Reflection Paper on “Soul Friend – Spiritual direction in the Modern World”

Soul Friend – Spiritual direction in the Modern World, Kenneth Leech, Moorehouse Publishing, 2001.

Archbishop Carey remarks, “How refreshing then that Soul Friend places spiritual development firmly within the corporate and sacramental life of the Church. The growth of an individual’s relationship with God cannot be set apart from their relationship with their fellow Christians.” (ix) Kenneth Leech has written a broad overview of Spiritual Direction that appears conversant with the whole sweep of Christian history, as well as 20th century secular and world faith spiritualities. I’m reminded of the sermon I heard just yesterday regarding the description of people as Spiritual But Not Religious and Religious But Not Spiritual. He seems determined to help us recover the best of the Christian spiritual tradition, learn from the traditions of others, and be fully Spiritual And Religious.

Leech’s book, written originally in a British context in the 1977 and revised 25 years later, begins with a contextual description (marked predominantly by mid-century traits) and offers a comprehensive historical overview of spiritual direction before reviewing literature regarding the relationship between therapy, pastoral care and spiritual direction. From there he goes on to describe prayer in the Christian tradition, the practice of prayer, and the prophetic spirit within direction. The first two chapters in particular are dense with references to various traditions, periods and authors – it’s challenging to plow through, but serves as a wonderful reference – which is how it reads. I probably will need to return to it a few times for it all to sink in. The appendix adds a reflection on the relationship between spiritual direction and the sacrament of reconciliation.

Father Joseph Tetlow, SJ, has titled his workbook on Ignatian spirituality “Choosing Christ in the World,” thus pointing to this need to discern, a distinctly Ignatian emphasis as Leech notes (55). I am interested in how Leech highlights the incongruous notion of Christians being “socially well adjusted” which is seen as the goal of much psychotherapy, and modes of pastoral counseling and direction which follow its lead.

“Social adjustment is frequently seen as an objective, while issues of social criticism are ignored. Kathleen Heasman even goes so far as to define counseling as ‘a relationship in which one person endeavors to help another to understand and to solve his difficulties of adjustment to society.’…. But adjustment to society is a highly dubious goal for the Christian. One American liberal writer, Daniel Day Williams, strongly criticized the tendency in the counseling movement to see freedom from anguish and the attainment of inner peace as an end. To exist in such a state within a society so marred by injustice and lack of true peace as ours was, he argued an untenable position.” (98)

As a pastor, I have gotten trapped in trying to help people adjust to their family and social situations when perhaps what God was calling them toward was radical transformation of their own lives, and through them their communities. This kind of life, a new life, requires humility and courage, and the support of a community (of faith?) to endure the journey and even thrive in its midst. This quote is found in the chapter on therapy, but it speaks, I think, of the prophetic role of pastor and director. It also relates to the need for sacraments of confession and reconciliation. We need to confess of our alliance with social expectations, confess of being socially well adjusted, and instead seek reconciliation with God and a Christian community that is radically other. This otherness offers light and life and peace and hope to those who find “the world” to be debilitating and defeating. Paul counsels us: “2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12) Israel, God’s servant, is set apart, a light to the nations (Isaiah 42, 49, 60).

Regarding this prophetic role, Leech states


“If this is true, it ceases to be surprising that Charles Elliott, the economist, should end his study Inflation and the Compromised Church (1975) with a call to contemplation. Christians, he says, must face in their concrete situation the inequities and miseries with which they are surrounded. They must face the challenge of justice. ‘It is then that they begin to reflect the life of Christ and to foreshadow the life of his Kingdom. But they will reflect it only to the extent that they have seen it. Radical action begins with radical contemplation.'”(p187)

Interesting that Leech references an economist – hardly what I would consider to be a spiritually sensitive science – to point out the need for spiritual direction that is prophetic, and that leads the directee into deeper, and ‘radical,’ contemplation. The New Testament uses numerous variations of the Greek root “oikos” meaning household, and its derivative “oikonomia” meaning stewardship or administration. These words are related to right order and relationship in the social organization and are often used to contrast two different ways of being – one that is consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures (Luke 12), and one that is not (Luke 16). In 1 Peter 4:10 we read “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” This speaks to the need for direction to discern and develop what gift each of us has received and to know how to serve one another in a spirit of love. Continuing this contrast:

“15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16 for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.” (1 John 2)

Returning again to the work of Daniel Williams as quoted by Leech:

“The Christian ideal of life envisions something higher than freedom from anguish or invulnerability to its ravages. Its goal cannot be perfectly adjusted self….What does it mean to be completely adjusted and at peace in a world so riddled with injustice and the cries of the hungry, with the great unsolved questions of human living as this?” (98, quoting Williams in The Minister and the Cure of Souls. 1961.)

The work of spiritual direction is to help us be transformed until we “grow together to maturity, the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13) not to be conformed or adjusted to a society that is itself maladjusted. The whole of the Christian life is a prophetic witness to this distinction – pastoral counseling and spiritual direction must support us in this work or they are a distraction, or worse a means of our destruction. This reading is challenging me to think even more deeply about the whole scope of my ministry from the perspective of direction and to consider how I might bring this spirit more fully into everything I do. For instance, in my preaching I need to be more thoughtful regarding how I instruct, train and equip people to practice their spiritual lives in ways that will enable this transformation from and resistance to society and the world (i.e. the social structures and systems of power, not the created order itself). In my administration, do I support the prayer and devotional lives of those I lead, or do my techniques tend to support the value and power norms of our society? We have recently been through an experience of wrestling over conflicting values among our leadership, and trying though all of that to relate in community with integrity – to honor those with whom we disagree, which is not easy to do. Deeper contemplation is certainly a powerful aid during such times.

Taking a cue from Ignatius that consolations and desolations can both come from either good or evil spirits – either one can be the Lord’s prompting or a darker spirit seeking to lead us astray – the director must not be in a hurry to help people resolve their issues and feel better. “Rather, the priest needs to recognize that all Christian experience involves the experience of disturbance, and to look for the movements of the Holy Spirit in the troubled and shaken individual.” (116) In this, we seek to discern together with the directee the moving and leading of the Spirit, to ask: “What might God be doing? What might God be asking? Saying? What does the Lord require?” We provide time, space, and permission for the exploration of these issues, drawing on the Christian tradition and spiritual wisdom from around the world, within the context of the Christian community. I want those I direct, whether or not they participate in the congregation where I serve as Pastor, to understand that the experience of direction is a ministry of the church and that they are thus embraced in the loving care and prayerful concern of the church. For the SBNR and the RBNS, spiritual direction can help reconcile and restore us to right relationship with God, self and others, enabling us to engage thoughtfully in the divine economy in the household of God.

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