Certified spirit guides: Quietly, compassionately, spirit directors take the soul by the hand, helping a seeker tap deeper dimensions.
Spiritual direction, an ancient practice with Christian roots that has recently seen a revival among contemporary seekers from all faiths, including some who don’t necessarily believe in God.
In a culture where people readily engage physical trainers to hone their bodies and psychotherapists to untangle their neuroses, an increasing number are looking to spiritual directors as “spotters” for their souls.
About 300 training programs in spiritual direction exist worldwide, housed in universities, seminaries, and independent retreat centers. Spiritual Directors International, a 20-year-old organization based in Bellevue, Wash., has seen its membership swell from 4,000 in 2002 to 7,000 in 2008. There are even YouTube videos explaining and promoting the practice.
“I have seen a huge rise in awareness” of spiritual direction, says Liz Ward, director of the spiritual guidance program at the Shalem Institute in Bethesda, Md., which draws students of numerous faiths including Jews, Buddhists, Baptists, and Roman Catholics to its two-year program.
Spiritual directors typically meet monthly with their directees, who may or may not share the same religious background; the relationship can continue for years. Unlike psychotherapy, which is problem-based and designed to alleviate distress, spiritual direction doesn’t aim to “fix” anything.
Instead, it offers people a place to talk about their spiritual lives without fear of judgment. For some, that means discussing God or prayer in the context of their faith; others use language such as “the yearning of the soul.”
“In this culture, it’s easier for us to talk about sex than about spirituality,” says Cole, whose experience with spiritual direction was so positive that she enrolled in the training program at Chestnut Hill College and, five years ago, left her parish ministry for a full-time independent practice. “I’ve had people come who’ve had a religious experience that made them feel ‘odd,’ and they’d never told anybody.”
Liz Ellmann, executive director of Spiritual Directors International, which publishes a journal and creates ethical guidelines for practitioners, says trauma often unleashes spiritual questions: “How do I be present to pain and joy? Why do I have to be so busy that I can’t enjoy my life? And who do you talk about that stuff with?”