Human beings have been gazing into the night sky and wondering for as long as we have been human. And for at least as long we have known that it is important to have company on any journey into the unknown. The spiritual life is exactly that, and it continues our whole lives. That is why, for generations, spiritual advisors (also called spiritual directors) have been so valued.
Most of us probably picture a tonsured monk, or a hermit in her cave when we think of a spiritual director. The truth is far less exotic (but much more accessible.) One of my spiritual directors was my parish priest. Another was a wise older woman who baked amazing cake everytime I visited. And who can forget the sarcastic monk who swore he only took holy orders because otherwise: “I’d never pray.”
What is a spiritual advisor/director
Spiritual directors or advisors are first and foremost regular people on the same journey as you. They are usually further down the road, and have already made a lot of the mistakes you are in the process of making. Hopefully they’ve learned a few lessons along the way.
But there’s a reason that a spiritual advisor or director isn’t called a spiritual boss. A spiritual advisor offers guidance, and suggestions. They may point out a direction you should try, or act as a mirror as you discern your path. But they don’t (or shouldn’t) give orders.
There isn’t one track on which they are meant to keep you. There isn’t one way to live this life (your life is unique). We all grow and mature in our own way and that journey is yours. Your director or advisor is a companion, not a tour guide, train conductor, or manager.
History of spiritual direction
Spiritual direction (and spiritual advisors, the terms have been used for very similar purposes in the past) has a long history. We can trace its roots right back to the first Christian hermits (female and male) who escaped to the desert as Christianity went “mainstream.” (Insert joke about early hipsters here.)
But they were hardly the first. As long as there have been human beings asking questions there has been the need for wise women and men to offer guidance, companionship, and friendship. Together philosophers, theologians, and ordinary mystics have wrestled with the Divine, and their own interior landscape.
Is a Spiritual Advisor right for you?
This is of course the question that matters to most people, and the question is: probably, but maybe not now. Spiritual direction, and spiritual advisors offer assistance, guidance, and companionship for those on a spiritual journey (that’s all of us). But spiritual direction is a relationship. Your advisor is not a professor to assign you exercises, or a boss to give you a task list.
You must be willing to do the work, with your advisor’s help, support, and prayers. Inner work is often uncomfortable. It is rarely linear, and it is never finished.
If you are extremely comfortable with your life as it is right now, then perhaps now is not the time. But if you feel that urge to go deeper, if you know in your gut that it is time to grow, or to dig into your relationship with God, or your own inner landscape, or if your current practices just don’t fit anymore, then consider taking a guide along with you.
Why an advisor, not a friend?
A lot of people ask, can’t I just have coffee with my friend? And I think you should! You may have a friend who serves this role for you, if so you are very lucky. But when the time comes for some hard inner work you may find a spiritual director who is not a friend can be more objective and honest.
You and your friend might discuss the healthy changes you are making to your diet, or to declutter your home. But if you are diagnosed with a disease that needs careful maintenance, or if you discover a serious structural issue in your home best to bring in a professional.
(Though many spiritual advisors would flinch at the idea of “professional.” We really are just fellow pilgrims offering companionship on the way.)
What to look for in a Spiritual Director/Spiritual Advisor
If you are considering working with a spiritual director there are some important things to pay attention to. First, the person you choose should be safe for you theologically. If you are a woman seeking ordination, do not go to a spiritual advisor who doesn’t support the ordination of women. (Obvious, right? Not always.)
It is absolutely OK to ask: do you believe LGBTQ people are beloved children of God? Do you support my marriage? It is absolutely acceptable to ask the questions that will ensure you work with someone who can support and love you for who you are, not who they believe you should become.
That doesn’t mean your spiritual director needs to agree with you on anything (they probably won’t). A spiritual director walks with you on your path, they should never impose their own path on you. So you don’t need to find someone who is just like you, or has the same sort of experiences you have had. Instead look for a director who can set aside their own preferences, desires, and experience and come alongside you.
