Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Spiritual direction more than an academic pursuit

Spiritual direction more than an academic pursuit

At the recent graduation ceremony at the University of Divinity, we awarded a number of diplomas, certificates and masters degrees to graduates from the Sentir Graduate College of Spiritual Formation.

One question this always raises for me is: Does formation as a spiritual director fit well in an academic course? If a university regards spiritual direction as simply a series of listening skills and helping competencies that can be learned by any student, I would say that formation as a spiritual director does notfit well into an academic course. Why? Because spiritual direction is a vocation. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit. 

As the Jesuit spiritual writer David Fleming states, spiritual direction is rooted in God’s call first, and our response to God’s call. Spiritual direction is a charism given to a particular person for use in serving the people of God. Fleming notes:

Persons also receive confirmation of this gift in a normal human way by means of other people with whom they live and work identifying it and calling for its use. Commonly, people who have some intimations of a God-given discerning ability find that others seek them out and want to share their life situation, joys and difficulties with them and value their counsel, advice, and support in their own attempt to grow as Christians.

At Sentir we know that careful screening of applicants for our courses in spiritual direction is critical. Can an applicant demonstrate a calling to this ministry? Do people seek out him or her for spiritual conversation? Is he or she kind and generous in relating to others? Can this person 'help souls' as Saint Ignatius of Loyola would say? Does he or she have a deep life of prayer? An academic course may assist a student to refine the ministerial gift of spiritual direction, but only if he or she has a call to this ministry and a serious prayer life. 

So, to the question: Does formation as a spiritual director fit well into an academic course? Spiritual direction is an art rather than a science, so it needs to be learned under careful supervision. Those who form spiritual directors in the Ignatian tradition need to see the one in formation in action and give him or her feedback. This is done in facilitated groups, in role-plays and most importantly in supervision. 

It is in supervision that the capacity to adapt the Spiritual Exercises to the needs of a retreatant, and to focus on and respond sensitively to religious experience is learned best. In addition to this the giver of the Exercises has to know the language and the schemas of the Exercises and to have read about, written on and appropriated their structure, dynamic and process.  But that is not enough. There are other frameworks that also have to be appropriated. Theological learning is one of these.


Taking a lead from Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Ignatius of Loyola

What did Saint Teresa of Avila look for in a spiritual director?  She thought that a director had to be experienced in the spiritual life, but she also greatly valued the guidance of a spiritual director who had solid theological learning.  Fleming notes:

There is a tradition that St Teresa of Avila identified that a director should possess a certain theological foundation as the most essential quality for giving good spiritual direction… From her experience, Teresa knew that pious sanctity or the good-willed attempt to help another was not enough for proper spiritual direction. And so her careful distinction about the more essential quality in a spiritual director was not to deny the good of a certain holiness of life lived by the director, but to stress that the director must also possess a certain theological acumen. Teresa’s sense of criteria I would hold to be even more essential for today’s spiritual director than in previous ages.

She saw an academic knowledge of theology and scripture as important because they provided frameworks for listening. 

Saint Ignatius, Saint Teresa’s contemporary, had his conversion experience at the age of 31 after which he composed the book of the Spiritual Exercises. He then began a ministry of spiritual conversation with other laypersons, using his Exercises as the basis for dialogue. He was, as a result, brought before the Spanish Inquisition and questioned about his 'Exercises.'  While the Inquisition did not find anything unorthodox or inconsistent in his Exercises, when he was released he was told to avoid ministering to others and teaching about prayer. In the eyes of Inquisitors, anyone who was not ordained but was involved in ministry was suspect.

Ignatius realised that, for the sake of credibility, he would have to gain a theological education. So he spent ten years studying.  Beginning with schoolboy Latin and Greek in Barcelona, he progressed to the University of Alcala, then to the University of Salamanca and he finally finished at the University of Paris, at that time the premier university in Europe, where he gained a Masters degree. 

Did Ignatius study theology for the sake of his personal credibility? Was it to defend himself against the Inquisition? Did he decide to study in order to continue his ministry of 'helping souls' unhindered by the Inquisition? Possibly. But I suspect that Ignatius also realized that his studies were helping him to become even better at helping souls. His education provided him with theological language and frameworks that made him even more effective in his spiritual conversation, which he saw as the heart of ministry.

This effectiveness in spiritual conversation, supported by solid theological learning, is what we are aiming for with our graduates from Sentir Graduate College of Spiritual Formation.

By Fr Michael Smith SJ, Dean of Sentir Graduate College of Spiritual Formation.  

Images: (Top) Church of the Holy Sepulchre Jesusalem, by Anna Kucherova (via Flickr), (Middle) St Theresa of Avila by Steve Grant (via Flickr). 

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