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The History of Spiritual Direction

Spiritual direction is not a modern innovation but a very ancient and simple process of one person offering another spiritual guidance and counsel. In the Christian tradition this goes back to the Old Testament with Moses giving guidance to the Israelites in the desert and Eli helping Samuel in how to answer when God called. In the New Testament, Paul wrote letters of spiritual guidance to new groups of converts across the Roman Empire. In the 3rd, 4th and 5th Centuries this tradition continued with people coming out of the urban centres looking for a 'word,' to convey some wisdom to guide them in their life, from the Desert Mothers and Fathers who had taken to the deserts around Mount Sinai to draw close to God. It was out of these desert anchorites that the early Benedictine monastic communities were formed.

This tradition then continued on down the centuries largely through these emerging monastic communities. People still travelled to those who had set their lives apart to follow God for help and guidance, with the monasteries offering this work as a major point of contact with the public. Those receiving spiritual guidance would bring gifts of food, or donate sacred objects or money to the monasteries as a thank you. In the East, the monks of St Athos in Greece and the Starets in Russia also continued this tradition. Famous Saints in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic tradition e.g. St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, St Seraphim, St Ignatius of Loyola, regularly saw spiritual directors and were themselves spiritual directors to others, leaving writings of letters of spiritual guidance still read today.

Elsewhere, in Ireland, as far back as the 5th Century, early saints of the Celtic church such as Brigid of Ireland, Patrick, Columba of Iona and Cuthbert of Lindisfarne emphasised the role of the 'anam cara', or 'soul friend', as central in Celtic spiritual life. This was a person to whom you could reveal the deep intimacies of your life. Your anam cara was the truest mirror to reflect the contours of your soul to you, a creative and critical friendship rooted in love that was prepared to negotiate the world of your inner contradictions and woundedness to bring you closer to God.

In the 14th century the Devotio Moderna movement in the Low Countries of Holland and Belgium extended this practice of spiritual direction to lay men and women. Similarly, most religious orders established Third Orders and Oblate groups among the laity for the primary purpose of furnishing spiritual direction to men and women in the world. In the 17th century, St Francis de Sales and St Vincent de Paul in France made the custom of spiritual direction for lay men and women even more popular, a custom which continued into the 19th century with Abbe Huvelin and his student the Englishman Baron von Huegel, who left some notable letters of spiritual guidance. Carl Jung once said that the person who came close in all history to his own methods of healing souls was Abbe Huvelin in the 19th century.

As Protestantism grew from the 16th century onwards, other forms of spiritual nurture also began to be emphasised including bible reading and preaching, broadening the emphasis of the work of spiritual direction although not changing its essential nature. More spiritual direction work, as we saw above with Abbe Huvelin and also in Celtic Christianity, became less about prescriptive advice and more about supporting someone on their journey. In more recent times, less prescriptive spiritual advice has been offered in writings, and in person, by names such as John Wesley, Evelyn Underhill, Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton.

Sociologists and historians have also discovered similar traditions of spiritual guidance in other religious cultures such as Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Native religions. Very like the Celtic anam cara, the Buddhist 'Kalyana-mitra' or 'noble friend', is one who gently and firmly confronts you with your own blindness, to see what you cannot yet see, about yourself, your longings and the world in which you create around you in your mind, to help you grow in true clarity.

In contemporary times, the ministry of spiritual direction has continued to learn and gain from modern disciplines such as counselling, with all its knowledge in skilled listening and the dynamics of one-to-one work, and psychology with all its insights into our human nature. This dialogue has notably enriched and helped develop more effective practice of spiritual guidance. Although it is important to also note the differences between spiritual direction and counselling work, the German psychologist Fr Joseph Goldbrunner expressed the profound connection between psychology and spirituality in his 1955 essay 'Holiness is Wholeness.'

We now understand that psychological growth and spiritual growth are intricately linked. A mature relationship with the Divine demands, and is supported by, a striving for psychological wholeness. This has long been understood by the great spiritual guides of the past. Calvin in 1536 said, 'There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self, and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.' And his contemporary from a very different theological stable, St Teresa of Avila, also emphasised in her letters of spiritual guidance: 'For never, however exalted the soul may be, is anything more fitting than self-knowledge... without it everything else goes wrong. Knowing ourselves is sometimes so important that I would not want any relaxation ever in this regard, however high you may have climbed into the heavens... let us strive to make progress in self-knowledge.' So our psychological wholeness and spiritual holiness are both part of our holistic journey to our True Self in God.

Our 'holiness' can be understood as our 'at-one-ness' with God - where we find our wholeness in body, soul and spirit. In 'holiness' we are made complete in God, and our longing for holiness is a call to absolute union with the Holy One. The aim of spiritual direction is to encourage and enhance that connection with, and awareness of, God in all things and in all places in our lives. Madeline L'Engle once said, 'It is no coincidence that the root word of whole, health, heal, holy is hale. If we are healed, we become whole; we are hale and hearty; we are holy.' I also talk in my blogs on 'Living with Paradox' and 'Working with our emotions in the spiritual life' about how the Old Testament Hebrew root of the word shalom or 'peace' significantly has the same root as the Hebrew word for wholeness 'sheleimut.'

There has also been a growing recognition in the 20th century onwards of the wisdom and abundant skills of the laity (ie those who are not ordained or in monastic religious life) offering spiritual direction. This has led to a resurgence and opening up of spiritual direction work, with more emphasis on companioning and facilitating and less on advice giving or prescribing. It has also meant that the ministry of spiritual direction has become much more widely available to all. Many places of ministerial training would now encourage their students to have a spiritual director, and the work is becoming slowly more widely known about in the broader Christian community and beyond, making it more available for 'the many' rather than 'the few.'

Since the 1980's, in the UK, USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, courses started to be run to specifically train people in the practical deep contemplative listening and discernment skills needed, as well as knowledge of the vast traditions of prayer and range of different spiritualities. These days a spiritual director is most unlikely to offer 'directional' advice to others but be highly trained in accompanying you and helping you discern, understand and follow the lead of the Spirit in your life.

Although the methods have varied over time according to different centuries and cultural contexts, the intent and effect are the same - people are accompanied on their spiritual journey, encouraged and deepened in their walk with God. Spiritual direction work has remained important because it meets a real and deep need, the need to share with another our stories and concerns about relating to the Divine and Sacred. There is an ever growing demand now in the 21st century for this work in countries such as the United States, Great Britain, Ireland and Australia, with this refreshing rediscovery and development of the art.

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