What is Spiritual Direction?

Spiritual direction is an ancient practice in which one person helps another to listen for the voice of God in his or her life. The first known spiritual directors were the desert fathers and mothers, the fourth century hermits often considered the first Christian monastics who lived in the Near Eastern desert and helped each other as they tried to live Jesus’s teachings. Spiritual direction has been a part of the Catholic and Anglican traditions for many centuries, but is now coming into more widespread, ecumenical use.

Spiritual directors generally meet regularly, usually monthly, with their directees. The meetings focus on the spiritual experience of the directee, and give the directee an opportunity to tell his or her spiritual story. In spite of their names, spiritual directors are not usually very directive; they do not press their own agendas and their focus is not on giving advice. Through prayer and contemplative listening, they try to help the directee listen to and experience the divine.

As a spiritual director, I specialize in working with people who are uncomfortable with institutional religion or who are affiliated with more than one faith tradition or no faith tradition. Often such people are quite isolated; even if they are involved in a faith community, they may feel quite alienated there, hovering on the margins. As they tell their spiritual stories, we listen together for where they are being led by God. We also look together at their images of God and the holy. Often we discover ways in which their images of God correspond to their alienation from communities. For example, they might be standing aloof from a judgmental God, afraid of an angry God, or hesitant to believe in God at all yet desperately longing for God. As this exploration process unfolds, often they find themselves more able to enter into some kind of community. We also look at ways in which they might be able to develop a more regular spiritual practice if they don’t have one. Where in their lives are they most likely to experience God or their own inner voice? In sitting quietly, in looking at art, in listening to music, in movement, in nature, in church? We talk about how to expand these parts of their lives where they are in touch with what is most meaningful to them. As they speak, they often realize that they know where they are being led. Their next step arises from deep within them, and we hear it together in our contemplative listening.

For information on how to find a spiritual director, go to Spiritual Directors International.

My friend and colleague David Frenette, author of The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God, offers spiritual direction to Christian contemplatives by phone, Zoom or Skype. Contact him here.

Spiritual direction in groups can also be a very powerful experience.  For spiritual direction work in groups, I recommend the Shalem method, developed by Rose Mary Dougherty.

I have also practiced spiritual direction by video, which can work well for both groups and individuals.

Suggested reading on Individual Spiritual Direction:

William A. Barry & William J. Connolly,  The Practice of Spiritual Direction. HarperOne 2012.
A classic on helping people develop a relationship with God.

Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Cowley, 1992.
A wise book on how to give others the gift of disinterested, loving attention.

Kenneth Leech, Soul Friend: An Invitation to Spiritual Direction. HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
Another classic about the deep spiritual friendship that is spiritual direction.

Anne Winchell Silver,  Trustworthy Connections: Interpersonal Issues in Spiritual Direction. Cowley, 2003.  This is one of the most practical books about the how-to of spiritual direction, addressing many of the issues and challenges that can arise with wisdom and clarity.

Suggested reading on Group Spiritual Direction:

Ed. Rose Mary Dougherty,  The Lived Experience of Group Spiritual Direction. Paulist, 2003.
Rose Mary Dougherty is a pioneer in developing spiritual direction for group use and this anthology explores many of its issues.

Suzanne G. Farnham et al. Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community. Morehouse, 1991.
This is a great book on how to recognize and define God’s call, individually but particularly in groups.