Chapter 1.
Spiritual Direction and Christian Soul Care

Gary W. Moon and David G. Benner

Although the language of "spiritual direction" may sound modern, possibly even faddish, its practice has a long and honored place in Christian soul care. That history will become much clearer in the subsequent seven chapters, each of which explores the understanding and practice of spiritual direction within one faith tradition. But before getting to that, this chapter seeks to introduce some of the issues that will be examined. To do so, it is important to place spiritual direction in not simply a historical context but also a conceptual one.

The species of which spiritual direction is one important representation is soul care. The English phrase "care of souls" has its origins in the Latin cura animarum. While cura is most commonly translated "care," it actually contains the idea of both care and cure. Care refers to actions designed to support the well-being of something or someone. Cure refers to actions designed to restore well-being that has been lost. The Christian church has historically embraced both meanings of cura and has understood soul care to involve nurture and support as well as healing and restoration.

While Christian soul care has taken many forms over the course of church history, William A. Clebsch and C. R. Jaekle (1964) note that it has always involved four primary elements—healing, sustaining, reconciling and guiding. Healing involves efforts to help others overcome some impairment and move toward wholeness. These curative efforts can involve physical healing as well as spiritual healing, but the focus is always the total person, whole and holy. Sustaining refers to acts of caring designed to help a hurting person endure and transcend a circumstance in which restoration or recuperation is either impossible or improbable. Reconciling refers to efforts to reestablish broken relationships; the presence of this component of care demonstrates the communal, not simply individual, nature of Christian soul care. Finally, guiding refers to helping people make wise choices and thereby grow in spiritual maturity.

David G. Benner (1998) has classified contemporary forms of soul care in terms of their relative emphasis on care versus cure. Thus, for example, we could identify Christian friendship as high on an emphasis of care and low on an emphasis of cure, while psychotherapy would have an opposite balance. Within such a scheme, Benner suggests that spiritual direction is high on both, as spiritual transformation necessarily contains elements of both nurture and healing.

An understanding of the relationship between spiritual direction and other forms of soul care helps us identify its unique contributions to this spectrum of Christian care and cure activities. Spiritual direction cannot carry total responsibility for the nurture of spiritual development. Despite the pleas of advocates, it is extremely unlikely that all Christians will be in relationships of formal spiritual direction. But all should be in relationships of spiritual friendship, most will be in relationships of general pastoral care, and some will be in relationships of pastoral counseling or clinical psychotherapy. This is why subsequent chapters explore the relationship of spiritual direction to these other forms of soul care. And because the boundaries between spiritual direction, pastoral counseling and psychotherapy are the least clear, it is here that these explorations will focus.

Meaning and Purpose of Spiritual Direction

Carolyn Gratton uses the following story to introduce her book The Art of Spiritual Guidance. It's about a wise fish.

It seems that there once were some fish who spent their days swimming around in search of water. Anxiously looking for their destination, they shared their worries and confusion with each other as they swam. One day they met a wise fish and asked him the question that had preoccupied them for so long: "Where is the sea?" The wise fish answered: "If you stop swimming so busily and struggling so anxiously, you would discover that you are already in the sea. You need look no further than where you already are." (Gratton 2000:5)

For Gratton, the wise fish represents a spiritual director. The search is for life in God's kingdom; hurry is the devil.

Cultivating an awareness of God's transforming presence as foundational for spiritual direction is a common theme in the literature of devotional theology. In the words of Richard Rohr, "My starting point [for prayer as part of spiritual guidance] is that we're already there. We cannot attain the presence of God. We're already totally in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness" (Rohr 1999:28).

These images provided by Gratton and Rohr bring to mind the mission of the ultimate spiritual director, Jesus, and his advice to all who would listen: Slow down, be at peace, listen to my words, and you will become aware that the NO SWIMMING sign has been removed from the "springs of living water" (see Mt 6:25-34; Jn 4:14; 10:10; 14:27).

The profundity of the simple notion of learning how to experience the presence of God was recently highlighted for one of us (GM) while participating in a round-table discussion of Christian spiritual formation. Each person present had two things in common: a long history of involvement in the evangelical world and a recent, personal captivation by the process of spiritual formation.

The juxtaposition of these two common factors should not be missed. These were long-term, card-carrying members of evangelicalism who had spent their lifetimes in Christian study and service. But only recently, it seemed, had each enrolled in Christianity 101: ongoing enjoyment of the love and presence of God.

Toward the end of our time together, one of the group members uttered words that seem an appropriate summary to that discussion and an introduction to this one: "Could it be that it [the process of spiritual formation] is simply becoming aware that God is everywhere and then learning how to be with him—in the presence of divine love?"

Several heads nodded yes. No one disagreed.

