A few years back, my sister-in-law gave my wife a guitar, after Fran (my wife) had expressed a desire to learn how to play. As part of the gift, my sister-in-law went by the local music store and arranged for my wife to get lessons. As generous as the guitar itself was, the opportunity to study with a good teacher made it an even more special gift. Even though Fran is a beautiful singer and has a good ear for music, she recognized that to truly learn the guitar, especially as an adult, required the supportive guidance of someone who could share her expertise.
Isn’t that true of so many aspects of life? Whether it’s learning how to play a musical instrument, master a foreign language, achieve peak physical performance, or take a professional career to a new level, working with a mentor — a person with knowledge, skill, and the ability to impart wisdom to others — is a smart thing to do.
Why should the spiritual life be any different?
The Irish Saint Brigid of Kildare once noted that a “person without a soul-friend is like a body without a head.” The Gaelic word for soul-friend — anam chara or anam ċara— has a meaning similar to that of starets, a Russian Orthodox word that literally means “spiritual father.” The starets and the anam ċara are two traditional, culturally specific terms, that refer to a widespread and ancient spiritual practice: of turning to an elder, a guide, a mentor, and/or a companion who can provide insight and direction for the life of prayer and communion with God.
Historically, such spiritual guides served in a more or less formal role: often as priests or elders in a monastic setting. But this Irish concept of a soul friend-suggests another, far less structured relationship: that of companionship offered to one another in a spiritual or prayerful way. Nowadays, both of these approaches to spiritual guidance: formal and informal, mentoring and peer-to-peer, can be of value to anyone who seeks a more intimate connection with God.
For the purposes of this brief post, when I speak of “spiritual accompaniment” I am referring to both kinds of spiritual guidance. Indeed, many spiritual guidance relationships may blur the lines between spiritual direction and soul-friendship, which can be just fine. There’s no rigid “right” way to receive (or give) spiritual direction; what’s right is what works for you, in your unique quest for a deeper and more authentic relationship with the Holy One.
So what, then, is spiritual accompaniment — particularly in terms of Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality?
First, let’s note what it is not. A Christian spiritual companion is different from the eastern concept of the guru — the master through whom enlightenment is transmitted. A Christian spiritual companion, whether director or friend, understands that the ultimate “guide” for Christians is the Holy Spirit. Thus, it is the task of a spiritual companion to be as transparent as possible, allowing God to relate directly to the seeker.
Nor is spiritual direction a form of psychotherapy. Therapy is an important process for many people, offering support and guidance in the journey toward healing or strengthening mental health and developing skills for managing and thriving in life. By contrast, Christian spiritual companionship emphasizes building or deepening a relationship with God, through prayer, meditation, contemplation, or other spiritual practices. A good spiritual companion will pay attention to the needs of the person coming to them for guidance: if their primary need is for therapy rather than support in spiritual growth, the director will make a referral to a qualified therapist.
Working with a Christian spiritual companion, like any contemplative practice, is always meant to be a process for nurturing a more intimate relationship with God. So in Christian mysticism there tends to be less emphasis on concepts such as enlightenment, illumination, or mystical experience. In this sense, a spiritual companion is not a coach who demands better performance, but rather a co-listener: a person who “listens with” the seeker, and thus helps or serves the seeker as he or she embraces the vulnerable path of deepening intimacy with the creator.
This is not to suggest that a spiritual companion is just a nice person that we can have friendly chats with about God. Sure, that could be part of the relationship, but there’s so much more to a meaningful soul-friendship. Relating with God means relating with the vast limitless source of all love, all creativity, all power. It means not only finding ineffable joy, but also facing the difficult truth of our own capacity to resist and distort the flow of love in our lives (what has traditionally been called “sin”). To honestly face both God and our authentic self is to embark upon an awe-inspiring and, at times, frightening task. Therefore, a good spiritual director will not only encourage our enthusiasm for the contemplative life, but he or she will also help us to keep from losing heart as we face the challenges of the inner life.
What Happens During a Spiritual Companionship Relationship?
I’ve worked with a number of spiritual directors and guides over the years, and have been mentored in the art of spiritual direction. Each relationship is unique, and can be flexible to meet the needs of the director and directee. But in general, most spiritual companionship relationships involve a commitment to meet on a regular basis, often once a month, for about an hour or so. The time together might begin with shared prayer or silence. Then the seeker (directee) is invited to share how their prayer life is going, or anything else they wish to discuss in light of their ongoing relationship with God. The guide/director will listen, offer feedback when appropriate, and invite the directee to reflect on how God is at work in their life. Very often the time spent with a soul-friend or spiritual companion will take on a deeply prayerful, contemplative quality — for, indeed, time spent with a spiritual companion, whether in silence or in conversation, truly is prayer, since it is time offered to the presence of God in the midst of the relationship.
