Contemporary Trends in Spiritual Direction
Today, around the world and across traditions, the ancient spiritual practice of meeting regularly with a spiritual director is growing and developing.
Here, I explore 6 key contemporary trends based on my own experience, and drawing on recent comments by Liz Budd Ellmann (executive director of Spiritual Director's International)* and reflections from a recent Retreat Association conference of those across the UK involved in running training Courses in Spiritual Direction.
1. Technology makes spiritual direction more widely known and available
The advent of the Internet has started to see a wonderful widening of knowledge and explosion of interest in the ministry of spiritual direction, which until recent times has been sadly reserved for those 'in the know' such as priests, lay workers and monastics in more institutional forms of church (see the History of Spiritual Direction).
Spiritual Directors International has posted more than 100 YouTube videos online exploring the question 'What is spiritual direction?' The response rate has been incredible with over 140,000 views. People all over the world are learning about spiritual direction through the Internet.
Following the US, spiritual directors in the UK are starting to set up their own websites, making themselves, for the first time, directly available to those interested rather than only be accessible through rather hidden local lists, unknown to the vast majority of people.
Technology is also helping bring spiritual direction to those in remote communities who can now connect to spiritual directors through Skype and email. One spiritual director I know, using Skype, has clients all over the world drawn to his particular approach of spiritual mentoring. Others I know can offer support facilitated by email and Skype to missionaries working in other countries.
Seekers are also now using the Internet to find Retreat Centres with spiritual direction, and places that offer training in the art of spiritual accompaniment.
2. There is an increased number and variety of people seeking spiritual direction
Broadening of knowledge of the work of spiritual direction has led to a widening variety of those seeking spiritual accompaniment, and those seeking training. On the course I am involved with here in Gloucestershire, we now have students from very wide ecumenical backgrounds who take back a deep knowledge of the work into their various spiritual communities, spreading understanding and sparking growing interest. There has been a very significant change in those that attend training courses in the last 20 years. Particularly of note, more Protestant and Evangelical Christians are discovering the benefits of the Christian contemplative tradition in spiritual direction. We also have those who now follow their spiritual path outside of any organised Christian setting.
Courses are also springing up in the UK that cross religious traditions, having a broad and inclusive approach to 'soul work'. There have, as outlined in my article on the history of spiritual direction, always been those within the major religious traditions who offered spiritual support to others. But of note now is how some spiritual companions are beginning to feel able to offer their support across religious divides.
Whereas in the past mainly priests, lay workers and monastics in institutional church settings sought spiritual directors, now people from all walks of life, and all church backgrounds or none, can and do seek out its benefits. Public interest is growing. In 2010 in the US, two TV programmes on spiritual direction were aired. They were well received, presenting spiritual direction as a process that can support people whether they see themselves as religious, spiritual or not sure, helping them become closer to God, or a Higher Power, and to live at peace and in service to their community.
In the UK programmes such as the popular 'The Great Silence' explored a similar theme within the Christian tradition, where ordinary members of the public were given the opportunity to spend time in contemplative silence with the daily support of a spiritual director.
In Africa, Australia-Oceania, Europe and the Americas, and Asia, spiritual direction is moving out of the churches, synagogues and temples and into prisons, homeless shelters and even parks where gang members hang out. In April 2012, part of the publicity for the Boston SDI 'Cultivating Compassion' conference, included an article on one spiritual director who meets regularly with a gang member in a public library.
3. Spiritual direction contributes to health and wholeness
As we develop a holistic understanding of health and wholeness, this encompasses all that we are, including our spirituality. Spiritual teachings and practices should enhance our lives and open up new pathways to wholeness, and spiritual direction can help facilitate this journey. As Christ said, 'I have come that you may have life, and have it in abundance.' (John 10:10). Jesus also proclaims, 'He has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to set the captives free and give recovery of sight for the blind ' (Luke 4:18). Although, spiritual direction is not the same as healing ministry, it does seek to foster a person's connection and response to God, and to help them grow in inner freedom from the things that are hindering them as they grow in intimacy with God, self, others and creation; all of which contributes to health and wholeness.
Jewish legend teaches that before God created the universe, God created teshuvah as a healing force embedded in all creation that draws all things back to their Source in God. Teshuvah, although typically translated as repentance in the Old Testament, actually comes from the Hebrew root shav, to return. The implication is that we all have a reference point for wholeness to which we can return. Teshuvah is not something one does once and for all; rather, it is a lifelong journey of spiritual homecoming. It is through teshuvah that we each, in our own uniqueness and separateness, come to remember ourselves as part of the great unity from which all of life emerged. And it is through teshuvah that we are continually being healed and restored to our original form. This is a profound legend that resonates in different ways with many traditions. You could say that spiritual direction should facilitate a person's connection with, and response, to teshuvah as they seek to 'return' to the wholeness in God that is their Source.
