What is Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Direction?
Drawn by an inborn destiny, each of us experiences an inner call—an impulse—attracting us to some unknown (but knowable) depth of existence. When we were young we experienced this draw as the pursuit of an answer to the questions “who am I?” and “who will I be?” Throughout life, we continue to have that unrelenting desire to accomplish something meaningful; a desire arising from an inborn sense that there is meaning to my life, a purpose to why I am here. Unfortunately, the journey to the fulfillment of that meaning is neither easy nor clear. We have the desire, we know that there is something greater, something more, but we have no idea what it is or how to get there. We truly do see the ultimate things in life “through a glass darkly”, but from this desire is born our search for meaning.
The grand, corporate nature of that search has been enshrined in what we know as the great world religions. The specific, individual nature is seen in each of our various attempts at having a fulfilled life. We ask, “Is it in finding a great love? Do we find it in success? In renown and honor?” From the very beginning, people have searched for the answer to the question of meaning. In their search they have tried the ways of the spirit, of religion. They have tried the ways of the sensual life. When these turned out to be unsuccessful, they fell into hopeless despair, experiencing the products of that despair: anxiety, depression, addictions.
This search for meaning has led many a seeker to strive to discover another person who might help, one who may have a better idea about the journey and the path to life. This is the origin of spiritual direction, the historical antecedent of today’s psychotherapy.
Today, the difference between spiritual direction and depth psychotherapy is merely a matter of the starting point; the end is the same: a life fulfilled, a destiny found, an experience of peace and wholeness. One person may experience a desire to know more about life, to know God, to know more about themselves. This person will seek out spiritual direction. Another person may feel the pain of depression and a loss of soul, and so they seek psychotherapy. Though they may not initially realize it, both are on the same path, entered by different doors: the journey to a life of meaning and purpose. A meaning and purpose that is the very essence of a completed, whole life, this completed, whole life which is also the definition of what Jesus meant by being perfect; a life which is healed, a life which is saved.
Religious teaching addresses well the question of salvation, teaching us from what to be saved and to what to be saved. Regretfully, it often leaves out the how to move from one to the other. Today, psychotherapy has best spoken to the how. Psychotherapy sees what we need healing from and has developed a process to address it. Psychological theories, however, fall flat in addressing the question of to what we are saved. Psychological theories are often confused by the idea of what true healing looks like. It is here that spiritual direction picks up the baton again. To address these problems, as well as approach knowing God better, calls for the development of a strong and humble ego in order to awaken to the reality in which it exists. It is to respond to the call for becoming conscious, for recognizing and identifying the true self in which it exists and then bring this true self into accord with God. The answer to this call is the journey of spiritual formation, and it is just this formation that is the purpose and goal of spiritual direction. I refer to it as a journey because it entails a process that takes time and effort, encountering dangers and obstacles along the way. The inner life leading toward wholeness has been seen as a journey along an arduous path throughout time and across all cultures. The road to health and wholeness is the path to knowing God. How to walk this path is gleaned from two profound areas of revelation. The first, and most time-tested, is scripture. The second, more personal, is the revelation delivered and discovered in your own soul. If we could discern the truth behind these revelations accurately we would find a path leading clearly to health, wholeness, fulfillment, and God. The problem is that we often have difficulty in adequately interpreting these revelations. Then we find that the pathway is bounded by a rather painful hedge of thorns, which when we wander off the path give us a rather nasty time. Religiously, we call such wandering off sin; psychologically, we see it in the emotional and mental disorders that bring us to a psychotherapist. A grand part of spiritual direction and psychotherapy is the work of interpreting these revelations for your personal life and once again finding the path to wholeness between the thorns.