Christian counselor and popular author Larry Crabb took the trouble to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. But now he believes that in today's church, therapy should be replaced by another, more ancient practice—"spiritual direction."
This is one of the classical Christian spiritual disciplines Crabb and others from a wide variety of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox backgrounds are examining and recommending anew in a biannual journal, Conversations: A Forum for Authentic Transformation, just launched this Spring.
Crabb is not the only modern Protestant digging into this historical mode of spiritual growth. Jeannette Bakke, author of Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction (Baker, 2000) said in a Christianity Today interview, "Evangelicals are listening for God in ways that are different from our usual understanding of discipleship. We are looking at many Christian disciplines, including prayer, silence and solitude, discernment, journaling, and others. … Spiritual direction is one of these disciplines many evangelical Christians are learning about and exploring."
What is spiritual direction?
Spiritual direction is a voluntary relationship between a person who seeks to grow in the Christian life and a director. The latter is not, notice, a counselor or therapist. Rather, he or she is a mature Christian who helps the directee both to discern what the Holy Spirit is doing and saying and to act on that discernment, drawing nearer to God in Christ.
The focus is on intimacy with God, not on the solving of clinically identified psychological problems. The whole sinful orientation of the self, not any particular dysfunction, is the "problem" to be addressed. The director helps directees identify ways they have sought satisfaction and fulfillment from sources other than God, in the process pushing God aside. Directees are led to hear the Holy Spirit (the "real spiritual director") calling them back onto the right path. The director's role is one of coming alongside, rather than dictating a program. The relationship thus shares some features with the Celtic ideal of a "soul friend" or "anamchara." However, its nurture usually flows only one way.
Being a good spiritual director requires not a doctorate but mature theological knowledge, a degree of holiness, and a knack for discernment.
How did spiritual direction develop in the church?
Spiritual direction has a long and honored place in Christian History. In the New Testament this sort of discerning, directing relationship can be seen with Jesus and his disciples, for example, or Paul and Timothy. And spiritual mentoring continued in the early church, through a spiritual lineage from apostles to bishops (tradition has it that the second-century bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, was personally discipled by the Apostle John). In fact, spiritual direction was particularly critical before the formation of the canon, when the oral word passed down through bishops complemented the letters circulating in the church that eventually composed the New Testament.
John Cassian (ca. 350-435) provided some of the earliest recorded guidance on the process of spiritual direction. Influenced by the Egyptian desert ascetics, Cassian introduced an intentional process of mentoring into the monasteries. He put every novice under the care of an older monk and warned that great care should be taken in choosing spiritual directors. St. Benedict worked Cassian's concerns into his influential Rule, and by the end of the seventh century, spiritual direction was firmly associated with monasticism throughout the West.