Where does Spiritual Direction come from?

Where does Spiritual Direction come from? June 5, 2012

This ancient practice of spiritual direction—dating back to the 3rd century Desert Fathers and Mothers—seems rather new to some. That’s because before the 1950’s, about the only people receiving spiritual direction were Catholic priests, nuns and monks—and usually it was with elders from their communities.  Also, for Catholics there is a long history of spiritual direction being combined with the practice of confession, which limits who is able to offer spiritual direction. For much of the history of the practice, the goal of spiritual direction was to form people (primarily priests, brothers and nuns) into more orthodox and faithful leaders.

Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that in the mid-20th century it all began to change.

The field of psychology exploded and with it the related field of pastoral counseling. While therapy and pastoral counseling are quite different from spiritual direction, the important role they played in church life and teaching cultivated an atmosphere where spiritual direction could spring back up in a new form. Ministry in the 1950’s and 60’s became quite specialized. Churches wanted their pastors to be more like CEOs of the congregation, making “head of staff” pastors of large churches less available for one-on-one pastoral meetings with congregants. Church people began to see spiritual issues as fertile ground for guidance, and the need for a new kind of consultant—one who was not a therapist or a keeper of orthodoxy—was felt.

In the 1980’s, interest in the practice of spiritual direction as a way to meet this need blossomed. Episcopal priests were particularly enthusiastic about the practice and it filtered down to their parishioners. (This is—in my opinion–why Catholics and Episcopalians seem to produce a lot of spiritual directors). Training programs preparing people to become spiritual directors sprang up, like the Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA, Shalem Institute in Washington, DC, and the Diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, CA. Alongside this new growth in training programs came Spiritual Directors International (SDI), an organization bringing spiritual directors together for conferences and networking as well as a clearinghouse for information about spiritual direction and how to find a spiritual director.

SDI is why today you are likely to find a person who is “spiritual but not religious” seeing a Jewish director or perhaps a Catholic sister going to a Protestant layperson for spiritual direction. A lot of us like to mix it up with directors very different from ourselves because diversity challenges us. We have many choices in spiritual directors because of the boom in the ministry over the last 70 years.

In our next session, more definitions of spiritual direction.

For more about spiritual direction as I practice it, check out my website. If you have questions or comments about the content of Spiritual Direction 101, please let me hear from you in the reply section below.





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