A companion for the journey

The Christian faith may be described as a journey but have you longed for help in understanding the map, or wished for someone to show you something of the road ahead?  Catherine Larner explores spiritual direction

We all know we should be walking in the steps of Jesus, are equipped with the Bible, and have the Holy Spirit as our guide, but sometimes it's good to meet with someone who is a bit further on than we are; who has struggled too, and overcome; who can get alongside us.

In past years, that individual would probably have been found in our church community or in our minister. There may have been a family member or a neighbour who was known for their wisdom and sound counsel, to whom we would have been accountable, and who would always have been willing to listen. By informally and unselfconsciously reflecting on and talking through our situation, we would better understand our whereabouts and be encouraged to move on.

But a changing society has left us all feeling more isolated and alone. Today it is no longer natural to stop to talk things through, and we are unlikely to live near our family members, or know our neighbours. Our minister may be remote and overworked. We are all in danger of filling our time with existing and getting by.

"Superficiality is the curse of our age . . .The desperate need today . . . is for deep people," says Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline, a key text for anyone wanting to develop spiritual maturity.

Many people, both inside and outside the church, are recognising this yearning within themselves. The national media fill newspapers and magazines with stories about Feng Shui, aromatherapy and crystals. There has been a huge upsurge in interest in retreats and meditation. And vast numbers of people have counselling - where they pay to have someone listen.

"In the early church, the Pauline model, community was the emphasis," says Rachel Causey, a freelance business consultant who has been working on a thesis of 'Pastor as Coach'. "Leadership had a role, but today church life is becoming very programme driven. We have lost a lot of the relational aspects of people's growth."

Working with the congregations and leaders in six churches, Rachel asked individuals how they felt they were growing in their faith. Many felt that good teaching encouraged them, but bad teaching had a detrimental effect. The most powerful and widespread aid to spiritual growth they named as the influence of Christian friendships.

The importance of relationship and the apparent lack of it in our churches has resulted in a renewed interest in an ancient discipline - that of spiritual direction. Traced back to desert monasticism of the fourth and fifth centuries, having a spiritual 'father', or director, was considered a safeguard against the individualism of that lifestyle. Their role was to enable another person to grow in their relationship with Christ, to depend on him in every aspect of their lives and to become the people he created them to be.

Since then the value of individuals getting alongside each other to talk, question, discuss, listen, and consider their faith has been considered vital, whether in a one-to-one relationship or in a small group. Unfortunately, as the modern church seems to be failing in developing these opportunities locally and naturally, more people are now looking to find a spiritual partner in a formal setting.

"I could see that a lot of people were frustrated in the church," says Rachel Causey. "Working in business and then in a Christian organisation, I felt coaching could be an answer, not in terms of enhancing performance, which is how it is used in sport or the workplace, instead, in the church, coaching would mean growing in Christian maturity."

The labels are numerous, but whether people seek a spiritual director or a Bible coach, a prayer guide or a soul friend, a spiritual mentor or a spiritual companion, they are all essentially looking for a gifted and experienced Christian who can help them listen and heed what God is saying to them.

"We call it spiritual accompaniment," says Caroline Redman of her work in the diocese of St Edmundsbury, Suffolk, helping put people in touch with a spiritual director, or companion.

"Accompaniment conveys the image of one person journeying alongside the other. One person might know the landscape better, might be better equipped at reading the map through their own life experience, and can help the other. We want to make it clear that the 'director' doesn't have all the answers or know the 'right' way to do things. People today are perhaps cautious of being told what to do."

People seek this ministry at different points in their lives and for various reasons. It can be a way to make better sense of their faith journey, to find clarity and support at times of significant life choices, or to respond more deeply to God's presence and move towards wholeness and freedom.

In the meeting with their director, the directee can talk about anything that impacts on their relationship with God. Sometimes people have a particular spiritual issue they want to work through. Sometimes the person has a sense of something happening in their life and needing to make sense of it in a spiritual context. Sometimes it is an individual's awareness of God inviting them to 'something more' and needing help to work that out.

"The important thing is that this is a sacred space into which we can bring anything, but into which we do not have to bring anything," says Caroline. "There are no expectations and no judgement. It is a listening and accepting space."

The director and directee usually meet face to face and at an agreed frequency. This can vary from every few weeks to once or twice a year. The length of the meeting also varies according to individual need, but is typically about an hour. The relationship must be reviewed regularly to ensure that it continues to be helpful.

People often choose a director or companion from outside the church family. "It is easier to be honest about where you are in your faith when you don't have to sit with that person at the next PCC meeting or see them at church on Sunday," says Caroline. 

This is a very individual and confidential relationship so it is important to find the right person and a minister or church leader may have suggestions for who you should approach. Each diocese, too, usually holds a list of people available for spiritual direction. The Retreat Association can also help to put people in touch with a local contact and they have some useful leaflets on the subject.

