Where is the Spirit in Spiritual Direction?

By Bishop Chandler Jones


Editor's Note: One of the goals here at E & A is to provide excellent resources for our churches on liturgy, education, fellowship, and spiritual direction. For the next few weeks, we are going to devote several blog posts to spiritual direction in hope that both clergy and laity may dive a bit deeper into this area.


As Saint John Cassian relates in his Conferences: ‘all Christians are called to live the monastic life, to be monks at heart. We are all called to singleness of heart...’ Such is the call we receive through the able teaching of Bishop Kallistos Ware in his article, The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity. Here we have a very concise and complete explanation of the essential nature of the starets, the spiritual director, in the Eastern Christian Tradition.


First and foremost, what strikes this author as being most important for the consideration of the subject is that, for the Christian East, spiritual direction is the unique domain and action of God the Holy Spirit. Spiritual direction is nothing less than personal relation in the Holy Spirit and through the Spirit of God toward the other. By its nature, we are told, spiritual direction is ‘charismatic.’ The term ‘epikletic’ certainly comes to mind as well. Spiritual direction clearly depends on the epiklesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, and its result in the gracious working of the Holy Ghost as He descends in response to prayer. In the Western Church it seems that this consciousness and awareness of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit has been in many aspects either lost or terribly obscured. In Western piety and devotion, and in the praxis of the Western Church, there appears to have been an indeliberate depersonalisation of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. Typical Western spiritual practices and prayers, ranging from Eucharistic exposition and adoration to private prayer, beautiful and orthodox in themselves, often omit any reference to the Holy Spirit or His Work.


And yet, in all prayer, in every Sacrament, and supremely in the Holy Eucharist, it is the Holy Ghost, He Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who causes the efficacy and living power of God’s grace to become alive and active. ‘The Holy Spirit is the One Who deifies’ says Saint Basil the Great. Every gesture of prayer and Sacrament should be an epiklesis, and so it is with spiritual direction. Bishop Ware recaptures for us, through his eloquent description of the nature and practice of spiritual direction, a sense of the activity of the Holy Ghost in the Christian life. The same Holy Ghost which was promised by Our Lord to the Church Catholic to lead and guide her into all truth now animates, guides, and empowers the relationship of spiritual direction. Both the director and the directee should be open to the leading and influence of the Holy Spirit. Because the Spirit has descended upon the Church and continues to abide in her forever as the One who makes Christ the Head present, since the Holy Spirit is the One who personally applies the redemption of human nature through Christ’s atonement to human persons, it rightly fits that the Holy Spirit should Himself be the ever-present and true spiritual director.


Bishop Ware attributes every dimension of direction to the activity of the Spirit of God, and particularly logismoi, the ‘discernment of thoughts.’ This is a refreshing and extremely helpful perspective regarding the purpose, process, and end of spiritual direction: personal relationship. Our God is Himself a Tri-Personal Relationship, a Trinity in relatio, and so it is properly correspondent that our process in the way of Christian perfection should be indissolubly tied to the reality of personal relationship, master to student, student to master, believer to believer, friend to friend. Spiritual direction, as all else in creation, is radically dependent of the Holy Spirit, our Paraclete and Guide. We would all benefit by being more attuned to and more concentrated upon the presence of the Spirit as He operates in and with us.


Master of the Osservanza -- Anthony meeting Paul the Hermit

The essential component in co-operating with God in the growth-and-maturity process entailed in spiritual direction is to have ‘the heart of the hermit,’ that we may be open to God, to be alone with God in prayer, and to prayer unceasing. This is vital for becoming what God intends us to be, for realizing God-likeness, deification by God’s grace. We are in effect called upon to become ‘prayer warriors,’ to meet the spiritual need of mankind by intercessory prayer before God in the creative silence of the heart. Our hearts must be focused on God, on His Presence, in love, in silence, and in compassionate intercession for and with others. We are instructed that even in the midst of a busy life full of noise and distraction, we can and should take time to be with God and practice the life of prayer and ascetic struggle. No easy task to be sure, but this is the path that leads to true living and to a life saturated with God.


What is most noticeable about the life of the director, the starets, is that it is an enterprise in co-redemption, a real participation in and co-operation with the work of Jesus Christ our only Mediator and Advocate. Bearing the burdens of other’s sins and sufferings, we are called to live a life of co-working with God and to be God’s co-operative agents in extending His love, mercy, and forgiveness to others. We are instructed to ‘stand in the gap’ for those who come to us for guidance and to be for and with them as those who plead their cause; like Our Lady, whose fiat as the New Eve became for mankind the first instance of co-redemptive co-operation with God’s saving plan, we should be ready to be judged and to be accountable for those who turn to us for spiritual guidance.


