What is Spiritual Direction?

by Jeff Imbach

The contemplative journey is too hard and too dangerous to do alone. It’s too counter-cultural to sustain, too much of an upstream swim to make it if we have to do it on our own. Throughout the history of the church, spiritual direction has been one of the ways this need for companionship in the contemplative journey has been met. St. John of the Cross says that everyone who seeks to go deep into their souls needs a spiritual director. And David Benner, a contemporary writer in the field of contemplative prayer, puts it very bluntly when he says, “If you are making significant progress on the transformational journey of Christian spirituality, you have one or more friendships that support that journey. If you do not, you are not. It is that simple.” (Sacred Companions, p.16).

So we need to have companions that walk with us, listen carefully to us, care for us with compassion and tenderness. They also call us to honesty about our lives – the good and the bad – and they help us live out of our deepest truth. This is the very heart of contemplative companionship or spiritual friendship. David Benner says further, “A soul friendship is a relationship to which I bring my whole self, especially my inner self. And the care that I offer for the other person in a soul friendship is a care for his or her whole self, especially the inner self.” (SC, 15).

This deeply personal and compassionate care for another is at the heart of all spiritual direction. Spiritual direction is not about controlling another person or getting them to fit into a program or ideal. It is not about giving direction or advice. It is about helping people find the direction that the Spirit is moving in their life at the present time.

When describing spiritual direction, we at SoulStream describe Spiritual Direction as:
The simple gift of sacred Presence offered to
another providing a gentle but tenacious
encouragement to open fully to God’s
loving Presence and to co-discern
with that person God’s activity
in every aspect of life.

Perhaps a bit of explanation can help you feel comfortable with what you are getting into when you contemplate spiritual direction. Here are some things that are crucial to spiritual direction which might be of assistance.

The Gift of Presence

As the description above indicates, the very heart of spiritual direction is offering the gift of sacred Presence. Nothing is more important than to help us discover that God’s Presence is a loving and listening Presence. A director listens first and foremost without judgment, without anything other the encouragement of love that God offers each of us at our deepest center. This implies that there does not have to be great wisdom involved or even great expertise. It is after all a very simple gift. It is the gift of Presence that gives us the encouragement needed to take another step on the journey of discovering God’s loving initiative and invitation in our lives.

It is gentle because we are all shy souls standing at the edge of the clearing like deer. We want to go out into the meadow and find full nourishment, but we are afraid to be that exposed. It is tenacious because, no matter how much we long for intimacy with God we are all afraid of it, and we will often will do anything to get out of actually facing into what is in front of us and entering into intimacy with God on God’s terms rather than on our own terms!

Engaging Relationship With God

In the Grandparent of all modern books on spiritual direction, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, William Barry and William Connolly offer a great description which focuses on engaging relationship with God rather than getting more knowledge of God. Here is what they say. “Spiritual direction is concerned with helping a person directly with his or her relationship with God.” They go on to elaborate, “In Spiritual Direction the person is not encouraged so much to understand relationship with God the lover, but to engage in relationship, enter into dialogue.”

This gets at one of the great essential elements of spiritual direction. As you go for spiritual direction, you may not know what to expect or what to talk about. You may wonder how your spiritual director will listen to what you are saying.

A spiritual director should be interested in only one thing really – how you are experiencing your relationship with God. Is anything happening in the relationship? And how are you responding to what you experience in that relationship? As Barry and Connolly say, the issue is really about the twin questions: who is God for you and who are you for God these days?

What method of prayer you use, or what Scriptures you read last week will be of interest only in the way that they begin to tell the unfolding story of God’s active Presence in your life and your response to that Presence.

Opening Up to Love

The first great movement in spiritual direction is to open up to God’s tender and persistently offered love for us, regardless of how well or how poorly we seem to be doing. God’s love is the very heart of our life, the very breath of our existence both physically and spiritually.

