The aim of spiritual direction is to help others know God more fully by way of attentive listening, prayer and encouragement. Spiritual direction is also a process. The growth of an individual’s relationship with God takes place over a lifetime and directors can help a directee enhance his or her relationship by encouraging the use of spiritual disciplines. In this paper, I will define spiritual direction; explain what I believe a spiritual director must do and what spiritual disciplines and activities a director can encourage to help enhance a directee’s relationship with God. I will also give special attention to John Wesley’s class meetings as a means of spiritual growth.
Spiritual Direction is defined as soul care (Moon, 11). It asks another “How are you and God getting along?” (Bakke, 17). This soul care involves “nurture and support as well as healing and restoration” (Moon, 11). Unlike pastoral counseling and psychotherapy, “spiritual directors are not professionals, but amateurs who aspire to reflect Christ’s love,” (Guenther, 30). Like professional therapists and counselors, spiritual directors hear their share of pain and joy in sessions with directees, but they do not remain professionally detached. They do not “prescribe” answers or solutions; they take on the pain as their own while listening attentively (Guenther, 30). They pray for their directee and listen for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. They ask questions and try to help the directee hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. In short, spiritual direction is an act of holy listening; it is a “gift of disinterested, loving attention” (Guenther, 3). Through a program of spiritual direction, either in individual or group form, Christians will grow exponentially as they release the cares and burdens of life and learn to look for “how the Spirit of God is present and active” in the circumstances of their lives (Bakke, 19).
In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard wrote that a teacher must “bring the apprentices to the point where they dearly love and constantly delight in that ‘heavenly Father’ made real to earth in Jesus (and that there is no limit to the goodness of his intentions or to his power to carry them out.” A teacher must also “remove the automatic responses against the kingdom of God, to free the apprentices of domination, of ‘enslavement’ to their old habitual patterns of thought, feeling and action” (Willard, 352 – 353). These goals, as defined by Willard, do not have to be reserved for teachers; a spiritual director can also use them as objectives as well. In fact, this is what spiritual directors must do. They must point the way to Jesus and help the directee overcome “enslavement,” as Willard says.
This can be accomplished in several ways. The first is through individual direction versus the group experience. In this method a director and a directee meet for an hour (Guenther, 16) and allow the Holy Spirit to move the direction of the meeting. The director sits and listens and asks questions that further insight. The goal is to allow the directee to explore the depths of his or her heart, depending on the Holy Spirit as the “true director” (Moon, 27). This method would be quite effective for Christians who carry heavy burdens, who desperately need time to talk (Bakke, 140). A director will have to determine whether or not a heavily burdened directee is in need of psychiatric care, but this does not mean that the spiritual direction relationship has to end. The director and the directee can continue meeting, should the directee need professional counseling, or they can continue the relationship at another time. Once goals are achieved through professional counseling, if it is needed, the directee’s heart and mind will be freed to grow spiritually (Bakke).
The group method is for people who want more of God, who may not require the intensive care of individual direction (Bakke, 140). John Wesley depended on group spiritual direction in his class meetings during the early days of the Methodist movement. “The class meeting was where (the early Methodists) came to share the bumps and bruises of (discipleship), to comfort and strengthen one another, and to provide a mutual accountability for the task in hand,” (Watson, 68). There are many aspects about the class meeting, but one of their main priorities was to “watch over one another in love” (Watson, 62). Indeed, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer” (Bonhoeffer, 19) and Wesley felt the same way. Wesley felt that Christians could not survive alone. He also maintained that the Methodist movement should remain part of the church at large for accountability purposes (Watson, 27).
Wesley’s method of spiritual direction sounds necessary in the American church today, where Christians are often individualistic and where fellowship is lacking. By implementing a contemporary version of Wesley’s class meetings, the church can help Christians become accountable again and can help deepen their discipleship through confession and promotion of Wesley’s idea to “watch over one another in love” (Watson, 62). Through the practice of confession in a trustworthy setting, Christians can find the joy “of fellowship, the Cross, the new life and certainty” (Bonhoeffer, 118). They will also find that when they go to a Christian brother or sister that the person to whom they are going is a sinner like themselves, “a godless man (or woman) who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness” (Bonehoffer, 119).
