What is Spiritual Direction?


Spiritual direction, one on one and in small groups, has become more and more common in recent years.  This re-emerging practice of meeting regularly with a spiritual director began some time in early Christian history and was practiced primarily among the clergy, especially in monasteries and convents. These days, both clergy and non-clergy have found spiritual direction a helpful way to break through inner resistance in order to experience God’s presence.

Some prefer other terms for this practice.  David Benner, for example, writes this in his book about spiritual direction entitled Sacred Companions.

“We need companions on the Christian journey for a number of reasons. First among these is that the deep knowing of both self and God foundational to Christian spirituality demands deep knowing of and being known by others.  Neither knowing God nor knowing self can progress very far apart from others who are able and willing to offer us help. Some spiritual friends offer us help in knowing ourselves, while others offer help in knowing God. The best offer us both.  This is a central feature of the the gift of a true spiritual friend.”

Benner is both a psychological counselor and a spiritual director, but he sees the two roles as providing two different services.  An article in Christianity Today explains it this way. “Spiritual direction is a voluntary relationship between a person who seeks to grow in the Christian life and a director. The latter is not, notice, a counselor or therapist. Rather, he or she is a mature Christian who helps the directee both to discern what the Holy Spirit is doing and saying and to act on that discernment, drawing nearer to God in Christ. The focus is on intimacy with God, not on the solving of clinically identified psychological problems. (Got Your ‘Spiritual Director’ Yet? by Chris Armstrong and Steven Gertz, April 1, 2003)

The common practice is to meet monthly for an hour with a spiritual director.  During those sessions the directee may experience times of reflective silence. At other times the director’s questions invite the directee to share events and memories of great joy and great pain.  Sitting together with a compassionate listener somehow allows the directee to re-experience these events with new gratitude for the joy and new acceptance of the pain along with a willingness to let the Spirit as Comforter to sooth the inner wounds.  The impact on the directee is often a new view of the identity of God as his love becomes more palpable and meaningful.

The descriptions of Christian spiritual direction below can help you decide if spiritual direction is for you. They have been borrowed with a bit of editing from the Spiritual Directors International website. (Link)

“We define Christian spiritual direction as help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”

William A. Barry, SJ and William J. Connolly, SJ, Center for Religous Development, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA


“There are varied historical streams of influence on spiritual direction in the Anglican tradition… The marks of a spiritual director are love, kindliness, and a real compassion. The language used is one of healing and growth rather than that of the law court with its judgment, condemnation, and punishment. The pastoral roots of the Anglican tradition mean that its practitioners are counsellors, confessors, and physicians of the soul, not judges. There is warmth and a lightness of touch.”

Canon Peter W. Ball, UK

“The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a person’s life, to get behind the façade of conventional gestures and attitudes which one presents to the world, and to bring out one’s inner spiritual freedom, one’s inmost truth, which is what [Christians] call the likeness of Christ in one’s soul.  This is an entirely supernatural (spiritual) thing, for the work of rescuing the inner person from automatism belongs first of all to the Holy Spirit.”

“Spiritual direction is, in reality, nothing more than a way of leading us to see and obey the real Director — the Holy Spirit hidden in the depths of our soul.”

Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, USA

“Spiritual guidance [direction] is being present in the moment, seeing and honoring the sacred mystery of the soul of another. It is witnessing this mystery and reflecting it back in word, prayer, thought, presence, and action. Spiritual guidance is modeling a deep relationship with the Divine and standing in faith and love with the other as that relationship unfolds. Spiritual guidance is a journey of deep healing and an affirmation of Holiness (wholeness), the Sacred, and the Mystery of all of life.”

Carol A. Fournier, MS, NCC, Interfaith Spiritual Director/Guide, Silver Dove Institute, Williston, Vermont, USA

“Most people would agree that spiritual direction means companionship with another person or group through which the Holy One shines with wisdom, encouragement and discernment….

…Formal spiritual direction includes relationships that are explicitly defined as spiritual direction with a clear separation of roles between spiritual director and spiritual directee. Meetings are usually scheduled in advance on a regular basis, and a spiritual directee normally has only one formal director.”

Gerald May, MD. Excerpted from Shalem News, Volume xxii, No. 1, Winter, 1998, “Varieties Of Spiritual Companionship”

“Spiritual direction can mean different things to different people. Some people understand it to be the art of listening carried out in the context of a trusting relationship. It is when one person is trained to be a competent guide who then “companions” another person, listening to that person’s life story with an ear for the movement of the Holy, of the Divine.”

Rev. Jeffrey S. Gaines, Presbyterian, USA


“Spiritual direction, an ancient ministry of the church, is a relationship in which one person assists another, or others, in attending to God’s presence and call. Spiritual direction has been, and remains, particularly strong within Roman Catholic and Orthodox religious orders, and over the past twenty years Anglican and Protestant traditions have begun to recover it more fully…

Throughout Christian history, spiritual direction has traditionally been practiced by ordained clergy alone. In recent years, however, this practice has widened to embrace the spiritual gifts of non-ordained persons as well. Today, spiritual direction is regarded as a ministry open to all, not an order or office reserved for the few.”

Presbyterian Church, USA


“(Spiritual) direction is primarily interested in our universal spiritual experience and that necessitates the capacity and willingness to notice God through many lenses. Direction is not about telling people what to believe or how to act but working with the Spirit to discover, surface, name for themselves, and engage in what God is doing.”

Rev. Kenton Smith, Presbyterian, USA


“Spiritual directors here in Ontario are trained in Franciscan, Benedictine, and Ignatian traditions, and the Anglican way is to combine these traditions and others as it seems necessary for a spiritual directee’s needs. Certainly spiritual directors in the Anglican Church are aware of a special attachment on the part of some Anglican spiritual directees to the Prayer Book and the spirituality of the daily offices.”

Dana Fisher, Professor at Trinity College, Toronto, Ontario, Canada


“Spiritual direction in the Anglican tradition seeks to balance the path of the individual in the context of community, in a way which honors and benefits from the inheritance of the whole church catholic, and in a way which tries to keep prayer and justice together. It is a tradition which Anglicans are glad to share with members of other communities, in keeping with our commitment to the oikoumene, to the whole church in the whole world.”

Donald Grayston, recently retired vicar of St. Oswald’s Anglican Church, Port Kells, Canada