A reflection by Trevor Miller
I recall during a visit to Ireland reading in the vestibule of the Franciscan Church in Killarney, a simple definition of spiritual direction. It was the notice said, ‘not about giving answers. It was about helping each other to hear the voice of God in life’s experience and to discover God’s plan as it unfolds.’ This latter expression about the ‘ongoingness’ of the journey, about discoveries yet to unfold is what differentiates spiritual direction from pastoral counselling. Although pastoral counselling can in some cases develop into an ongoing need, it is generally a one off compassionate attempt to bring healing and consolation to a ‘now’ situation. Spiritual direction is a conscious and deliberate attempt to accompany another on the ongoing journey of faith as a fellow traveller. It follows that spiritual direction needs an ongoing commitment to the development of a spiritual friendship, so as to help another to interpret life’s experiences in the context of prayer and seeking God.
We are all blind to our own failings and often build defences around our fragile egos, so that it sometimes helps to have another person whose walk with God we respect sharing our inner journey. Someone who accepts us as we are, and who, through their own vulnerability, is honest enough yet gentle enough to help us discern our motives and actions.
This is why anyone who is committed to spiritual growth and the deepening of their own relationship with God can accompany another in their spiritual walk. In one sense ‘spiritual directors’ cannot be trained as the ability is a gift of God’s grace but the gift can be fine tuned by training, study and the trial and error of actual experience. This alone brings the wisdom and discernment needed to be a true guide.
To find a director needs time, an openness to God in prayer, asking that the Lord will reveal someone to you whose spiritual walk you respect. You then ask them if they would explore the possibility of walking with you on your journey.
Thomas Green in his book ‘The Friend of the Bridegroom’ (Ave Maria Press 2000) lists six criteria for choosing a spiritual director. They are
Compatibility – someone you feel comfortable with and who is on the same wavelength.
Shared Vision – someone who believes in the value of prayer and discernment.
Objectivity – someone who can maintain a healthy detachment without being emotionally distant.
A Good Listener – someone who can listen to the heart and the movement of God beneath the externals.
Confidentiality – someone who can respect the trust placed in them.
The sixth criterion Green states is an ideal but not essential – that the Person be someone who is ahead of you on the journey.
This is not to encourage an elite guru mentality from either side. Nor must they assume an authority they do not have or insist on another following their tradition as the only way. This is why the term ‘director’ can be misleading. It has overtones of a spiritual traffic policeman popping up at the crossroads of our lives and directing us left then right. This is simply wrong. God is the Real Director and the spiritual director assists the seeker in uncovering and discovering the direction of God in the person’s life. The best spiritual companions are those prepared to listen to our personal story, who encourage and affirm us in our faltering steps towards Jesus and who, when we are unsure or indecisive, help us to discern what God wants of us in the ordinary circumstances of our lives. One of our Community mentors, Roland Walls, a much loved and busy spiritual director for over fifty years, always insisted that he had never given anyone a direction in his life. It is an exploration, with suggestions and minimal advice, of the person’s prayer life, their self-awareness, and their sense of vocation and whether they have a pattern to their days that encourages spiritual formation.
It is not the name but the function that matters. While it is true that there is some confusion over the difference in emphases of spiritual direction, soul friends, mentoring, discipling, these are surely of minor importance when compared with the task they all have at their heart which is to encourage growth in the spiritual life, increased longing for God and the imitation of Christ.