Wesley’s class meetings also spurred its members onto good works. Wesley saw helping those in need as a “common courtesy” (Watson, 84). He encouraged the Methodists to practice acts of compassion. This included feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and helping the sick or imprisoned (Watson, 84). “Acts of justice” must be performed alongside acts of compassion. “We must not only meet people’s needs, but ask why they are in need in the first place” (Watson, 85). If encouraged by a spiritual director, practicing acts of compassion and justice will help directees look outside of their own lives and change their focus to the needs of others. The result will be a healthier body of Christ because it is focused externally rather than internally.
A director must encourage the spiritual disciplines because a “Christian’s journey toward wholeness in the image of Christ … progresses by means of spiritual disciplines” (Mulholland, 75). Disciplines such as prayer, fasting, study of scripture, journaling, physical exercise and spiritual reading must be emphasized by the director because he or she will not always be there for the directee, due to frequency of the meetings, or because the relationship has ended. Practicing spiritual disciplines will help the directee focus and rely more on God than the director as he or she experiences the help and power of the Holy Spirit in daily life.
The aforementioned disciplines are also important for the director as well. The director cannot recommend scripture or spiritual readings if he or she has not read or studied them. The director cannot effectively pray during the session unless he or she spends time in secret prayer with God. A director cannot encourage fasting unless he or she has tasted the joy surrounding this discipline. A director cannot lead others closer to God unless he or she has strived for closeness as well. To keep spiritually fit, a director must see his or her own spiritual director and friends who will speak plainly to him or her (Guenther, 12). Writer Margaret Guenther also recommends that directors should keep journals and go on spiritual retreats. A director should also try to exercise and encourage directees to do the same. While exercise improves physical health, it also improves mental health as well. Plus, during the time of exercise, the mind is freed to pray. As the body protests, discipline to keep going is learned. In 1 Corinthians, Paul equates running with spirituality: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” 1 Corinthians 9:23-25 (New International Version).
A director must also develop a rule or rhythm for life and encourage directees to do the same. W. Paul Jones said: “Since spirituality is related to one’s full personhood, a rule should oversee one’s time and space, one’s doing and being, one’s significant relationships, and the use of one’s resources. The rule is an intentional spiritual plan, undergirded by sufficient disciplines, support and accountability for ‘growth in grace’ to be ongoing” (Carrim, 1).“Blessed are those who find God’s hand in the aesthetic: music literature and art keep us joyful and proportionate” (Guenther, 14). While Guenther uses this statement to advocate a balanced life for the director, a director can also encourage spiritual growth through the arts because “artists learn discipline from the daily grind of making art” (Wuthnow, 24). Not only do artists have to carve out time to create, they also learn to be attentive and patient. If a spiritual director is artistically inclined, he or she may wish to engage in making pottery or weaving with the directee so that the mind and heart can be freed for conversation or prayer as the body relaxes. In my Sunday school class, I frequently ask one of my artistic students to draw her impressions from the scriptures we are studying. This helps her connect visually and kinetically. Spiritual director Sally Palmer said that she took up weaving because it helped her learn to focus her efforts on something for a long period of time that, at times, “yielded infrequent results” (Wuthrow, 25). She equated this discipline with learning how to live the a spiritual life (Wuthnow, 25).The same discipline can be used in knitting an afghan or learning to play or sing a difficult piece of music.
In conclusion, I believe the spiritual director should use a variety of methods such as individual or group direction in his or her effort to help people draw closer to God. Emphasizing and practicing spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, study of scripture, journaling, physical exercise and spiritual reading will help directees draw closer to God and will help directors stay spiritually fit. Directors can utilize the arts to help directees gain wisdom about life as they learn discipline by practicing a craft and to maintain a balance in their lives as well. The use of group direction by developing a contemporary version of John Wesley’s class meetings can strengthen the church as its members grow spiritually. Above all, I think a spiritual director must remain focused and point directees toward a loving relationship with God and help directees by moving them from old habitual practice to an abundant and free life in Christ.
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