URC :: Spirituality

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United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

On spiritual direction

Mark Argent
4 September 2021

By this stage I really ought to be able to provide a clear answer to the question “What is spiritual direction?”, having been engaged with it in a variety of contexts since Bill Mahood encouraged me to explore in the mid 1990s.

Instead, I am struck by the variety of answers that are around — though often given with great confidence. In some ways this is a problem. If someone needs to see a GP, it is relatively easy to be clear about what they will be getting, but it is always worth talking to a few prospective spiritual directors, as they vary greatly.

For some, the actual term “spiritual direction” is a stumbling block, because it feels too much like people being told what to do. I am relatively pragmatic about that, as at least it is a term that people recognise, and offers the negative term “directive” for a director who is acting in this way.

One good thing about the variety of understandings of “spiritual direction” is that it mirrors the variety of understandings of God. If there were a simple “right way”, it would imply God was safely packaged, and cut out the room for surprise. There’s a vital place for “not knowing” not in the sense of ignorance, but in the way that, at the heart of spirituality, is holding a place for the unknown in God.

In a URC context it was fascinating to co-lead, with David Parkin, the annual Exploring Spiritual Direction events at Windermere from 2010 until it closed. No two of them were the same, but they have provided a way to work with a range of understandings in the URC. One of the things they did highlight was the parallel between what in the URC is usually called “pastoral care” and spiritual direction, which stands in a tradition going back at least as far as what Richard Baxter describes in The Reformed Pastor.

My own experience as a directee has spanned the extremes, from the exceptionally good to the exceptionally bad. In its way, that is useful to have seen such a range because it makes me very aware that it makes a difference. Though the main learning from the exceptionally bad one was around what not to do (and why), the richness of the exceptionally good one is worth sharing. The key was not a particular set of techniques or methods, but was instead in the freedom to try new things and to explore, inciting me to do the same with a wonderful mix of humanity and creativity. It’s not about “being told what to do” (despite the word “direction”), but is about a director modelling the possibility that a genuine exploration opens the path to something genuinely rich — and surprising.

One of the things that’s key to giving good spiritual direction is good supervision, which means that, in working with others, one is also actively learning and exploring — so the sense is of everyone exploring, rather than some telling others the “right” way. The phase “meet the directee where they are” can trip off the tongue a little too easily, but is actually vital.