Gurus and Gods: On Spiritual Direction

My students often bring things to my attention that stick.  It’s one of the gifts of reading their papers.   One of the students in our spiritual direction program noted that some clergy are suspicious of spiritual direction.  She quotes one pastor who observes,

“I fear that the gift of so-called spiritual director is just another guru-gimmick which sources spirituality in religious opinions, teachings, and practices that are utterly foreign to Holy Scripture, and such a source of spirituality will not promote the unity of faith amongst believers, as does the legitimate gift of pastor-teacher, but a diversity of beliefs revealing that all the spiritual directors and listeners are being ‘tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.’”

My student cited the author of this observation and I confess that I don’t know him.  So, I have no way of knowing what his real motives or fears about spiritual direction might be.  Here is what I hear, however:

One, uniformity of belief is an indication that someone is on the appropriate spiritual path.  God only works in one way and variation is suspect.

Two, spiritual direction and spiritual directors operate by their own lights and are unaccountable to Scripture.

Three, the only legitimate dispenser of spiritual wisdom is the pastor-teacher.

Here is what is wrong with the views expressed above:

One, uniformity of belief might be comforting to us, but God does not seem particularly concerned about it.  There are undoubtedly core beliefs that are defining for Christians, but there is also some considerable variation in belief and — more importantly — experience.  God can be pretty unorthodox.

Two some spiritual directors pay little attention to Scripture.  But Christian directors do pay attention to Scripture.  In fact, directors often use Scripture as a means of suggesting prayer practice and meditations for their directees; and some of the oldest traditions in spiritual direction (for example, the Ignatian approach) relies upon Scripture to frame its understanding of the spiritual life.

Three, the fact that someone is a spiritual director does not mean that they are worthy of your trust.  But the same could be said about “pastor-teachers.”  The issue is not title or calling.  The issue is one of spiritual accountability.

Anyone who calls himself or herself a spiritual director, but acts like a guru is not worthy of your trust.  But the same could be said of a pastor-teacher who acts like God.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), live in Highland Park, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and four grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, and Sophie.


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