I often wonder about this question, posed by Christian psychologist and spiritual director Gary Moon in his book Falling for God: Saying Yes to His Extravagant Proposal. Moon writes: “If Jesus came to our planet so that all who would listen could be restored to relationship with the Father and enjoy the heavenly emotions of love, joy and peace, why do Christians commonly feel as if we are alone in the world and burdened by the earthbound feelings of anger, depression and anxiety? … I believe that 99 out of 100 Christians rarely enjoy the rich life that Christ promised; they live, instead, lives of silent resignation.”
This cry for help is a contemporary expression of a cry heard since the early days of the Christian Church: How can I enter into a meaningful process that forms the life and character of Christ in the very core of my being? How often have we sung: “To be like Jesus, this hope possesses me”? And since the early days of the Christian Church, the typical response to this heart-cry has been to invite the questioner into a dynamic, though often misunderstood, helping relationship known as spiritual direction.
How can I enter into a meaningful process that forms the life and character of Christ in the very core of my being?
Demystifying Spiritual Direction
It is only relatively recently that the concept of spiritual direction has become known and more accepted within the Protestant church. However, as Protestants have begun to explore spiritual direction, they have invariably needed to demystify and explain to the wider church how this ancient tradition can be used to grow effective contemporary disciples of Christ.
To do this within our Salvationist context, it is worth being clear about what spiritual direction is not:
• Spiritual direction is not authoritarian. Some people have been turned off by the word “direction,” thinking that this implies that people submit passively to the direction provided by the spiritual director. Because of this, some spiritual directors refer to themselves as “soul friends,” “sacred companions” or similar terms that remove the authoritarian connotation. The only authority that has any place in spiritual direction is God and his Word. The Holy Spirit is the true spiritual director.
• Spiritual direction is not giving advice. There are times when people look for someone else to tell them what to do to get their spiritual life back on track. Spiritual directors may make suggestions, but typically they would help the individual to discern the leadings of the Holy Spirit for advice and direction.
• Spiritual direction is not counselling. While there are some similarities between the two, the focus is entirely different. Counselling is problem-centred, while spiritual direction is Spirit-centred. The one goal of spiritual direction is growing in our relationship with God―not resolving problems and issues in our lives. The Christian counselling movement is increasingly acknowledging that spiritual direction is intrinsically valuable for emotional and spiritual well-being.
• Spiritual direction is not preaching or teaching. Spiritual direction does not involve telling people what I think they should do or what I think God thinks they should do. It is not about imparting knowledge, proclamation or exposition. Discerning the presence and the leading of the Holy Spirit is its primary focus.
There are many definitions of what spiritual direction is and most include the dynamics of meeting with another in a trusted, caring relationship for the purpose of deepening our spiritual lives and journeys. Canadian author Dr. David Benner, in his book Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction, defines it this way: “Spiritual direction is a prayer process in which a person seeking help in cultivating a deeper personal relationship with God meets with another for prayer and conversation that is focused on increasing awareness of God in the midst of life experiences and facilitating surrender to God’s will.”
There are two primary forms or contexts of spiritual direction that differ in frequency and intensity—regular direction and retreat direction.
• Regular direction usually involves a one- to two-hour meeting every four to six weeks and can be less intense than retreat direction.
• Spiritual direction in a retreat setting usually involves meeting with a spiritual director for an hour each day of the retreat. These meetings may involve exploring new spiritual disciplines such as lectio divina, the ancient practice of holy reading and praying with Scripture in a way that deepens communion with God.
From a Wesleyan perspective, the goal of spiritual direction, spiritual friendship and spiritual guidance is to help the believer to live the life of love, that is, the life of Christlikeness
Spiritual Direction in Scripture
While the traditional practice of spiritual direction has been known since the early days of the Christian Church, Scripture provides some glimpses of spiritual direction in action.
• Ananias’ ministry to Saul at the time of Saul’s conversion (see Acts 9:10-19) is a beautiful example of the prayerful relationship that focuses on deepening connections with Christ.
• Paul’s relationship with Timothy and Titus was one of spiritual mentoring that also was focused on deepening their connections with Christ as they ministered. The letters to Timothy and Titus are born out of Paul’s significant spiritual relationships with these men.
