“From the earliest days God has given members of our Society the calling and gifts for the ministry of spiritual direction.” (Rule of the Society: Chapter 30.)
The ministry of spiritual direction is very rewarding. The exercise of this ministry is for me a deeply humbling experience and one which I never take for granted. As the Benedictine writer Matthias Neumann put it, “It is an immense responsibility to take on the guidance of human lives, especially the sifting, discerning, and supporting of the inner-most secrets of hearts.”
In the monastery here in Cambridge we have several rooms set aside for spiritual direction. Many of the brothers meet with individuals regularly, perhaps once a month, over several years. We also offer directed retreats where we welcome a person to spend a few days with us and give them the opportunity to meet with a brother several times during their stay. At other times a person will ask to meet with a brother just once in order to receive guidance about a particular issue in their life with God.
So what exactly is spiritual direction? First of all, spiritual direction is not the same as therapy; nor is it counseling, where the focus is more on solving problems or effecting better personal integration and adjustment in the growth towards human maturity. So what is it? I like the definition of Jean Laplace who defines spiritual direction as “the help one person gives to another to enable them to become themselves in their faith.” It is a “gifted presence to help a gifted self emerge.” I also appreciate the words of Shaun McCarty SJ, who writes that this ministry “calls for a reverence for the mystery of the other person and genuine hope for the ‘more to come’ that is in him or her. Through the real presence of one to the other, the presence and power of God can be better discerned.”
As I have exercised this ministry over the years, I have found that the most important thing for me is to be always aware of this very real presence of God, the ‘third person’ in the room. This stops me from anxiously trying to ‘solve problems’ or offer ‘clever’ advice! It is much more helpful to truly listen to the other in a very deep way, and then to help them to listen more deeply ‘with the ears of the heart’ to God’s word in their lives and in their prayer. For this reason, the term ‘director’ can sometimes be rather unhelpful, and another term such as ‘companion’ can better express what is really going on in good spiritual direction. The ‘director’ is not a teacher, nor a savior, nor a therapist, but rather a ‘companion’ – one who literally ‘breaks bread’ with the other. It is about simply ‘being’ with the other in the presence of the Lord; watching, listening, responding, and being available for them.
As you read this, you may sense that you would like to receive spiritual direction yourself. You may be longing to deepen your response to God in prayer, or you may be at a significant place of discernment in your life, and you may well value the gift of a spiritual companion as you seek clarity and the inner freedom to move forward and embrace life in a new way.
You may also sense that you have the gifts to exercise this ministry yourself. In either case you may find it helpful to read further, and there are certainly many books on this subject. I have been particularly helped by two books published by Cowley Publications:
Holy Listening: the Art of Spiritual Direction by Margaret Guenther, and
Trustworthy Connections by Anne Winchell Silver.
Spiritual direction is a wonderful gift and ministry and we brothers can testify to its power to open up wells of living water deep within us. As our Rule puts it, “Our spiritual directors help us enter into the truth which is Christ, uncovering our illusions, and guiding us to explore the freedom for which Christ has set us free.”