|Life today presents greater cause than ever for those seriously interested in the life of the Spirit to engage a director skilled in the art and wisdom of spiritual companionship.|
Thomas H. Morris is a doctoral candidate in Christian Spirituality at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. An instructor in pastoral theology at DeSales School of Theology, he is the author of The RCIA: Transforming the Church (Paulist Press, 1988). The person who wants to stand alone without the support of a master and guide, will be like the tree that stands alone in a field without a proprietor. No matter how much the tree bears, passers-by will pick the fruit before it ripens.
The person who wants to stand alone without the support of a master and guide, will be like the tree that stands alone in a field without a proprietor. No matter how much the tree bears, passers-by will pick the fruit before it ripens.
The virtuous soul that is alone and without a master, is like a lone burning coal; it will grow colder rather than hotter.
He [sic] who falls alone remains alone in his fall, and he values his soul little since he entrusts it to himself alone.
If you do not fear falling alone, how do you presume that you will rise up alone? Consider how much more can be accomplished by two together than by one alone.
– St. John of the Cross
ADVANCES in modern technology have opened new doors for us: the world is available to us at the turn of a knob on our television or radio, or the push of a button on our telephones.
Information pours in by the minute via teletypes and satellites around the world. We are truly an informed people. And yet we are also a very ‘alone’ people. The gift of advancement has been received with one hand open and one closed. The open hand has been the wealth of knowledge and content we have graciously accepted. Our closed hand has been the popularized notion of individualism, the ‘go-it-alone’ generation, the “I can (not ‘we can’) and will make it” syndrome. The closed hand has caused us sometimes to run, sometimes to fear, often to compete, and to assert our individuality despite the loss of standing together with others. While many believe we have come of age, it is more appropriate to say we have come to an age — one of isolation and aloneness. Life for many is meaningless and often results in some form of despair.
The choice for aloneness can be seen in many facets of life neighborhoods, working environments, schools. Many admit, “I don’t know the people who live on my street, who work with me.” Perhaps the most subtle form of aloneness, one many fail to recognize and acknowledge, is spiritual. People have privatized religion into a “God and me” relation — with room for very few others, if anyone at all.
Such a religious posture is dangerous. It robs faith of its dynamic role in building and encouraging community. And it adds to the isolation people experience. But hope is on the horizon. Especially since the Second Vatican Council, significant movements and developments in the Church have encouraged community, such as cursillo, marriage encounter, parish renewal programs, and the rise in interest in retreats. Another development has been the restoration of the role of the spiritual director, especially in the lives of lay persons. As new vistas open in the spiritual journey, people have come to recognize the necessity of traveling with another, of breaking through the aloneness of the journey and walking hand in hand.
Spiritual direction has always held a special place in the Christian tradition. Even the letters of St. Paul can be seen in the context of spiritual guidance and formation. People followed the great abbas and ammas of the desert tradition to receive enlightenment. Bands of men and women gathered around charismatic figures — Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Clare of Assisi, Dominic, Catherine of Siena, Ignatius, Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales — looking for direction, insight, hope for a deepened awareness of God. The same is true today. Men and women are seeking the face of God through supportive guidance and insight from those gifted for the journey, spiritual directors.
WHAT IS SPIRITUAL DIRECTION?
Christian spiritual direction (or accompaniment) is a dynamic and formative relationship in which individual directees or groups entrust themselves to a director — a gifted, authentic, and prayerful person who is honestly grappling with life. The spiritual direction process develops in an atmosphere of trusting vulnerability where the director helps the directee interpret and draw out deeper meanings from his or her life experience, thus helping them sift through experiences and come to a sense of life direction in dialogue with God. To be truly Christian, this process must be rooted in living tradition and inevitably invites one to surrender in obedience (i.e., active listening) to God’s gift of true freedom.
A QUESTION OF NEED
The Incarnation affirms that a primary center for the revelation of God’s Self, which includes God’s plan or will, is in and through the created world. This Incarnational perspective complements the creation tradition of the Hebrew scriptures, which affirms that the human community is created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). The fullness of this Imago Dei is both personal and communal: God’s face is seen not only in the individual, but also in the body of believers. Both dimensions are necessary.
