A Starting Point on Spiritual Direction

I am an explainer and a storyteller. What that can mean, as many who know me well can attest to, is that many times, when asked a question that I feel needs some context to understand, my answer can be long and seem convoluted (kind of like this sentence…). I’m not a bullet-point kind of guy (although I have gotten a little better at this over the years, to the relief of my family and friends…).

Why do I mention this? Well, I am a spiritual director (and have been for 13 years), and I want to frame the reasons why I have a hard time giving a succinct answer to the question, “What is spiritual direction?” I would like to share a few quotes by authors and spiritual directors that provide a starting point for understanding / dialogue:
“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 one presents to the world, and to bring out one’s inner spiritual freedom, one’s inmost truth, which is what [Christians] call the likeness of Christ in one’s soul.  This is an entirely supernatural (spiritual) thing, for the work of rescuing the inner person from automatism belongs first of all to the Holy Spirit.”
“Spiritual direction is, in reality, nothing more than a way of leading us to see and obey the real Director — the Holy Spirit hidden in the depths of our soul.” – Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, USA (both quotes)
“We define Christian spiritual direction as 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, SJ and William J. Connolly, SJ, Center for Religious Development, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
“The greatest teacher is silence. To come out of interior silence and to practice its radiance, its love, its concern for others, its submission to God’s will, its trust in God even in tragic situations is the fruit of living from your inmost center, from the contemplative space within. The signs of coming from this space are a peace that is rarely upset by events, other people and our reactions to them, and a calm that is a stabilizing force in whatever environment you may be in. God gives us everything we need to be happy in the present moment, no matter what the evidence to the contrary may be. A good spiritual director helps us to sustain that trust.” – Father Thomas Keating
A little over 2 years ago, I was approached by my pastor and our Synod to consider being trained as a Discipleship Coach (a program that is also referred to as From Promise to Practice or FP2P). Being unsure what this was, I asked for and received some clarification from several parties. This was helpful, as my first default visualization of the word “coach” was a picture of the famous football coach Vince Lombardi going after one of his players.

Vince Lombardi

Vince Lombardi

 Needless to say, that was unnerving. Certainly not my idea of my own or any else’s journey as a follower of Christ! Fortunately, I was completely wrong in that visualization, for which I am thankful.

While there are a few differences between spiritual direction and discipleship coaching, the role and call are really the same:
  • The role of the directee or person being coached is first of all to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s movement in your life, calling you to a deeper, closer relationship with God, but desiring someone to “walk with you” and help you to pay attention to what God is doing
  • The role of the director (I prefer spiritual companion or friend) or coach is to be that person. It is a calling and a ministry.
From a more Lutheran perspective, consider the baptismal covenant for what the life of a disciple looks like:

Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism:
                to live among God’s faithful people,
                to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
                to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
                to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
                and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth? (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 236)
RESPONSE:  We (I) do, and ask God to help and guide us (me).

We know that baptism is not a “one and done” thing. It shapes who we are every moment, as there is no moment when we are not held and helped by God. This world, however, is constantly a-swirl and confronts us with confusing and conflicting messages and scenarios. Remaining mindful of God’s Presence, aiming to be intentional in our relationships and actions, is a real challenge. Discerning what our next move is, how to handle the good, the bad, and the ugly every day and not feel like we’re completely lost (or even just neutral…) is hard.

There can come a time when it would be just plain helpful to have someone we could get together with pretty regularly and be able to go over what’s going on your life. Spiritual direction, or discipleship coaching, is NOT counseling or therapy. In spiritual direction, the relationship is about the person “in direction” and God, and how that’s going. The director is there to “notice” and accompany that person along the way, being helpful and aware of what God is doing, especially if the person is kind of in the middle of it all and is trying to make sense of it. This is NOT a hierarchical relationship (God is in control, not the director!)!

One last thing to mention: this is NOT a new thing. While the most popular example of guidelines given for spiritual direction are the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (written around 1524), the descriptions of Jesus serving as a mentor to his disciples, Paul mentoring Timothy and Titus, and John Cassian (4th century) providing some of the earliest direction guidelines show a long history of this ministry and role in the church. It has been more visible in the past 50 years as Christians have become more and more attuned to their desire to deepen their relationship with God and the Spirit has responded through the church by drawing more and more people into this ministry and role.

Spiritual direction, among many, many other topics, is an area of interest for me and I intend to share how this has changed my way of being and what my ongoing experiences are like. Thanks for sharing this with me.

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