In one week in the fall of 1983, just before I left All Saints’, Burnaby, on a six-month sabbatical, five people in the parish asked me to be their spiritual director. This had never happened to me before, and I was a little nonplussed.
I told them that since I was going away, it might be a good idea for them to find another director. However, if when I returned they still had not found one, we could work together.
I responded in this way for two other reasons as well. I knew that to offer spiritual direction with authenticity, one should be in spiritual direction oneself, and I wasn’t.
And then the real reason: it scared me—they would find out how, deep down, I was shallow. Perhaps they would all find other directors, and I’d be off the hook. But no such luck. When I came back, two of them had indeed found other directors, but the smiling faces of the other three greeted me expectantly.
So I did find my own director, a marvelous Roman Catholic sister, who was a solid rock for me in a difficult time in my life. And I did start working with the three persistent ones (cf. Luke 18.1-8); and thus began what for me has been a profound journey, and one of the major dimensions of my ministry.
What then is spiritual direction? It’s also called spiritual companioning, spiritual guidance, and soulfriending—terms which may give you some larger sense of what it’s about. But let’s clear the decks.
First of all, spiritual direction is not psychotherapy, nor is it counseling, nor is it “coaching” (a recent arrival in the array of helping occupations). If you have a mental illness, you go to a psychiatrist or a psychodynamic therapist. If you are in a crisis, you go to a counselor. If you need to set success-oriented goals in your life, you go to a coach.
Why then go to a spiritual director? Because you want company or accompaniment on your spiritual journey. You want to grow in your faith as a discerning Christian; and so you find someone whom—you hope!—is farther along the road than you are, and who will encourage you in the One Journey, which is at the same time your unique journey.
And how does this happen? In ways appropriate to your place on the spiritual path. Your director/soulfriend will listen to you, pray with you, if appropriate, suggest particular things to read, help you establish your own spiritual practice, or ask you to reflect on various aspects of your lifestyle. It is not the “spiritual life” (whatever that is!) that is the subject of the direction relationship: it is your entire life, the only life you have, every part of it—before God.
A little flag here: direction—does that mean a spiritual director gives me directions about how to live my Christian life? No. The director works with you to help you discern your own direction, the direction in which God is calling you forward towards the divine heart.
After some years of being a director on my own, I was privileged to work with others in setting up the Pacific Jubilee Program in Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Direction (www.jubileeassociates.ca), a training program for people who feel called to be soulfriends or spiritual directors.
I am also a member of Spiritual Directors International–SDI–which is having its annual leadership institute and conference here in Vancouver in April (with two Anglicans, Mary Millerd and Jeannette Stigger, as co-chairs of the local committee).
On the evening of Thursday, April 12, there will be a public event to which anyone interested in spiritual direction is warmly invited. For further information about this, check out the SDI website (www.sdiworld.org)--where you can also find information on how to find a spiritual director for yourself.
I conclude with the words of a song which for me expresses the essential ethos of spiritual direction:
I am here, in the heart of God;
I walk the path the saints have trod.
As I set forth, Mercy takes my hand;
She leads me to the Promised Land.
Don Grayston is a priest currently working at St. Thomas, South Vancouver, and is director of the Pacific Jubilee Program in Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Direction.