An Incarnational anthropology thus recognizes the presence and activity of God within the person and the community. Such a presence is deeper than conscious awareness. God’s Selfgiven-to-us roots our personality, gently calling and forming us ‘into “sons and daughters of light.” It is, therefore, the primary source of empowerment for true freedom and human life (and hence, life-direction). Yet the reality of non-life-giving choices we have made, which are often subtle, makes us realize that we are not always sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and promptings. Often we choose to embrace life unguided, opening ourselves to deception and confusion. We fail to recognize the validity of another member of the community offering insight, counsel, challenge, and concern. John of the Cross aids us here: “God is completely satisfied that the guidance and direction of people be mediated through other people.”
The need for spiritual direction is thus rooted in the Christian belief in God’s continual Self-revelation to all people. Spiritual direction is not the privilege of the few, but an invitation for all to nurture this life-giving relationship with God. It helps us come to a heightened awareness of God’s gifting presence, which calls each of us to fuller personhood. Spiritual direction thus gives focus to all the areas of our life: Who is God for me in this? How do I experience myself in relationship to this God?
Spiritual direction is a dynamic process in which we are invited to explore more deeply the promptings of the Holy Spirit. As in all life, there is ebb and flow, intense moments and stirrings, crises and ordinary occasions. All these moments hold an invitation from God. Some require heightened awareness or attunement to the gift of life being offered. Therefore, the question of frequency of visitation with another in the spiritual direction process is a very individual matter. Some periods of our life that demand that we spend more time in direct accompaniment with a spiritual friend. At other times, we experience less the intensity that calls forth such a relationship and are able to “sit with” our life experience of God.
A DYNAMIC AND FORMATIVE RELATIONSHIP
The Christian tradition offers a wide variety of images and models of spiritual directors — father, mother, gardener, friend, mentor, companion, confessor, and guide. Such multiple and diverse images respect the wide variety of persons who are engaged in the spiritual direction process. Yet all of the images speak of some form of interpersonal relationship. The process of spiritual direction emerges within the context of relationship and not as a passive acceptance of information by the directee.
The image of a spiritual director has two important dimensions: our life experience and our understanding of a director’s role. Often such images reflect our previous experience of satisfying relationships of trust, respect, care, and concern with a parent, teacher, friend, or elderly person, for example. This positive experience helps us to recognize a relationship that is life-giving and supportive, offering appropriate challenge and feedback. Or an image may rise from a felt need at a particular junction in our life. Perhaps we need the fellowship of a companion or the strength of a parental figure or the sense of “learned insight” from a wisdom figure.
Another important dimension is how an individual views the director’s role. The primary director is God, who invites and directs life in all of us. God has already given the fullness of life to each of us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. We bear as a treasure the “already given” of who we are. But this is no static reality. Rather it is a dynamic invitation to come to recognize (i.e., to know again) the giftedness of who we are as created.by God. The process of coming to full personhood is a process of unfolding, of emergence that demands guidance but also nonjudgmental support. The role of the director in this process is important. For some of us, the spiritual director plays a key formative role, reflecting God to us. Images that suggest this are mother, father, confessor, guide, and mentor. For others, the spiritual director serves more as one who aids in the sifting of our life’s rich soil, offering insight and reflection, but always a holding a secondary role suggested by images of friend, companion, or gardener. The balance of this tension between God’s activity and the director’s role also reflects our previous life experience.
Spiritual directors also have images of their role and function in this process. It is important for directors to identify such images in order to approach their spiritual direction relationship honestly. Again, such images reflect the director’s own experience and perceived gifts. Some images of spiritual direction can be inappropriate and unhealthy — those of submission and dominance, images of the director as a “mouthpiece of God” (in a direct sense), “knowing it all;” and so on.