The spiritual director should in turn be seeking guidance and support from their own spiritual companion. "A lot of what I learned about being a prayer guide, I learned from being guided," says Caroline.

It is a reciprocal relationship in many ways. Both participants must be willing to discover deeper truths about themselves. In the book Holy Listening, author Margaret Guenther says: "In the simplest and also most profound terms, the spiritual director is simultaneously a learner and a teacher of discernment."

The person offering this ministry is very often a lay person, and someone with a deep prayer life. They will be a good listener, to both the person who comes to them and also to God, and will create a safe space for discussion. Confidentiality is paramount, but the spiritual director must also be careful in how they react to what they are told, to allow silence, and to guard against giving simple or quick answers.

While experience is important and has its place, it's not always appropriate to tell someone how to do something because 'we've been there' and it has worked for us.  The director needs to believe in the potential for growth in their directee - for what they could be in Christ. They need to be relational and supportive but challenging in their approach.

"They should be accepting, not judging, so that the person meeting them can say anything and still feel accepted as a precious child of God," says Caroline. However, this is not a form of counselling or problem solving. Neither should it be used to express some form of spiritual elitism. One writer says there is a danger that having a spiritual director can be seen as having your own therapist or personal trainer at the gym. It gives you spiritual status! Spiritual direction is about taking time to talk about the journey of faith, and to pray.

There are, naturally, courses to help the director in this process. These can vary in length and intensity and seek to provide a toolbox; different techniques in praying and meditation, for example, would be one resource taught to directors which they could in turn pass on to their directees. But being a director is very much a calling, says Caroline.

"Commonly people pursue training as a spiritual director after they have already been approached by individuals asking them for help with prayer. This prompt leads them to find out more about the role and how they can develop their gifting and ministry."

Take it further

* Approaches to Spiritual Direction, Anne Long, Grove Books Limited ISBN 1851740724
Reflective Practice for Spiritual Directors, Anne Long, Grove Books Limited ISBN 1851746323

* Spi-Dir, Spiritual Direction Network, has a useful resource on its website of links and books to read. It also runs an introductory course to Spiritual Direction.

* The Retreat Association has information and downloadable leaflets on a range of subjects on its website, including choosing a spiritual guide.

* CWR Introduction to Spiritual Direction, 24-27 September 2007

It works for me!

Gay Searle is Personnel Manager here at CPO and has been seeing s spiritual director for several years

Wang Mingdao, the legendary Chinese pastor and evangelist who spend 23 years in prison for his faith, was fond of telling Western visitors who asked the secrets of his intimacy with God and the reasons for the (still ongoing) Chinese revival, “You need to build yourself a cell”.  He would explain that
for 20 years he had nothing to do except get to know God, and for those 20 years that was the greatest relationship he had ever known.  He would say “simplify your life and know God”, and “to walk with God you must go at walking pace”.*

My decision some years ago to find a spiritual director was an attempt to cut through the over-busyness of my typical western lifestyle, and build a
small space where I could focus solely on God and my own walk (rather than run) with him.  Somewhere away from my home with its door bell, phone, e-mail
and busy family life; somewhere away from my job with its demands and responsibilities; somewhere away from my church with its focus on activity
and evangelism; somewhere in short where I could become more aware of my experience of God through the circumstances of my life, but maybe also witha guide to accompany me.

Experience of several retreats over the years - some silent - had been a positive experience, and so it was natural just to telephone the National
Retreats Association and ask for help.  I was given a couple of names,  including someone in my area who had responsibility for putting people in touch with practising spiritual directors.  I went along to see her (I wanted a 'her') and we 'clicked'.  I've been seeing her every six weeks or so for several years and I record my journey in a diary.

It's an hour's drive from home - so I'm not very likely to bump into her shopping in Sainsbury's which I like - through beautiful Sussex countryside
and that drive alone through the changing seasons of the years has become part of my awareness of God in creation. 

She lives in a little cottage way outside the nearest town, overlooking fields and hills.  In winter there's a huge log fire and I sit with my cup of tea and the cat on my lap with my  mobile switched off and no one can get me, and God's in his heaven and all's
right with the world! 

But no, not quite; our experience of God must be
rooted in reality, so I talk and she listens and questions; and we talk and debate, and she challenges me to think outside my evangelical 'box'.  She makes me think about what I'm saying, feeling and believing, and constantly  encourages me - especially when I'm being very hard on myself - to remember how much God loves me and how wonderful it is to have a relationship with him through Jesus.  Very occasionally I've felt cross -
but then growth isn't always comfortable is it?

The Japanese missiologist Kosuke Koyama talks of the “three mile an hour God” who led the Israelites out into the desert for a 40-year walk so that they would learn that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”.*  Spiritual direction helps me to slow down enough to learn that too.

*Quoted from Faith that Endures by Ronald Boyd-Macmillan published bySovereign World with Open Doors International