Soul Friends and Spiritual Companions: An Essential Part of the Contemplative Life

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.

A Co-Listener

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:

  1. Pray about it. Seek Divine guidance. Trust that God will lead you to the person who is right for you.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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):

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3 thoughts on “Soul Friends and Spiritual Companions: An Essential Part of the Contemplative Life”

  1. What about the solitary path, Carl? There are deeply contemplative people who are called to silence and solitude with the Holy Mystery as their only companion. Some live as hermits but there are also those who live in urban settings, living “in the world but not of it,” without any human soul friend. It is possible to live a contemplative life without a human soul friend. In this path spiritual teachers come and go. You have friends but your best friend and constant companion along the contemplative path is the Great Mystery we call God.

    1. Certainly there are those called to the solitary life — Julian of Norwich being a salutary example. So “never say never” — and what I would add to affirming the possibility of the solitary or eremitical life is just a wee note of caution: generally speaking, the call into solitude is a fruit of a sustained and mature contemplative life, that emerges after a long season of some form of communal engagement. St. Benedict expresses this beautifully in his Holy Rule: some (not all monks) are called into solitude, but only after having been formed as a monk in community. I think this principle is helpful for discernment: if one feels a tug into solitude, it’s always important to discern whether it is an authentic call into the mystery, or might be a way of evading or running away from something. Just because one is an introvert does not automatically make one a contemplative!

      My other note of caution: even solitaries are meant to serve others. “If you live alone, whose feet shall you wash?” was how St. Basil the Great challenged all hermits of all time. Of course, one can be immersed in community and still dodge service, so this onus isn’t just placed on solitaries. But it is a question that every solitary needs to wrestle with. And I would add another question to St. Basil’s: “If you live alone, who will wash YOUR feet?” Sometimes it is even harder to allow others to serve us than it is to serve. Having a soul friend or spiritual companion — even if it is not a lifelong accompaniment — can be a humble way to allow someone else to wash our stinky feet. That, in itself, is a profound and vital spiritual discipline.

      1. My apologies.I should have been more specific – I mean that among eastern contemplatives, there are those who are called to the contemplative life at a very young age, and have the Holy Mystery as their constant teacher and companion. Sometimes they continue to live with their families and communities, but are ushered into what Fr. Basil Pennington – who lived in Asia for close to a decade – referred to as the cell within our hearts. We do not use the symbol of the washing of feet in Asia, but these people grow up to become healers and in a sense give their lives away to the community. It is not a “running away from;” it is rather a “running to” the inner cell to be tutored and prepared by spirit for a life of healing. What goes on within this inner monastery is simply beyond words to describe to family and friends so these people become contemplatives with Spirit as their soul friend. But then again, I pause and remember that westerners are not familiar with these types of healers who do not use material things like crystals.

        Thank you anyway for the kind reply and apologies for not having been clear. I pray that someday we will all experience having Spirit as our soul friends and not be called loners.

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