THE DIRECTOR: A GIFTED, AUTHENTIC, PRAYERFUL PERSON
The spiritual direction relationship is not a casual meeting of friends, though in such gatherings can glean much insight into the spiritual life. But spiritual direction is a particular kind of relationship. Not everyone is disposed to teaching, or administration, or pastoral intervention. The same is true for spiritual direction. While charity and good will provide a grounding for such accompaniment, the responsibility of spiritual direction necessitates that aspirants be qualified to serve.
Some may argue that being a spiritual director is a charism of the Holy Spirit, an office or grace in the Church, such as prophet, or presbyter, or teacher. One must at least recognize that a person is gifted by the Holy Spirit to serve in this capacity. Potential directors must have been (and must continue to be) willing to receive and develop the gifts with which God empowers them for the sake of the whole Body of Christ (i.e. the community). It is the discernment and development of such gifts that we need to address. What are these gifts, these qualities, which one seeks in another person called a spiritual director?
Certainly, one will look for different things in people depending on one’s particular life situation and life season. However, several qualities serve as a foundation for the spiritual direction process. We have already mentioned basic charity and good will as necessary gifts of a director. To complement these, a spiritual director must be committed to living life wholly physically, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually. In other words, holistic growth and development is vital. This is not to suggest that one ever arrives at full human living. Rather, the director is also immersed in the wonder-filled yet often painful process of receiving and responding to life as gift. One can neither pretend such commitment, nor preach it. The quality of authenticity and wholesomeness that rises from personal presence in the world serves as an indicator of this commitment. It need not be spoken; we know it and are drawn into it from a deeper level. Such a committed person will indeed be a wise person. For wisdom is the gift of living with a God-focus and seeing this quality in all of life.
The spiritual director must also be a person of prayer. Because he or she knows the struggle to articulate one’s own experience of God, they will have the sensitivity and care to walk slowly with another, knowing that the ways of God are rarely clear though always enriching. Such a director walks with a compassion that comes not from knowing the ins and outs of the spiritual life but rather from a dedication to surrendering to that very process. To complement this experiential dimension, a director needs to be informed of various academic disciplines that aid in the spiritual process: a good foundational theology, a healthy appreciation for the human sciences (in particular psychology), some exposure to a theology of prayer and spiritual development, some exposure to classical literature in spiritual development, and some basic listening skills with ,which one can facilitate another’s struggle to articulate his or her relationship with God.
One comes to an awareness of such qualities in the director’s life. It is not a question of quantity (age, years of study, and so on), but the level of awareness of God’s loving presence that indicates if someone is gifted for this particular ministry. A director is not someone who simply hangs out a shingle and seeks directees. Rather, such an individual is recognized by others (either officially or unofficially) who confirm the gifts with which God has empowered the director. The level of humble self-knowledge to which the director has come somehow sends out unspoken invitations to seekers who wish accompaniment on their spiritual journey. The director is a companion, a wounded healer, a pilgrim immersed in the paschal mystery, and above all, a person of prayer.
There are no qualifications for one seeking spiritual direction other than a personal desire to come to an understanding of God’s activity in one’s life. However, there are certain elements that create an atmosphere that facilitate and enhance the spiritual direction process.
1. Mutuality: The spiritual direction process is one of complementarity, of balancing, not one of dominance or submission. The directee comes to the recognition that his search for God elicits certain gifts from the director to facilitate that journey. An important time to discuss this quality of mutuality is in the initial meeting. The director can invite the directee to define what her expectations, concerns, needs, and wants are. Certain key questions, such as “What brings you to direction now?” and “What have been your previous experiences of direction?” complement this clarification. Mutuality is enhanced when the director contributes to this dialogue by offering his own concerns, expectations, and goals for the direction process. All of this may be reinforced through a covenant-contract, which may reflect concerns such as, among others, how often to meet, preparation for each gathering, time period for the relationship (e.g., six months), and date for process assessment.
