Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Perspectives on Spititual Direction

The purpose of this posting is to offer a reflective review and analysis of two books by Margaret Guenther, The Practice of Prayer (1998), and Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction, (1992) . I think it proper to begin with an observation that applies to Guenther’s books in particular. In no way can I say that I have encountered a satisfactory definition of the term spiritual direction. I am left with the sense that it is a bit like quality art. We cannot really define it, but we know it when we see it. Is that satisfying? No.

Nevertheless, after reading the books and considering the evidence, I must admit it to be the case. When Guenther struggles to convey what she speaks of when talking of spiritual direction, she is not playing semantic games. It is an enterprise (?) truly defying definition. She is clear that spiritual direction is not psychoanalysis. It is not pastoral counseling. It does partake of characteristics of both. Yet, it is different. Guenther stakes out her ground on this when she speaks of the role of self-disclosure in spiritual direction.

After carefully reading both books, I think that I would define spiritual direction as listening to and helping to create a story. The role of story seems to jump off the page and encounters me as a very necessary and central element in spiritual direction. It is the role of the spiritual director to help the directee tell his/her story. In fact, if I understand where Guenther is coming from on this one, the director becomes a very real and essential part of the story himself. He or she has a role to play in moving the story of faith along.

Another image that comes to mind is that of the Bedouin rover in the story of the patriarchs. They are always on the move. From the start, however, where they are moving to is quite another matter all together. It appears that it is the journey more than the destination that spiritual direction is concerned with. In that respect, it is about caravanning together.

Therefore, what then, is spiritual direction presented as something directionless? Hardly. It is a missional activity that concerns itself with the journey into ever greater wholeness (sozo=salvation). It is the task of the spiritual director to listen carefully and sense when the story of salvation in any individual life is at a pivotal point. When is a new phase on the horizon? In dealing with simplicity and prayer, Guenther moves our attention to the transitory nature of this life as a motivation to simplify. We are all going down that same road.

In terms of a listening spiritual director and a movement onward, this aspect of my life and future is not far from me. Being in the throes of midlife as I am, I think that a proper listening to my story needs to hear the echoes of anxiety, and meaninglessness, and fear that realization often engenders. That is my pivotal point in many ways. I look back, question the worth of it all, and wonder what and how much lies ahead. This type of careful listening is at the heart of holy listening. We all need someone who can listen to us carefully and discover where that cutting edge of growth is for each of us today.

There can be no canned program of holy listening. Spiritual direction is always individual. It is always the unique story that we are all writing at any given time. For aFor many the great difficulty is right here. We cannot focus enough to listen meaningfully to another. We are just too preoccupied with our own agendas and concerns. As our minds drift, and our concerns move away from the setting, we may encounter serious problems. We might lose sight of the journey. Or, we might embellish what is said with our own undisciplined agendas. While a director will surely share his or her own journey from time to time, the focus must be on the one who has come seeking direction. This can be a well-neigh impossible task for some of us. We are just entirely too self absorbed.

Under the rubric of listening, it is helpful to consider Guenther’s notion of spiritual direction as a teaching event and of the spiritual director as teacher. This is very near to my heart. I am a professor, an education professor to be precise. I spend my days teaching pre-service teachers the intricacies of pedagogy. I am constantly reminding them there are two sides to teaching. There is that aspect of teaching which is rightly the domain of science. In this, I wish them their practice informed by research. There has been considerable research into best practice. Best practice might be defined as those practices that teachers engage in standing solidly on the bedrock of science. Best practice derives from meta-analyses of many studies- high quality studies. The conclusions are rather in the undeniable category. Few would disagree about such practices. Yet, for all of the textbooks on teaching, it seems that consistent, widely applicable evidence exists only for nine or ten practices. Of course, these practices are hugely important to teachers. They are well established and we ignore them at our peril.

Likewise, there appears to be a science to spiritual direction. The fact of such a book as Guenther’s on spiritual direction demonstrates that things having been learned over the years by trial and error are proven to possess wide application. The same may be said of prayer. In The Practice of Prayer (1998), Guenther provides information on methods, history, effectiveness, and so on. These things speak of science, of experimentation, of trial and error.

If the science is any good, it must be applicable. It must have application that transcends the one synthesizing the knowledge. If the science is worthwhile, it will bear the scrutiny of repeated testing and experimentation. If this science is useful, it should be able to contribute to a general theory of spiritual direction or prayer. That is indeed the case. Once again, the mere presence of books about prayer and spiritual direction indicate something of a universal nature is distillable.

However, I always tell my students there is another part to teaching. That part is pure art. It is not possible to ‘can it’, sell it, nor distill it. It cannot be set forth in ‘easy to follow’ steps. Here, we are in an entirely different domain. We are sloshing around in murky, mysterious, uncharted territory.

As a teacher educator, a teacher of pre-service teachers, I believe that I can teach the science to those who will apply themselves to learn. However, I cannot teach the art of the teacher. That seems to be something that one just ‘has’ or does not ‘have’. I cannot begin to count how many student teachers I have supervised that, finally, could not teach. They had excelled when I had them in my classes. They all showed promise. Nevertheless, the spark, the art, just was not there. Many have gone on to be teachers, principals, and superintendents. However, they never really had the art that engenders greatness. They lack the flow of creativity. The love, and hate and passion I might add, are missing. Art is not teachable. One may improve art-- if one already possesses it. It may be shaped, guided, and molded. Nevertheless, it is not something created. It is a gift.

I think that spiritual direction is like that. We can learn the science. We might get the highest grade on the test in Spiritual Direction 101 and still not work as effective directors. I think I might be in this category. I know lots about history and facts about spiritual formation. What I lack is that ‘something’ I find when I am talking with my spiritual director.

