written by Dr. Peter Spychalla, Assistant Professor of New Testament & Spiritual Formation
Contemporary Christians from diverse traditions—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—are showing increasing interest in spiritual direction, the ancient art of soul care in which one believer helps another prayerfully attend to God. I consider myself among the novices seeking to get acquainted with spiritual direction and take initial steps into its foothills. In official, formal, and hierarchical expressions of this ministry as practiced through the centuries, the human helper, usually experienced and gifted in guiding others, is referred to as a spiritual director. In less-official, less-formal, largely-mutual relationships pursued among contemporary believers, the human assistant may be referred to as a sacred companion, a soul friend, a spiritual companion, or a spiritual friend.
What is spiritual direction? What is its aim? How is it pursued? Spiritual direction is an ongoing process of reflection, prayer, and conversation in which two believers prayerfully attend together to the presence and workings of God in the contours and vicissitudes of the life of one of the believers (the directee) so that she or he might grow in awareness of God and intimacy with God and respond more fully to His invitations to live in grace, wholeness, and holiness. Let us consider five important elements of spiritual direction.
The Holy Spirit – The Holy Spirit, rather than the human helper, is the true Spiritual Director. It is the Holy Spirit who leads, guides, instructs, forms, and invites the directee into greater attunement, closeness, and responsiveness to the Loving, Living God. Prayerful attending to God is pursued in the presence of God, by the enablement of God, in communion with God, in dependence upon God, with openness to God, for the love of God, seeking the pleasure and glory of God, seeking greater intimacy with God, seeking greater response to God, seeking discernment from the Living God. Through and through this process of holy listening and discernment is a spiritual (Holy Spirit) activity.
Accompaniment or Companionship – Each of us can use help in attending to the presence and active work of God in our lives. The directee invites a soul friend (a spiritual director) to be a prayerful, discerning companion on the spiritual journey. This ministry may be called spiritual accompaniment or spiritual companionship. One joins with another to pay attention to God. The director shows love, acceptance, and affirmation by being fully present to the directee. The director helps the directee become more attuned to God’s presence and working by asking gentle and thoughtful questions, such as, “Where is God in this?”
Holy Listening – Prayerful attention is at the heart of spiritual direction. Without it, there simply is no spiritual direction. This is a posture of open, prayerful attentiveness to God which reflects the response to the Lord modeled by the young boy, Samuel, “Speak, for Thy servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10), and of Mary, “who was listening to the Lord’s word, seated at His feet” (Luke 10:39). The directee and director give themselves to holy listening, individually and jointly. The directee prayerfully pays careful attention to God’s presence and workings in the midst of life’s experiences, both within one’s own soul and all around through relationships, roles, callings, decisions, and circumstances. The director likewise prayerfully attends to all that the directee shares and reflects upon, as well as to the directee’s relationship with God, and their joint conversation about the directee’s life. Together, the two spiritual companions partner in prayerful listening to God during their time of reflection, prayer, and conversation.
Discernment – Spiritual, relational, and inner heart dynamics in the life of the directee are reflected upon in light of God’s heart, character, instructions, invitations, and promises revealed in His Holy Word. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern and affirm what the will of God is, that which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Opportunities, choices, and decisions are discerned in keeping with the counsel of the ancient prophet: “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16). The directee and director together seek to discern the presence of God, workings of God, and invitations of God in the life of the directee in order that he or she may live more completely in His grace, abide more deeply in Christ, and live out more fully God’s callings. Wise discernment often involves Ignatian reflection on consolations and desolations in the movements of the directee’s soul. Christ invites each one to true spiritual rest in Him: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My load is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).
Transformation – The aim of the ministry of spiritual direction is for the directee to draw near to the Living God and be more fully transformed, inside and out, into all that God has called them to be in Christ. The directee seeks to grow in awareness of God and intimacy with God and respond more fully to His invitations to live in grace, wholeness, and holiness. This ministry of the care of the soul aims at the cure of the soul, nurturing it toward health, wholeness, and vitality. This is to be more fully conformed to the image of Christ.
In summary, spiritual direction crucially involves the Holy Spirit, accompaniment or companionship, holy listening, discernment, and transformation. If this ancient Christian art of soul care interests you, consider joining us this summer at Urbana Theological Seminary for a journey into the foothills of spiritual direction in the course “Spiritual Direction and Soul Care.” We will adopt the posture of young Samuel, “Speak, for Thy servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). We will seek to learn how to prayerfully attend to God together.