Two men were walking towards the town of Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were discussing animatedly about the events of Jesus’ claims, his death, and reports of his resurrection when a third man joined them. This man explained the significance of the events through the Scriptures. During the evening meal at Emmaus, the two men recognized the third man as Jesus! (Luke 24:13-33). They were enlightened both by the dialogue and Jesus’ explanation of the Scriptures until they feel their hearts burning within them. The Truth turned their despair to joy when they beheld the risen Christ.
Spiritual direction is this Emmaus walk where two (or more) disciples through dialogue, Scriptures, and discernment are led deeper into God’s revelation of Himself by a third person. This third person is the Holy Spirit whom Christ sent in his place when He ascended. The true spiritual director is the Holy Spirit. In our present context, a human spiritual director is one of the disciples on this road who helps the other disciple to hear correctly what the real spiritual director, the Holy Spirit, is saying to him or her. The human spiritual director’s role is not to counsel or offer advice but only to help the other disciple or directee to hear what the Holy Spirit is speaking into his or her life. Unlike counselling which focuses on the resolution of a specific problem or pastoral care, or of a specific situation or life event, spiritual direction focuses on helping the directee to hear what God is saying to him or her. Spiritual direction is hence useful for those who have major life decisions to make, or those who want to deepen their spiritual relationship with God. It involves prayers, dialogue, silence and stillness, listening, and discernment.
Spiritual direction is an intrinsic part of the Christian tradition. Throughout the ages, it may be known by different names such as ‘one anothering’, spiritual guide, spiritual father or mother, and mentoring. Jesus as recorded in the Gospel is the spiritual director par excellence. He helped his disciples to grow closer in their relationship with God. The role of the spiritual director became more established in the early church in Acts; Ananias and Paul after his Damascus experience, Barnabas and John Mark, Paul’s decision to turn to Macedonia in his missionary journey, and Paul’s pastoral letters to the churches. When the church became institutionalized in the 3rd Century, the Desert Fathers and Mothers moved out to the deserts of Syria and Egypt in order to be closer to God in these barren wastelands. Though initially they were solitary hermits, the Desert Fathers and Mothers were soon sought out by those who seek a closer relationship with God and they became spiritual directors to these seekers. A community soon grew up around these spiritual directors. These became the site for the great monasteries.
When the Latin and Greek speaking churches split in or around 1054, each tradition continued with spiritual direction enshrined within it. The Greek Orthodox tradition offered spiritual direction as a part of community life, whereas the Latin Roman Church restricted spiritual direction to its clergy and the elites of its Orders. When the Protestant churches split from the Roman Church during the Reformation, about 500 years ago, the Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin incorporated spiritual direction into their new churches. The practice of spiritual direction remains strong in the Orthodox and Roman Churches while in the Protestant churches, it declined with the rise of evangelicalism. It has been experiencing a revival since the middle of the Twentieth Century when evangelicals began to realize that talking to God is more important than talking about God.
The heart of spiritual direction is our relationship with God. Our relationship with God involves our spiritual formation and transformation into being Christlikeness. There are three dimensions in our relationship with God. The walk to Emmaus and dinner revealed how Jesus formed and deepened the personal relationships of the disciples with God (person-in-formation). This is the first dimension. The narrative did not end there. They rushed back to the other disciples- in their community- where Jesus appeared amongst them (Luke 24:33-45). This is relationship at a communal level (persons-in-community formation), the second dimension. The third dimension of the relationship with God has to do with the mission of God which is to redeem the world and save the lost souls – the missio dei (persons-in-mission formation). Relationship with God involves being involved with his mission because the disciples are the witnesses (Luke 24:46-49). Helping a person in spiritual direction means helping the person through the Holy Spirit to develop these three dimensions of our relationship with God. God has always been working to deepen our relationship with him. Unfortunately, we are often not aware of this. The role of the spiritual director is to help the directee to be aware of God’s presence in his or her life and what God wants to do to deepen that relationship.
The role of spiritual direction in soul care or the nurture of the spiritual life in Christians mainly involves two major categories. One is in significant life event decision-making and the other in seeking to deepen our spiritual life. In life, we are often faced with making important life changing choices. These choices are not the choice between good and bad. The decision here is obvious. It is often between good or better in the light of God’s call on our lives. These are difficult decisions to make. The human spiritual director comes in to help the person making the choice to discover his or her underlying motivations through prayers and dialogue and also to help spiritually discern the leading of the real spiritual director, the Holy Spirit, on the matter. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises is a major influence on spiritual direction decision making. It was originally written for Jesuit novices to discern their calling to join the Order and its monastic vows. It is a manual for a 30 days retreat where the retreatants are led to make their decision by a series of structured exercises involving prayers, self-examination of self and emotions, with the help and discernment of a spiritual director. The modified Spiritual Exercises is still in use by spiritual directors and its principles still remain valuable today.
Many people have found spiritual direction useful in deepening their spiritual life especially in a life of prayers. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila are two interesting examples. They took turns to give spiritual direction to each other as they progressed in deepening their spiritual lives. Most Christians lead very superficial spiritual lives. God has invited us to jump into his depths and to experience a deeper life in Christ. Soul care work is not easy. We will meet the ‘dragons’ of our shadow self as we peel away the layers of our false self to find our true self. It may be disturbing and scary. This is where spiritual directors are very helpful. They journey together with us and teach us how to slay these dragons! The spiritual quests and dwellings which make up the movements of our spiritual lives are also movements of the Holy Spirit. Jonathan Edwards and John Woolman are two examples of spiritual directors whose writings offered profound insights into the deepening of our spiritual lives.
Spiritual direction is an important part of soul care together with spiritual friendship, mentoring, disciplining, coaching, counselling and pastoral care. The present day Church needs a deeper spirituality in Christ. There has been increasing interest in spiritual direction in the Protestants and evangelical churches. With the rapidly interconnected world, spiritual directors and directors do not need to be in the same room or even the same continent! This is a positive development if spiritual direction is to be available to a Twenty-First Century Church who is hungry for spiritual depth.