During the last three decades, spiritual direction has gained a surprising currency in Christian circles. Many more people, both Protestant and Catholic, know about it, and many more than in previous decades are engaged in it as directors. Moreover, where once the great majority of those who sought spiritual direction were Catholic members of religious orders and seminarians, and the great majority of those who gave spiritual direction were Catholic priests, today there is diversity.
Today, Protestant ministers and Catholic priests, lay men and women, religious sisters and brothers serve as spiritual directors, and more lay people come for direction.
Not only are more people, and people of more varied backgrounds, looking for and giving direction, but also there has been in the past five years a remarkable increase in discussion of spirituality and spiritual direction. Workshops and courses on prayer and spiritual direction designed for priests, ministers, sisters, brothers and seminarians have become more available.
Training programs for spiritual directors and service centers for spiritual direction have been established in a number of places. A steadily increasing number of articles and books on prayer, spirituality and the art of spiritual direction is very different from the late 1960s and earlier when such books, workshops and training programs were unknown.
Spiritual Direction and Moral Guidance
As I have come to understand it, spiritual direction differs from moral guidance, psychological counseling and the practice of confessional, preaching or healing ministries (though having affinities with them) in that it directly assists individuals in developing and cultivating their personal relationship with God.
I do not propose that spiritual direction is a necessary means for growing in spiritual life. Nor do I propose that it is always helpful. I suggest only that direction be judged by people’s experience of it and not simply on a priori grounds.
If the experience of direction markedly helps people to be open to the living God and to life, then I hope that experience will be allowed to contribute to the Church’s understanding of direction and of the whole field of spirituality.
‘On the Way’
We may better understand some of the elements of spiritual direction and the role of the director by reflecting on life as a pilgrimage and likewise on the spiritual life as being “on the way.” In using the terms “companion” for spiritual director and “pilgrim” for the person in direction, we more readily acknowledge that the Lord, the director of life’s pilgrimage, does send companions to guide us, yet leaves pilgrims free to follow the way or not to follow it.
The companion can also be imagined as a free person who is chosen to be Christ’s. He attends to the needs of the other, the pilgrim, with the quiet strength of a servant of the Lord, with that humble power, dignity and sense of purpose which are the concomitants of such service.
Called to be a ‘sacrament’
In this way the companion is called to be a “sacrament,” a visible sign of the Lord’s presence, manifesting that the Lord really loves through his relationship with the pilgrim he accompanies. The companion is alive to the sometimes anguished concerns of the pilgrim. At times he will make a mistake in the discernment process and yet be able to trust that the Lord will make even his weakness to be strength for the pilgrim.
In similar fashion, the companion need to reverence the spiritual freedom of the pilgrim. He must do what he can to foster this freedom and the personal responsibility that goes with it. He does not foster the pilgrim’s dependence on him, but only dependence and trust in the Lord Jesus who is the way.
A constitutive element of spiritual direction and a principal function of the companion is to question the pilgrim about the spiritual movements he experiences in affectivity or thought. The questioning is directed toward the objectification of religious experience with the possibility of a deepening of faith and the establishment of constancy in values permeated by God. This questioning will be conducted in an understanding and compassionate way by attending to the pilgrim’s strengths rather than prompting him toward a destructive introspection of his weaknesses.
As well as talking on the way, the companion may invite the pilgrim to write a pilgrimage “journal.” It is not necessary for the pilgrim to hand over the journal unless he finds it especially helpful to do so. If he communicates the significant entries in the record of his experiences on the way, this will suffice. In this manner, the gradual progress of each stage of the journey may be seen while maintaining perspective with the help of the companion, and divergent pathways can likewise be noted.
Danger on the Path
The closer the pilgrim becomes to the Lord on the way, the more aware he will also become of paths that can lead him away from the Lord. At each consultation, the companion will try not to walk too far ahead of the pilgrim. Otherwise the pilgrim may be tempted to use a “mount” (an easy way, instead of patiently plodding along) to catch up. Furthermore, he may be tempted to use the “mount” as a guide.
As they “walk in the Spirit,” the pilgrim and his companion will find themselves on unknown paths. They should not be surprised to find Abraham’s path to be their own, sharing in the experience of moving into ambiguity.
This will provide the companion with the opportunity to point out that God works in everything, and that following the road-sign which reads: “To the City of Less Security” can bring with it the awareness that the special presence of the Spirit can be expected to be found along that way. There will be continued learning for both pilgrim and companion in the recognition of what is possible to do together to find the Spirit’s movement in their lives and to recognize the Will of God.
FATHER SINGARAYAR, S.V.D., a member of the India Mumbai Province of the Society of the Divine Word, writes from Sara Vikas Deep mission house in Mangaon, Maharashtra, India.