2. Openness and trust: By fostering openness and trust in the relationship, the director helps the directee to be more vulnerable and self-disclosing. Various factors contribute, from the physical environment of the meeting place to the care and consideration exhibited by the director. In a caring environment, the directee is free to entrust her experiences, fears, hopes, dreams, and questions — all that contributes to the fabric of one’s life. An Incarnational theological perspective affirms the importance of all dimensions of life as being moments of God. The directee comes to experience the reverential respect given to her life by the director and therefore should become willing to further open areas of his life for deepened reflection. Another important facet of trust and openness is insight into self-deception. A director helps to bring focus, to raise the God-questions that a directee often fails to recognize. A directee needs to ask herself the hard questions when she chooses not to disclose certain areas or issues of life. Spiritual direction is not psychotherapy or counseling. However, the same “stuff” of one’s life needs to be raised and explored from the distinct dimension of the God-focus in order to come to know God’s stirrings. Such honest and frank disclosure also helps the director to situate the isolated moments of a directee’s life within the context of the larger story of life.
3. Confessional: There is a confessional character to the spiritual direction relationship, especially for the directee. However, P it is not to be confused with the popular and narrow sense of confession associated with the sacrament of reconciliation, usually a list of sins and grievances for which the penitent is sorry and seeks forgiveness. The focus there is on sinfulness. But the confessional character of spiritual direction is more in keeping with the root meaning of confessio: “to give praise.” Augustine’s Confessions are a good example of this richer understanding. The confessio is a deep recognition of our life (attitudes, orientations, actions), of true self-knowledge leading to the awareness of both our giftedness and our failure to be responsible for those very gifts. This posture is coupled with the reverent awareness of God’s forgiving and all-consuming love. This leads to gratitude, to thanksgiving, and to praise: the confession may be in the stillness of silence or may be given voice. In whatever form, the confessio is a sacrament-moment.
INTERPRETING DEEPER MEANING
The director has a hermeneutical role in the direction process. She should be open to receive the gift offered by the directee, to allow it to speak within the context of the individual’s lifehistory as well as to explore the invitations to a deepened sense of God and self, and then to reflect back such insights to the directee. Hopefully, this process will enable the directee to make connections, to address certain questions and issues, and to glean new insights. The director is not offering new advice or encouraging his own particular pattern of spiritual development. Rather, he listens to the deeper truths that emerge from the directee’s life, dreams, hopes, concerns, fears, and prayer. In short, the director is helping the directee pay attention to God.
One model of spiritual direction could be that of educator, not in the sense of passing on facts and objective truths nor as one who has the answers, but rather as one-who-draws-out. The gift of God’s life is already given. The one who knows best (perhaps in an unreflective manner) the story of her life is the directee. She can best witness to the deeper truth that grounds her personhood. The director helps lead one to such awareness by raising appropriate questions, connections, and perspectives that are always at the service of the rich love relationship that God has entered into with each and all of us. At times this may include some information-sharing (theological or psychological). However, the director must be careful not to change postures and suddenly become the answer-person or the lecturer. Any information given should serve the need of the directee and not the need of the director!
The director, then, provides the directee with some form of interpretation. The director observes the patterns being formed, the connections being made (or not being made), and suggests possible meanings in the statements or reflections of the directee. Indeed, spiritual direction needs the same care and patience as any other art. The director desires to free the directee from a myopic vision of his life in order to see the larger picture, to stand back in order to see the various colors, textures, and movements within the larger context of life. The director’s task is to help the directee to rewrite the story of his life — to explore God’s movement within the total weaving of life, and thus to come to a new sense of self in relationship to God.
The director approaches the life story of the directee with a sense of the sacred, since indeed God is the artist at work. Such a reverence demands confidentiality in order for the necessary trust to develop and be nurtured. At times, a spiritual director may wish to discuss issues pertaining to a particular situation with a third party (e.g., for further guidance or advice). But the director would violate confidentiality if the directee did not grant permission. A directee also has the right to be informed if a director is in some form of ministry-supervision that would include information from and reflection on their direction process. Perhaps the only time a director may seek counsel without permission from the directee is when the concern is totally the director’s feelings and when the story of the directee remains totally anonymous. What is essential here is honesty and confidentiality.