We are not picking on evangelicals; Catholic or Orthodox Christians could have just as easily encircled the table. The point is this: it seems that many in the Christian world have recently reawakened to the truth that wearing the label "Christian" is not synonymous with experiencing the intimate, moment-by-moment relationship with God that souls were designed to enjoy, and these many have begun to place hope in the practice of spiritual direction as a path toward more abundant living. Across denominational barriers, there seems to be a tidal wave of interest in learning how to experience intimate friendship with God and a chorus line singing the praises of "wise fish" (spiritual friends, guides and directors) who are pointing out what has been easily missed.

To understand the process of Christian spiritual formation does not seem difficult, at least not on a broad-brush level. Concisely put, it involves an experiential awareness of God's presence that leads to conversation, communion and ultimately authentic transformation of the entire person by an internal yielding to his will. What is difficult to grasp, however, is why it is so easy to miss experiencing the ocean of divine love for all the water.

Thomas Merton provides indirect hope by reminding us that it has not always been this way. Spiritual direction aimed at authentic transformation through interaction with God was originally basic and normal to church life. "The individual member of the community was 'formed' or 'guided' by his participation in the life of the community, and such instruction as was needed was given first of all by the bishop and presbyters, and then through informal admonitions by one's parents, spouse, friends, and fellow Christians" (Merton 1960:12).

If authentic transformation—becoming like Jesus—was once part of normal Christian living, what happened? If "holiness" for John Wesley meant being consumed by—and transformed into—the love of God, how did that term ever come to connote staying away from beer and chew and dates who do? Why do the words of Dallas Willard ring true for so many? "The current gospel then becomes a 'gospel of sin management.' Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message. Moment-to-moment human reality in its depths is not the arena of faith and eternal living" (Willard 1998:41).

At the heart of spiritual formation is becoming aware that God is everywhere and learning to practice his presence and yield to his transforming grace. Yet the actualization of this discovery often is elusive. Perhaps this is, at least in some measure, because the resistance of self-sufficiency stains the fabric of the fallen soul. Three avenues of resistance to authentic spiritual transformation are proposed below as off-ramps from the process of authentic transformation. We will examine each as we simultaneously work toward understanding the meaning and purpose of spiritual direction.

It Is Easy to Forget Who We Are

According to Gratton (2000), ever since the Fall, we human beings have shown a striking tendency to forget who we really are. We were designed to live in a place, Eden, whose name literally means "pleasure" or "delight." We were created to thrive in loving relationship with God and each other. Life was meant to be full and abundant, interactions authentic, and the fruit of God's Spirit the fabric of our character. The only requirement for keeping the party going is to trust that God has our best interests at heart. To allow him to be God and us not God.

But since the Fall human beings seem to have suffered profound memory loss regarding how life was supposed to be lived and instead have developed a "false self," a counterfeit of the deeply buried image of God (of Christ-form). It is the false self that typically sits at the control panel of a person's life, preferring the management of religion to the mystery of spirituality. As Merton (1961) suggests, the core of this false way of living is always a sinful refusal to surrender to God's will. The "true self, and its desire to live in transforming friendship with God, remains buried in the depths of our souls" (Gratton 2000:67).

Yielding to authentic transformation is difficult because it is easy to make the same choice as Adam and Eve, to choose to be God and consequently to live out of a false identity. Once we have let go of God, false attachments—what we have, do and control—become seductive, and the illusion of our divinity becomes strong. In the words of Leo Tolstoy, "All men of the modern world exist in a continual and flagrant antagonism between their consciences and their way of life" (Tolstoy 1936:136).

Christian spiritual formation involves awaking from the dream that we are God and remembering our true identity, our "beloved-of-God-in-Christ" identity, and then saying yes to the pain associated with the mortification of our false self. Dethroning the false self is a pillar of spiritual direction—and a primary cause for the busyness and anxious "swimming" that distract us from enjoying the "water."

Union with God Is a Scary Proposal

Arguably, the most quoted modern definition of spiritual direction is provided by William A. Barry and William J. Connolly.

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. The focus of this type of spiritual direction is on experience, not ideas, and specifically on religious experience, i.e., any experience of the mysterious Other whom we call God. (Barry and Connolly 1982:8)

This definition is important because of both its simplicity and its breadth. Spiritual direction here is grounded in experiences associated with the development of an intimate relationship with God—conversing with an invisible Friend, if you will, until we become just like him.

As with any "romantic" involvement, developing a relationship with God requires lots of time—for conversation, communion and union. Barry and Connolly place relationship at the heart of their definition of spiritual direction. By "relationship with God" they mean something that is "established by the creation of the human person and exists even when the person is unaware of its existence" (Barry and Connolly 1982:32). They expand on this theme by casting spiritual direction as "an interpersonal process in which two people work together toward the goal of a deeper, more explicitly intimate and mutual relationship with God" (1982:155).

