A Brief History of Spiritual Direction

Where did this ancient art come from?

Histories of spiritual direction tend to hit some of the same points for the most part. They mention the Apostle Paul, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Early Monasticism, the influence of Celtic Christianity, Saints Benedict, Theresa, Ignatius of Loyola and John of the Cross. And then they end up in the mid to late twentieth century with the practice of Spiritual Direction moving out of the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions and into the general public.saints Some writers, like Tilden Edwards, go back even farther and trace the beginnings of spiritual direction to the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian gospels.

For example, Edwards talks about “the abiding sense of guidance in Hebraic tradition: the direct guidance from God and from his revealed Torah…, lived out in covenanted community.”

He goes on to describe how the ministry of Jesus “marked the path of spiritual guidance taken in church history,” primarily through “a sense of serving and sharing” and “confidence in the human capacity…to be in contact with the Holy One.”

But as I mentioned, most writers tend to start with Paul and his epistles as the very beginnings of spiritual direction. They go on to emphasize the desert fathers and mothers as the first true spiritual directors.

Duane Bidwell, for example, says, “The practice of Christian spiritual direction is rooted in the fourth-century deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.”

Laymen and women disappointed with urban Christianity went to live alone in the desert, intending to practice the spiritual disciplines that can lead a person to holiness. Other Christians began to recognize the spiritual wisdom and power of these hermits and sought them out for spiritual advice.

From there, some writers, like L. Roger Owens, talk “about the fifth-and sixth century saints in Ireland who transformed the pagan Celtic practice of having a soul-friend, an anam cara, into Christian friendships of the spirit.”

Owens also mentions “the spiritual friendship between St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross in the sixteenth century.” And let’s not forget St. Ignatius of Loyola, “The sixteenth century founder of the Jesuits, who assigned to a spiritual director the role of helping someone on a silent retreat interpret Scripture with the imagination.”

Protestants have a tradition of spiritual direction as well. Bidwell notes that, “Practicing spiritual guidance is in some ways a return to the Protestant tradition of spiritual direction developed during and after the Reformation.”

In contrast to the monastic tradition developed by St. Benedict, “early Protestant spiritual directors…claimed little authority in relationship to their directees, perceived the direction relationship as temporary, and tended to focus on crisis resolution rather than a lifelong companionship on a person’s journey with God.”

That was the way things were up until the mid-twentieth century. Spiritual direction could be found in the context of religious communities (monasteries and convents), or perhaps in an ad hoc relationship between a parish priest and a parishioner.

But with Vatican II, trained spiritual directors in the Catholic tradition (primarily nuns) began to make spiritual direction available to laypeople beyond the convent walls. In fact, to this day “Catholic sisters are still the…single largest bloc of members” in Spiritual Directors International.

We are now in the midst of a renewed emphasis on spiritual direction. As Alice Frykholm notes, “Over the past two decades, the practice of spiritual direction has become an increasingly regular part of mainline…spirituality.”

That’s more or less the story of spiritual direction in the Christian tradition. Right now we have the opportunity to help write then next part of the story.

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