Spiritual direction is a ministry of codiscernment. Though in the actual experience we might be face to face in conversation, it is helpful to think of this as a ministry in which directors walk alongside others. The directors are not so much telling the others anything as seeking, with them, to listen to the voice of Jesus.
Good spiritual directors may have relatively little to say, but what the directors do say will be oriented toward enabling those they serve to listen to what the Spirit is saying. John English put it well when he wrote, “The guide . . . is not interested in a confession of what the person has done to incur guilt but, rather, in what is happening to the person.” In other words, spiritual directors seek to help others make sense of what is happening in their experience, and the primary focus of this is what the others are experiencing in prayer.
The directors may well have counsel to give–suggestions for spiritual exercises, good reading to consider, texts of Scripture for meditation. And directors may suggest the need for a day of prayer and may speak directly to an area of neglect or blindness, where this would be appropriate. However, the objective of spiritual direction remains the same: to enable others to grow in their capacity to hear the voice of Jesus. The goal of direction is a relationship, enabling others to mature in their ability to live in communion with Christ.
Therefore, while the ministry of spiritual direction may include a discussion about many aspects of people’s lives, notably work and key relationships, the conversation will regularly come back to prayer. Spiritual directors assume that those whom they serve wish to grow in faith, hope and love, and the primary catalyst for this will be their personal encounter with Christ in prayer. Naturally, then, what is happening in peoples’ prayers will be the main focus of conversation.
It also follows that spiritual direction includes conversation about what is being experienced emotionally. Those served through this ministry can acknowledge their feelings, move toward an understanding of their significance and, as appropriate, find some resolution to emotional turmoil or desolation . . . . Feelings have an inherent ambiguity; we need someone outside our immediate experience to help us monitor and understand them. This is a vital element in spiritual direction.
First, then, spiritual directors help us monitor our prayers. Second, directors help us come to terms with what is happening to us emotionally. But there is a third element to spiritual direction: this ministry means asking questions about our response to our world.
Here, too, an important distinction needs to be made. Directors are ill advised to use the word should about a decision others are making or to offer a judgment about whether a previous decision was wisely made. It is simply not the directors’ call to make. Rather, through well-conceived questions, directors can help develop in others a capacity to act well and choose well. Questions about the range of alternatives others might consider would be appropriate. Questions that highlight aspects of the others’ world, options or problems they might have overlooked and potential implications for family, friends and colleagues are reasonable as well.
Again, as noted above, spiritual directors are not counselors or therapists but are those who walk beside us as codiscerners, enabling us to monitor our prayers, the emotional terrain of our lives and our actions and reactions to our world. While we might appreciate keenly the value of spiritual directors when we are making a critical decision, the ministry of directors has relevance at all points in our spiritual pilgrimage.
Gordon T. Smith, The Voice of Jesus, 215-17.
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