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Introducing Spiritual Direction – Peter Ball

May 12, 2013

ISDPThe author’s twin brother, Michael Ball, is remembered affectionately for his time as bishop of Jarrow, according to the woman who sold me this book in Durham Cathedral’s (now sadly defunct) SPCK bookshop.

She also spoke warmly of this book. It is an easy to read, basic introduction to the work of the spiritual director and I bought it at a time when I was considering undertaking a course of training for this role.

He says you need a lively interest in people – I am not sure that I have that, at least not in EVERY person. I guess it is important for the potential director and directee to BOTH check each other out.  I can think of some people that I would be very interested to accompany and to ‘move on’. I have been told that I am a good listener but that came usually from being shy and not knowing what to say in response. I got bored recently when an old man talked non-stop for about 45 minutes.  I can do ‘active listening’ in a school, context. I am good at teaching ad hoc, throwing in relevant things rather than systematically taking people through some sort of syllabus.  I like the idea of helping people who feel that they have come to a ‘dead end’ as I was so helped.

He explains that the number of people seeking direction has outpaced the number of people trained to give it. He discusses issues such as how to find the right director, the place, if any, of sacramental confession in the context of direction (decreasing because there are more lay directors and also more directees from outside the anglo-catholic traction where confession tends to be valued).

He also explains for distinction between counselling and directing and the inadvisability of people in a direction relationship also meeting for friendship and the danger of sessions which become merely ‘cosy chats’. The issue of confidentiality is dealt with – should one pass on child protection concerns? Also the thorny issue of payment. My guru Ken Leech reckons that any director who changes ‘is a charlatan’. But he received a stipend as a parish priest. Some give up full time work in order to exercise this ministry and also paid their own training course fees and purchased reading material.

He urges a practice that I try to follow, that of preparing for a session by emptying one’s mind before the directee arrives. (I carry out mindless tasks like hoovering, which wouldn’t otherwise get done!)

He also stresses the value of a journal as a focal point for a session (would that others would do this – but we are all different.) There is a consideration of the role in silence during sessions – it is important not to rush in to fill silence but allow other thoughts to arise, often as clarification and going deeper.

There is a brief reference to Myers Briggs and to Fowler’s stages of faith, which are best dealt with in books which are devoted solely to these topics.

A good, easy-to-read introduction.


I have always seen my ministry of being a director for others as an aspect of my vocation and ministry as a priest. I was attracted to ordination in i the first place because of a lively interest in people and I find it hard to think of anyone, lay or ordained, being able to work as a director without that. Although as priest I find that the sacrament of reconciliation, confession and absolution, in one form or another, often constitutes part of my meetings with people, I am increasingly aware that the direction relationship is in itself a means of grace.

People often speak of being aware that it is not two but three people in the room. Often the room where you meet may have a symbol such as an icon or a cross in it. As someone remarked, ‘I appreciate the fact of the candle, the blessing, the time and space.’

Myself, I come back very often to the words of an elderly Sister who said to me, ‘Whenever I am due to meet with someone, I pray to the Holy Spirit to empty me of myself, I so that I can listen only to Him and the other person.’

In a world that increasingly ignores the Faith and knows nothing and cares less about the riches waiting to be had for the asking, it is an enormous help to look at one’s life in the light of the gospel and thereby be reminded of what is really important.’ And a younger person wondering whether she ought to change jobs said, ‘Spiritual direction is a sounding board; saying my thoughts aloud earths them and helps me see what I should do next. When I say I don’t know what to do next, I get a reaction from my director because she is a person, which I don’t really get from God.

A young priest described the gift like this: ‘It’s like writing a journal; it helps to make sense of life. The advantage that spiritual direction has over the journal is that there’s somebody else there who can both tease out the greater meaning and challenge you on things. They can pull it out further than I’d necessarily do on my own. It’s good to share my story with someone else; nice to know there’s someone there who will sit and listen to me rabbit on. It’s very affirming that my life and me are worth paying attention to. It helps me to pay attention to myself. It’s a sorting and encouraging experience.’

A bank employee who has a lay ministry in her home church put it like this. ‘I think of spiritual direction as being restorative; it builds you up and gives you strength. It’s reflective; when you say out loud things about God and prayer and spiritual life, you find it gives you answers. It’s refreshing; I always go away refreshed by drinking from someone else’s spiritual cup, which is difficult in ordinary life. Sometimes it’s quite challenging and I have to do some rethinking. I have experienced an unprecedented inner growth, which was prompted by life circumstances and relationships. I’ve found new thinking and awareness. Going to see a spiritual director has given me a real chance to look at deep issues and talk in an open-ended way about these things. There is a sense of support and safety; it’s out of my home situation. There is no accountability to anyone except God and each other.’

Self-deception is a great danger in the spiritual life.

`It’s important not to try to cover too much at once. The work is facilitated by being accepted as I am. Not many people in my life know me that well. No one sits down with me regularly like this, year in year out, to hear it all. There’s something very liberating about that, just being able to be me and knowing that my director knows what I’m about. I feel I can say anything and be very honest — I am enabled to be honest. There’s no point in pretending to be the person I’m not. Working together for so long makes that easy, because my director knows me and there’s lots I don’t ‘ have to explain. Not to mention all that good spiritual directors do in listening and reflecting back what you are hearing and what you think is going on.’

A young man working as a designer said, ‘I think boundaries are important. Your director is someone outside your ordinary life. This gives space in a way a friend doesn’t. I need to know that my director is human; it’s OK to know a bit of her story, where she is coming from. But it is also important to know that the special space in spiritual direction won’t be intruded upon by “friendship”. Directors can sometimes introduce their own story helpfully; you realize you are not alone because others have similar experiences — so you’re OK; you’re not going dulally. It helps to know the director really understands. But it’s not like a normal friendship — it’s a unique relationship.’

