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The Gift of Tradition for Transformation and Growth

Spiritual Direction in the Catholic Tradition ~ Spiritual direction has been part of the Catholic Christian tradition from the very beginning. Even before Jesus’ time Jewish prophets and rabbis held the role of spiritual guide and for Christians, Jesus was the first and best.


Spiritual Direction in the Catholic Tradition

by Cathy Olds


Spiritual direction has been part of the Catholic Christian tradition from the very beginning. Even before Jesus’ time Jewish prophets and rabbis held the role of spiritual guide and for Christians, Jesus was the first and best. Like all rabbis, Jesus had the role of teacher as well as one who would listen to and assist individuals bringing healing and transformation. We see this best in his relationship with the apostles.


Elsewhere in scripture, Paul’s letters to the early Christian communities were spiritual teaching and guidance to new struggling Christians. Spiritual direction was done by and for the community in the early church as people gathered to remember Jesus and pray together. Then as now, it is the Holy Spirit that directs the People of God both individually and as a community.


Early Church

For the first three centuries of Christianity, all spirituality was lay and focused on the life of the People of God living “in Christ”. The role of all Christians was evangelization and witnessing to the faith, often through martyrdom. The role of laity and clergy was evolving.


The role of clergy at this time in church history was governance and leadership, not evangelization and spirituality. Clergy were called from the laity and had clear equality with the laity. The spiritual focus for lay folk was on moral living and individual conscience. So, the Christian life called for prayer, scripture study, a spiritual mentor, a friend in faith and most importantly, the Holy Spirit. The role of spiritual mentor or friend in faith is what we call a spiritual director or spiritual companion today.


This focus on evangelization and moral living was essential for Christians because during this time, Roman hierarchical structure dominated with its strong class system and pagan beliefs structured into everyday life. Christianity was countercultural to the extreme and persecution was often the response out of superstition and anger at the disruption of the status quo. Christianity was seen as a threat to a way of life. In places in the Empire, Christians were threatened with lynching, house burning, and were not permitted into markets, baths or amphitheaters. Persecutions increased as the Empire began to disintegrate, and other pagan cultures invaded. The stories of early Christian martyrs are well documented and celebrated.


The change in the status of Christianity came in 312 AD when the emperor Constantine granted freedom of religion and declared Christianity as the religion of the empire. This gives clergy special legal status and privileges and moves lay folks to the nave of churches. Lay spirituality struggles with the large number of baptisms and there is no longer a focus on sharing the faith, individual spiritual growth, and moral leadership by the laity because most laity by this time are more secular and uneducated. The role of women and the laity declines, and Church leadership becomes more focused on doctrine.


Desert Fathers and Mothers

Prior to Constantine and during this time of transition, groups of wealthy widows, virgins and men seeking deeper more ascetic life, imitating the life of John the Baptist and Jesus’ time in the desert, move away from luxurious homes to start communities of ascetics. They sought a new kind of martyrdom, a “white martyrdom” a daily renouncing of the world to seek a place apart to follow the “full” Gospel. They focused on returning to God through scriptural meditation, repentance, purification, and celibacy. Many were hermits living in pairs or small villages of ascetics. These practices could include extreme fasting, wearing rags, living in caves or holes dug in the desert floor. This was primarily a movement of lay people. Some men seeking this life in the desert would even cut off an ear or finger to avoid priesthood. Women seeking this life instead of marriage could be executed according to Roman law, but using their wealth, were able to establish communities in Jerusalem and in the Egyptian desert outside of Cairo.


Anthony, who moved to the Egyptian desert in 285 AD, is counted as the first of the Egyptian Desert Fathers. He attracted disciples and by the end of the 4th century there were thousands of Christian ascetics living in the deserts of Egypt and in lay communities. These were all lay Christians living an intense Christian life and spirituality. These communities had spiritual fathers or mothers who acted as experienced guides and wisdom figures and were recognized for their balance, wisdom and holiness. For them, the Spirit of God was their director and their silence, discipline and solitude was their greatest teacher. The spiritual mentor offered advice for survival in the desert, how to avoid illusion and become wise in the “ways of the heart”. Their focus was on experiencing God and deepening their relationship with God.


These desert Fathers and Mothers cultivated honesty and self-awareness, humility, forgiveness, lack of self-centeredness leading to care for others and discernment to recognize the voice of God. The writings and sayings of these desert wisdom figures were collected and survive to this day.


As communities of these Christian ascetics grew, they were increasingly organized. By 340 AD, the first “Rule” was written to insure stability and continuity for the community. This is the beginning of what we come to know as monasticism. St. Augustine (354-430 AD) writes a rule for his community of ascetics and St. Benedict (480-543 AD) writes a comprehensive rule for his community that continues to be used today.


Celtic Christian Influences on Spiritual Direction

Christianity is always lived within culture, so in the less Romanized lands of Ireland, Scotland and Whales, Christianity develops differently. Celtic values of tribe and family, poetry, art and story, especially the stories of heroes are celebrated. Celtic Christianity emphasized the role of spiritual heroes who took on the role of leadership. These spiritual leaders included Saints Patrick, Bridget, Columbcille, Ciaran, Brendan, Kevin, Finian and many more. Celtic Christianity developed primarily as monastic communities, drawing on the teachings and practices of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They built large monastic centers including, Kildare, Clonmacnoise, Glendalough and Iona. Monastic life in these centers is focused on the ascetic life of prayer and penance, what they called a “green martyrdom”. They were to live on the edge, between this world and the spirit world. Places like Skellig Michael monastery, founded by St. Fionan in the 5th century is one of the best examples of this type of Irish asceticism. (Skellig Michael was Luke Skywalker’s place of refuge in the Star Wars movies.)


