train directors. Colleges are offering certificates. Parachurch ministries are beginning with the specific purpose of training and supporting new directors. You may be able to find a director through a local Christian college or one of these training programs.
Once you have a name, reach out to the director to see if he or she is open to a new directee. It is also appropriate to ask some basic questions before your initial meeting. Here are some you may ask. These will help you begin to assess whether he or she might be a good fit.
- What kind of training have you received both theologically and specific to the art of spiritual direction?
- How long have you been offering direction and in what contexts?
- What is your own experience in spiritual formation and the spiritual life?
- How do you view the practice of spiritual direction?
- What ethical guidelines to you abide by?
- Do you charge for direction?
If you feel comfortable with the director’s response, you will want to schedule a meeting. The first meeting will likely be more informational than anything else. Keep in mind you are looking for a director whose approach and style suits you. Someone may be a great person and a fantastic director, but you may not have a good connection. Some people meet with more than one director before finding one who is a good fit.
Be ready to share some of your story, and why you are seeking direction. Are you looking for help discerning God’s direction? Are you looking for help growing in faith or love? Are you looking for help gaining freedom from sin or growing in prayer?
If you both agree to move forward, it is a good idea to reevaluate the relationship after a few months. The first meeting may help to immediately identify if someone is not a good fit, but the discernment process may take a few more meetings. One of my directors set a three-month evaluation. After our third or fourth meeting we paused and confirmed with one another that we both believed we should continue.
What will I talk about?
What you choose to talk about will largely depend on what you are looking for in spiritual direction. If you are looking for growth in the area of some vice or virtue, you will discuss what went well and what didn’t since your last meeting. If you want to grow in some discipline, you can expect to discuss why you want to grow, and if your director has recommended some practices, be ready to discuss your time engaging them. If you simply want help discerning the presence and leading of God in your life, you will probably talk about some experience, perhaps a time of deep emotion.
It is important to be honest with your director. Your willingness to be vulnerable and completely honest may be one the biggest factors in how much you benefit from a director. Spiritual directors have a strict policy on confidentiality. You should be able to trust your director. If you do not feel you can trust him or her, you should find a new director.
Other Spiritual Direction Resources
Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction by David Benner
Spiritual Direction And Meditation by Thomas Merton
Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith by Henri Nouwen