A letter sent to a person or group of people. The New Testament contains many epistles from Paul and other leaders to various churches.
Spiritual Direction
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Summary: Spiritual direction, a form of mystical mentorship, is becoming increasingly common in Western Catholicism and Protestantism.
This article is part of a series. We recommend that you first read: What’s So Bad about Spiritual Formation?.

Spiritual direction is an ancient practice making a resurgence within the spiritual formation movement.


The practice of training disciples and apprentices was common in Jewish culture even before the time of Christ. When Jesus walked the earth, He gave us an example of servant leadership and discipleship. Spiritual direction has some commonalities with Biblical spiritual apprenticeship, but focuses on the development of mystical practices that Christ never supported.

According to a 2003 Christianity Today article on the subject, "intimacy with God, not on the solving of clinically identified psychological problems," is the focus of spiritual direction:

Directees are led to hear the Holy Spirit (the 'real spiritual director') calling them back onto the right path. The director's role is one of coming alongside, rather than dictating a program. The relationship thus shares some features with the Celtic ideal of a 'soul friend' or 'anamchara.'

...Spiritual direction as practiced today—especially in the Roman Catholic Church—owes its greatest debt to the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556).i

Seen today as a replacement—or at least supplement—for "Christian therapy," spiritual direction was originally used by desert mystics who had no bishops to lead them, so instead turned to wiser monks for spiritual guidance.

Unfortunately, unBiblical contemplative practices were fostered in the desert and continue to be spread through today's spiritual directors such as labyrinth prayer specialist Lauren Artress or Spiritual Directors International, which "offers a place to explore prayer practices, meditation, spiritual experiences, and our growing desire for significance."ii

Spiritual Direction in our Culture

The following quotes from Protestant and Catholic sources promoting spiritual direction show us how popular the practice is becoming:

But what if you have a spiritual need that another sermon or another counseling session won’t help? What if you want to listen to God more and more fully; and engage God more and more deeply? It could be that you need a spiritual director more than a chaplain or pastor. Sometimes a pastor or chaplain is also a spiritual director. But all pastors and chaplains are not spiritual directors any more than all medical doctors are cardiologists.iii

Spiritual direction occurs when one individual (normally identified as a spiritual director) accompanies another person (the spiritual directee) in their journey toward being transformed into the image of Christ. Although it is an ancient practice of the church, it has been largely ignored (until recent years) by many in “evangelical” churches.vi

In the technical sense of the term, spiritual direction is that function of the sacred ministry by which the Church guides the faithful to the attainment of eternal happiness…In one way, the Church requires all her adult members to submit to such private direction, namely, in the Sacrament of Penance. For she entrusts to her priests in the confessional, not only the part of judge to absolve or retain the sins presently confessed, but also the part of a director of consciences. In the latter capacity he must instruct his penitents if ignorant of their duties, point out the wrong or the danger in their conduct, and suggest the proper means to be employed for amendment or improvement.v

To share another's experience of God is a gift and a grace for the director, who is as much recipient as is the directee, in this graced relationship of sharing life's process. Two journeys meet at this encounter, and the mystery of deepening union occurs in each. There is a great longing today, for Christians to be able to reflect on their own lives with another person who will continue to listen in faith. My increasing awe and faith and sense of mystery continue to draw me into this ministry, which, I believe, needs to move into a more central place in the Christian experience.vi

The best spiritual directors are highly skilled at 'noticing', listening and attending to the key interior movements in a person's prayer. However this is not just a mystical thing. Because prayer covers all the major areas of one's life, so does spiritual direction...Essentially the spiritual director discerns what Ignatius [Loyola] called the 'movement of spirits', whether good or evil, in the other.vii

When life begins to feel unbalanced, and your joy and enthusiasm are drained by an emotional fatigue you cannot name – it’s time to take action! A Spiritual Director is willing to walk alongside of you, to help you see where you are called to be in this time of your life, to help you encounter God in unexpected places and circumstances where you did not expect to find God. You are not alone! A Spiritual Director is a compassionate friend who accompanies you, walks with you, loves you, cries with you, and laughs with you. Spiritual Direction is a way of leading us to see and be attentive to the real Director – the Spirit hidden in the depths of our being.viii

Warnings about Spiritual Directors

Micah 7:5 says, "Trust ye not in a friend, put ye not confidence in a guide: keep the doors of thy mouth from her that lieth in thy bosom." Spiritual growth is not dependent on mystical experiences or emotions. If you need a role model, find a godly person who will exhort you to live out Biblical love for God and others, not just teach you rituals.

We can always know the heart of a person based on the fruit their lives produce. Find a mentor whose life is ripe with the fruits of the Holy Spirit and who seeks to be true to God's Word by obeying all of God's Ten Commandments. 

And remember that God has sent His Spirit to us to be our Comforter and Counselor. God must always be our source of help and counsel, as He is the only Friend who will never fail us, as Martin Luther reminds us:

The Spirit is nowhere more present and alive than in His own sacred writings...We must let the Scriptures  have the chief place and be its own truest simplest and clearest interpreter...I want Scripture alone to rule, and not to be interpreted according to my spirit or that of any other man, but to be understood in its own light (per seipsam) and according to its own Spirit.ix

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