What is Spiritual Direction?

The Gift of Spiritual Direction

I had been involved in counselling, psychology and missions for many years before I even heard of spiritual direction/spiritual companioning. But since discovering it I consider it a luxury I never want to live without.

“To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.”(1)

Douglas Steere, Quaker writer

I had experienced counselling, mentoring, advising, – but could I say they listened my soul into discovery? They helped me solve issues, and learn strategies. They helped me become more assertive, and become more clear about what I wanted and needed. But what about my soul?

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who wrote so much about contemplation and spiritual formation spoke of the soul or true self as: “like a very shy wild animal that never appears at all whenever an alien presence is at hand, and comes out only when all is peaceful.”(2)
If our soul is the deeper part of us, our truer self then how do I find that peaceful place where I can emerge into the one?

Our soul is like a shy wild animal

I am reminded of a special moment I experienced when I was on a long silent retreat. As I walked down the hill back to the retreat centre the big tame rabbit who was resident in the gardens, began playing with two wild fawns who emerged from the woods. They played a game of hide and seek around a lone tree near the edge of the woods. They touched noses. They ignored my presence even though I stood hardly moving, only metres away from them. There is something about being in extended silence that seems to make us safer to wild animals. The fawns, and certainly the rabbit, seemed to know I was not an alien presence and so all was peaceful. This is a picture for me of my soul, shyly stepping out of the woods and being seen in this safe space. 

Spiritual companions learn from their own experience in the presence of another, to hold whatever surfaces with kindness and non-judgement, reflecting the grace of the God who is all grace, all kindness.

Spiritual direction has a long history. It dates back to the 300s when the desert fathers and mothers left the culture of power and riches to live outside mainstream Roman society in order to live lives dedicated to prayer and spirituality. These men and women became foundational to the later flourishing of monasticism. Among the desert fathers and mothers, as well as in the monasteries and convents, were those who made themselves available to share their lived wisdom with those who came to them for advice and spiritual nurture. The writings of Julian of Norwich, (the first woman writer in English in the 1300s), Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, writing in the 1600s in Spain, give us glimpses into spirituality and the wisdom available to those who sought them for direction.

Today there is a worldwide movement amongst lay people as well as clergy, both Protestant and Catholic as well as Orthodox. While spiritual companioning may be a term more suited to our contemporary understanding, I retain the term spiritual direction to link us to this long tradition of spiritual guides. 

Probably the most important characteristic of a spiritual director is that they are contemplative. That is, they seek to spend time in the presence of God, and to listen for the movements of the Holy Spirit. Their role is not to give advice, to quote scripture, or even to pray with the directee, the pilgrim. Their primary role is to listen. And they listen with faith that the Spirit is present and the pilgrim herself can find her answers when she is held in a safe space in the presence of God. Spiritual direction empowers the pilgrim, helping her discover her own soul and trace her own God-given wisdom. The calling or “charism” of spiritual direction, “is a call to presence within our broken and beautiful world and, simultaneously, a call to be present to those with whom we are journeying as we hold the contradictions of their (and our) lives into the presence of God’s overwhelming grace.”(3)

To quote Douglas Steere further:

Is it blasphemous to suggest that over the shoulder of the human listener, there is never absent the silent presence of the Eternal Listener, the living God? For in penetrating to what is involved in listening, do we not disclose the thinness of the filament that separates person listening openly to one another, and that of God intently listening to each soul?

As we hold the pilgrim in the safe place of deep listening the pilgrim can find God with in. As Chris Brown says: “Deep within the sanctuary of our soul we know [Jesus’] voice. To draw close to him is to encounter the giving and receiving flow of God’s Spirit, where we are fully love, fully known, and invited to participate in his life.”(4)

Spiritual direction is, in the end, always about God, and the pilgrim’s relationship with God. It does not matter what issue the pilgrim brings to begin with, we can start with anything, but before the end of the session we consciously open to God, who is indeed listening intently to each soul. As Thomas Merton says spiritual direction “is, in reality, nothing more than a way of leading us to see and obey the real Director—the Holy Spirit hidden in the depths of our soul.”(5)

As a pilgrim myself I find that speaking to a spiritual companion enables me to open myself out, and at last find what God is whispering to my heart. Spiritual companioning is like panning for gold.(6) Together we sift through the dirt and mess of our everyday lives and find a sparkling moment of treasure. The guide sits side by side, as it were, peering with the pilgrim, into the gold pan, occasionally suggesting he stay longer with something he has said, or notice what is happening as he says it—and the gold emerges. The companion’s skill is not in giving the answers but in having a hunch where to look for the treasure. Novelist Leah Swann says that one of the deep tasks of love is listening for the unspoken. Spiritual companions tune their ears to what is spoken and unspoken, to what is hidden, and what needs expression.

Often we are afraid of what we might discover if we look too deeply into our souls. Or we resist allowing God to see. As Barry and Connolly, spiritual directors themselves, point out: “Resistance often crystallizes around some kind of secret: There is something I don’t want the Lord, or my director (companion)—or frequently enough myself—to know about. The resistance begins to occur when the ‘secret’ gets close to the surface of awareness.”(7) If we are going to live in freedom the secret must eventually be discovered and shared. 

The gift of spiritual direction is not only for the pilgrim. Often as I listen to another sharing their soul, I recognise that God is speaking to me too. The discovery the pilgrim is making is also gift to the one who hears. In this safe space of vulnerable sharing we each discover things we did not know before, or things we knew but had not recognised. As we listen vulnerably together we become more like the God who is trinity whose “inner workings are held together by a self-giving, reciprocating and listening nature” as Adam MacHugh says, “The triune nature of God puts listening right at the centre of the universe. God is love, and love requires listening.”(8)

 Irene Alexander 2022


  1.  Douglas V. Steere, “To listen another’s soul into a condition of disclosure” in Gleanings, 2000, v13, 3.
  2. Thomas Merton, “The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation (I),” Cistercian Studies,1983, 18, pp. 3–5. 
  3. Irene Alexander. “A Prophetic Mirror from “the Other,” in Companioning at the Edges, Melbourne: Wellspring, 2021, p62.
  4. Christopher Brown. Reflected Love: Companioning in the Way of Jesus. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012, pxiii.
  5. Thomas Merton. Spiritual Direction, http://www.ldysinger.com/@texts2/1962_merton/02_sp_dir.htm
  6. Janet Ruffing. Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings. New York: Paulist Press, 2000.
  7. William Barry and William Connolly. The Practice of Spiritual Direction. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 98–99.
  8. Adam McHugh, The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015, p36.