By Amelia Stratton-Smith
The world is in great need of healing. Nearly two years into the global pandemic, our spirits and social well-being need attention as well as our physical health. We have more technological communication than ever before, yet many feel isolated from traditional social structures. New patterns of distraction and multitasking disrupt meaningful interpersonal exchange, while soundbites replace depth and a sense of mutuality. The practice of spiritual direction may be uniquely suited to address our present moment.
With roots in Christian monastic traditions, spiritual direction has become more accessible in recent decades, with training programs honoring diverse faith traditions. It is a ministry of hospitality that invites the guidance of the Holy Spirit, seeking to find deeper meaning within the beautiful and messy realities of our particular experience. This focus distinguishes it from clinical psychological therapies, which generally focus on problems with the aim to fix or improve functioning through counseling.
The God who is revealed through the Abrahamic traditions seeks to know and be known by human beings and is fundamentally relational by nature. Only by growing in knowledge of ourselves and our inner workings, and our relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers, can we come to any understanding of the Mystery we call God. New insights and understanding emerge in the space between us, and the intentional framework of a spiritual direction relationship supports such exploration.
Some practitioners prefer terms such as “spiritual companioning” or “spiritual friendship,” to avoid the misperception that any authoritative steering takes place. Instead, the relationship seeks to provide a safe, respectful, and confidential space for individuals to explore divine presence at work in their lives. During periods of crisis, psychological counseling can be an effective complement to spiritual direction, while each discipline performs a different role.
The person seeking guidance on their spiritual journey is traditionally called a directee. However, the spiritual director does not impose theological beliefs or agendas, trusting God’s presence to reveal itself through a person’s own interests, perceptions, and wisdom. An incarnate God meets us in the particulars of our own embodied experience, and any aspect of life may provide content for reflection. Spiritual directors will listen for themes that emerge from four main categories of experience: interior thoughts and feelings, interpersonal relationships, a person’s social structures and organizations, and a person’s relationship with the natural environment.
Contemplative listening practices set spiritual direction apart from other relationship patterns and caregiving models. Starting with the intention to listen for God’s presence, pauses of silence make space for new insights or understandings to emerge. The spiritual director will use minimal prompts, briefly repeat the directee’s own words for emphasis, or paraphrase what they’ve heard to draw out the directee’s own inner wisdom. If direct questions are posed at all, they will be open-ended and non-leading. Over time, the quality of gathered awareness that spiritual direction cultivates will show up in all our relationships.
The Guidelines for Ethical Conduct established by Spiritual Directors International set appropriate boundaries to preserve the dignity of all participants. The director is accountable for “establishing and maintaining appropriate physical and psychological distance” and “recognizing the imbalance of power in the spiritual direction relationship and taking care not to exploit it.” Personal preference and circumstances will determine whether participants in a spiritual direction relationship interact with each other in other areas of life, which requires careful attention.
Chaplains are uniquely privileged – and burdened – to encounter patients and their families at some of the most difficult and potentially lonely times in their lives. It is a privilege to stand on sacred ground with people facing ultimate reality, to share the vicissitudes of mortal life and the search for meaning. The most significant quality we bring to these encounters is our capacity for full attention and grounded presence. A spiritual director helps deepen our relationships with the source of vitality and meaning.
Amelia Stratton-Smith, MTS, is a spiritual director, writer, and artist in Rochester, NY. She has a diploma in the art of spiritual direction and is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Blythe, Teresa. Spiritual Direction 101: The Basics of Spiritual Guidance, Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2018.
For more information about spiritual direction see the website for Spiritual Directors International: https://www.sdicompanions.org/
Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, published quarterly https://www.sdicompanions.org/media/presence/presence-27-3-september2021/
If you are interested in finding a spiritual director or training programs to become one: https://www.sdicompanions.org/find-a-spiritual-director-companion/