A related issue concerns the director’s keeping a log or notes. Such a log would be helpful in maintaining perspective and making connections. Directors who work with a number of people may also find such aids useful to keep cases separate. Reviewing the log prior to direction could also help the director prepare. Again, the issue of confidentiality is paramount. Notes should be cryptic enough that should they fall into someone else’s hands, neither events nor persons can be identified.
DISCERNMENT AND DIALOGUE WITH GOD
A very important facet of spiritual direction is discernment. To discern means “to separate out, to distinguish, to recognize what is distinct and different.” Basically discernment means sifting through life experiences and options in order to come to some fundamental perception of direction (e.g., who is God calling me to be and how can I best respond?). This process necessitates that we probe our hearts to find our true self (the person we are gifted to be by God) and then make choices authentic to that self. Foundational theological concepts root the discernment process: the notion of God’s will or plan, revelation, theological anthropology, and human awareness — the distinction between a pre-thematic, intuitive grasp of self and the categorical, historical manifestation of self.
Discernment then is about making choices. True discernment leads us to an honest choice for life, for deeper congruence. But is the term restricted to fundamental choices, or can we speak of discernment in the daily process of decision-making?
A healthy perspective on men and women would affirm that the small choices of daily life are rooted in a more radical sense of choice. They come together to form a collage, a mosaic of our basic life direction. Yet we would be rendered impotent if we entered the discernment process for every decision we made. Rather, the more formal discernment process is best suited for major decisions, transitional moments, and periods of selfevaluation. But if we are faithful to honest discernment, we begin to cultivate a certain awareness that affects even daily choices. Hence, discretion — the virtue of good decision-making — begins to emerge. Discretion is the ability to choose in daily life situations out of a sense of congruence with our gifted selfidentity. However, we can still be deceived, and thus a period of self-conscious examination can help situate our daily choices more concretely within the greater pattern of God’s loving activity.
The more formal discernment process envelops a number of criteria for an honest choice. It is important to note that discernment addresses the awe-filled mystery of an individual’s or community’s relationship with God and the appropriate life responses to such a loving relationship. But mystery never begets clarity (“we see now as in a glass darkly”). We may never know if we have made the right decision. We can be assured, however, that if we have entered fully into the discernment process, we have made a good decision.
Further, a decision once made and acted upon can be evaluated later by its “fruits”: did it promote the values of integration, wholeness, and the reign of God that offer a deepened sense of peace (if not necessarily relief)? Or are further fragmentation, disintegration, and lack of true inner peace apparent?
ROOTED IN LIVING TRADITION
The spiritual director does not stand on her own authority. Rather, she is empowered for ministry through the gift of the Holy Spirit, mediated within human experience, and in particular within the Christian community and tradition. Therefore, the spiritual director cannot stand as a private interpreter, an individual sage or guru apart from the community. She needs to confirm the authenticity of her testimony with the orthodoxy and orthopraxies of that tradition.
The Christian tradition is a living one. Hence, spiritual directors need to view their ministry from the perspective of dynamic involvement in the relationship between God and God’s people. A spiritual director needs to be grounded in the community’s articulation of this relationship, knowing intimately the movement of God with God’s people as witnessed in the Scriptures, rooting his own life in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, actively choosing the Word as focus, not merely having intellectual knowledge of the text.
A director also needs to complement her scriptural rooting with a sound theological base. Appropriating the theology that has emerged from the Second Vatican Council is essential if she is to be faithful to the Catholic tradition. The Council documents are our most recent articulation of the Church’s understanding of its self-identity.
A third dimension of the tradition essential for a spiritual director is conversation with the various spiritual traditions of prayer and religious living (Benedictine, Franciscan, Carmelite, etc.). Each tradition offers a particular perspective and emphasis regarding spiritual development. The classical texts and sources of these traditions are invaluable tools for the spiritual director as he helps bring to light the religious dimension of another’s experience.
