Reuben Lance had huge outcroppings of bristle for eyebrows and a wild, red beard. He looked mean, a demeanor reinforced by his laconic sarcasm. In our town he was a jack-of-all-trades, an expert in everything manual: carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, masonry. He could fix anything. His expertise was so well established, apparently, that he didn’t have to be nice. He had never married. Everyone I knew was intimidated by him. I know I was.

So I was surprised when a friend suggested that I go to him for conversation and prayer. I knew that he professed to be a Christian—at least he showed up for worship in our little congregation every Sunday. But that he could help me learn to pray never would have occurred to me. Reuben Lance never prayed aloud in church (in our circle, praying aloud was a prerequisite to authentic spirituality). I sensed that he was scornful of most of what passed for religion. And he didn’t suffer fools gladly.

I was 20 years old, home for the summer from my second year of college. I had come back with an unnamable discontent, and was full of unfocused energies and subterranean feelings that were looking for an outlet but not finding one. I thought the feelings had to do with God, but I wasn’t sure. They were not fitting into the categories of faith I was familiar with.

Not surprisingly, I was reluctant to risk Reuben’s scorn of what he would probably see as adolescent silliness draped with the silk veils of a pretentious metaphysics I had picked up in college. But my friend seemed confident that Reuben might very well be the right person for me. So I went.

I asked Reuben if I could talk to him and maybe pray with him. I told him I had these feelings and energies that I did not understand, but that I thought had to do with God. He was curt in his assent: “If that’s what you want. Meet me in the church basement after supper on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” He became not only the first, but among the best of the spiritual directors I have had, even though he had never so much as heard the term spiritual director, and neither had I. It would be 20 years before I acquired a vocabulary that would adequately account for what took place between us. But our mutual ignorance of terminology did not prevent the work. For a summer of Tuesday and Thursday evenings we met, conversing and praying in the prayer room in the church basement.

The Failed Attempts

Reuben was not the first person that I had tried talking to that summer, but the third. The obvious sources I had tried left me disappointed. Earlier, for example, I had approached my pastor. After listening to me for about five minutes, he diagnosed my problem as sex, and launched into a rambling exposition on the subject. He invited me back a couple of days later to continue the conversation.

I came, but after this second try decided that sex was his problem, not mine. Sex was certainly a matter of considerable interest to me and not without its problematic aspects, but the way he was approaching it wasn’t coming close to dealing with what I was trying to sort out within myself. I thanked him for his concern (a polite dishonesty on my part), knowing that I had gone to the wrong person.

I next approached a man who had the reputation in our congregation of being a saint. When he was 23 years old his spine had been severed by gunshot in a holdup on a street in Cleveland. He had spent the subsequent 40 years in a wheelchair. On Sunday mornings he wheeled himself to the far-right aisle near the front of the church, his Bible open on his lap. There was a quiet serenity about him. All the years of my growing up I had heard people say that he was wise and holy. When my pastor turned out to be neither, this man seemed to be a providential backup.

Article continues below

I went to him and told him of these vague but powerful feelings I was having, that I thought they had something to do with God but did not know exactly what, and asked if I could talk to him about what I was experiencing. He was delighted to meet with me and suggested that we use the Bible as a text for our conversation. But it turned out that there was no conversation: He was only interested in acquiring an audience for his “wisdom” and proceeded to lecture me interminably from Ephesians for the three or four meetings that I had with him. I had no idea that the Bible could be so dull.

It was after these two failed encounters that my friend, sympathetic to my frustration, suggested that I go to Reuben Lance.

A Stance Of Wonderment

I remember little of the content of that summer of prayers and conversations. But I do remember that I was with a person who treated me with great dignity. Or more particularly, he treated my God interest, my prayer hunger, with great dignity. The Elijah-fierceness, it turned out, protected a shy gentleness. It was also, I have since thought, an assault on sentimentality (Reuben loathed sentimentalism, especially pious sentimentalism). I slowly became aware that I was, even in my inarticulate guessing, an aspect of the mystery of God, a mystery not to be fit into an already prepared program.

This was something new for me—and every time it happens again, it still seems new. It was accomplished by means of Reuben’s prayerful listening. He had nothing to tell me, although he freely talked about himself when it was appropriate. But he never took over.

The “saint” I had gone to had a lifetime of pious wisdom to shovel into me. He saw me as an abyss of ignorance that he had been divinely appointed to fill in. I was an “opportunity for ministry.” But Reuben assumed a stance of wonderment. In his company, I began to enter also into wonder. For his attentiveness was not to me, as such, but to God. Slowly his attitude began to infect me—I gradually began to lose interest in myself and got interested in the God at work in me.

A conspicuous omission in our meetings was gossip. Reuben had no interest in gossip. He was not curious about what might be hidden in the closets of my life. My pastor had turned out to be a snoop. Reuben was no snoop. Much of what we talked about was everyday stuff—tools, work, landscape, school. I never had the feeling that he was exploiting my vulnerability in any way. He treated me with dignity. (Twenty-year-old college sophomores aren’t used to being treated with dignity.) I felt a large roominess in his company—a spiritual roominess, room to move around, room to be free. He didn’t hem me in with questions; he didn’t suffocate me with “concern.”

A Pause Before Mystery

Reuben Lance, who had never heard of the term spiritual direction, laid down for me its two essential preconditions: moving beyond mere knowledge, and offering more than caring.

Beyond knowledge. Spiritual direction is not an opportunity for one person to instruct another in Bible or doctrine. Teaching is, of course, an essential ministry in the church. Knowing the Scriptures, knowing the revelation of God in Israel and in Christ, is supremely important. But there are moments when diligent catechesis is not required, and a leisurely pause before mystery is. None of us knows in detail what God is doing in another; what we do not know far exceeds what we do know. There are times in life when someone needs to represent to us that vast mystery beyond simple knowledge. When that takes place, spiritual direction is in motion.

