The need of spiritual friendship

A thought from Eugene Peterson that speaks volumes to me:

“You seem disappointed that I am not more responsive to your interest in “spiritual direction”. Actually, I am more than a little ambivalent about the term, particularly in the ways it is being used so loosely without any sense of knowledge of the church’s traditions in these matters.

If by spiritual direction you mean entering into a friendship with another person in which an awareness and responsiveness to God’s Spirit in the everydayness of your life is cultivated, fine. Then why call in an awkward term like “spiritual direction”? Why not just “friend”?

Spiritual direction strikes me as pretentious in these circumstances, as if there were some expertise that can be acquired more or less on its own and then dispensed on demand.

The other reason for my lack of enthusiasm is my well-founded fear of professionalism in any and all matters of the Christian life. Or maybe the right label for my fear is “functionalism”. The moment an aspect of Christian living (human life, for that matter) is defined as a role, it is distorted, debased – and eventually destroyed. We are brothers and sisters with one another, friends and lovers, saints and sinners.

The irony here is that the rise of interest in spiritual direction almost certainly comes from the proliferation of role-defined activism in our culture. We are sick and tired of being slotted into a function and then manipulated with Scripture and prayer to do what someone has decided (often with the help of some psychological testing) that we should be doing to bring glory to some religious enterprise or other. And so when people begin to show up who are interested in us just as we are – our souls – we are ready to be paid attention to in this prayerful, listening, non-manipulative, nonfunctional way. Spiritual direction.

But then it begins to develop a culture and language and hierarchy all its own. It becomes first a special interest, and then a specialization. That is what seems to be happening in the circles you are frequenting. I seriously doubt that it is a healthy (holy) line to be pursuing.

Instead, why don’t you look over the congregation on Sundays and pick someone who appears to be mature and congenial. Ask her or him if you can meet together every month or so – you feel the need to talk about your life in the company of someone who believes that Jesus is present and active in everything you are doing. Reassure the person that he or she doesn’t have to say anything “wise”. You only want them to be there for you to listen and be prayerful in the listening. After three or four such meetings, write to me what has transpired, and we’ll discuss it further.

I’ve had a number of men and women who have served me in this way over the years – none carried the title “spiritual director”, although that is what they have been. Some had never heard of such a term. When I moved to Canada a few years ago and had to leave a long-term relationship of this sort, I looked around for someone whom I could be with in this way. I picked a man whom I knew to be a person of integrity and prayer, with seasoned Christian wisdom in his bones. I anticipated that he would disqualify himself. So I pre-composed my rebuttal: “All I want you to do is two things: show up and shut up. Can you do that? Meet with me every six weeks or so, and just be there – an honest, prayerful presence with no responsibility to be anything other than what you have become in your obedient lifetime.” And it worked. If that is what you mean by “spiritual director,” okay. But I still prefer “friend”.

You can see now from my comments that my gut feeling is that the most mature and reliable Christian guidance and understanding comes out of the most immediate and local of settings. The ordinary way. We have to break this cultural habit of sending out for an expert every time we feel we need some assistance. Wisdom is not a matter of expertise.

The peace of the Lord,
Eugene”
Eugene H. Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other

 

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