The necessity for a spiritual director to be rooted in the tradition can be illustrated by briefly exploring four areas of frequent concern in spiritual direction: prayer, penitential practices, extraordinary experiences at prayer, and the question of depression versus the dark night.
Prayer is often the center of the spiritual direction process. Especially in the early stages of direction, a person may inquire at length about prayer, its movements and development, as well as seek testimony from the director as to how she prays. The director can feel free, when appropriate, to share her own experience and development in prayer as long as it truly serves the directee and is not a self-serving testimony. But one’s own experience, while important, does not encompass the whole of prayer. Hence, the director needs to be aware of the tradition of prayer, including those traditions that may not be personally appealing.
A healthy reading of the tradition shows that penitential practice is meant for the most part as a means to restore balance and order to life as a whole. When a directee approaches a director with the desire to engage in such practices, the director needs to discern the underlying attitudes. What is the motivation? Is this seen as a means to a greater end or simply as an end in itself? Does it reflect a healthy anthropology or is the request rooted in a jansenistic destruction of the body? Is the directee legalistic regarding observance? Does he secretly believe he can earn God’s love, a scent of Pelagianism? What is his image of self, of God? Do they speak of wretchedness and revenge? Or are they images of humility, gratefulness, and loving concern? What is the directee’s health status?
Taken out of context, much of the tradition can be interpreted as a negative understanding of discipline. However, despite a sometimes poor anthropology, the common teaching has been that penitential practices are meant to move the center of gravity away from selfish preoccupations to the loving God. This is best accomplished by restoring normal balance to our life — intellectually, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
Unfortunately, many still believe that penitential practices must be negative (i.e., things one would rather not do). Positively, penitential practice is an exercise necessary for wholeness. Thus, spiritual directors today place greater emphasis on practices such as taking necessary leisure, eating balanced meals, and reading more often.
Extraordinary experiences in prayer have often been held suspect. This is compatible with recent developments in the social sciences, especially depth-psychology. What someone may consider ‘warm feelings; ‘being lifted up; ‘locutions; or ‘visions’ may turn out to be delusions and manifestations of psychological imbalance. The prudent director neither accepts nor rejects such extraordinary occurrences at face value. Some basic training in psychology may aid in the process of discernment, but the skilled director will not neglect the rich tradition of mysticism with respect to extraordinary manifestations.
A living acquaintance with such guides as Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross, balanced by the theological wisdom of Karl Rahner, for instance, will help the director discern the authenticity of such experiences. Three factors must be kept in mind. (1) The tradition has always affirmed that these experiences are only means to an end (e.g., to heighten one’s awareness of God, or consolation, to name but two). However, they are considered more of a hindrance than a help in prayer and are not to be actively sought according to the classical writers. (2) The enduring quality of such experiences is manifested in their fruits. Does the individual exhibit more clearly the virtues of charity, service, and zeal for the reign of God? Or is she now more selfpreoccupied? (3) God is Mystery. Men and women are Mystery. We can never presume to have sufficiently plumbed the depths of either so as to claim a complete knowledge of the workings of such relationships.
DARK NIGHTS AND DEPRESSION
There seems to be a lot of discussion today about ‘the dark night of the soul.’ Many who are in a state of depression immediately presume, if they are spiritually inclined, that they are in such a ‘dark night.’ This may be the case. However, a competent spiritual director will weigh such an evaluation against his own experience of both depression and ‘dark night.’ More importantly, the director will seek the wisdom of the classical and theological tradition (again specifically the work of John of the Cross and Teresa of Jesus). There is no need to discuss signs and manifestations here. Suffice it to say that one essential dimension that separates the ‘dark night’ from depression is that despite the apparent impasse, on some level one still knows (even if it is not “felt”) an abiding presence of God that carries the individual through this darkness. Depression, on the other hand, is an impasse that closes in on the individual.
