I first heard about “spiritual direction” from the best of my classmates during our first year in seminary. These seminarians were seeking spiritual directors for ongoing discernment, ministry formation and support with questions of call. Our seminary’s Roman Catholic partner schools made spiritual directors available. But only now, nearly 50 years later, am I exploring the path those classmates took.
When I retired from full-time ministry, I felt called to remain purposeful and helpful in my local congregation—St. Mark Lutheran in Spokane, Wash. My ongoing study of Martin Luther’s notion of vocation compelled me to raise the question of whether our congregation might benefit from having someone trained as a spiritual director—someone who could offer deeper and longer spiritual conversation and vocational discernment than shorter-term pastoral care affords. I soon began looking for my own spiritual director and for a program that could train me for this work.
Spiritual direction—or, as it’s sometimes called today, spiritual companionship—is as old as Luther’s call for the “mutual conversation and consolation” of the faithful in the Smalcald Articles, one of our church’s confessional writings. And, of course, from the day when there were two or more Christians, such disciples of Jesus have walked and talked together—companions on the journey of faith with all its joys, questions, fears, doubts and growth.
Today’s iteration of spiritual direction has its roots in the early church and the practice of consulting the desert fathers and mothers for spiritual counsel. A more standardized form of the practice developed with the monastic orders and Ignatius of Loyola, a founder of the Roman Catholic Jesuit order and the author of The Spiritual Exercises. Currently spiritual direction is most often practiced in Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches.
As to my personal spiritual direction, I’ve been deeply blessed by a skilled layman who became my director. Our conversations are a monthly, hourlong holy companionship in sharing a love for Jesus and my growth in faith and vocation. My spiritual director has become my seelsorger, a German word from Luther for one offering soul care. Each month I bring my life, prayer practice and questions to our meeting. He nudges me with Scripture and the reflections of spiritual guides such as Teresa of Avila (1515-1582).
I’m also halfway through a two-year spiritual direction certificate program. Together with 15 companions from different denominations, I’m reading eight books, attending four weeklong intensive sessions at a monastery, engaging in regular peer collaboration and beginning the practical work of guiding others as a director-in-training.
After making the sign of the cross in remembrance of my baptism, I follow the prompts from The Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius’ first encouragement is to “choose to become aware of the gaze of God.”
Throughout my studies a life of prayer has emerged. I’ve set aside time five days a week to pray; an early-morning hour works best for me. After making the sign of the cross in remembrance of my baptism, I follow the prompts from The Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius’ first encouragement is to “choose to become aware of the gaze of God as He is with you . . . and loving you.” At first this felt foreign to me, but now this focus, along with slow, deep breathing, rouses my heart.
I then approach the Bible text for the day and enter into a meditative reading, like Lectio Divina, imagining myself into Jesus’ story. This is where I encounter the Spirit as guide, teacher and comforter.
I’ve learned to set an alarm for my closing time because I often drift into quiet and intimate conversation with Jesus. This is holy rest. I complete my time with the Lord’s Prayer.
For my final project, I’m studying the history of soul care in our Lutheran tradition. Luther renounced monastic life and left his Augustinian order with a harsh critique of practices that didn’t spring from Scripture. He condemned “spiritualists” who got ahead of the word and depended on their own god within.
Despite Luther’s concerns, his prayer life was rich, disciplined and based on Scripture. He cared for souls, and his letters express joy, even ecstasy, at God’s power to work through patient conversation and prayer. Luther and Ignatius were contemporaries—one in Germany, one in Spain—and both were interested in education and formation for laity and clergy alike. They are faithful guides on my journey.
I’m eager to begin sitting with St. Mark’s members to speak of faith and vocation. I pray this might be a beckoning path for members and an effective invitation to searchers, in which we promise those seeking and wondering about God a place for their questions, received by the generous heart of God.
Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction by Margaret Guenther (Cowley Publications, 1992).
Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone by James Martin (HarperCollins, 2021).
The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology, edited by Timothy J. Wengert (Fortress Press, 2017).
The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William A. Barry and William J. Connolly (HarperOne, 2009).
Luther’s Spirituality, edited by Philip D. Krey and Peter D.S. Krey (Paulist Press, 2007).
Visit Spiritual Directors International.