This profound idea makes perfect sense — the personal relationship of director and directee should be based in the kind of love that is open to real help in spiritual life. Hence, the angelic or mystical life of prayer and works, taught and shared, is accessible to all of us, and should be particularly evident in the co-redemptive relationship of starets and seeker. Again as John Cassian states, all Christians are called to singleness of heart, even in the midst of a busy and unrelenting world. The characteristics of the spiritual director, and of the nature of direction itself are love, presence, creative silence in prayer, and heart — all heart.


George Romney -- Two Friends

Specifically meaningful is the notion of uttering ‘words with power,’ restrained, thoughtful, carefully executed words given with surgery-like precision. The director must first be a listener, open to the true heart of the seeker. What is most useful is to learn that words should be used sparingly in direction. Words should be tailor-made, fit to help and assist the individual. No two differing individuals should receive the same word. The ‘economy of language’ brings with it authentic spiritual power to heal and transform. Our article makes it clear that authentic spiritual direction seeks to move beyond the facades of the individual, the masks, and move more deeply into the true self.


And as it is for the seeker, so it is for the director. We ourselves are to be shown who we truly are by our friends and companions, those who come to us to receive guidance. The seeker can and often is the teacher of the teacher, the one reveals to the starets his true self as well. In assisting others to see their true selves, teachers are open to the activity and the flourishing of God’s grace. What is most refreshing in Bishop Ware’s description of spiritual direction lies in the truth that such a relationship is not legalistic, but graced. It is not bound by rules of life or regulations of praxis; rather, healthy spiritual direction, being non-violent and undominating, is open to the life and motion of the Holy Spirit. We are to be guides and companions, co-sojourners, with those who come with us on the spiritual journey. The True Director is the Holy Ghost - we are simply companions on the way that leads to life abundant. This docility to the Holy Spirit in the spiritual life means a freedom, a liberation, a joyful surrender to the will and purpose of God, Who never forces but only frees to true existence.


Another dimension of the Church’s spiritual direction tradition which this author discovers to be most appealing we find in the concepts of consensus fidelium and spiritual succession. The Holy Catholic Church herself possess the means of discernment: the whole People of God, the whole Body of Christ, illumined and possessed by the Spirit, knows what is true by divine promise. So, just as in the Orthodox Tradition, where the Church herself, having the collective common-sense and wisdom of God’s faithful, determines who is and who is not be canonized a Saint, so too does the Church as the Christ-Incorporated Body, the New Israel covenant people, discern who has and who has not the vocation of a spiritual director. Acclamation by the universal consent of the Church acknowledges the sanctity and holiness of one raised to the Altars in the Communion of Saints; this collective assent, guided by the Holy Spirit, also tells us who is called to be a spiritual director: ‘beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God: for many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (I S. John 4.1). ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come’ (S. John 16.13). Marvelous it is to realize that the Church can summon and recognize her own for her own purposes. The Church recommends her own children to serve her own. Ecclesia supplet.


Mikhail Nesterov -- A Quiet Life (1921)

Therefore, the Church owns a supernaturally-guaranteed way by which to know her teachers and spiritual masters. There exists within the Church a complementarity of the ‘institutional’ and the ‘charismatic’ within the life of the Body of Christ; not opposed to each other, both elements of authority and teaching co-exist and mutually fulfill and complement each other. This also is most important to remember. A ‘spiritual succession’ of spiritual directors, teachers, and masters serves as vital and essential a purpose as the apostolic succession of the sacrament of Holy Orders for the Church. Again this reflects the dynamic and spiritual nature of Christ’s Church. The Spirit works where He wills, and ministers through whom He chooses to minister - and the Church has the authority to acknowledge and authenticate such vocations and spiritual verities in her life.


It is right to have both bishops and spiritual directors, both priests and prophets. Both types of ministry are essential to the Church, and it is beneficial to be reminded of that fact. And this authoritative gift to the Church cultivates love, love as obedience, love as obedience as the free gift of one’s will and heart to the Lord. An authority of love presides over and within the Church in spiritual direction. Not as masters seeking disciples, but as companions and friends, we serve at the initiative and insight of those others who call us to function in this ministry. Nothing could be more Christ-like, more humble, more like the essence of our modest and self-emptying kenotic God.


In this ministry of love and service we are revealed as much or more when we help to reveal others. ‘Now I see through a glass darkly, then face-to-face’ (I Corinthians 13). The calling from our Lord and Saviour to this great ministry of being a reflection, a co-traveller with those whom we are privileged to love and know, is such that it comes only from God. ‘You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, that you should go and bear much fruit.’ May we have grace to fulfill the call given by Him. Our Blessed Lady, Seat of Wisdom, intercede for us. Amen.


Bishop Chandler Jones, SSC is Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of the Eastern United States in the Anglican Province of America and Rector of St. Barnabas Anglican Church in Dunwoody, GA.