Traditionally, spiritual direction refers to a relationship in which one person assists another’s spiritual development.
More broadly, the term can also refer to a part of the spiritual growth process in which one finds a “sense of direction” — a sense of discovering one’s path or a feeling of being led on a journey.
In contemporary use, it can have many shades of meaning, depending on the context — formal or informal, professional or casual, solitary or companioned.
These are a few facets of the meaning of spiritual direction:
- Mentoring, counseling* or coaching for developing the inner life.
- An inner process of unfolding experience and awareness.
- Contemplative conversation for helping a person clarify his or her path.
- Soul friendship — companionship through joys and challenges on the spiritual journey.
In practice, each of these meanings come into play, with changing emphasis depending upon each person’s unique circumstances. The format varies with the level of formality. Professional spiritual direction, like other forms of counseling, is done in an ongoing one-to-one basis in private sessions.
People enter formal spiritual direction for a variety of reasons. For some, it flows out of enthusiasm for developing their higher potential. Others seek spiritual resources during major life transitions. A range of motivations can be appropriate. A preliminary conversation helps determine if formal spiritual direction would be helpful in a given situation.
Unlike psychotherapy (or mental health counseling), formal spiritual direction sessions do not focus on solving problems. Spiritual direction is more about discerning and responding to the leadings of one’s innermost spirit and developing a more authentic way of being. Sometimes psychotherapy is necessary before fruitful spiritual direction is possible. Those suffering from acute distress or a mental health disorder are advised to seek appropriate medical and psychological care. In collaboration with other health professionals, however, spiritual direction can play a helpful role in an overall program of holistic care.
* Many sources say, “Spiritual direction is not counseling.” What they mean is that spiritual direction is not mental health counseling, which should only be provided by properly trained and licensed professionals. Among the lay public, however, the word counseling often refers much more generally to any situation where one goes to a specialist for assistance. Thus, to many, spiritual direction is “spiritual counseling”.