These religious centers were communities that took on the responsibility of caring for the spiritual needs of lay Christians as well. These monastic cities are also centers of education and trade. Columbcille’s community on the island of Iona was a center of learning, the place where some believe the Book of Kells was made, and the place from which monks were sent out to evangelize all of Scotland and beyond into the heart of Europe. Scottish kings would come to Iona to seek guidance and traditionally were buried there. Spiritual guides, soul friends (in Gaelic anam cara) would meet with monks and lay folk alike to reflect on the struggles of life and seek a deeper relationship with God. This practice eventually developed into the role of confessor and is the foundation for our sacrament of reconciliation.


Pilgrimage from very early in the lives of Christians was a form of penance and a physical way of following Jesus, walking, very literally, the spiritual journey. The Celtic cultures develop this practice in new ways. The Holy Land being so distant was not the destination for pilgrims. Rather, pilgrims would journey to holy sites in Ireland, Scotland and Whales, to the sites of the Celtic saints like Kevin and Bridget, to holy wells from ancient times. In the tradition of St. Brendan, the journey was also metaphorical, seeking heaven itself. This practice of pilgrimage is still very much alive in Ireland (Lough Derg), Scotland (Iona) and Northumbria (Lindisfarne).


Growth and Development

With the fall of the Roman empire, monasteries became the focus for spiritual growth. Lay spirituality was limited to following the lead of an often, uneducated clergy. Yet spirituality grew and flowered throughout the middle ages among monasteries and convents with new religious orders springing up. There was a growth in popular piety with the development of cathedrals and the continued practice of pilgrimage. Saints like Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Sienna become spiritual leaders for lay folk and religious alike.


With the Protestant Reformation came needed reforms to religious orders and spiritual leaders like Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila offered new spiritual teachings to inspire and direct all members of the Church to deeper connection to God. Their directions for growing in the spiritual life became classics in their time and in our own. Frances de Sales and Vincent de Paul among others in the 17th century had an import influence on lay life and service rooted in spiritual growth. In the twentieth century, leaders and writers from religious orders provide guidance for individuals. Spiritual direction from the middle ages to the mid twentieth centuries was primarily for members of religious orders, but these spiritual leaders also provide written inspiration and guidance accessible to the wealthy and literate and eventually all who could afford books.


Vatican II: Call To Holiness

We are still learning from the work of the second Vatican Council 55 years after its first documents were published. The council called for a return to a focus on the People of God, priesthood of all the baptized and the universal call to holiness. As in the early days of the church, the laity are to be in the world as evangelizers, disciples on mission to build the Reign of God. There is consequently a need for lay spiritual formation. Writers like Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton bring the deep spiritual tradition of Catholicism to more lay people. Lay communities grow and bring people together to reflect on scripture and learn new forms of prayer. In the early 1970s here in the United States programs for training lay spiritual directors are started and lay formation becomes essential programs in all diocese and many parishes. As the number of religious and priests declines, more lay people take on the roles of religious educators, scripture scholars, theologians and parish leaders. These new roles require education but also spiritual formation. As all Christians seek deeper spirituality and a closer relationship with God, this spiritual formation becomes even more essential. The Call to Holiness requires integrating spirituality into the way we live as Christians. Spiritual direction becomes a valuable tool for this integration.


Spiritual Direction Today

Spiritual direction or companioning is a listening for God’s voice in the day to day of life. It is discerning the presence of God and the call of God in one’s lived experience. A spiritual director acts as a companion and guide, calling us to honesty and openness to the Spirit of God within. A person brings their life concerns to spiritual direction, sometimes they bring struggles with relationships or struggles with God. There is a psychological dimension to spiritual direction, but it is not counseling. Counseling strives for healing and problem solving. It is often an essential tool in dealing with life crisis or mental health issues. Spiritual direction is focused on our relationship with God. Healing and transformation may come in reflecting on that relationship over time. But the focus is on listening for God, not solving a problem or the healing of present or past issues. God meets us where we are and we often need another to help us find the ways God is present with us and walks with us. Spiritual directors are trained for this holy listening and seek to deepen their own relationship with God in order to walk the holy journey with others.


In an increasingly complex and secular world, the spiritual journey becomes important for each of us. Church, liturgy and sacraments feed us, and spiritual discernment, growing deeper in our relationship with God are two sides to the same coin. As Catholics we draw on this long tradition of spirituality, seeking God in all of life and sharing the love of God discovered in joyful service to others. Spiritual direction is and has always been a gift for the People of God.



Cathy Olds is the Coordinator of Spiritual Direction Ministry at the Franciscan Renewal Center. Cathy has worked as a lay minister in the Catholic Church for over 40 years, received a Master of Arts in Theology from the University of Dayton and a certificate in Spiritual Direction from the Arizona Ecumenical Institute for Spiritual Directors. She has been a spiritual director since 2005 and was a member of the faculty and board president of the Arizona Ecumenical Institute for Spiritual Directors.


You can find out more about Spiritual Direction at the Franciscan Renewal Center HERE.

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