Spiritual Direction For Today

When Christians speak of spiritual guidance, there is an underlying assumption that the true director or guide is God - or, as they might say, the Holy Spirit. The human guide or so-called director is simply a companion, a friend, an enabler, or in Margaret Gunther's splendid word, the spiritual director is a midwife. A midwife is important, but the real work is done by the mother-to-be, or in this instance by the directee, who is learning to be open to the guidance of God.

However, spiritual direction has not been a part of every Christian tradition. The Protestant strand, with its concern for the immediate access to God by every individual, without the mediation of a priesthood, has often been cautious of spiritual direction, seeing it as human interference between God and the individual. And where direction has been predominantly by clergy and at the same time dictatorial, or keeping a person in perpetual infantilism and dependency, that suspicion has been justified.

But at its best, the tradition has been less hierarchical. It is perhaps worth noting that in the non-directive style of the present day, the Quaker movement, the most resistant of all denominations to anything which might undermine the idea of the Divine Light within, has in considerable measure come to see spiritual direction as a very real path to growth, since the so-called director is not a director, but an encourager and an enabler.

For centuries it was considered that to have a director was only a matter for clergy, for religious and perhaps for a small elite. In my own Anglican tradition, although there was provision for sacramental confession - for the majority, the Bible and the rubrics and text of the Book of Common Prayer would probably have been seen as the basis for the average lay person's spiritual growth.

But today we see a desire for spiritual companionship by more and more lay Christians, and not simply clergy and religious. Indeed, my own belief is summed up in the title of my first book 'Spiritual Direction for Every Christian'. If I were writing that book today, I'd entitle it 'Spiritual Direction for Everyone'.

Alongside this development of a wider appreciation of the value of spiritual direction has come the parallel realisation that many lay people make excellent spiritual guides. This is not an entirely new phenomenon. The obvious lay candidates from the past might be people like Evelyn Underhill or Baron von Hugel, but we now see lay people from all denominations being sought, and trained, as spiritual companions.

This has two important consequences. Firstly, in the past, with spiritual directors being primarily clergy and religious, the director would have been seen as an official representative of the church, with a teaching role being a part of the task of direction, at least in the early stages. Ideally, the teaching role would be a part of the formation process, but would have been a temporary phase. Today, however, all those lay spiritual companions cannot in the same way be seen as official representatives of the church and indeed, may well themselves have heterodox beliefs. Or to take an extreme example, it is not unknown for a Christian to have a Buddhist spiritual companion.

I think that this is all to do with our recognition that everyone has a spirituality, but not everyone has a religion. By spirituality I mean the deepest experiences, the deepest values, the deepest beliefs by which a person lives. Even an atheist or agnostic will have a spirituality, those deepest experiences and values by which they live. And this is the area with which we are primarily concerned, with experience rather than with doctrine. Not everyone has a religion, not everyone is attached to an organisation with a shared body of beliefs, though having a spiritual companion may well lead an outsider to consider joining a church.

This is all leading us to the second important consequence of having many lay spiritual directors. The first, we saw, was that the director was not necessarily seen as an official representative of the church.

The second consequence of having lay directors follows, I think, from a widespread shift towards personal freedom ñ an aversion to being ordered around or being told what to believe. For centuries, the church taught dogma - 'this is what you should believe' ñ and only then, under careful guidance, came a possible interest in our experience of God and exploring varied paths of prayer.

Today, for many the order is reversed. Firstly, to have our spirituality, our deepest experience, our own apprehension of God respected and honoured: that is to say, the primary work of the director. And then only secondarily, the question of religion - how might these experiences be helped further by one or other of the great world traditions of religion?

In one respect this is taking us back to some of the earliest sources of Christian spiritual direction, the desert fathers and mothers of the 4th century in Egypt. Here was no scholarly, book-centred tradition. Many of the monks were illiterate. Rather, here was a spirituality of the heart, not of the head. People who flocked to consult the desert fathers and mothers were not looking for scholars: they were looking for a holy person, whose own closeness to God would respond to the searcher's own growing awareness of God, their own experience of God. This is why we sometimes find in some areas of church hierarchies, a suspicion of spiritual direction - nowadays the hierarchy has no control over it, and people are free, if they choose, from clerical domination.

This may at first suggest an unhealthy privatisation and individualism - me and God. But the test of a true spirituality lies in its outcome, 'By their fruits you shall know them'. Just God and me is a bogus spirituality. A true spirituality will result in growth and in service in the world, in corporate involvement ñ not just in corporate worship, but in service.

This brings me to another interesting development: until really quite recently, when a person visited their spiritual director, the agenda would probably have been confined to discussion of the directee's prayer life, their attendance at public worship and perhaps a rule of life - study, service, use of money.

Indeed, for many in the Catholic tradition, the only one-to-one relationship they might have had would have been in making their confession, which led to an unhealthy concentration on sin to the exclusion of discussing that person's giftedness and talents and their use of God's gifts. All negatives and no positives. Today has come a much clearer recognition that God is the God of all creation and that in the final analysis nothing is totally secular. If our eyes are open, we can discern something of God in every body and every thing.

So it comes naturally within the boundaries of spiritual direction today to ask where God may be in our relationships, in our work situation, our hobbies - where is God in our concern for the natural world? And politics have a spiritual dimension. Thus the boundaries of spiritual direction have enormously expanded as for many the corporate experience of God may lie less in going to church and more in service alongside others in the world and in discerning the hand of God in the world of Monday to Friday.

So far I have concentrated more on the present than on the past. Where spiritual direction has been at its best there may be discerned over the centuries a true continuity - that recognition of God as the only true director, with a valuing of the experience of the directee so that he or she is not pushed into a single tradition or path of prayer, but rather is helped towards what may be the most helpful path for that particular person at that particular time. At best, the director is seen, as the great St. Bernard believed, more as a friend, and certainly not as an autocrat.

That, of course, is what spiritual direction at worst could become - an authoritarian director, usually a priest, who kept his directees in a permanent state of infantile dependency, often pressing on the directee the tradition of prayer followed by the director, whether appropriate or not and often with a heavy concentration on sin and confession.

But more recently what I think we have seen and are seeing, is what I would call a democratisation of spiritual direction. The change has happened because for long periods in the past the clergy were among the few educated people. They also had, at many times in the past, enormous power. It was therefore hardly surprising if the clergy all too often saw themselves as somehow superior. Indeed, it is often held that the church has been at its best when it has been weak and at its worst when it has been powerful. Authority and control all too often went with power, rather than using that power to give people freedom.

However, with the passage of time, vast swathes of the population have become as educated as the clergy, and in many cases more educated and (one has to say it) not infrequently more intelligent. It is hardly surprising that the voices and knowledge and experience of educated lay people will be listened to, and that there is an increasing reluctance to be told what to believe: rather, the beliefs and traditions of the church will be accepted to the extent that they resonate with that person's most profound experiences, 'This is true for me'.

At the same time, while there has been some very sick and selfish and self-centred spirituality. I think there has also been a more general rejection of spirituality as being, in that famous phrase, 'the flight of the alone to the Alone'. Rather, the world of physics and biology and cosmology has re-affirmed the truth of John Donne's equally famous phrase, 'no man is an island to himself'. We live in a world where everything is connected to and interdependent with everything else, a world of systems.

Good spiritual direction will foster this sense of interconnectedness by encouraging each of us to live our lives in harmony not only with each other, but in harmony with the natural world to which we are connected, and in the corporate service of all. It is this which makes the privilege of spiritual direction. so rewarding and worthwhile.

by Gordon Jeff