Spiritual Direction. It’s an odd term. It refers to a practice in which one person tends to another as a companion for the spiritual journey. The “direction” aspect of “spiritual direction” is what makes the term awkward. A wise spiritual director doesn’t direct anything. At best, an experienced spiritual director may make some observations about what form life is taking for the other. But someone shouldn’t be giving directions or advice.
Some people have tried using other words for “spiritual direction.” There’s spiritual friend, spiritual companion, spiritual coach or advisor, spiritual teacher …. all of which have their own problems. Conveying the dynamic of this process seems to elude all of these terms. It’s similar to trying to define spirituality itself: as soon as it’s defined, it becomes obvious that something is missing.
I don’t know when the English term “spiritual direction” was first used. In all my study, I’ve not been able to find a reference for that. But the actual process is found in every great religious tradition.
My understanding of the practice of spiritual direction is rooted in the Eastern Christian tradition. In the Eastern Christian tradition, spiritual direction traces its origin to the third century of the Common Era. At that time, the fathers and mothers of the Christian contemplative tradition sought refuge and quiet in the Sinai desert. From them emerged an understanding of what we today call spiritual director. The person regarded as a father or mother, abba or imma, was a person known for living a well integrated spiritual life. Others would seek out the wisdom of the father or mother. More often in small groups, but sometimes individually, the father or mother would offer perspective about the path of the spiritual journey. This process was understood to be one of healing.
Unlike many other approaches to spiritual direction common today, spiritual direction in Eastern Christianity is primarily known as the healing of the soul. Affirming that each person is at heart the image and likeness of the Divine, soul healing is meant to remove all obstacles that prevent the person from living fully in consonance with the Divine spark that animates each of us. From this perspective, spiritual direction isn’t just about prayer and spiritual practices or a set of exercises. Spiritual practices and disciplines do have merit in that they enable us to live into the truth of the inner light we carry. But the process of healing, of returning to wholeness, is the focus of spiritual direction. Healing and wholeness are the result of turning toward and reorienting ourselves to (Greek: metanoia) the Divine presence in us. In this process, every aspect of life is refocused to enable us to manifest the Divine light, to be transfigured into the image of God we were created to be. Healing is a movement toward integration from all the ways we each lead lives that are imbalanced or off-target (Greek: hamartia). This healing doesn’t come in an instant but is a process of growing into greater balance and harmony throughout all of life.
When I meet with others as a spiritual director, either in my study or by way of Skype, any aspect of life may be part of the conversation. For example, some people explore how the spiritual direction of life can be better integrated with work and career while others explore living compassionately in our complex world. In these conversations, my role is not that of a counselor or psychologist who identifies problems and establishes goals to solve those problems. Instead, my role is to be a reminder to return to the simple perspective of how the spiritual dimension of a person’s life gives form and shape to the other aspects of life. While only the person seeking spiritual direction can come to that kind of integration, it’s often helpful to have another ask questions or share perspectives on the process of integration. That’s what the fathers and mothers in the Sinai did when people sought their counsel.
While the spiritual dimension of my own life is rooted in the contemplative tradition of Christianity, many of those with whom I work in spiritual direction don’t share that same background. While some are Christian, some are Buddhist, and others describe themselves as spiritual but not religious or humanist. The metaphors for the integration of the spiritual dimension of life with the other aspects of life may differ because of our beliefs and practices. Yet, the essential process of healing the soul, of journeying with another along the process of wholeness, is very much the same.
Today, there’s a wide variety of perspectives on spiritual direction. Some follow a particular approach to prayer and spiritual practice, like the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, and others use psycho-spiritual tools, like the Enneagram. My approach is one of integration and is rooted in the tradition that understands spiritual growth and development as a process of healing and wholeness for all of life.
© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.