I’m finished with two of the three years it takes to become a certified spiritual director through the FinD School for Spiritual Direction and Formation, and as I talk to people about spiritual direction, one question I get asked is “what is spiritual direction?” That’s a very good question. So many of us are divorced from this ancient practice, that we don’t even know how to think of it.
First, a word on what spiritual direction isn’t. Spiritual direction isn’t counseling. Spiritual direction isn’t a place where one gets help from sever emotional distress or trauma. Spiritual direction can work really well in conjunction with counseling, but it shouldn’t ever be used as a replacement for counseling. A competent spiritual director should be able to guide us into counseling if that is what we need.
Spiritual direction can be seen in the Bible. In some real ways, Jesus’ relationship with the disciples was one of spiritual direction. Barry & Connolly, in The Practice of Spiritual DIrection, define spiritual direction as being “concerned with helping a person directly with [their] relationship with God.” They define the underlying question in spiritual direction as “Who is God for me, and who am I for God?” If we look at Jesus and the disciples, I think we can see this underlying their relationship, too. In Matthew 16, Jesus asks who they think he is, Peter declares he’s the messiah, but Peter then pretty quickly demonstrates he doesn’t fully understand what that means. It takes him until after he denies Jesus thrice and gets forgive thrice that he comes to a good understanding of his answer to that question.
Presumably none of us will have access to quite the level of spiritual direction Peter did, so what does it look like in a contemporary setting? If our primary concern in direction is the directee’s relationship with the Divine, then it is the role of the director to help facilitate that relationship. As Barry and Connolly put it:
[Spiritual directors] offer direct help with [the relationship between the directee and God]. Teaching, preaching, and moral guidance are not the proper task of spiritual directors. Their task is to help people experience God’s action and respond to God. Fostering discovery rather than teaching doctrine is their purpose.
Spiritual directors are facilitators for a relationship. It is not their place to convince or convert anyone. In those times when the Divine feels distant, a good spiritual director will sit with us in that pain, and comfort us with the knowledge that it is temporary. As people go through faith shifts, spiritual direction is a wonderful place to talk about how the directee’s relationship with God is changing. Especially in situations where we feel like we can’t talk to our faith community about the changing relationship. Directors and directees can easily be from different denominations, because the spiritual director’s role has nothing to do with our denominational infighting.
I have, hopefully, answered the what of spiritual direction, but I need to address the how. Typically, a session of direction will start with silence or a short prayer, the directee will mostly lead the discussion, and it lasts about an hour. The director might offer up new spiritual practices, might lead the directee through some creative practices, engage in dream-work, or any of a number of other exercises, with the primary goal of each to further dig into the question “Who is God for me, and who am I for God?” These sessions often, but not always, take place inside of churches, though in a garden, or even a coffee shop can be appropriate. Also, it is important to find a good fit with a spiritual director. Like in all relationships, some pairings are going to lead to greater flourishing than others. Some directors charge modest fees ($50 for an hour is the largest I’ve heard of so far), and some provide their services for free or on a sliding scale. Do not let money be the barrier to entering direction. There are numerous highly qualified directors who will provide their services free of charge.
It is a good idea to make sure any potential directors are certified though Spiritual Directors International. Certified spiritual directors are going to be trained in how to properly deal with any issues that might arise and are going to be held to an ethical standard. Any of the information a directee shares is strictly confidential. In my experience, even the fact that someone is even in direction is strictly confidential. Some churches will offer up “spiritual direction”, but the person they use is an untrained, uncertified member of the congregation. I would highly recommend avoiding such a situation. If you live in the USA, there is a good chance your local Episcopal parish has a certified director they can connect you with. The Roman Catholic Church also will have spiritual directors, often from monastic orders, who will happily help any and all. And, of course, SDI has a good tool for finding a spiritual director who is a good fit.
May we all be continually be growing into a more full answer to the question, “Who is God for me, and who am I for God?”
Bart Hennigan has a Master of Public and International Affairs degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He completed Sewanne's Education for Ministry and is pursuing certification as a spiritual director through the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. When not reading or discussing philosophy and theology, Bart is a stay-at-home father of three, which has taught him much about patience and the importance of silence.