All of that said: a spiritual advisor should push you. Part of their job is to hear the things you don’t say, to ask the questions you would rather avoid, and to encourage you to take the next step on your journey, even (or maybe especially) when that step is hard. So look for a director you can learn to trust, one who will not just pat your head and make you feel good, but who will encourage and push you enough to help you grow.
Take advantage of their experience! If you have questions about a spiritual practice, or are struggling with a particular facet of your faith your spiritual advisor should be a safe resource to offer their experience and help.
What to expect
So what happens in spiritual direction? What can you expect during a spiritual direction session?
The answer of course will depend quite a bit on you. A spiritual advisor is there to support you and your journey. I’ve said it before, so I’ll just say it again: you are in charge in spiritual direction. That said, you are unique and your spiritual director will be unique. But there are some pretty consistent trends in spiritual direction.
- Expect silence. A spiritual director’s job is to listen to, support, and encourage you. Which means you really should be doing most of the talking. This is your life, and your story to tell. An experienced advisor will be wise enough to know when to be silent and give you space. Maybe you’ll be ready to fill that silence, maybe you won’t be. But expect to encounter silence.
- Expect to be (at least occasionally) uncomfortable. Growth isn’t comfortable, or easy. Spiritual direction (or advisorship) is often compared to midwifery and birth, we all know that birth isn’t easy. Bringing forth new life is a struggle, but the end result is worth it.
- You will discover things about yourself you would have never guessed. And you will discover things about the Divine that are just as surprising. No matter how well you think you know yourself, your faith, or God; there are surprises in store.
- There is immense freedom (and responsibility) in being in charge of your own spiritual life. For many of us, raised in structure religious systems, the freedom of being in charge of your own journey can be shocking, liberating, and intimidating at the same time. Your advisor will not tell you what to do. They will not give you a neat tidy plan, or a list of things to believe. Their purpose is to support your journey and it is one only you can make.
- Most spiritual direction meetings last about an hour. Arrive on time if at all possible as your spiritual director almost certainly has other appointments to keep. Most people meet monthly with their spiritual advisor, but your circumstances might call for a more (or less frequent) meeting schedule. Ask for what you need.
- Many spiritual directors charge, even mystics have to eat, but nearly all directors will work with you if you have trouble paying their normal rate. If money is a concern please always ask if a sliding scale is available.
How to find a spiritual director
There isn’t one simple answer for how you might find your first (or next) spiritual advisor. But the following are good places to start:
- Ask the people whose spiritual maturity and practice you admire where they found their spiritual director (they may or may not have one) and who they might suggest for you.
- Search the database at Spiritual Directors International. (SDI does not license the members in it’s database so do your research on whoever you might find.)
- If there is an Ignatian Spirituality Center in your area reach out, many have a spiritual direction “match-making” service. Their spiritual directors are diverse and from a broad range of traditions, personalities, and styles.
- Ask your local clergy. Clergy of many faiths often keep a list of recommended therapists, spiritual directors/advisors, and others so that they can refer those who come seeking. No, you don’t have to be a member of my community for me to be happy to give you a referral! So reach out even if you don’t have a worshiping community.
- If there is a religious community (monastery, temple, etc) in your area, ask if they have advisors in their membership, or a list of advisors they recommend.
- If all that fails, Google “spiritual direction” or “spiritual advisor” and your geographic location. Just remember that anyone can setup a website offering these services so do your research before you dive in.
Work with me
The best bet for most people is to find a spiritual advisor who practices near them and take part in in person spiritual direction. I take on spiritual direction clients on the Eastside of Seattle, covering (roughly) from Bothell to Bellevue, WA.
However, for a host of very good reasons not everyone can meet with a spiritual director in person. Whether your issue is transport, health, or location the modern age has opened up new avenues for spiritual directors and seekers. I am available for video conference spiritual direction for those who cannot meet with a director in their own area.
If this is something you are considering feel free to email me with any questions you might have.