Guenther is right to make a distinction between spiritual direction and pastoral care and counseling. I am very good at those things. They are more directive, goal oriented, and often more short term. I do well at this because I am adept at pastoral psychology and truly care about folks. However, direction requires a perceptiveness I lack. It calls for a listening I cannot provide. It asks for a detachment (Guenther talks about this in some manner throughout) into which I cannot tap. I do not believe that all pastors are spiritual directors. I am aware that Peterson sees that as a main task of the pastor (see Working the Angles, 1987). I think his statements on this topic placed side by side with Guenther’s views on direction are very instructive at this point.

How? Simply by the way that the topic is approached. Guenther is much more in the tradition of the classical spiritual director. This is apparent when she cites so many examples from the classical forms of prayer in The Practice of Prayer (1998). Peterson seems to me to be speaking more of mentoring. At the heart of mentoring is friendship, respect, and mutual accountability (at least that is often the case). In the classic idea of direction, one must approach some relationship in ways that are reminiscent of asceticism. I do not see how anyone could really deny that Guenther is more in the tradition of the desert while Peterson is more in the tradition of a cup of coffee at Denny’s. My distinction may well be semantic, but it certainly works for me.

The art and science distinction loses something when it comes to prayer considered as something separated from direction. We all pray, in some manner. We see many types of prayers in the New Testament and maybe even more in the Old Testament. There is no real indication that effectiveness depends on the criteria of spiritual direction as stated here. Prayer is a discipline. As a discipline, it responds to scientific inquiry. However, it is also the desperate cry of the heart in a time of need. At those times, both art and science go ‘out the window’ and necessity says it all. God promises to hear. There has been far too much written in an attempt to make prayer into some sort of science. I think we can speak of the discipline of prayer in scientific terms. But the prayer of necessity? The prayer that is the cry of the heart? That prayer transcends any categories we may choose to apply to it.

It is clear when Guenther writes of prayer; she does so in the same vein (i.e. The science of prayer) that she applies to direction. The notion of the director as a teacher is a helpful one. In fact, I would venture to say that preaching is also an educational activity. In that respect, both spiritual direction and preaching are concerned with proclamation. They are concerned with spreading the good news of salvation, wholeness. One works through a proclamation of immediacy. The other works through discipline.

In The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (Kurtz & Ketcham, 1992), the topic of transformation as a process is addressed using the overall framework of Alcoholics Anonymous. One might argue that such a departure from the Christian tradition brings an element into discussion here that is out of place. Still, there is a wide tradition of spirituality from the educative direction. In 1902, James (1902/1962) articulated the varieties of conversion experiences. While noting that many are not of the ‘evangelical’ type, James does effectively delineate an experience of conversion that is more of an educative nature. Certainly, even those conversions that are dramatic and direct, such as that of Augustine, often contain a long educative process.

Applied to the spiritual director, we catch a glimpse of a conversion of an ongoing nature. It is the task of the director to use the science of direction, applied artfully, to achieve the desired objective: The transformation of the person.

Perhaps there is no time when a director is necessary more than those times when we must pray through devastation and desperation. In those times when God is conspicuous in his absence, the director’s task is to remind the directee that God is not truly absence. When God seems to have us on hold, we need someone whom we can tell of our aloneness without fear of being overridden. By the simple act of listening, a spiritual director can validate our feelings. In that respect, the director must often be detached and able to separate her agenda from the direction session.

My director tells me that she long ago discovered that one must talk at the feeling level if spiritual direction is to be of much use. My wife and I were presenters with United Marriage Encounter for several years. One of the points we always try to make when dealing with couples is ‘feelings are not right or wrong; they just are’. Since almost all of us tend to attach morality to feelings, where the attachment doesn’t fit, instead of boldly confronting when needed about actions and decision, where morality does fit, I firmly believe most of us would make poor spiritual directors.

There is a sense in which a spiritual director often fulfills the role of confessor. That is necessary and proper. Guenther describes a director sufficiently dispassionate that s/he can take in the feelings that make us human. This includes the pleasant nice feelings (of course, that is not so because feelings are amoral), but also the ugly and the frightening (or so we view them). She mentions the need to avoid being shocked. This is difficult but necessary if we are to validate the directee. Of course, this is ‘easier said than done’.

When you get down to it, about everything discussed in this posting is far ‘easier said than done’. I certainly do not believe that the completion of a program in spiritual direction will likely create a spiritual director. It is hardly that simple.

Maybe Guenther said it all in the title of her book. Spiritual direction is holy listening. Like all holy activities it deserves due reverence. As such, it is high calling. I do not think that a soul is a trinket to be trifled with. Jesus placed supreme value on the one lost sheep—the one lost soul. A spiritual director’s calling is to seek and be sought. It is a missional, outreaching task. I think it is something we all need. Maybe most of us just do not know it. We need a director to come along side, disclosing of him/herself as appropriate, and join our journey is a great gift.

For many the great difficulty is right here. We cannot focus enough to listen meaningfully to another. We are just too preoccupied with our own agendas and concerns. As our minds drift, and our concerns move away from the setting, we may encounter serious problems. We might lose sight of the journey. Or, we might embellish what is said with our own undisciplined agendas. While a director will surely share his or her own journey from time to time, the focus must be on the one who has come seeking direction. This can be a well-neigh impossible task for some of us. We are just entirely too self absorbed.


Guenther, M. (1992). Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Boston: Cowley.

___________ (1998). The Practice of Prayer. Boston: Cowley.

James, W. (1902/1961). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Collier.

Kurtz, E. & Ketcham, K. (1992). The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning. New York: Bantam.

Peterson, E. (1987). Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Grand Rapids: Eerdsmans.

No comments:

Post a Comment