Spiritual direction also has a role to play in creating a healthy work-life balance. Even large businesses are understanding this importance. Spiritual directors in the US have experimented with taking spiritual exercises, such as the Ignatian examen, into the workplace of Amazon.com. An employee of Google, Chade-Meng Tan, is also well known for teaching contemplative practices at work.
4. Spiritual direction is helping to meet the growing desire to explore a
contemplative approach to faith
Meeting a spiritual director regularly is a contemplative practice in itself, giving people a space and skills to live a more reflected life. Developing contemplative practices, so inherent in spiritual direction, helps the person to 'listen to their life,' to see the mystery that our lives are and to foster awareness that 'all moments are key moments and life itself is grace'. (Frederick Brechner)
So often the people I am privileged to work with comment on the value of having someone to help them pause, to notice and reflect on the graced moments that so easily can fall through our fingers in the midst of life's busyness and noise. Over time they imbibe these skills for themselves, growing in the art of contemplative awareness.
Neurologists and brain researchers are notably also discovering connections between contemplative practices and compassion by studying Tibetan monks and Christian contemplatives.
5. There is a growing awareness of the need of training & professionalism in
spiritual direction work
As we understand more the complexities and dynamics of 1:1 helping relationships, this has led to a growth in understanding of the necessity of formal training for spiritual directors. Much harm can unwittingly be done by those not in touch with their own inner issues or equipped to work with otherness in spirituality, however well-meaning they are. St Teresa of Avila notes in her writings the pain of seeing a series of spiritual directors who did not understand, or know how to work with, her particular experiences of God and that negated her spirituality, relieved only by her eventually finding support in St John of the Cross.
Training in understanding and working with a wide range of spirituality (even within one tradition) helps spiritual directors not fall into the trap of seeking to create the spirituality of others in their own image, to be able to truly offer a non-judgmental and open space, available to the work of God. Formal training gives students a rare opportunity to practically experience and work with people from all Christian streams and understandings, and beyond in some cases; to learn more of the wide variety of prayer that may be unknown to them. It is also an important space giving necessary time for potential spiritual directors to reflect in depth on their own spiritual journey, doing their own inner work and developing deeper self-awareness before working with the spiritual lives of others.
Training also helps modern day spiritual directors understand, and not fall into,
some of the complex psychological dynamics of 1:1 work that could otherwise impede the relationship. Gaining some knowledge of human psychology, as well as theology, is a fundamental part of the formation.
All this is not to say that spiritual direction is, at heart, not a charism, but to recognise that it needs formation in the same way as other charisms such as teaching, leadership and the priesthood. In Gloucestershire we see our course as enhancing the gifting already present. Natural skills in listening, and intuitive awareness and experience of living the spiritual life, are enhanced by formal training in the art of contemplative listening.
Codes of practice in spiritual direction work are springing up around the world including the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland. In England one is in its final draft with The Retreat Association. Some countries are also now moving towards formal professional accreditation of spiritual directors, beginning to hold spiritual directors to similar standards of ethical practice and accountability as other helping relationships. Issues such as confidentiality, boundaries, legal requirements, understanding the limits of competence (so as not to stray into areas such as counselling where they are not competent), the need for supervision and continuing professional development, are all detailed to ensure the wellbeing and safety of the client/ directee.
6. More spiritual leaders are validating the ministry of spiritual direction
Just 29 years ago, spiritual leaders from around the world came together in Assisi to pray for peace. Among them African healers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dalai Lama and the Pope, imams and Native American medicine men, rabbis and Sikhs, and many more. It was the first time in human history such a meeting had taken place with the spiritual leaders finding a common language in contemplative silence. As Pope John Paul II said, we come 'to witness before the world, each according to his own conviction, about the transcendent quality of peace.'
Since then, spiritual leaders such as Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have offered appreciation for the ministry of spiritual accompaniment:
'As she has never failed to do, again today the Church continues to recommend the practice of spiritual direction, not only to those who wish to follow the Lord up close, but to every Christian who wishes to live responsibly his baptism, that is, the new life in Christ.'
Such support from spiritual leaders has helped to communicate the value of spiritual direction for today.
* In 'Presence' the quarterly international journal of Spiritual Directors International.
Labyrinth photo by Aaron Harmon used under Creative Commons licence