We seem to live with so many difficult and destructive images of God, images that shame us and intimidate us. It is a true delight to watch a person begin to experience and to trust God’s ongoing and faithful love for them that will never leave or diminish. The light begins to dawn and life begins to flow in a whole new way. Fear begins to recede into the background and we begin to breathe the fresh air of new beginnings and new possibilities.

Both in our society and in the church we have been seduced into believing that it is all up to us. We have to perform, achieve, produce, control and preserve in order to make sure we have life. That becomes a tremendously burdensome life. Finally, something in our experience – some crisis, some growing hunger – helps us see that this illusion isn’t working any more. We long for acceptance, an identity that is given and cannot be achieved, and a Presence that will stick with us through thick and thin.

This is precisely what God’s loving Presence is all about. And it is the first part of the journey in spiritual direction. Spiritual direction gives us the opportunity and encouragement to begin to engage our relationship with God and to find out that God is unmanageably loving. God is already at work in our lives. And God is willing to go to our deepest, darkest places and stay with us and offer us the love that gives us living hope in those dark and often shame-filled places.

A 14th Century poet put it so simply and powerfully in his poem, The Sun Never Says.

All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe

What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the

Discovering God in the Ordinary

The description above implies that God is in the business of meeting us in the details of life. We are called to discern the movement of God in us in our family life, our vocational experience, our recreation, and in our moments alone.

In the introduction to another great book on spiritual direction (Holy Listening by Margaret Guenther) Alan Jones says, “the art of spiritual direction lies in our uncovering the obvious in our lives and in realizing that everyday events are the means by which God tries to reach us.”

Many, many times people come for spiritual direction, settle in, and then tell me they have nothing much to say this time. What they mean is that they have not thought through a topic they want to discuss or they do not have a problem that they want resolved.

That doesn’t matter. Spiritual direction is not about discussing topics or resolving problems anyway! Spiritual direction is about looking into the very ordinary experiences of our lives to discover the ways that God is coming to us and wanting to love and renew us.

Recently someone came to a spiritual director I know and said, “Well, I don’t know what to say. I don’t go to church. I don’t pray much. I don’t seem to have much of an intimate relationship with God.” The director offered as an alternative, “Instead of looking for God in all the places you think you should find him and feeling like a failure because you don’t go there very often, why don’t you look into the experience of life as you are living it and see where God might be coming to you and offering relationship with you in the life you are already living?” It was a great reminder that God shows up in the obvious and that spiritual direction is about looking for the ways God is showing up rather than looking for the ways that we think we are building a spiritual life.

Radical Reorientation

Opening up to God’s intimate love for us gives us the ground and the strength we need to face and find healing for our wounds, our illusions, our compulsions, and the ways we block or distort God’s life in us. Thomas Merton once wrote, “the whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a person’s life, to get behind the façade of conventional gestures and attitudes which he presents to the world, and to bring out his inner spiritual freedom, his inmost truth, which is what we call the likeness of Christ in his soul.” Another writer suggests that spiritual direction involves “the radical reorientation of the whole person, down to the roots of one’s being.”

These two descriptions emphasize that spiritual direction is not about giving advice. It is not about having significant conversations. Nor is it about helping people feel satisfied with mediocre Christian experience. Spiritual direction is about helping us face the deeply engrained perceptions and habits we have that separate us from ourselves, from God and from others. It is about coming to a deep freedom so that we can live openly within the complex circumstances of our lives with a free and hopeful sense that God will be present and will give us what we need.

So when you think about going for spiritual direction you might want to think something like this:

If I had someone…
who lived with humble integrity;
who believed in me, who had experience with brokenness and with healing, and the journey of prayer;
who cared about me and had confidence in me, and who would respect the graced uniqueness of my own journey;
who would not answer my questions but invite me to focus on opening my heart to Jesus in the midst of my life experience…
What would I want to say?

As you are able to answer that question you realize that you are at the heart of spiritual direction. That is what spiritual direction is about and that is what it will entail as you go. I bless God’s faithful and tender love in you on the journey!