What are the qualities of a ‘good’ Spiritual Director?
Article for September 2009 edition of Pilgrim
Diane Reynolds RSA
I have been a spiritual director for over thirty-five years, twenty of which were spent in Taize in France accompanying mainly young people from all over the world, the last fourteen years have been in England, where I accompanying people from all generations, coming from many different Christian traditions and none. Yet even though I may have a long experience in journeying alongside pilgrims I am constantly aware that every new pilgrim I encounter, I will discover within that person something of God as if for the very first time.
To walk alongside, to be invited to share in the intimate encounter of another person’s relationship with God is to be present to the uniqueness of the mystery of God’s love in every individual as they discover the movement of the Spirit of God in their lives. Spiritual direction above all is a holy and privileged place where one is called into the triune relationship of Father, Son and Spirit, It is also a triune journey of the love that exists between God, the pilgrim, and the companion, and where at every new encounter I am reminded that I am about to tread on Holy Ground.
Before looking at the qualifications and qualities that contribute to what makes a ‘good’ spiritual director I think it is helpful to look briefly at the ‘spiritual context’ within which spiritual direction in Britain and Ireland is practised today.
In the past twenty years there has been a huge increase in the number of people seeking Spiritual Direction as well as an ever growing number who have taken up some sort of training and formation towards becoming spiritual directors in this privileged ministry of journeying alongside others in their relationship with God. In the UK there are about half a dozen places that offer training in spiritual direction, some run by dioceses, some by religious congregations that are rooted in a specific spirituality for example in the Ignatian, Franciscan or Carmelite tradition.
The part-time training lasting about two years brings together people from a variety of Churches, the majority of people training whilst in full time employment. Coming from a religious community that has its roots in both the Augustinian and Ignatian tradition my training both in Belgium, France and England has been in Ignatian spirituality, with particular reference to the Spiritual Exercises looking at the place of discernment within the context of Spiritual Direction.
What is most noticeable in recent years in Britain and Ireland is the increased interest in spirituality, both within the church and outside. There has been an apparent shift from the so called ‘religious’ to the ‘spiritual’. Many Christians looking for a meaning and purpose in life within a society that is more and more lacking in human values and - unable to make the connection with their personal lived experience and what is offered within the institutional church - have embarked upon their own spiritual journey. For some, feeling more comfortable outside of the church structures means that they seek other forms of spiritual nourishment as well as looking for ‘a guiding light’ and someone with sufficient ‘spiritual wisdom’ to accompany them and help them to make sense of their life’s journey and their unique contribution as part of God’s kingdom.
Another reason why spiritual direction has become more ‘popular’ is the fact that since spirituality is now considered as an academic discipline in its own right independent from theology, spirituality has over the past twenty years become a subject for research where much attention has been paid to ‘spiritual experience’ and consequently more people have been awakened to the fact that they have a spiritual life, and are attracted to the sense of mystery, to the sense of ‘Other’ present in their lives. Spirituality has also become part of our everyday language – often used out of context with no religious connection - and this has resulted in an explosion of spiritual material both at the academic and popular level to the point that several authors have even entitled their books – ‘The Spirituality Revolution.’ Many people today are attracted to spirituality from all sorts of walks of life, believers and well as those who have no affiliation to Christianity. It is however true to say that not all forms of spirituality can be termed healthy and I would see a great need to form people with the tools for discernment to help them to make good choices in their knowing and loving of God as they a faced with an abundance of ‘spiritual matter’, often presented today as a consumer product and available on the ‘spiritual market’. This is where in my own ministry as a spiritual director I would see the tremendous value in helping a person to discern in their lives the movement of the different spirits what comes from God alongside identifying the obstacles and what is preventing them from being truly free to act out of Gods’ love for them. Within a society of consumerism and pressure to ‘become’, where personal fulfilment is seen as a ‘fundamental good’ above anything thing else, an essential criteria for spiritual direction today is the forming of ‘a listening heart’ towards making the right choices, especially at times when a life orientation is in question.
In a society where so much is on offer in the way of alternative medicine and complementary therapies, where psychology, counselling, psychotherapy place an important role, I have found the following text of Tilden Edwards helpful when he paraphrases a text of Gerald May distinguishing between what is psychological counselling, pastoral care and spiritual guidance …
- ‘Wondering how I can get out of the situation you are in, is the realm of psychological counselling.
- Wondering what God would have you learn from this experience, is the realm of pastoral care.
- Wondering how to remain in relationship with God in the midst of whatever is going on (difficult or joyful alike!), is the realm of spiritual direction. 
Authentic spiritual direction has its roots in the desert tradition and the spiritual ‘gurus’ of the past who were sought out for spiritual guidance were in the majority of cases the recognised ‘wisdom people’ of their time when a specific training as understood today was unheard of. Those gifted ‘with the listening heart’ were drawn to the desert in response to an interior calling from God to spend their lives listening more closely to God’s voice, listening to what the Spirit was saying in the deepest part of themselves, and seeking how to respond … they were consequently sought out by others also seeking to listen more deeply to the spirit of God in their lives. People are on a similar journey today, - and as I bring to mind those with whom I journey - it is first and foremost the desire to want to know God more, to love God more dearly in their lives and to seek to follow God more closely in order to become more fully their authentic self that is at the heart of the spiritual quest and one of the main reasons for wanting a spiritual director.
I am not sure that when a person requests a spiritual director, that they fully understand what spiritual direction is, the nature of the relationship and what kind of commitment is required of them. The most important thing is that there is first and foremost a desire to want to share their inner journey with another in the knowledge and love of God, towards becoming fully themselves, and to experience ‘life to the full’. Likewise, I am not sure that a person applying for a course to be trained as a spiritual director knows exactly what they have embarked upon or whether they have the ‘qualities’ or essence of what is needed to become a ‘faithful companion’ to some of God’s pilgrims. It is quite common for some people to undertake training as a way of providing themselves with the spiritual nourishment they are lacking on their own personal journey, where unfortunately many of local churches fail to provide spiritual nourishment for their congregations. This leaves open the question as to what kind of criteria is used when accepting candidates for training and the importance of ongoing discernment whilst in training. I do not believe it is possible to know ‘in advance’ whether a person is going to be a ‘good’ spiritual director or not. For those involved in the process of accepting and training candidates this is a very delicate situation, and emphasises that even though a person is ‘trained’ there is no guarantee that he/she will necessarily be a ‘good’ spiritual director. It does place a certain responsibility on those in charge of formation programmes to be attentive to those entrusted to them, to observe their practice, and provide ongoing assessment. This can play a very positive part towards helping some students to recognise that maybe this particular ministry is not the way forward and to look together at other more suitable ways of serving and availing of a person’s ‘spiritual gifts’.
Above all spiritual direction speaks to us of God’s love and grace, and like any other ministry mistakes are made, wrong words are spoken, other words not understood, gestures misinterpreted. A grace I constantly ask for is to remain in a humble place, and to be aware that like the directee with whom I journey – I am always discovering new parts of the journey and at many places along the way both companion and pilgrim will constantly be surprised by a God who remains a mystery. Consequently I feel it is only time and experience that can determine whether a person really has a ‘gifting’ for this type of ministry, and when those they accompany express openly their ‘contentment in the Lord’. If we wish to talk of a spiritual director as ‘good’ then pilgrims will continue to ‘seek’ them out for their wisdom and experience, a person is only a spiritual director when a someone asks to be accompanied.
In many cases the decision to want to take up training evolves quite naturally from the fact that the one seeking training is already involved in listening to people and is actually already in a relationship of ‘spiritual direction’ although this may not be formally recognised by either the pilgrim or the one who accompanies them.
Interestingly up until now - unlike the different therapeutic formations which are now recognised as University qualifications – there is no actual paper qualification or diploma stating that someone has ‘qualified’ as a spiritual director, only that they have completed a course. Unlike the list of therapists and counsellors that publish their credentials, even though lists of spiritual directors do exist, a ‘good’ spiritual director is usually recommended through personal contacts, and not through credentials. This only goes to emphasise that although today training is clearly seen an important part of becoming a spiritual director this does not necessarily mean that all ‘good’ spiritual directors will have undertaken formal training, and may never do so.
Can we talk of ‘essential qualities’? First and foremost the person thinking of becoming a spiritual companion needs to examine why they feel drawn to this privileged ministry of journeying alongside others in caring for souls, what is their primary motivation? It is important for them to bring this desire to God in prayer and be able to dialogue with someone who knows them well if possible with their own spiritual director, or discuss their initial motivation with someone who has already some considerable experience in spiritual accompaniment.
At the ‘heart of companionship’ At a recent meeting with other spiritual directors we found ourselves sharing and discussing what we felt were the essential qualities in our ministry today as we journey alongside our directees. Although we had a lot in common we recognised that the way in which each of us accompanied was very different and this depended on our past and present experience, our personal relationship with God and how we ourselves are accompanied. We recognised that we needed to value more our own interior wisdom, and above all trust the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit not only in those we accompany but also in ourselves as companions on the journey.
The relationship: A lot of our conversation centred on the relationship with those we accompany and how it takes time to build up a relationship of genuine love and mutual trust, in the early sessions. There is a need to create a confidential and safe place during the sessions, recognising that both companion and pilgrim are on a similar journey which will have its peaks and its troughs, its consolation and desolation moments, and times when we are stuck, and nothing appears to be happening. But both of us are invited to look in the same direction towards the God who walks ahead of us, to Christ who walks alongside of us, and to the Spirit that fills us with an overflowing love.
Ourselves as ‘Companions’:
All of us are practising Christians for whom nourishing our prayer life is an essential part of being a spiritual director, and whilst we stressed the importance of being rooted in a Christian tradition and nourished by the Scriptures, we found that we made reference in our ministry if appropriate not only to the Bible but to other resources and texts, especially on ways of praying, the meaning of silence, and different exercises in coming to stillness before God. All of us have been in a relationship of spiritual direction for a long number of years before thinking about accompanying others. Some of us have had considerable training, whilst others found themselves journeying alongside pilgrims who had ‘sought them out’ and had only followed this up with short courses mainly focusing on listening skills, the practice of discernment, and other aspects of spiritual direction. None of us felt that training – however good and helpful - was the essential part of our ministry.
It was the place and quality of our listening to the companion that emerged as a priority, as we try to be fully present to our directees and listen to what God through the Holy Spirit is trying to say. Developing a ‘listening heart’ and being aware of what is said as well as what is and not being said during a session, when to speak and when to be silent, as well as learning when to challenge, when to affirm and encourage, or even when to ask the right questions we felt were all equally important. All of us in more recent years have found ourselves paying more attention to our directees body language, and the place of the different emotions such as laughter, anger and tears. We found that good common sense and understanding of the human psyche together with a sense of humour, empathy when needed, and even finding ourselves ‘moved’ all had their place at appropriate times, when engaged in spiritual conversation.
We found ourselves also challenged by certain pilgrims, and sometimes not always at ease when faced with the goodness/struggle of what is going on in the life of the directee and the need to encourage them to ‘stay’ at the ‘point they are at’ reminding them even though God may seem absent he/she is always alongside, and to ‘trust in the slow work of God’. At times our personal agenda seemed to get in the way, as we found ourselves identifying with the directee’s story, or wanting to offer examples of our own experience, inviting the directee to share our journey instead of their own, although it was commented that this could be appropriate at certain times. We recognised that we needed to be aware of what is going on in ourselves during the sessions and take time to review and process the conversation after each meeting. At times like these we realised how much we valued the place of personal and group supervision enabling us to be attentive to what ‘is going on’ in ourselves and to become once again inwardly free to minister from the God’ place within ourselves. These were seen as graced times.
Most of us found it helpful to take space and a time of prayer before meeting our pilgrims and entrusting to God the forth coming session. Some directees also liked to open and close a session with a short time of spontaneous prayer. Frequently during and towards the end of a session many of us found ourselves reflecting the conversation back to the companion, acting as a sounding board, whilst gently helping them to unpack, clarify ‘what had been shared’. In articulating their story it was felt that this helped the directee to become more aware of the way in which the Holy Spirit is present and guiding them, at the same time asking themselves ‘what is the Lord saying and wanting of me, how do I respond’?
Looking at the variety of people we accompanied from all sorts of walks of life we realised how much we needed to develop an openness of heart and a wide vision of life, in order to be able to help the directee discern how God is at work in the multiple experiences of their everyday lives, and that we can ‘find God in all things, and all things in God.’ We recognised that the relationship was not one of ‘friendship’ and just having a ‘nice conversation’ together, that there needed to be at the start of any journey together clear boundaries about the kind of relationship that exists between the director and directee. Each one needs to know what they are about and that to review the journey together at an appropriate time gave the opportunity for each one to share the value of the experience and at times to recognise that both director and directee may need to move on to new paths and entrust the journey to someone else. The journey could be long and tedious and that spiritual direction was certainly not one of so called ‘spiritual comfort’, but grounded in the reality of the incarnation, bringing mind, body and spirit together, in the movement of the Pascal mystery.
Coming together and sharing together our own journeys as spiritual directors, gave us not only much consolation, but affirmed us in our respective ministries. We also realised how much each of us during the conversation had learned from each others experience and how we can benefit from each other’s support by engaging in ‘spiritual conversation’. Above all we saw ourselves ‘on a journey’ like our directees where first and foremost our closest companion is Christ himself. It is this journey of learning how we ourselves are infinitely loved, that we come from love and that we are made to love – that gives us the desire to accompany others in helping them to discover and deepen the mystery of God’s love in their own lives! 
‘Spiritual accompaniment is accompaniment in love.
Love is the motive for attentive listening.
Love is the motive for offering attentiveness to the Spirit instead of mere advice.
Love is the motive for any reproof that must be given.
and… Love is the motive for the overall climate of encouragement and support.
- Choosing a Spiritual Guide – from the Retreat Association
- Tacey, D., 2004, The Spirituality Revolution – The Emergence of Contemporary Spirituality, (East Sussex: Brunner-Routledge). And Heelas, P., and Woodhead, L. 2005, The Spirituality Revolution – Why Religion is giving away to Spirituality, (London: Blackwell).
- Edwards, Tilden, 1980, Spiritual Friend, (New York: Paulist Press), p.129.
- John 10:11
- Icon of the Friendship of Christ. With L’abbe Mena. Coptic 7th Century (?) Louvre.Paris
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ
- Bumpus, Mary Rose, and Langer, Rebecca Bradburn, 2005, Supervision of Spiritual Directors – Engaging in Holy Mystery, (London: Morehouse).
- Phrase attributed to St Ignatius
- Benner, David, G., 2002, Sacred Companions – the gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction, (Illinois: IP Books), pp. 172-173.
Sister lives and works at her community’s Retreat Centre in Edenbridge in Kent. England. She is a member of the Catholic Order of the Sisters of St. Andrew, founded in 1231 in Tournai. Belgium. (which was at that time part of France.) Twenty years of her life were spent working alongside the Community of the Brothers of Taize, and in the preparation of the Youth meeting held each year throughout Europe. Since her return to England in 1994 she has been involved in Retreat work, Spiritual Accompaniment and group facilitation. She represents the Catholic Bishops conference of England and Wales on a number of Ecumenical working parties looking at Spirituality. She has just completed an MA in Christian Spirituality.