What is Spiritual Direction?
Does the regular, busy, anxious person in the church know what it feels like to soak in the loving gaze of God?
What is it like to “be still, and know”?
What does the movement of the Spirit “guiding me into all truth” feel like?
Spiritual encounters, in my experience, are extremely intimate and difficult to articulate, especially in a conversation with those who may have never experienced such movement, or perhaps experienced it differently. I don’t know many people who share these sorts of spiritual experiences with anyone on a regular basis, yet what a resource they can be to grow in faith and love for God!
The goal of Spiritual Direction
The ministry of Spiritual Direction, or Soul Care, while new to many Evangelical churches, is in fact an ancient practice of the Church. As Gordon T. Smith explains in his book Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving and Receiving Direction, the focus is always to “direct the thoughts and the movements of our hearts toward God and the presence of God in our lives.”
Rather than the sort of “direction” we receive everywhere else in our lives – at school, home, church, work – where we are directed what to think, how to behave, how to feel about ourselves, others and God, the Spiritual Director holds space for the Directee to direct their focus to God, to speak with God and listen carefully for what the Spirit speaks in response. In my own experience, this practice leads me closer toward the heart of Christ, deeper into “glorifying God and enjoying him” as the shorter catechism invites.
Direction is a personal ministry; it is wisdom, guidance and encouragement for this person who is on the way, seeking to grow in faith, hope and love. As each of us walks the spiritual journey we need good teaching and preaching, we need to be in the company of others, serving and being served, worshipping together, but we also find much value in Spiritual Direction as the counterpart to these group ministries. Spiritual Direction makes the diverse ministries of the church personal and individual. It is the ministry of attention to one person. This person is able, during direction, to give purposeful, focused attention to the state of their own soul.1
The role of the Spiritual Director
The time spent with a Spiritual Director, usually an hour once a month, is time held sacred to quiet myself to listen deeply for what the Spirit of God, who lives in me, is saying to my own spirit as I recount how I experienced the movement of God/Jesus/Spirit in my life; where I felt the closest and most distant from God (also called “Consolation and Desolation” by Ignatius of Loyola). It is a space where I can safely examine the uncomfortable, or even fearful, emotions and reactions experienced in day-to-day life as they relate to my spiritual journey.
A Spiritual Director is trained to listen with total attention to the person receiving Direction, referred to as the Directee, asking contemplative questions – often echoing those asked by Jesus himself in the Gospels. The Directee, in response, is frequently invited to direct their questions and comments directly to Godself, holding before the Almighty the doubts, fears, questions, accusations, wonder, and all other human emotions experienced in this holy life God has given us. While we certainly spend time in silence with God on our own, the benefit of a Spiritual Director is that they are trained to look and listen for things we may not see or hear ourselves, like a coach or ”Midwife to the Soul.” A Spiritual Director helps us make sense of the witness of the Spirit, helping us ask and respond to the question, “How is God present to me and how is God, through the ministry of the Spirit, at work in my life?”1
Within the hour of Spiritual Direction, silence holds great value, as the Spirit of God and the Directee do the heavy lifting. As a Director I have witnessed others experience the Presence of God in new ways, sense God’s invitation to them, and feel with their physical senses the love and acceptance that God offers his children in abundance. These are wondrous experiences, to be sure, and invigorate a person’s relationship with God.
Diving into deeper reflection
At times a Directee may notice, upon verbalizing a response to a contemplative question, that they didn’t realize they thought/believed/felt this way! Indeed, the question Jesus asked to Martha, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:21), is one a Director may ask to invite deeper reflection on how our professed and operative beliefs compare to one another. This, in turn, invites further contemplation and dialogue with God. Spiritual Direction involves much communication – prayer – with God. The Director also may ask questions of the Directee about their experience in their personal times of prayer.
Spiritual Direction is but two things: assisting the other to make sense of their experience of Christ, and assisting the other to make application of the Scriptures to their specific circumstances. But it is important to stress that Spiritual Direction is not merely the applying of biblical principles to daily living; rather its power and impact is that we are making sense, director and directee, of the dynamic and immediate presence of God in our lives.1
This is a ministry that cannot happen in a Sunday service or even within the safety of a caring life group. It is an intimate process that benefits from being led by someone who has experience and training in Holy Listening. Yet what fruit it produces as an individual is provided the space to be attentive to the work of the Spirit in their lives, growing in spiritual discernment, as well as in faith, love and hope! I would enthusiastically recommend the discipline of receiving Spiritual Direction to pastors, elders, leaders, and anyone who wants to deepen their experience of the very present and active Spirit in their lives!
Jocelyn R. Plett is a wife, mom, former missionary and Kerith Retreats guest. She trained as a Spiritual Director through the School of Sustainable Faith’s Winnipeg-based program. Jocelyn writes occasionally at www.buriedlongings.wordpress.com and can be contacted there.