• The Gospels overflow with Jesus’ teaching and conversations directing people, and more specifically his disciples, to the heart of God. Loving God and loving others were Jesus’ two most important spiritual pillars (see Mark 12:29-31). Jesus modelled and helped his disciples discover the power of prayer, which became more and more the fabric of their daily lives.
• In the Old Testament, Nathan’s interaction with David (see 2 Samuel 12:1-14) becomes one of very significant spiritual direction, leading to David’s repentance and deepened connections with God.
Historically, within our Wesleyan holiness roots, the term “spiritual direction” was not common. However, Wesleyans have been very comfortable with terms such as soul friends, spiritual companioning, small-group ministry and faith mentoring. In a letter to Walter Churchey, John Wesley wrote, “Entire sanctification or Christian perfection is neither more or less than pure love—love expelling sin and governing both the heart and the life of a child of God.” From a Wesleyan perspective, the goal of spiritual direction, spiritual friendship and spiritual guidance is to help the believer to live the life of love, that is, the life of Christlikeness.
Hitting the Wall
My first encounter with spiritual direction came many years ago at the commencement of a healing journey from a self-inflicted mini-burnout experience. I had been working very hard (in my own strength) to succeed in a new challenging appointment—but was failing. The results of several months of this weren’t pretty for my colleagues, my family and me. After coming to a full stop from “hitting the wall at high speed,” a wise friend suggested I go on a silent directed retreat.
With nothing to lose, and not sure what was going to happen, I went to a beautiful rural setting where I met with a spiritual director for an hour each day of the three-day retreat. In reality, I met with God in intimate, healing and renewing ways like I’d never experienced before.
My experience of spiritual direction in this retreat environment became the beginning of incorporating regular spiritual direction into my life and ministry practice. My meetings with spiritual directors have been vitally important oases of grace, drawing me deeper on the journey toward uncluttered intimacy with Christ. The Spirit still has plenty to work on in my life. The spiritual direction is keeping me heading in a God-ward direction.
Who is it For?
Spiritual direction is for anyone who wants to deepen their relationship with Christ. It is particularly helpful for those engaged in ministry to others. Some denominations insist that their clergy are engaged in regular spiritual direction, both as a development process for the individual and a protection for those to whom they minister.
Recently, the Canada and Bermuda Territory conducted a pilot study, providing spiritual direction for a number of officers (some of these experiences are shared below). These spiritual direction relationships have had great impact on the officers’ spiritual wellness, helped them develop healthier spiritual practices and significantly increased ministry effectiveness. Several officers have been trained as spiritual directors and several more are currently in training for this kind of ministry.
God made us for relationship with him. Through the sacred human relationship of spiritual direction, God has provided a time-tested and effective way to draw us into deeper relationship with him.
What Are the Benefits?
Spiritual direction involves entering into a trusting relationship that, if it’s going to be helpful, will involve some honesty and vulnerability. We need to weigh up the benefits as we consider any potential cost:
• Do I need/want the help that spiritual direction could bring? Do I desire to live right-side up?
• Am I willing to intentionally invest in my spiritual life in a way that can make me spiritually, emotionally and relationally healthy?
• Rather than living a life dominated by an externally imposed list of do’s and don’ts, would I benefit from a relationship that strengthens my connections with God and impacts my relationships with others?
• Am I willing to take a risk and be honest with someone who has my best interests at heart so that I can become more of the person God wants me to be?
How Do I Find a Spiritual Director?
• Word of mouth is the best recommendation. Ask your corps officer—many are becoming more familiar with this resource.
• Many spiritual directors are now listed on the Internet (see resources below). Make sure you meet at least twice with the prospective director to see if you work well together before you settle on regular meetings.
• While personal face-to-face meetings are ideal, some directors offer spiritual direction over the phone or Internet (see www.henrinouwen.org).
• It’s common to offer some payment―donation or modest fee―to a spiritual director. See it as an investment in your spiritual life.
• Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction (David G. Benner, InterVarsity Press, 2004)
• Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (Richard J. Foster, HarperOne, 2002)
• Falling for God: Saying Yes to His Extravagant Proposal (Gary W. Moon, Waterbrook Press, 2004)
• “Spiritual Direction in the Wesleyan-Holiness Tradition” (Wesley D. Tracy, in Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls: A Guide to Christian Approaches and Practices, Gary W. Moon and David G. Benner, editors, InterVarsity Press, 2004)
• Renovation of the Heart in Daily Practice: Experiments in Spiritual Transformation (Dallas Willard and Jan Johnson, Navpress, 2006)
• Conversations Journal (www.conversationsjournal.org)
• Spiritual Directors International (www.sdiworld.org). Multi-faith (search for Christian directors)
• www.henrinouwen.org (click on Spiritual Direction)
• www.janjohnson.org (helpful Meditation on Scripture exercises)
• www.dwillard.org (click on Articles)
Balancing Doing and Being
by Major Mona Moore
I have been gifted. Note that I did not say that I am gifted. Rather, I am the recipient of a wonderful gift—a wise and sensitive spiritual director. The impact has been a stronger sense of communion in three aspects of my life.
1. Communion with God. Intrinsically, I am an introvert, but I have discovered how much I need to tell my story. In talking with someone who is specifically concerned with my spiritual well-being, I find myself more relaxed about what I am doing to impact my faith journey and I’m discovering a greater awareness of what God is doing in my life. Voicing my experiences helps me identify not only where I am but where I need to go.
While maintaining a gentle accountability, my spiritual director recognizes and appreciates my individuality. Not being prescriptive, she helps me explore my unique connection with God. While suggesting ideas, she rejoices when I discover my own ways to strengthen my spiritual walk. For example, I have discovered that a good time for reflection is when I arrive home at day’s end. I relax and release the concerns of my appointment, making my home a “safe place.”
Being more relaxed about my spiritual journey, I enjoy the Lord’s presence much more. I have become more playful in that relationship, which has tapped into my creativity and allowed me to temper my perfectionist personality.
2. Communion with others. Perceiving myself as task-oriented, I have struggled to find a balance between doing and being. My journey with my spiritual director prepared me to discover how relationship-oriented I am. I am discovering not only the freedom to enjoy relationships but the joy of building relationships into the tasks that are mine.
3. Communion with the world. While I had established a desire for further studies, I was slow to undertake this, even when the Army invited me to achieve that goal. A year ago, my reflections focused on finding courage to follow the Lord. My goal is now underway. Spiritual direction enabled me to recognize and name my apprehension, which, in turn, gave me the courage to face it. Further studies are now enriching my interaction with the broader world.
A Call to Go Deeper
by Major David Ivany
I have a love-hate relationship with busyness, complaining about my schedule, while parading it as a badge of significance.
My worth and attention seem to come from activity and status as I pour myself into family, work, possessions and what others think of me. If I’m honest—if I dare to turn off the car radio, TV, iPod, cellphone—I may sense a hidden loneliness and meaninglessness, betraying a focus on myself rather than God.
In order to combat the myriad “weapons of mass distraction” that confront me regularly, I meet monthly with a spiritual director. This person “accompanies” me, listens and doesn’t judge, reveals what is most beautiful and valuable in me, points to the meaning of my inner pain, and helps free me to be reconciled to my past and accept my gifts and limits.
To “listen” another soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another. My director, while from another faith tradition, has respected mine. She is helping me become my true self in Christ, become whole and holy, become a great lover of the Lord.
If God is calling you to go deeper, consider the resources available. They run the gamut from spiritual direction to meditation on our Salvation Army songbook.
I leave you with the words of the late General Albert Orsborn, who has directed me through his poetry:
When shall I come
unto the healing waters?
Lifting my heart,
I cry to thee my prayer.
Spirit of peace, my Comforter and healer,
In whom my springs are found, let my soul meet thee there.
Wash from my hands,
the dust of earthly striving;
Take from my mind
the stress of secret fear;
Cleanse thou the wounds, from all but thee far hidden,
And when the waters flow let my healing appear.
Light, life and love are in that healing fountain,
All I require to cleanse me and restore;
Flow through my soul, redeem its desert places,
And make a garden there for the Lord I adore.
From a hill I know healing waters flow,
O rise, Immanuel’s tide, and my soul overflow!
