There are several care ministries and services out there and it can be tricky to understand the differences between them. A few examples of these helping ministries are: pastoral counseling, (Christian) psychotherapy and spiritual direction. The term ‘soul care’ is becoming more and more popularized as well when broadly talking about such ministries. One simple reason why we often struggle to pinpoint the differences of these forms of care is that they have more in common than not.
I am not attempting to give you a thorough, exhaustive list of the distinctive features of each of these care ministries, nor am I offering a complete definition of spiritual direction, (there are excellent books and other resources for that, see some of them at the end of this blog). Rather, I want to give you three simple, memorable images to illustrate some unique characteristics of spiritual direction.
In spiritual direction the true Director is the Holy Spirit, and not the human director. The job of the spiritual director is to simply create a safe place for the directees to bring their whole selves to the presence of God, and guide them to notice what the Spirit has been, and is doing and saying.
Some ways how a spiritual director might do this is by lighting a candle (which symbolizes the presence of God’s Holy Spirit) at the beginning of their appointment, praying and welcoming God to guide their time together, and creating space for silence where both the directee and the director can listen to the Holy Spirit.
In spiritual direction, unlike in pastoral counseling or therapy, the focus is to intentionally observe and interpret the person’s life experiences in the context of faith, looking for the ways grace is working in the life of the directee. Spiritual direction is not primarily crisis or problem-solving focused, although crisis might be a part of the reason that someone seeks to meet a director. Hence, the language of spiritual direction is quite different from that of counseling. As Benner puts it, "Spiritual language is needed when addressing the needs of the spirit, because the soul listens for its own language."
A Cup of Tea
Spiritual direction is a ministry of hospitality. The director welcomes the directee to share his or her journey by giving them the gift of themselves. This means that the director needs to do his or her own inner work. They need to ‘clean their own inner house’, be in touch with their own brokenness, listen to the voice of God in their own lives, and be accountable to others around them. By tending to their own souls and lives of their spirit, a spiritual director helps others to move to a holy ground where they can rest, recover, and come to meet with God. Yet, the director is just a servant who is offering an invitation and Jesus is the true Host who the directee comes to meet.
There is also an element of mutuality and humility in this way of serving. The director is not a spiritual authority in the directee’s life from whom they seek advice. Even though the directors are trained and called to accompany others in their journey of discerning the work of the Holy Spirit with many tools and insights, they are also fellow seekers of the Truth on their own journey of growth and learning. And even if they work with the same directee for many years, they won’t ever completely come to know the directee. Each person will ultimately remain a mystery whom only God fully knows.
(If you meet with me in person for direction, you can be assured that there will be tea involved!)
Even though some spiritual directors meet with people of no profession of faith, or different faith to theirs, a Christian director (like myself) will always point their directee to Jesus. A director might offer a story of Jesus’ life for reflection that relates to the directee’s particular life circumstance, or guide the directee to imaginative Gospel contemplation (slow reading of a Gospel story). The life, death and resurrection of Jesus form the framework for the work between the director, directee and the Spirit.
“As a director we are not just enabling people to reflect on and integrate life, as any good counselor would do, but to do so in the light of ‘who they are called to become in fidelity to the Gospel’. This meeting with Jesus in faith is the decided and distinct difference between counseling and spiritual direction.” (Dyckman and Caroll).
Our role is to help the directee to orientate and see all of their lives in the light of God’s redemption plan. For example, this is reflected in spiritual director’s view on healing and wholeness. Whereas a modern Western medicine assumes that we cure the person when we isolate and remove the problem (whether illness or dysfunction), spiritual direction, based on the biblical narrative, believes that healing includes the restoration of the meaning of life, through involving the individual back in community.
Which of these three images for spiritual direction are you most drawn to? Why?
Sources and additional resources:
Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls: Guide to Christian Approaches and Practices. ed. Gary W. Moon and David G. Benner Sacred Companions, the Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction by David G. Benner
Candlelight, Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction by Susan Phillips
Holy Listening, The Art of Spiritual Direction by Margaret Guenther