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franciscan - January 2002

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001

Living life to the full

Spiritual direction today

by Robert Jones

I asked a friend of mine once what his New Year resolution was this time. ‘Oh the usual,’ he replied, ‘survival.’ I know where he is coming from. Sometimes it does seem that survival is the game and is quite good enough for me, particularly, at times, within the Church. Recent events add poignancy to the desire for survival itself. Many feel unsafe in our world today – ‘Fightings and fears, within, without,’ in the words of one hymn. The challenge for the Christian is that Jesus talks about more than mere survival. Jesus says, ‘I have come that you may have life in all its fullness.’ It seems that we are in the business of abundant life.

Spiritual direction, for all that it sounds grand and important, is simply part of that drive towards abundant life, rather than mere survival. We are here to be loved into life and to do the same for others, a life-giving process which is life-long, and no doubt continues after death. However self-contained we may like to think we are, this is not something which we can do on our own. Nor do we have to. There are plenty of fellow-travellers, and much simple wisdom to be shared. In the matter of living life to the full there are plenty of experts around. Friends and partners will certainly be part of the process, but so too may the spiritual director.

So what is the rôle of the spiritual director? What can I expect to find? Many have noticed the growth in the number of books on spirituality, and it seems that spiritual direction is becoming quite a business too. But first and foremost, it is really quite simple: I can expect to find someone who prays, not necessarily with me, but certainly for me. Prayer not only gives godly insight, but also roots the relationship within the tradition of faith. This is not another client-expert relationship, but a ministry of the Church, with a very long pedigree, set within a community of prayer.

Secondly, I can hope to discover with my director a safe place in which to explore my own joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. These may come from within or without, especially since the terror attacks in America, which upset so much of our sense of security. The world can feel like and is a dangerous place. So we need safe places and trustworthy people. When choosing your director you have to make sure the chemistry is right, finding someone you can trust with the things you can hardly face up to yourself. Although we live in such judgmental times, we probably judge ourselves most harshly. The director needs to be a soul-friend.

Thirdly, it will not be someone who does all the work for me. I will not come away with answers except those which were probably there beforehand, if I had but known it and if answers there be. There will be no spiritual prescription to go and get sorted, no spiritual heavyweight to look up to. The director’s rôle is to tease out the insight which we already have, to uncover the godly truth which is already there, and to put up a mirror in which we can see ourselves more clearly. This should come as no surprise: we almost always need someone else to help us see what really matters, and when we do it comes as no surprise at all. The good director does not get in the way, nor mediate between God and us.

But, fourthly, I can expect that director to be someone strong enough to discern and to say the things which I need to hear, however unpalatable that may be at the time. It is not just about being stroked: sometimes we need to confront some of the demons within. One of the temptations of the spiritual life is self-delusion, and it takes someone else to see through it. Another is self-righteousness, as the Pharisees learned to their surprise when they encountered Jesus. This needs to be stripped away.

How often do I need to meet my spiritual director? As often as it takes is the answer, and that is no cop-out. I remember nearly falling off the chair when going to see a new spiritual director for the first time. ‘How regularly do you think we should meet?’ she asked me. ‘About every three months?’ I replied tentatively. ‘Oh, I was thinking about every three weeks,’ she replied. And that is what it was for a little while because I needed it, though we could not have maintained such a frequency, and nor did we need to. After a while we met every six weeks or so.

Where am I then to discover my spiritual director? Well, first of all do not search for a spiritual élite. This person is not to become God to you. The art of good direction is a gift, one of God’s gifts to his Church, and it will be practised in a local Religious community, or by some of the clergy, or under your very nose within the local congregation. We are talking, in essence, about accompaniment, simple, honest companionship along the road of faith, and it does not have to be someone especially clever or grand.

And not someone too religious, if you know what I mean. I remember meeting someone once, a very faithful Christian, who spent the whole time talking about Christian joy. The trouble was that this Christian joy sounded such hard work! Far too self-conscious, too religious, no earthly or heavenly use to anyone. No, we need spiritual directors who are firmly rooted in everyday life, feet firmly planted on the ground, because what we are talking about and what we are striving for is nothing exceptional, no premier-league religious lifestyle – it is simply about being loved into life and discovering life in all its fullness, even, especially, amidst the uncertainties of all our lives.

And maybe that is the theology of spiritual direction. The agenda is not super-life or supernatural life, but everyday life. The God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ is found in ordinary, daily living and loving. The gospels reveal to us the amazing presence of God incarnate caught up in the events of people’s daily lives. Jesus befriends, heals, gathers up, welcomes in people who, for one reason or another, are living half-lives, and they become the people they have it in them to be. So Zacchæus, a greedy tax-collector and collaborator, discovers that he is still a son of Abraham: he can still belong to his own people. Jesus’ visit welcomes him home. The woman with haemorrhages touches Jesus and does not get rejected, as she has been for twelve long years by her own community. She too is welcomed home. The extraordinary is found within the ordinary, as the shepherds in Bethlehem are the first to discover. God himself becomes human.

This is good news for Zacchæus, for that woman, for the shepherds, and for you and me. Being human is good enough. We are special, we are unique, we are alive. We are children of God, and he loves us – but again and again we need to discover and re-discover this truth. The spiritual director might just help us to do this. f

Rob Jones is a parish priest in Worcester and part of the support network for the novices during their time at Glasshampton.


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