God is calling us to go deeper in our relationship with him. Only as we truly know him can we make him truly known.
Life As a Cast-Away
by Major David Pearo
In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks’ character finds himself stranded alone on a deserted island for years. His world is altered dramatically. There is no more relying on modern conveniences, no more hustle and bustle, and no more noise. All he has to talk to is his friend, “Wilson,” a blood-stained volleyball. By the end of the movie, he is a changed man―and for the better. He comes to know himself in a much deeper way than he could have without those years of silence and solitude.
I, too, needed to rediscover times of silence and solitude in order to hear God’s voice in a richer fashion. My life as a corps officer was anything but silent or solitary. Multiple phone numbers and e-mail addresses made my time and attention readily available to others 24 hours a day. No matter how hard I tried, it was impossible keep up. It was abundantly clear that I needed help in my search for a deeper relationship with God.
As part of a spiritual direction pilot project conducted by THQ pastoral services, my quest led me to a spiritual director who had spent many years as a missionary in the Middle East. We agreed that our relationship was to be supportive, rather than instructive, so that I might find the capacity within myself to embrace solitude and silence and, as a result, encounter God.
In the quietness of his office we read Scripture, prayed, listened to music and talked. He asked reflective questions and gave me the time to contemplate what God was saying to me. Through this process I discovered several realities about myself that were thwarting my attempts to connect with God. I realized that my mind was habitually busy. I had become comfortable with a mind filled with problems that needed to be solved and tasks that needed to be accomplished. Even my working environment reflected this. My office, that sanctuary where I tried to meet God, was designed to be a place where things got done, not an environment where a relationship with God could be nurtured.
Coached by my spiritual director, I began by no longer accepting excuses for a shoddy devotional life. I accepted the fact that a relationship with God requires hard work and discipline. If I was going to grow spiritually I was going to have to invest the time. I rearranged my office, softened the lighting system, found a style of music that quiets my mind and began a more intentional time of silence and prayer.
I have discovered that God is active in my daily life in ways that had previously gone unnoticed. Spiritual direction allowed me to slow down, take a closer look at the details of my life and discover the presence of God in new and enriching ways.
Journey of Self-Discovery
by Major Donna Bond
Have you ever been given an opportunity you could not turn down? That’s the way I felt when given the chance to seek out a spiritual director for several months last year. The experience led to an exciting spiritual journey of discovery.
I have always enjoyed journaling my spiritual path, but that was for my eyes only! With a spiritual director, I had to verbalize my journey to someone else, someone I did not know well. I found it necessary to build trust in order to spend time talking about how the Lord was entering my life. But when I did, I learned some meaningful lessons.
The spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditating on the Word were areas that I explored. I began lectio divina (spiritual reading of the Scriptures), which allows one to “read under the eye of God, until your heart is touched, then give yourself to God.”
Although I’m not an artist, at one point I drew pictures to visualize what Scripture was saying to me. For example, after reading Mark 4:35-41, I sketched a boat on a rough sea and thought of myself in that boat being tossed by the turbulent waters. Despite the storms of life, I was able to experience peace.
The Lord directed me to a song that surfaced a few times during the year to remind me of his provision.
Though friends should all fail and foes all unite,
Yet one thing secures us, whatever betide,
The Bible assures us the Lord will provide.
Yet, since we have known the Saviour’s great name,
In this our strong tower for safety we hide,
The Lord is our power, the Lord will provide.
I was also directed to reflect on the writings of Murray Bodo, who wrote Francis: The Journey and the Dream, as well as Invitation to Solitude and Silence and Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Hayley Barton, which helped me discover what it meant to be quiet and still.
These experiences worked together to help me explore an inward journey. I looked forward to taking time to be quiet and still, to pray, to deliberately go deeper into what the Lord wanted me to learn from various experiences. My spiritual director brought clarity to issues that gave me cause for concern. At times I grew weary of talking about myself, but it gave me an opportunity for discussion with someone who could speak into my situation objectively, giving deep insights.
Since that time, I have been appointed to another province, but my experience is captured in the pages of my journal. The journey is not over. It continues. As Eugene Peterson notes, “Growth takes place in quietness, in hidden ways in silence and solitude. The process is not accessible to observation.”