`I recognize there are boundaries. For instance I wouldn’t ring at all hours or suddenly turn up on my (director’s doorstep. I think that maybe it’s right that we don’t meet socially. The relationship is a special one. I may learn a little about his life, but he’s not using the session for his own spiritual direction.’

addressing legal regulations requiring disclosure to proper authorities, including, but not limited to, child abuse, elder abuse and physical harm to self and ) others.

The question of paying for spiritual direction comes up regularly and needs to be faced openly. There is a wide variety of expectation and practice. Some directors regard the work as a normal part of their ministry and do not expect to receive any money at all. At the other extreme the director may have given up other work to be available and needs proper remuneration. This is often the case with members of religious communities or with those who are engaged full-time in direction. Between these come the people for whom it is right to reimburse the expenses they incur. It may be embarrassing, witness these sentiments, shared by many other people: ‘I wish the British could be more up-front about payment. I send a gift every time, but I’m never quite sure about it. Temperamentally I want on the one hand to be told something about how much, but on the other I don’t like the idea of scales of fees and conditions of contract, which would change the relation­ship

‘It would be difficult to have to pay. There would be the element of professionalism; it would be best not to have to pay at the time of direction; to have a standing order with your bank, rather than sit and write out a cheque to give your director. But you can’t ignore the fact that people have to live.’

It’s usually an hour, but some people take much longer to unpack, up to two and a half hours. Some people find it hard to express their experiences, especially contemplatives.’

A friend who works as a spiritual director has been seeing two or three people for a good long time. He wonders whether they would benefit from a change. `Sometimes you have to move on. You change and need a different sort of help.’

`I am aware there could be a danger of becoming too comfortable and just having cosy chats, but I haven’t found it so. There’s still that edge. I am aware of the presence of God in it and that stops the cosiness. I find that the intensity of our meetings varies with the various situations in my life.’

Elements of teaching have been important, but it has always been relevant, sensitive and by way of invitation.

‘A real difficulty can be finding the right person. I find it takes about a year to settle down before you can be sure that you have. You recognize by a certain intuition that that’s the one to go for.’

I can’t imagine another minister as my spiritual director. All the ministers from my own denomination I know who have had spiritual directors have had people outside the tradition, which indicates the importance of a view from outside the situation.’

most say that their own home is not a good venue. There are too many distractions to filter out, such as family, door bells and phones.

he choice of venue can also carry deeper meanings. ‘I am grateful that the early meetings were in my director’s home, because I felt then — whether she meant it or not, I 1 don’t know — that she was giving me herself. This was important territory for her and she asked me to come and share it with her. I found that was very important and indicative of this confidence. This person is not just doing a job here; this is a way of life; something she is.’

There is certainly some advantage in having to travel to meet. ‘Place doesn’t make much difference to me because the relationship is firm. It is good to go to the director’s place, as it opens space for me. His study feels friendly and homely and I enjoy the journey there. I need that further hour driving home to go back over the meeting. It’s like having a lawn in front of a house; I need the space to stand back and reflect and think through what’s gone on.

People come to a director for help, or at least for under­standing, when they feel something has gone wrong with their prayer — it doesn’t work as it used to, they can’t concentrate on their meditation, the feelings they were accustomed to seem to be dead, and they hark back to the warmth in prayer they used to enjoy. They are frustrated, angry and upset. They express guilt at the lack of success in their spiritual life, because clearly they must be lazy; they are not trying hard enough. They fear that they are losing God or that they have to face the fact that they have lost God. (It may be, of course, that they have had to let go of an old, worn-out God.) There can be a further fear in all this too: ‘Does God really love me or was it all a false hope?’ There is distress that prayer is no longer what it used to be; it’s boring; it feels like a waste of time. Something has been lost and it is very sad and confusing. Prayer has become empty and dry and all you can do is fidget. Why not just give it up? However, it is not always doom and gloom like that for everyone. There are people for whom the move into silent, passive prayer is accompanied by a sense of deep joy, of overwhelming love, or of the close presence of God.

Distractions in prayer must be the most usual problem that people bring. However, rather than the distractions themselves, it is getting upset and guilty over them that really hinders prayer. Wandering thoughts and explosive feelings are going to happen. People need to be encouraged to return over and over again to the real business of the prayer. As in the whole of contemplative praying, it is a matter of focus. If you beat yourself up because you are faced with distractions and you can’t control them, if you get upset and condemn yourself as a failure, then your focus is on yourself and you are making yourself responsible for the ‘success’ of your prayer. The contemplative’s true focus can only be on God, who gives the prayer in the first place. The director’s job is to help people to be gentle with themselves, to recognize that the human mind is designed to work in such a way that distractions will happen and to move away from them back to God. You may want to follow the advice given in The Cloud of Unknowing about returning to the ‘sacred word’ as a sign of our willingness to be there available to God,

Among the most seductive thoughts are the holy ones. You find you are writing sermons to yourself or for other people, thinking about how to express your belief, or doing a kind of self-assessment on how well (or how badly) you are praying.

With all its positive aspects it has to be recognized that the Myers—Briggs Personality Type Indicator can be open to misuse. When it is taken to be prescriptive rather than descriptive it can lead to all sorts of trouble. Kenneth Leech underlines this danger when he refers to Myers—Briggs as `astrology for the middle classes’. When behaviour is excused on the grounds that it is the only the outworking of some kind of destiny, there is a distortion of the truth. To say that you are of a certain type does not relieve you from the responsibility of making your own decisions, nor on the other hand does it mean that you have to behave in a way that is expected from people of that type.

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