Beyond caring. Spiritual direction is not an occasion for one person to help another in compassion. Compassion is an essential ministry in the community of faith when we get maimed emotionally or physically, or require the loving and healing help of another. Helping in Jesus’ name is crucial. But there are moments when caring is not required, when detachment is appropriate, when what the Spirit is doing in another far surpasses what we ourselves are doing. There are times in life when someone needs to get out of the way in order that we might become aware of the “silent music.” When that takes place, spiritual direction is in motion.

Article continues below

This is difficult. It is difficult because knowing and caring are in such high demand. In the practice of the Christian faith, it is outrageously wrong when men and women who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are unwilling or unable to give knowledgeable witness to him, infuriatingly hypocritical when men and women who have been saved in Jesus’ name are unwilling to care for the needs of another. Knowing and caring are powerful energies in this gospel life.

Knowing has even been secularized into a school system that is one of the dominating institutions in our culture. Caring has been secularized into a medical-psychological establishment that affects everyone. So if only in their attenuated, secularized versions, the habits of knowing and the teaching that goes with it, and the habits of caring and the helping that goes with it, are embedded in us. Knowing and caring make up major percentages of our experience.

All the same, difficult or not, spiritual direction draws on the long-standing conviction of the Christian community that there are moments when mystery takes precedence over knowing, and getting out of the way takes precedence over caring. Reuben Lance knew that, and became the first person in my experience who gave precedence to those dimensions. I have been on the lookout for persons like him ever since. Occasionally I find them.

Groceries And Carburetors

The term spiritual direction is not entirely satisfactory. Like the cereal called Grape-Nuts that is neither grapes nor nuts, the name does not hold up well under close scrutiny.

“Spiritual” for many (most?) means that which is not material, not ordinary. But spiritual direction is as ready to spot God in the supermarket as in the pew. A remark by a child can carry as much immediate weight as an oracle in Isaiah. Spiritual direction deals with prayer and Scripture and service, but it also deals with groceries and tennis and carburetors. The biblical use of the word spiritual refers to the work of God in which we participate, and which includes and integrates all of life.

“Direction” carries an obvious connotation of taking charge and showing the way. But spiritual direction is more likely to be quiet, gentle, and unassertive. One of the characteristics of spiritual direction is to “get out of the way,” to be unimportant. A paradox is in operation here: to be really present without being obtrusively present.

The biblical way to provide direction, then, is by a kind of indirection: the metaphor of poetry, the obliqueness of parable, the hiddenness of prayer. The task of direction is not to get a person marching in goose step with a flock of pious geese, but to cultivate the deep places of the spirit where the Spirit creates the “new thing.”

Even though the phrase spiritual direction is nearly always misleading to newcomers, I prefer to retain it; it has a long and accessible history. But I use it as little as possible. I never use it to refer to what I do: I am “pastor” to my congregation, and “friend” to my friends. (The Celtic term for spiritual director meant soul friend—I like that very much.)

Article continues below

What is important to keep in mind is that spiritual direction has long, rich, and deepening precedents in all parts of the church, East and West, ancient and modern. Evangelicals and Protestants for whom the term is new will often find, as I did, that the practice is old—and that many of us have had significant experiences in it already. Because we did not have a word for it, we did not notice it as much as we otherwise might have.

But it is time to take notice; there is accumulating evidence that there are deepening hungers for maturity at the center, and spiritual direction is the classic carrier of wisdom both from and to that center.

Why So Many “Teachers”?

Spiritual direction is not for everybody, and not for all the time. It presupposes a certain level of maturity, both in intellect and in virtue. We do not give spiritual direction to someone ignorant of the divinity of our Lord or the authority of the Scriptures. We do not give spiritual direction to someone who is pursuing an adulterous affair. Catechesis is required in the first instance and discipline in the second.

All the same, it seems to me that the practice of spiritual direction is the center out of which Christians need to move in order to make an appropriate gospel response to one another. We are not to compulsively tell others everything we know, making ourselves professors and them students. Nor do we busily figure out what is wrong with others so that we can help solve their problems. We acquire the habit of looking for God’s activity in the lives of others—listening, worshiping, loving, attending.

Sometimes I need a teacher, someone to explain the Scriptures, to clarify the Christian belief in some circumstance or relationship. But mostly I do not—I need to become what I already know.

Sometimes I need a helper, someone to assist me out of a jam, someone to keep me accountable to my commitments. But mostly I do not—I need to enter into the reality that is already God acting in and around me.

Those early experiences have been repeated so many times: my pastor reducing me to a sexual problem, my “saint” stuffing me into a scriptural project. Why do I have so many teachers and helpers, and so few friends who are modest enough and wise enough simply to be companions with me in the becoming and the entering in? In clearing the ground? Removing obstructions? Discerning the presence of God? Listening for the still, small voice? I need someone like Reuben, my friend, my spiritual director who didn’t know he was a spiritual director, giving me space and stature by which I found something large and gracious, by which I was able to experience freedom.

I haven’t seen Reuben Lance’s unkempt eyebrows and flourishing beard now for 35 years, but somewhere along the way they became emblematic for me of the essential characteristics of spiritual direction: initially forbidding but then graciously invitational, a repudiation of spiritual stereotypes and clichés, a scorn of coifed pieties and barbered devotionalisms, and, most of all, an unpretentious (sometimes shy and always ordinary) companionship in venturing step by cautious step into the fiery extravagance of Pentecost and Patmos.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.

Issue: