The Future of Christian Spirituality: Part 2 | The Charism and Practice of Spiritual Direction

“A spiritual director is one who helps another recognize and follow the inspirations of grace in his life, in order to arrive at the end to which God is leading him.”– Thomas Merton

In my previous post on the future of Christian spirituality, I described getting to a place in my spiritual life where I felt stuck in terms of my longing to experience deeper levels of transformation. I needed help opening to a reality beyond myself and I needed guidance for beginning to rearrange my life for what I most deeply wanted. Help came through a spiritual director—someone more experienced in the ways of the soul than I was, more practiced at recognizing God’s invitations in the life of another, and willing to offer support in making a faithful response.

Our paths first crossed because she was a psychologist. I sought her out for therapy because I assumed that my “problems” were psychological in nature and could be “fixed” on that level. Psychological insight and process were indeed valuable.  Invaluable, really. Looking back, I don’t think I could have taken the spiritual journey God was inviting me into without taking some basic steps toward psychological health and wholeness—things like differentiation from my pastor family’s beliefs about God and learning to hear God for myself, wrestling with the deforming discrimination I had experienced as a woman in the church, and working through the anger, sadness, and disillusionment I was carrying because of what I had witnessed as a pastor’s kid.

The psychological work we did actually made the spiritual journey more possible.  

A Shift in Focus

Eventually, however, this wise guide observed that what I needed was spiritual direction.  She asked if I would be willing to shift the focus of our times together from therapeutic fixing and advice-giving to my relationship with God and the invitation to spiritual transformation contained within the questions that I was bringing. As a Protestant I had never heard of spiritual direction, given that spiritual direction is a gift that comes to us from the Catholic tradition, but I trusted her to know what was best and so we made the shift.  

When we entered spiritual direction, I had been working very hard at the spiritual disciplines my Protestant upbringing had offered—Bible study, prayer, and service—with a bent towards theology, statements of faith and intellectual assent.  I was sure I could “become a better person” if I just tried harder.  But part of my desperation was the fact that the practices and habits that people had told me were supposed to work in bringing about my transformation were no longer working, no matter how faithful I was to their program.  I was embarrassed and felt very defeated. 

Surprisingly, my spiritual director encouraged me to stop doing what wasn’t working (!) and instead pay attention to what I was longing for.  It was the strangest and most wonderful feeling to let go of the Bible study and prayer methods I had practiced for so long, in faith that there might be something new for me! While I continued to function in the arenas where I had responsibilities, I now had a private place for letting go of what wasn’t working and trying some new things. This was all very hopeful. 

Transitions in the Life of Prayer

Another helpful moment came when my director pointed out that I was in a transitional place in the life of prayer—not falling off the spiritual path—which I had been so afraid of.  She began to guide me into fresh (for me) disciplines that corresponded to my longings and desires, fostering new experiences with God. Her concrete guidance into practices like solitude and silence that were rooted in the broader Judeo Catholic Christian tradition, along with the confidence she conveyed, marked out a new path for me. 

This space for reflecting—without judgment—on my spiritual practices was a great gift.  In this space, I was able to quiet my feelings of “ought” and “should” and instead pay attention to those practices that were no longer fruitful for me.  I found the freedom to let go of what wasn’t working and claim fresh disciplines that corresponded to my most authentic needs and desires.  The practices of mindfulness, paying attention to one’s breathing, building time into each day for silence and beyond-words communion with God, staying attuned to inner dynamics of consolation and desolation and allowing such awareness to shape my decision-making began to revitalize my parched and weary soul. 

Her experience with a wide variety of spiritual disciplines opened a treasure trove of spiritual possibilities for me, and offered a world of hope that there was more to the spiritual life than I had yet experienced.  

Spiritual Direction as Opening to Mystery

We live in what could be called a post-therapeutic culture, a culture in which psychology, which at one time seemed to be the answer to anything and everything, is now acknowledged to have limits.  We are not saying psychological therapy is not valuable, but we are now more ready to admit that it has limits in terms of what it can accomplish towards our transformation.  Even with the best psychological help, there comes a point when what most needs to be done in our lives only God can do—and so we need help in finding ways to open to the mystery of God and God’s transforming work in the human soul.

Thomas Merton describes this well in his book Spiritual Direction and Meditation. He said, “The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a [person’s] life, to get behind the façade of conventional gestures and attitudes which he/she presents to the world, and to bring out his/her internal freedom, his/her inmost truth, which is what we call the likeness of Christ in his/her soul. This is entirely a supernatural thing…for this work belongs first and foremost to the Holy Spirit.  The spiritual director cannot do such a work by him/herself. The director’s function is to verify and to encourage what is truly spiritual in the soul.” (gender inclusive language mine) 

 Many psychologists are now acknowledging the limits of their discipline and are shifting at least part of their approach to incorporating elements of spiritual listening and spiritual practices into their work. It is not that we are throwing out psychology but that we are seeking to fully integrate it with spiritual direction for a more holistic approach to our spirituality. Speaking for myself, I needed a gifted and highly trained director who knew which aspect of the person needed attention when and in what order.  At times she would even tell me that she was returning to a more therapeutic approach when that seemed to be what was needed.  But she would let me know that’s what she was doing and ask my permission, so the lines did not get blurred. 

Towards a More Integrated Approach

Something else my spiritual director drew attention to that surprised me was the significance of attending to and caring for my body as part of my spiritual journey.  One of the first things she helped me become aware of (that I had not been aware of previously) was the false bifurcation I was living in; I was completely cut off from the awareness that I don’t just have a body, I am a body.  Because of the dualisms embedded in most religious training, she pointed me to the story of Elijah in Scripture (I Kings 19) so I could see that this great prophet’s journey into the presence of God began with rest and attending to his body. 

All of this brings me to my second observation about the future of Christian spirituality—it will include greater acknowledgement and intentionality around the charism and practice of spiritual direction emerging as a special gift from the Catholic tradition.  Such directors will be trained to attend to all parts of the human person as a unified whole—body, mind and soul—helping directees become more integrated in their approach to their spiritual journey. We will foster this kind of integration in our training programs, rather than continuing to propagate approaches to spirituality that slice and dice the human person into parts and pieces.  

Spiritual direction is a gift of our historic Christian faith that is fundamentally different in tone, spirit, and content from the discipleship, mentoring, and therapeutic models we have tended to rely on in our approach to transformation.  Because the spiritual life is, by definition, reliant on attentiveness to the human spirit becoming more and more responsive to the Holy Spirit of God within, relationships where individuals are supported in seeking greater attentiveness to that Spirit will be central to the future of Christian spirituality. 

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2023. Adapted from a presentation given at The Future of Christian Spirituality Conference in honor of Fr. Ron Rolheiser in 2020.

Read The Role of Desire in the Spiritual Life, part 1 of our ongoing series The Future of Christian Spirituality.


Visit our spiritual direction page to learn more about spiritual direction for leaders and explore Ruth’s reading recommendations on this topic.

The Transforming Center is pleased to offer a listing of spiritual directors who have completed our two-year Transforming Community® experience, completed a recognized training program in spiritual direction, and have at least two years of experience.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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OH MY GOSH!!! Thank you! I have felt stuck the same way for years. When my Catholic friend/sister talks of her spiritual director I feel somewhat deprived. My thought just the other day was that as Protestants we left behind quite a lot breaking away. I am so glad that you are working to develop a program to train and bring up spiritual directors in our practices.
On another note, though, having the sense of feeling chopped up and divided is the Holy Spirit calling us back into His True Unity.

Outstanding! Sounds like my personal journey. I’m a firm believer in Spiritual Direction in addition to psychological therapy. Keep up your great work!

You are such an encourager of our ministry, Rodney! Thank you.

You’re welcome! 🙏🏽

I have long waited to hear what Ruth says in this article about post-therapeutic times. As a spiritual director, I often refer clients to therapists. Most of these now honor deep spiritual yearnings and promptings. While therapists and spiritual companions stay in their lanes most of the time, they know that life is not neatly separated into “the therapeutic” and “the spiritual.” Sometimes, straddling the markers separating the two lanes is necessary for healing and wholeness. Thank you for your posting, Ruth.

So good! Thank you.

This so resonates with me. Thank you so much for sharing.

Thank you. I have found this article very helpful and wondered if it is available in book form, or is that a plan for the future?
God bless you richly, Andy.

Thanks for this encouragement. No plans for this to be available in book form form quite yet, but if you are on our e-mail list, you will be among the first to know!

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