Finding a Spiritual Companion
Spiritual guidance is a gift from God. Anyone can make an excellent soul-friend or spiritual director; gifted companions can be found among virtually all denominations of Christianity; they may be lay or ordained, male or female, young or old. Some clergy, many nuns and monks, and increasing numbers of lay persons are receiving formation from seminaries and other institutions in the art of spiritual guidance; but since the primary qualification for spiritual direction is that a person is him- or herself committed to the life of prayer, you can find wonderful soul-friends or informal mentors whose only “training” is their own meaningful and established prayer life. Just as a self-taught guitarist can sometimes be a better teacher than the graduate from Juilliard, so too the best person to whom you should entrust your spiritual growth may or may not have any credentials as such. All this means is that it is wise to keep an open mind about who might be your director. You may be surprised at the kind of person who turns out to be the right soul-friend or spiritual companion for you.
To find a spiritual director:
- Pray about it. Seek Divine guidance. Trust that God will lead you to the person who is right for you.
- Ask close friends you trust, and ask your pastor, for referrals. Often friends and clergy will know about persons who are gifted in the art of sharing the life of prayer.
- Look for people who are involved in contemplative ministries (like Contemplative Outreach or Shalem); often such persons will either be spiritual directors themselves, or will be able to make a referral.
- See if anyone is available at a local monastery convent, or retreat center. Often monks and nuns have formed in the art of spiritual accompaniment, and certainly such people are familiar with the life of prayer. Spiritual direction is very much part of Ignatian/Jesuit spirituality, so consider speaking with a Jesuit priest; if he is not available to offer you spiritual guidance he might be able to make a referral.
- You can also visit the Spiritual Director’s International website for referrals, although I would encourage you to look for someone by word-of-mouth before resorting to a website.
A few do’s and don’ts regarding spiritual direction:
- Don’t look for a spiritual companion unless you are serious about praying daily and meeting regularly (say, once a month) with the director. If you resist such a discipline, a few meetings with a gifted director may help clarify your resistance. Your discipline does not have to be perfect, but your intention ought to be mature, before spiritual direction will be useful to you.
- Don’t use a spiritual companion as a substitute therapist. A good spiritual companion offers you support for your growth in the life of prayer. Your spiritual companion may or may not have skill or training in areas of counseling and psychology. An effective spiritual director will refer you to a therapist if your concerns are more therapeutic than theological. Here’s how to think of this: effective therapy helps an individual to find greater personal satisfaction and effectiveness in life; spiritual direction by contrast supports the individual who seeks union with God — an objective which carries no guarantee of “satisfaction” or “effectiveness.”
- Don’t seek a formal spiritual direction relationship from a spouse, family member, or close friend. You are too close to persons in these categories to truly achieve the level of vulnerability and willingness to receive sometimes-difficult feedback, that is necessary for a truly wonderful and beneficial direction experience. Unless you live in a small town or rural area where the population is sparse, I’d also recommend finding someone other than the pastor of your church. Ideally, your spiritual companion will have no other role in your life.
- Do state your expectations and concerns about spirituality up front. Strive to be honest with your guide. Remember, the goal here is to nurture your relationship with God; the director is simply there as a resource person. Since spirituality can take so many different forms, so can spiritual accompaniment; if a particular person’s gifts or abilities don’t feel right to you, it is appropriate to look for someone who is a better fit.
- Do make sure you and the director communicate clearly about basic issues such as the location, frequency and duration of meetings, and any expectations about payment or donations. Some directors give this ministry freely, while others charge a fee per visit. Clarify this point.
- Do support the director’s other work, if the director is a minister or religious. Make an offering to his or her church or monastery or retreat center.
- Do be willing to find a new spiritual companion when the time is right. While it is possible to work with the same spiritual director for many years, it is also appropriate, some times, to find a new person. A word of caution, though: don’t change directors every time your work with your spiritual companion becomes boring or difficult. Sometimes, it is precisely when it feels like a struggle that we become truly available for the leading of the Spirit in a deeper way in our lives. But it is also possible to stay with a spiritual guide too long. If you find that the conversation with your spiritual companion always tends to veer away from your prayer to other, less relevant topics, that can be a sign that it’s time to move on. But don’t just abandon a spiritual director: devote your final meeting with the person to closure.
For further reading (note that most of these books are written for spiritual directors and are designed to help people engaged in the ministry of spiritual direction to grow as directors):
- Jeannette A. Bakke, Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction
- William A. Barry and William J. Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction
- Tilden Edwards, Spiritual Friend: Reclaiming the Gift of Spiritual Direction
- Kathleen Fischer, Women at the Well: Feminist Perspectives on Spiritual Direction
- Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction
- Jean LaPlace, SJ, Preparing for Spiritual Direction
- Kenneth Leech, Soul Friend: Spiritual Direction in the Modern World
- André Louf, OCSO, Grace Can Do More: Spiritual Accompaniment and Spiritual Growth
- Gary W. Moon and David G. Benner, eds., Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls: A Guide to Christian Approaches and Practices
- Henri Nouwen et al., Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith
- Bernardo Olivera, OCSO, Light for My Path: Spiritual Accompaniment
- Janet Ruffing, RSM, Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings
- Norvene Vest, Still Listening: New Horizons in Spiritual Direction