Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?

Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher? July 6, 2015
St. Joseph's Abbey in Massachusetts. Monasteries are often excellent places to find guidance in Christian contemplation.
St. Joseph’s Abbey in Massachusetts. Monasteries are often excellent places to find guidance in Christian contemplation. Photo by Carl McColman.

A reader of my blog wrote the following message to me:

I have been meditating for about a year now. I have been working with a meditation teacher who has been helpful, but, even though we are of the same Christian faith, he leans too far into the Yogi tradition for my comfort level. My experience with Centering Prayer has been very positive and what I have read and heard about the Christian Contemplative Path resonates with me. To really deepen my practice, do I need a spiritual teacher? If so, how do I find one? If not, what is the next step for me?

Thanks for your note, and I’m glad to hear that you are finding both resonance and a positive experience as you explore Christian silent prayer. Let me first address the question of your current instructor, and then your “main” question about your next step.

So many Christians find inspiration from spiritual wisdom outside of Christianity. This is nothing new. In the second century, Clement of Alexandria used the language and philosophy of Greek paganism to illuminate his writings, some of the earliest post-Biblical examples of Christian mystical writing. Thomas Aquinas, of course, drew from a specific pre-Christian Greek source — Aristotle — when developing his magisterial theology. More recently, figures like Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, and William Johnstone drew on eastern spirituality to illuminate their faith in Christ.

But I really want to affirm your recognition that sometimes what nurtures one person could be uncomfortable or simply not useful for another. There is no one magic “sweet spot” for Christian-Interspiritual engagement, and each person needs to discern for him- or herself what degree of interspiritual wisdom or practice feels right. For that matter, what “feels right” may evolve over time. I think many Christians may find it helpful to get a thorough grounding in a specifically Christian approach to silent prayer, but then may (or may not) wish to engage in a more interspiritual practice later on.

I hope you will find a way to gently share you feelings with your current instructor. I would suggest you be careful to avoid framing it as a criticism of him, but rather as a simple recognition that your need for a more immersive Christian practice mandates that you seek guidance from someone who is comfortable working within that specific context. Bless this teacher as you take leave of him, for he has been your companion up to this point.

And now, to the heart of your question. Where now?

First of all, the challenge you’ll encounter is that Christianity does not have a guru tradition, so nearly all people in traditional leadership roles (priests, ministers, and the like) are simply not equipped to give you the guidance you seek. Which is one of the reasons why so many Christians turn to the east when they discern a call into silence!

But there are resources for you — you just need to know where to look.

If you are Catholic and/or comfortable with Catholicism, I would encourage  you to reach out to a monastery near you, especially if it is a Trappist monastery. The Jesuits are another possibility, although their meditation practice tends to emphasize guided imagery rather than resting in pure silence. Other monastic communities may have members who can offer  you guidance as well.

In any case, what you need to ask for is someone who is capable of providing spiritual direction with a focus on centering prayer. Incidentally, when I say monastery that includes convents as well — nuns can be just as wonderful as monks when it comes to providing spiritual guidance or direction.

Don’t be surprised (or discouraged) if when you approach a monastery and ask if you could meet with a spiritual director, you are told that none of the monks are available to do this. Many monks and nuns are overwhelmed with people seeking guidance. If that’s what you are told, follow up by asking if they could make a referral for you. Many monasteries may know of laypersons in their community who are trained to provide the kind of guidance in contemplation that you seek.

If you would rather work in a more Evangelical context, I think your best bet is probably Renovaré, which was founded by Richard Foster (author of numerous books, for example Streams of Living Water). I don’t know if Renovaré offers referrals to spiritual directors or not, but you could at least contact them and see what they might have.

Two other possibilities for finding a guide is Shalem and Spiritual Directors International. Both organizations are ecumenical and can provide referrals to those who provide spiritual guidance and accompaniment to others. I think highly of both organizations, but they do have a strong interfaith/interspiritual component, so you would need to be clear with anyone you meet through these groups that you are seeking someone to support you in a specifically Christian context.

You notice I’m using words like “spiritual director,” “spiritual guide” or “spiritual companion.” I said earlier that Christianity doesn’t have a guru tradition, but it does have — originating in the monasteries — a longstanding tradition of spiritual companionship or direction, where an older person provides guidance or support to others. The theology here is that the only true teacher of prayer is the Holy Spirit; but we can be blessed by the wisdom and insight of someone who is a more seasoned contemplative. So the relationship is less hierarchical than you will find in other faith traditions, but it still can be a rich source of learning and formation.

Finally, I want to strongly encourage you to seek fellowship with other Christian contemplatives. Since you are familiar with centering prayer, I would strongly encourage you to join Contemplative Outreach and attend centering prayer retreats and, if available, a centering prayer group in your area. The national office of Contemplative Outreach can put you in touch with person(s) in your area who are qualified to lead centering prayer groups; perhaps if there is no group currently active in your area, you can help to get a new group started.

And through all of this searching and exploration, take time every day to be silent in your prayer.

I hope this is helpful! Please let me know if you have any additional questions. God bless you on your journey.


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Do you have a question about Christian contemplation, centering or silent prayer, or mystical theology? Please share your question with me, either as a comment to this post or by sending me a message through my contact page. I’d love to hear from you.

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