Spiritual direction is an ancient tradition. It has existed in Christianity from its earliest times and also has iterations in other major religions. What is spiritual direction, and why is it a practice for the people of our times?
Spiritual direction is a discipline, like fasting, prayer and other practices that are meant to lead us to greater intimacy with God. The Church has encouraged the faithful to humbly seek the support of the community in the spiritual journey, and so this practice has grown over the centuries. It’s roots are in the early Church. The desert fathers and mothers helped each other by giving counsel, and this has been recorded in the Life of St. Anthony and other tomes, like the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The practice is generally to meet regularly on a monthly or quarterly basis. During these sessions, a “director” who has experience on the path of prayer and who has received training, listens to the “directee.” The director must be fully aware that this contemplative listening carries an attitude of growing understanding of how God is acting in the life of the directee. This respectful listening is a prayerful calling on the Holy Spirit to be present—“where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst”—and to inspire the conversation in order to guide the directee to better understand God’s action in his or her life, to follow God’s will more faithfully, and to grow in humility and service.
Why is spiritual direction an important practice especially for our times? In earlier periods of human history, people tended to stay in the geographical area of their birth. With the exception of nomads or those fleeing famine or natural disaster, folks stayed put. There was also more stability in the work life too: one did what his father did, and his father before him. Women were mostly concerned with the work of the home and children, which was no small feat, and often included the production of many items we can now purchase, such as clothing and food. People lived simply. Life was stable and static, both geographically and in terms of identity.
Today, people live in a state of flux. We are more likely to face change and have to negotiate important decisions about where to live, where to work and where to worship. We travel as a matter of course and are exposed to information at a rate incomprehensible to our forbearers. We are vitally aware of people and events that take place around the globe. We are in touch through social media and exposed to many potentially good, but also some unhealthy things. In the midst of the moving torrent of today’s social reality, how do we keep grounded, self-aware, knowing who we are and what is our calling in Christ?
Modern life challenges us to actually go deeper, to be more discerning and to sort out among the many choices presented to us, what will help us grow humanly and in our faith life. The literal meaning of the word “discernment” is sorting. St. Ignatius counsels us: to know the inner movements of our hearts so that we may distinguish between that which is of God and that which is of our own ego, a worldly spirit or of “the enemy of human nature” (his term for the devil). The purpose of discernment is so that we may embrace what leads us closer to God.
Spiritual direction helps keep us grounded, connected to who we are in the eyes of God. If a flood is coming, a tree with deep roots can stay in the ground, but one with shallow roots will be uprooted and carried away with the tide. So today, followers of Christ must go deeper, to live their faith at this intimate level. As the late Bishop Sheen used to say, we have to go against the current…
Copyright 2013 Julie Paavola