When Thomas Merton was master of scholastics at the Monastery at Gethsemani in 1962, he remarked that “everyone should get spiritual direction.” This was a wildly radical notion for its time. Back then, the only people who received spiritual direction — in the West, at least — were ordained clergy. The laity were expected to receive what “direction” they could through the sacraments, particularly confession, and sermons.

The world has caught up with Merton. From a sprinkling of religious communities and nascent training programs that sustained the practice of spiritual direction into the 1980s, a movement has burgeoned. Today, some 6,000 spiritual directors across six continents are members of Spiritual Direction International, an organization launched in 1990 to coordinate a network of training and ethical standards programs and a base of referrals. These days, training programs are cropping up at retreat centers throughout the country, and thousands of individuals have taken up spiritual directors, seeking to live in a deeper personal relationship with God than seems possible by simply participating in the sacraments and unguided private prayer.

Acquaintances ask, what exactly is spiritual direction?

As a spiritual director for 15 years, when the question comes up I think of the many brilliant theologians I could summon in response: Merton himself, of course; Catherine of Siena; Ignatius of Loyola, or Teresa of Avila. Instead, I turn to recent conversations I have had with my own directees, ordinary people who invite me to join them on what is the most humbling and inspiring transformative work I know.

  • In his 50s, the man sits with his journal open on his lap. Twice divorced, deeply devoted to worship and church committee work, he is still searching for what in his deepest heart he feels he has yet to discover: his true purpose on earth.
  • A mother of two growing girls has left a high profile job in social justice work. Now she spends her time sitting on her sofa, lost and confused. “I read book after book of spiritual writings,” she tells me. “The house is a mess. I love my kids and my husband, but I find myself just wanting to be alone with God. What is happening?”
  • A young man whose father has died in the prime of life comes to see me. He is considering the priesthood. How can he know if this is a true calling, or a desire to escape from grief?

The questions that people bring to spiritual direction lie at the heart of existence:

Who am I? What is the meaning of my life? How can I heal from the wounds of disappointment, betrayal, or radical doubt? Is “anyone” listening?

And: how am I meant to give my gifts to the world?

These questions are so profoundly private that often we silence them before we’ve really heard them. The old answers no longer work, and we don’t know where to go. We feel deeply, existentially alone.

Spiritual direction is a practice almost as old as Christianity itself. Saint Anthony and the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the third and fourth centuries, and St. Benedict slightly later, established a treasury of wisdom and practices that helped those who came to them, often refugees fleeing a secularized and materialistic culture that seemed to have lost its way. They longed to engage ways of knowing that had become marginal to their everyday worlds.

Today, we are their heirs, asking the same questions — questions that fall beyond the parameters of traditional therapy. In a world that demands a highly rational, literal, and linear way of getting through the day, spiritual direction offers a place where the individual is guided and validated in a very different level of self-knowledge, what we call “inner experience” or “religious experience.”

A spiritual director is a witness, a sounding board, and a guide. Director and directee come together in a relationship of complete confidentiality to discern how God is communicating with the directee on a daily level.

Directors often speak of “prayerful listening.” We believe that God does communicate, as he did to the Hebrew people throughout the Old Testament, through Jesus and later his followers and saints. We moderns need to learn to pay attention. It is this process — of attending — that moves people from “absurd living” to “obedient listening,” in the words of the late Catholic priest and author, Henri Nouwen. Obedient listening leads us to the liberation to live life from our “true” rather than merely our socially-constructed selves.

The real challenge of the life of faith, Nouwen once noted, “is not how to make the spiritual life happen, but to see where it actually is happening.” This “seeing” is the focus of spiritual direction. Its tools are prayer, contemplation, and the Word of God. A good director will helps us to stay faithful to such practices as contemplation and prayer. She will know when to suggest a certain reading and when to recommend silence. She will remind you of your weaknesses, witness your fears and doubts, and most importantly, hold up your true self as it is revealed in your practice of attentiveness.

In many ways, spiritual direction is a journey of the heart, and the apt Celtic name for this relationship is “Anam Cara,” or “soul friend.”

A typical conversation in a monthly direction session often moves back and forth from the cosmic (What is the meaning of my life?) to the everyday (Is this job right for me at this time?). This is healthy. The point is not for the director to issue commands, but to help people identify and integrate their own spiritual insights into a life that, in Merton’s words, “bears inspection in the face of death.”

For some Catholics, the notion of replacing a religious experience meditated by clergy and the teachings of catechesis with personal religious experience remains foreign at best, even prideful or sinful. But the privileging of God’s voice speaking to individuals reaches as far back as St. Paul. Some of the pre-eminent spiritual directors in Catholic history were either not ordained, or did most of their work before becoming ordained. St. Catherine of Siena is among these. St. Ignatius of Loyola — who left us an entire system of interior encounter with God which remains today one of the most effective and widely used — arrived at his keenest insights before he became a priest.

How does one find a spiritual director? Local retreat centers, monasteries, convents, and Catholic colleges and schools of theology are all good sources for referrals. Spiritual Directions International maintains a global directory of registered directors.

Because spiritual direction is so personal, a good “fit” is essential. A director should be part of a faith community and belong to a professional peer group. Many are associated with a retreat house or monastery, and have a deep knowledge of the history of spirituality. Training programs vary, but in my experience, the worth of a director is counted in years of consistent practice, less in intellectual ability than in compassion, warmth, and a rich faith life or his or her own.

Most individuals see their directors once a month, and in person. Sessions usually last an hour, and can include conversation, quiet, prayer, journaling, or any number of other ways of listening for God in that hour. Directors usually receive an “offering” of anywhere from $50 to $90 an hour, but some religious just request a donation to their community.

People in spiritual direction today are ordinary people who have begun to “live the questions.” Sometimes this is life-changing; sometimes, there aren’t answers. Nouwen offers this wisdom: “Living the questions runs counter to the mainstream of Christian ministry that wants to impart knowledge, skills to control and power to conquer. In spiritual listening, we encounter a God who cannot be fully understood, we discover realities that cannot be controlled, and we realize that our hope is hidden not in the possession of power but in the confession of weakness.”

It is good, on such a journey, to have a soul friend.