To be alive is to be in relationship with God and in the process of spiritual formation. Each is unavoidable, given breath and consciousness. But all formation is not good formation, and all relationships do not lead to transforming friendship.

The possibility of the directee's walking the path of experiential relationship with God is always before the mind of a discerning director. As Merton reminds us, in its root meaning spiritual direction is a "continuous process of formation and guidance, in which a Christian is led and encouraged in his special vocation, so that by faithful correspondence to the graces of the Holy Spirit he may attain to the particular end of his vocation and to union with God" (Merton 1960:13).

For some Protestants this notion of developing intimacy with God that crescendos in union may be unsettling. But it is at the heart of spiritual direction. Again in the words of Merton: "This union with God signifies not only the vision of God in heaven but, as Cassian specifies, that perfect purity of heart which, even on earth, constitutes sanctity and attains to an obscure experience of heavenly things" (1960:13). It also goes to the heart of the words of Jesus in his commencement address to his disciples, when he prayed for them "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" On 17:21).

Dallas Willard has these words to say about the development of this type of intimate relationship with God.

So our union with God—his presence with us, in which our aloneness is banished and the meaning and full purpose of human existence is realized—consists chiefly in a conversational relationship with God while each is consistently and deeply engaged as his friend and co-laborer in the affairs of the kingdom of the heavens. The process of having a personal relationship with God becomes a concrete and common sense reality rather than a nervous whistling in the dark. (Willard 1999:56)

The pursuit of union with God is a major on-ramp to the process of spiritual direction. But it can also be a crowded exit. Union with the almighty, all-seeing God is a death threat to the autonomous life. It constitutes both the ultimate goal of spiritual formation and much of the reason for its resistance.

A House Divided

We have stated that spiritual direction involves remembering who we are and then choosing to enter into a relationship with God that leads to union of our entire being with his being. But another factor is important for understanding spiritual formation and the avoidance of this process. Many schools of both psychology and theology have focused their attention on one or more of the component parts of the person and have consequently lost a vision for a holistic understanding. This is more than unfortunate, as authentic transformation involves the whole person.

As Barry and Connolly observe, "Inviting God to communicate with us in prayer and trying to respond to him in prayer tend to involve all of our selves. Feeling, mood, thought, desire, hope, will, bodily gestures and attitudes, activity, and direction of life" (1982:41). Spiritual direction must involve the whole person.

In Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, Dallas Willard analyzes various components of human beings and how Christian spiritual formation takes place within all these dimensions. As figure 1.1 shows, Willard posits six basic and inseparable aspects of human life: thought (images, concepts, judgments), feeling (sensation, emotion), choice (will, decision, character), body (action), social context (relations to God and others) and soul (the factor that integrates all the dimensions to form one life). Christian spiritual formation, he says, involves allowing the Word and Spirit of Christ to enter into one's depths and begin to transform each component of the human being to Christlikeness—under the direction of a regenerate will and with constant overtures of grace from God (Willard 2002:42). Willard acknowledges that such transformation is not the result of mere human effort and cannot be accomplished by direct effort. It is a matter of cooperating with grace and desiring to have Jesus live his life through me.

Figure 1.1. Willard's model of the person

Willard's model of the person may remind some readers of how the history of psychology was until it recently became more focused on specific components of the person than on the entirety. The ancient parable of six blind men encountering an elephant quickly comes to mind. In the field of psychology, the past several decades have witnessed a jockeying for preeminence among various psychologies, each devoted to one of Willard's dimensions of the person (behavior, cognition, relationship, etc.), each attempting to explain changes in emotion. Too often attempts have been made to understand the complexities of humans by examining a singular dimension. And while some schools have posited deeper levels of explanation for actions and reactions, the absence of the concept of a unifying soul has left the field of psychology very compartmentalized.

Spiritual direction with its soul talk and holistic view of the person is seen by many as a refreshing alternative to the compartmentalization of modern psychology. As Merton expresses it, "You don't go to a spiritual director to take care of your spirit the way you go to a dentist to have him take care of your teeth. The spiritual director is concerned with the whole person" (1960:14).

The history of psychology reflects the difficulty a person may find in raising the microscope high enough to get the big picture—which, according to Willard, is necessary if we are to view the person in her or his interactive entirety. Authentic transformation, it follows, must involve the whole person, or it will be something other than authentic and less than transforming.

The Process of Spiritual Direction

Kallistos Ware tells of a fourth-century desert father, St. Sarapion the Sindonite, who traveled on a pilgrimage to Rome. Once there he was told of a respected recluse who spent all her time in a small room. Sarapion was skeptical of her way of life because of its contrast to his own, which involved much travel. He called on her and asked, "Why are you sitting here?" To this she replied, "I'm not sitting, I am on a journey" (Ware 1993:7).