Spiritual direction: a cry for help

If anyone makes himself his own master in the spiritual life, he makes himself scholar to a fool. – St Bernard

Having finished English Spirituality, I’ve now moved on to another book by Martin Thornton: Christian Proficiency, which aims to provide a more practical guide to living out the principles of “English spirituality”.

“Proficiency” refers to the spiritual life of “a sound ‘ordinary’ Christian” – one who is neither a beginner in the Christian life, “yet far from perfection”. The framework within which Thornton sees such a Christian engaging in prayer is the threefold “Rule” which he sets out in English Spirituality:

  • Office
  • Mass
  • Private prayer

The last of these is then split into:

  • Mental prayer (such as imaginative or intellectual meditation on the life of Christ or the doctrines of the church)
  • Colloquy (which in turn consists of petition, self-examination and confession, intercession, thanksgiving, and adoration)
  • Recollection (the “practice of the presence of God”, both as specific acts of recollection and as a “habitual” state of the soul)

That may sound like quite a lot to squeeze into one life, and Thornton acknowledges this. His recommended solution consists of two main elements:

  • spiritual direction; and
  • “Rule” (as in following a disciplined, though flexible, “rule of prayer”, rather than following a list of “rules”).

I mentioned a few months ago that I didn’t feel I had a “‘spiritual director’-shaped hole in my life”. I suspected that I was lying (or at least protesting too much) even then, and reading Thornton has made me rethink.

But what is spiritual direction? Thornton is careful to distinguish it from “counselling”, which is usually aimed at addressing specific problems, usually over a finite period of time. Spiritual direction is intended for the ongoing life of the “ordinary” Christian. Similarly, Thornton distinguishes it from individual confession and absolution: while one’s director may also be one’s confessor, this will not always be the case.

Thornton compares spiritual direction to asking for directions from a police officer:

[He] advises us to follow a certain road to get to a certain place, he may give us a choice of routes and point out their respective snags and merits. He does not order us against our will – unless it is a one-way street when it is better for us to follow his direction all the same – nor does he get out of his car and take us there himself. (pp.25f.)

As a result, spiritual direction has nothing to do with “autocracy, ‘priestcraft’, submissiveness, easy ways out, not standing on one’s own feet, interfering with the relation between the soul and God, etc., etc., etc.” – to rehearse some of the usual Protestant arguments against the practice. What it can do is to free us from the burden of having to work everything out for ourselves.

Thornton then turns to the very practical question of how to set about finding a spiritual director and starting to undergo direction. If you are interested in this topic, you’ll want to read this section of the book in full, but here is a brief summary:

  1. “The Church gives you absolute freedom of choice as to who your director shall be.” If you want it to be your parish priest or pastor, and they are the right person for the job (not all are), then all well and good. But if not, you are free to choose someone else.
  2. The priority should be to find a director who is competent – that is, who has “a working knowledge of ascetical and moral theology supported by a regular life of prayer”.
  3. If you find it difficult to identify a potential director, ask your Christian friends (see the end of this post!), or write to your bishop. “You can be assured that you are not ‘troubling’ anyone with something trivial,” Thornton reassures us, pointing out that such a request will likely make a pleasant change from the average bishop’s usual postbag.
  4. Once you have found a guide, use them. Thornton compares this to your dentist, where you will have regular periodic checkups, but can also call on them when a specific problem comes up (without ringing them for every slight twinge).
  5. Don’t be afraid if you find it difficult to talk about spiritual things. A large part of the director’s job is to draw out from you what they need, just as a doctor can diagnose you even if all you can say is “I have a pain – here”.
  6. Don’t be afraid to discontinue with a given director if the relationship doesn’t work or has run its course, though equally avoid chopping and changing.
  7. Tell your pastor that you are receiving spiritual direction (assuming they are not already your director!).
  8. Finally, and importantly: don’t leave it till you are facing a crisis. As Thornton points out, “if you are on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean, it is a bit late to learn to swim” (fuller quotation here – worth reading). If possible, the time to commence direction is when things are generally going well for you.

All this brings us to the real purpose of this post. My wife and I are both interested in investigating spiritual direction (in the sense described by Thornton) further, but have no idea where to begin. It’s not something that really exists within the Lutheran tradition, and while we have a huge regard for our pastor, this doesn’t really strike us as his sort of thing.

So we’d welcome any suggestions on where to start looking for a potential spiritual director. Geographically we’d be looking at London/Kent. In terms of temperament, theology and general outlook – and especially bearing in mind Martin Thornton’s description of the role – my expectation is that an Anglo-Catholic or Benedictine director is probably what we’d be happiest with (the Jesuit approach, for example, almost certainly isn’t for us). I’m thinking we’d probably expect to meet up with them (I assume individually rather than as a couple) at say 3- or 6-monthly intervals, and then to be in occasional email contact between times.

If you have any ideas, contact me either via the comments (I’m happy to email you back if you put your email address in the relevant field) or on Twitter.

Update: several people on Twitter have suggested the London Centre for Spirituality, whose website has a section on spiritual direction. From the LCS website, it looks like the people to contact in my neck of the woods are SPIDIR. Thanks to all who have contributed suggestions.

5 thoughts on “Spiritual direction: a cry for help”

  1. I would challenge your claim that spiritual direction doesn’t exist within the Lutheran tradition. As far as you are concerned, it may as well not exist, since that’s not a strong point of Lutheranism around these shores. Just a brief read through Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together’ points to its existence in the world he inhabited, and similar evidence lies all around.
    Indeed, the subtitle of Giertz’s Hammer of God refers to ‘the cure of souls’, something that in the Swedish context has a strong connotation of just what you are referring to, albeit described in more traditionally Lutheran terms. It’s closely linked, but not limited, to the ordained ministry.
    I suppose that a wider question that arises from what you write is how such ‘cure of souls’ might be better established within British Lutheranism.

    1. Yes, that’s a fair point. I was referring specifically to the British context. Closely related to the question of what “the cure of souls” should look like in our context is the issue I was discussing with Pr Jon and Boris recently: do we really have a shared understanding, as a church, of what the basic framework of an integrated “devotional life” – in Thornton’s terms, a “Rule” – should look like, especially outside the hours of 10.30 to 12.30 on a Sunday morning? ISTM the answer is currently “no”.

      1. Of course we don’t. Current English Lutheranism is the fruit of a very narrow slice of church history, increasingly in the past (except here), and in a rarefied form. But building these things up is slow, pain-staking work—there are no shortcuts in the catechetical and formational task.
        It wouldn’t be a bad idea to start by reinstating the Daily Office as an intergral part of the church’s life.

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