What is Spiritual Direction or Guidance?

… the gentle art of spiritual guidance is simply and profoundly this: holding the space for another to come into deeper relationship with the Real — True Nature, God, the Absolute, the Ground of Being — and to manifest that deepening in their lives. ~ Janet Quinn

Spiritual Direction/Mentoring/Guidance: An Ancient Practice in Modern Form By Janet F. Quinn, PhD, RN, FAAN

The Early Spiritual Directors

If you lived somewhere near the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the 4th century, and if your heart was restless in its holy longing for deeper connection with Source, God, Spirit, the Holy Mystery, you might have felt called to make a long, hot pilgrimage over difficult terrain to see one of the desert Ammas and Abbas for spiritual guidance. These “mothers” and “fathers” were serious folks when it comes to the spiritual journey. They left the safety but also the chaos of their cities for the stillness of the desert, where they hoped to live a deeper life, a life grounded in, centered in, guided by, Source, the Ultimate Reality, God, the Holy Spirit. They hoped that in the desert, they could follow the lead of the Psalmist who wrote: “Be still, and know that I am God.” And while they tried to leave the world behind, people hungry for the same spiritual experiences found them and sought them out for their guidance in living the interior, spiritual life fully in the midst of their ordinary, outer lives.

When you arrived, they would have welcomed you as if they were welcoming the Divine itself, and they would have sat with you in your longing, listening deeply with you for where it might be leading. In the end, they would have “given you a word,” the story goes, a seed thought or a teaching story inspired by the Spirit to meditate on as you made your trip back into the dailiness of your life. Thus was the ancient Christian tradition of Spiritual Direction birthed, by men and women hungry for meaning and purpose and most of all for authentic connection to what they experienced as the Source of all. Similar sacred relationships between those more seasoned in the journey and those seeking guidance have existed in all the world’s religious traditions, though they have not necessarily had a formal name for it.

Contemporary Forms

Today there are many terms used to describe this art of offering support for the spiritual journey, and there are also various forms. There is a wonderful expansion of this work into what some call an Interspiritual context, emphasizing the deep unity of wisdom that exists at the core of all the world’s spiritual traditions. Soul-friending, spiritual direction, spiritual mentoring, spiritual guidance, and spiritual companioning are all terms used to describe this process of the two listening for the One. Whatever the language, the art of spiritual direction seems to be enjoying a type of renaissance. There are an increasing number of programs designed to train spiritual directors, and there seem to be growing numbers of people looking for spiritual guidance. Why might this be?

Why Spiritual Mentoring?

Some of us long for safe harbor to explore the deepest questions of our lives, questions about God, Spirit, Ultimate Reality, meaning and purpose and calling. It is not therapy we are after, but something with a larger context. It isn’t that we need to be fixed, but rather heard, held in a sacred space of unconditional love and trusted to find our own deepest connections with Spirit. It is not so much that we think anyone has the ultimate answers – and that is what makes seeking spiritual guidance through the usual, mainstream churches so difficult for some of us – it is more that we just need a place where we can be heard; where we can hear ourselves; where someone will help us notice the movement of the Spirit within our ordinary lives and listen for the wisdom and guidance available from within our own deep heart. We, like those early pilgrims, seek a soul-friend from whom we might receive a word; or a gentle sweep of a hand suggesting a place to look; or a practice or a prayer, to guide us on this, our most important journey.

Perhaps spiritual guidance is a call because, for many of us, the state of our life or the state of our world begs response, but discerning what is a true response, a response that comes from our true nature and not our egoic needs, wounds and habits, is tricky business. We need the support of someone who can help us discern carefully, heartfully, soulfully, listening with us for what some would call the True, the Good and the Beautiful, or other’s might sense as “God’s will.”

There are as many personal reasons for seeking spiritual guidance as there are people seeking it. Whatever the reason, the gentle art of spiritual guidance is simply and profoundly this: holding the space for another to come into deeper relationship with the Real ~ True Nature, God, the Absolute, the Ground of Being ~ and to manifest that deepening in their lives. Soul-friending, spiritual direction, spiritual guidance, spiritual mentoring, spiritual companioning, are names for a form of relationship between not two but three – the person seeking guidance, the guide, and the One that is the actual guide/director in the relationship.

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