SURRENDER AND OBEDIENCE TO GOD’S GIFT OF TRUE FREEDOM
Perhaps the most difficult issue to address in terms of spiritual direction is the question of obedience. Obedience and spiritual direction have always been closely aligned. With the contemporary thrust toward self-determination and autonomy, however, obedience has become suspect. One reason for this suspicion has been misinterpretation. For many, “obedience” still conjures up notions of submission, blind control, denial of self-will, and a passive acceptance of another’s commands and desires.
Obedience comes from the Latin ob audire, “to listen to;” “to be attentive to,” “to be able and willing to hear.” The process of spiritual direction is one of attentive listening to God’s loving invitations to life, as well as adverting to those areas of blockage that keep us from experiencing God as life-giver. Obedience is not about forming impotent and irresponsible ‘yes-men’ and ‘yes-women.’ It is, rather, a calling to responsible stewardship for our very lives. Together, the director and directee listen to the stirrings that speak of God, and then discern life directions. We gradually learn to set aside (more often, to be purged from) our wounded self-centeredness that demands the bright lights and attention of center stage in order to mask the true fears of loneliness, alienation, and loss of love. Attentive listening to the already-given Spirit of Truth empowers us to allow God to emerge as the True Center. Obedience is the discipline of stripping away the false self.
Obedience, then, has to do with true freedom. Through it we move from a posture of heteronomy (others impose their law upon us) to autonomy (we come to know our own laws internally and live by them). Yet true freedom only comes when, as modeled by Jesus, we take this precious and hard-earned sense of independent individuality and hand it over to be transformed. We are not destroyed but feel the hand of God reach into the very depths of our being and draw forth our true and gifted self: the image and likeness of God. True freedom means to live under the reign of God (theonomy), not in fearful submission but in humble and grateful recognition of our heritage.
Obedience requires a relationship grounded in trust. Sometimes we are deaf to God’s invitations. Sometimes we choose to harden our hearts. Not because we are evil, but more often because we are limited in our vision, if not totally blind at times. The trust established in a spiritual direction relationship enables us to let another help us take off the blinders. In this concrete situation, obedience is the ability to listen to the director as one given by God to help establish true freedom. This may become manifest in a penitential practice, or in a particular perspective offered on an issue, or in a simple invitation to change a certain dimension of how we live.
Establishing such a trusting relationship raises two concerns about approaches to the spiritual direction relationship. One has to do with professional distance and the other with spiritual direction between friends.
Generally speaking, although the spiritual direction relationship is a supportive and care-centered exploration of God’s call, the director needs to maintain a certain objectivity. While this does not preclude personal testimony on the part of the director, which may help bond the trust at times, she needs to keep in focus the service dimension of the relationship. This is exhibited especially when she suffers with the directee in fidelity to obedience. The important task of attentive listening may deteriorate in a more casual relationship.
This raises more pointedly the question of spiritual direction between friends. Ideally, true friends should be able to share deeply with a love purified sufficiently to call forth the objectivity required for authentic obedience. However, this often not the case. Sometimes spiritual direction among friends adds unnecessary strain to their relationship through a fear of rejection or confrontation. Spiritual direction is a different form of friendship. If two friends can enter such a relationship as a means of deepening their life with God, then it should be encouraged. However, they must be careful to evaluate frequently the progress of the direction relationship and what effect it has played in their lives. Honesty and humility are key here.
At the heart of all that occurs in the spiritual direction relationship stands humble obedience — the willingness to surrender our categories and our immediate concerns so that we may attentively listen to God speak through our life stirrings, our history, our relationships, and our spiritual director.
Contemporary society is a fast-moving one. We have made great advances. Yet we must be careful not to fool ourselves into believing that such advancement guarantees us a privileged place in history as men and women of personal enlightenment. As in any age, perhaps more so today, we are prone to selfdeception and illusion. This is especially true in terms of our relationship with God (both personally and communally). The gift of a spiritual director is a gift of accompaniment, insight, interpretation, and communion. The spiritual director is one who can help us open our eyes and see truly, open our ears and hear truly, stand on our feet and walk truly, and raise our arms and receive truly the precious gift of life offered to us by the loving God.