A reader wrote to me:
Hi Carl, how does one study to be a ‘contemplative’ grounded Spiritual Director for spiritual seekers. Jim Finley mentioned this on a podcast. But, how? He didn’t elaborate. He said these types of people can help others find themselves. I would like to know as I start my spiritual direction studies. This could be a good emphasis area. I hope to hear from you. Hopefully, you can enlighten me.
I certainly don’t know if I am capable of enlightening anyone! But I was happy to offer the following response.
Friend, thanks for your message. There are so many programs now available for the formation of spiritual directors, and I’m sure they vary widely in terms of their understanding of, engagement with and affirmation of contemplative practice. Since you are yourself pursuing spiritual direction (am I correct in assuming you are participating in a formation program?), I certainly would encourage you to pose this question to the persons in charge of your program. What is their understanding of contemplation? Of mysticism? Do they have a sesne of “best practices” regarding silence, prayer, meditation, contemplation? Is your program more slanted toward a therapeutic/psychological model of spiritual companionship, or is there a clear appreciation for the wisdom of the mystics (even if in dialogue with contemporary voices)?
I’ve been in spiritual direction since 1984 and did my formation as a spiritual director in the early 1990s, so I may be a bit out of date with my understanding of what is “au courant” in the spiritual direction world. But what I was taught was that the single best thing I could bring to my practice as a spiritual director was my own stable and consistent contemplative practice. In other words, there’s no formula for being a contemplative spiritual director, but to the extent that someone works hard at being both a contemplative and a spiritual director,, then the Spirit can use that commitment to help us be the kind of director that “helps others find themselves.” There could never be a formula for that! But to the extent that we are doing the work to find ourselves, then there is hope that by grace God can use us, imperfect as we are, to serve and support others — even if, like Thomas Merton in his famous prayer, “we know nothing about it.”
Thanks, great question. Hope this helps.
A few additional thoughts. As I mention in my reply to the reader, there are all sorts of programs for training and forming spiritual directors, and I imagine they vary widely in terms of their commitment to contemplative prayer and practice. I think if I were pursuing formation as a spiritual director today, this question of “how contemplative is this program?” would be at the top of my list of questions. Spiritual direction comes out of the contemplative tradition, and so its potential as a ministry of support to aspiring contemplatives should not be minimized or ignored. But no less a luminary than St. Teresa held that a bad spiritual director is worse than no spiritual direction at all. I would think that anyone trained to do spiritual direction without a deep and sustained practice of prayer (including silence) in their own life is someone at risk of being, if not a “bad” spiritual companion, at least a woefully ignorant one (I always recognize that through God can works miracles in even the most undeserving or unworthy human being, but that is no reason for us to be slackers on our end — at the very least we should strive to give the Spirit something to work with!).
I believe spiritual direction/accompaniment is one of the great spiritual treasures of our time, and I hope everyone who is interested in this ministry find a spiritual director to accompany their own adventure into the heart of prayer. But I think it’s helpful for both directors and directees to remember that this is a ministry of grace (i.e., no one is every truly qualified to be a spiritual director), and the best way to make ourselves available to the working of grace in our lives is through sustained and stable prayer. If you want to learn how to play a musical instrument, sit down and start practicing. If you want to learn how to be a Catholic, go to Mass. And if you want to learn how to either give or receive spiritual direction well, then pray, including silence, on a committed regular basis.