SPIRITUAL DIRECTION SERIES (Part Four): Developmental perspective

December 23, 2011

In this series I have discussed the nature of spiritual direction as a distinct ministry within the broader category of spiritual guidance. This distinction helps clarify what spiritual direction is, but for many people confusion remains over what it means to be spiritual director. This confusion points to the need for a second clarification.

The second distinction needed to clarify discussions of spiritual direction is related to the training and maturation of spiritual directors. The flaw, not fatal but significant, in most treatments of spiritual direction is that they lack a developmental dimension in their description of the director. They treat the role and ministry of the director as if this is a static reality, rather than the product of a set of capacities that grow and mature. On a more profound level, the spiritual director is fundamentally in a dynamic relationship with God, and thus direction will reflect the movement in that relationship.

The practical consequences of this neglect of development are greater than they may first appear. Andre Louf, in Grace Can Do More, presents a masterful description of an ideal spiritual director. This director is fully open to the movements of the Holy Spirit, in self and directee. He captures the contemplative dimension of spiritual direction better than any author I have encountered.

Yet Louf’s account remains an idealized portrait, perhaps giving the impression that anyone who cannot remain constantly open to God’s leading should not even consider giving direction. At times, he even seems to suggest that the director who departs from this ideal in a direction session for even a moment ought to immediately consider the relationship with that directee irrevocably lost. Louf writes of direction (“accompaniment” in his terminology) as a ministry in which the grace of God is paramount, yet there seems to be little grace for the limitations of the director to surrender to grace. Perhaps this is too harsh an evaluation, as Louf’s work is invaluable in helping the director understand the spiritual posture to enter into in direction. Still, the long path of learning to live in that posture is missing.

By contrast, most books present a picture of the ordinary, if experienced, director in the midst of ongoing ministry. They are, appropriately, written from the experience of directors in their own ministry, and perhaps in their experience training others for direction. Fundamentally, however, they tend to be professional books; they are akin to doctors, lawyers, or accountants describing professional standards and best practices. If such examples seem divorced from ministry (a division I do not agree with), consider instead the role of a pastor. These books are the equivalent of a description of how an experienced pastor prepares sermons, performs marriages and funerals, and provides basic counsel to parishioners. Again, this serves an admirable and entirely worthy purpose. However, such treatments flatten the sense of development from someone beginning to discern the hint of a calling toward offering direction to the competent spiritual director to the director with a truly unique gifting beyond general competency. Thus, the person beginning to discern a calling may be faced with an awareness of seemingly insurmountable deficits in comparison to the director described in such books, while the experienced director may find that a mastery of the basic capacities of direction leaves no vision for future development nor a way for this ministry to continue to reflect the ongoing movement of the Holy Spirit in the director’s own spiritual journey.

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