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What is spiritual direction?

June 4, 2012


I remember the first time I walked into the office of my spiritual director and wondered exactly what the experience would be like. I had read books by leading Christian authors who mentioned spiritual direction, but I really had no working knowledge of what this spiritual discipline might involve. In fact, it remained kind of mysterious and it was this uncertainty that kept me on the outside for a long time.

Before I offer a definition for this ministry it might be helpful to clarify a misconception around the terms “spiritual direction” and “director.” These words feel authoritarian, as if the directee is being managed or controlled. However, “direction” simply refers to the end goal of time spent together – that the directee would have a sense of direction, insight, or discernment from God in her or his life. The director guides the process, but would never assume control. He or she functions as a spiritual companion. In the end, it is the Holy Spirit who directs, as together we listen for God’s promptings. Understood this way, the spiritual director acts humbly as God’s facilitator on behalf of someone who seeks to grow in grace.

Various definitions have been offered to explain spiritual direction. Eugene Peterson simply states: “Spiritual direction takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith.”

In The Practice of Spiritual Direction, a contemporary classic written by William A. Barry and William J. Connolly we find this: “We define Christian spiritual direction, then, 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.”

If we consider these and other definitions of spiritual direction, we discover two features are central to the nature and practice of this discipline.

First, it involves an attempt to listen to another person for the purpose of helping that individual recognize and discern God’s movement in his or her life. Listening to God, and to the other, is fundamental to the process of discovering how Christ is present.

Second, spiritual direction is primarily focused on the directee’s experience and not on ideas or speculative theology. The purpose of direction is to foster a more personal or intimate union with God, one that is relational in the fullest sense of the term. It is the inner experience or emotional awareness that become the framework for discovery together. Both of these emphases, one-to-one listening and personal experience will be explored extensively in the chapters that follow.

Henri Nouwen believes that spiritual direction can be defined as a “relationship initiated by a spiritual seeker who finds a mature person of faith willing to pray and respond with wisdom and understanding to his or her questions about how to live spiritually in a world of ambiguity and distraction.” I like those words… “how to live spiritually in a world of ambiguity and distraction.” We need all the help we can get if we desire to integrate our Christian faith in today’s world. Nouwen believes that a soul friend is critical if we hope to survive the challenges and questions that following Christ will bring.

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  1. Candice permalink

    Morris, as a current resident in a spiritual direction certification program I am so thrilled to have found your new blog. This particular post regarding spiritual direction gives an excellent explanation and description! Thank you!

    • Candice,

      Welcome! Happy to have you here. Glad to hear you were encouraged by this post. Thanks for sharing from your perspective.

      Thanks for your encouragement,

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