What is Spiritual Direction?

What is Spiritual Direction? 

Spiritual direction is “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.” (William A. Barry and William J. Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction).

This succinct summary highlights a few of the most important aspects of spiritual direction:

    1. It is about paying attention;
    2. It is about listening to, and interpreting, God’s unique self-communication with each person;
    3. It is an ‘enabling’ practice; and
    4. It is about learning to live out the implications of our deep and intimate relationship with God in the concrete reality of our world.

So, spiritual direction is not only beneficial, it is also consequential.

But ‘direction’ is probably a somewhat ‘misdirected’ word. It is much less about directing than it is about accompaniment. A spiritual director in the Ignatian tradition accompanies a person in their efforts to perceive and interpret where God is present and active in her/his life. An Ignatian spiritual director does not create a relationship between God and their directee, they foster and nurture the relationship that already exists. It is that personal relationship with God that is experienced affectively through prayer. So, it is not about counselling, and it certainly does not attempt to resolve a directee’s personal problems. Of course, through the encounter, challenges will be faced, and issues brought to consciousness, but only in the context of the relationship between God and the directee; if healing happens, (and it does!), it is God who heals. Therefore, as Barry and Connolly observe, spiritual direction in the Ignatian tradition explicitly acknowledges what is often only implicit in other forms of pastoral care:

that the directees’ desire for more life, more integration, more union with God is grounded in the indwelling Spirit and that God is an active Other in the relationship. The working alliance is thus grounded in mystery and explicitly acknowledges that the way, too, is mystery.
(William Barry SJ & William Connolly SJ, The Practice of Spiritual Direction)

People are usually surprised at how immediate and intimate their experience of God becomes when they share their experience with a skilled director. A spiritual director is first and foremost a listener – she/he is one who listens with their head, heart, and gut for the presence of the Spirit in the other’s experience. The director is an interpreter, a sounding board, an attentive companion, a consoler – but never a ‘fixer’. You can never expect a spiritual director to solve your problems, but you can expect them to lead you sensitively to the One who can carry your burdens and bandage your wounds. A competent and well-formed spiritual director can help another become aware of the ways they might respond generously to God’s promptings in his/her life. In other words, they assist in the task of discerning well.

So, the director and the directee work together in a spirit of cooperation and mutuality for a common purpose: to explore and deepen the directees relationship with God. The director explores experiences, hopes, and desires, and helps tease out their implications. Janet Ruffing offers a very apt metaphor to illustrate the dynamic of spiritual direction:

Spiritual direction is like panning for gold. A directee comes and together we dip into the stream of their life and pull up all kinds of things. Rocks of all sizes — I can never guess what’s coming next — all kinds of conflicts and problems, then all of a sudden, some fleck or nugget of pure gold emerges into view in the bottom of the pan as we swirl the water around, emptying out the rocks. (Janet K. Ruffing, Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings).

Almost all who have experienced spiritual direction begin to recognise God’s presence and grace in their life – they begin to recognise and appreciate the nuggets of gold!

Read More: Spiritual Direction: Orientation, Relationship, Process