While there is some degree of variability, there are primarily two forms of spiritual direction: regular direction and retreat direction. They differ largely in the frequency of meeting and in the intensity of reflection.
Regular direction can involve a one- to two-hour meeting every four to eight weeks, and thus is slightly less intense than retreat direction, although spiritual exercises and disciplines are often given for the directee to attempt between meetings.
If the directee is on a retreat (lasting a weekend, a week or even 40 days), he or she will generally meet with his or her director on a daily basis for one hour. During these daily meetings, exercises or spiritual disciplines such as lectio divina are given to the directee as fodder to continue his or her spiritual growth. Alternatively, retreat centres often offer direction or companionship to persons visiting the centre alone.
The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are a popular example of guidelines used for spiritual direction.
Within Christianity, spiritual direction has its roots in Early Christianity. The gospels describe Jesus serving as a mentor to his disciples. Additionally, Acts of the Apostles Chapter 9 describes Ananias helping Paul of Tarsus to grow in his newfound experience of Christianity. Likewise, several of the Pauline epistles describe Paul mentoring both Timothy and Titus among others. Tradition tells us that John the Evangelist tutored Polycarp, the 2nd-century bishop of Smyrna.
Theologian John Cassian who lived in the 4th century provided some of the earliest recorded guidelines on the Christian practice of spiritual direction. He introduced mentoring in the monasteries. Each novice was put under the care of an older monk. Benedict of Nursia integrated Cassian’s guidelines into what is now known as the Rule of Saint Benedict.
Spiritual direction is widespread in the Catholic religion: a person with wisdom and spiritual discernment, usually but not exclusively a priest or consecrated in general, provides counsel to a person who wishes to make a journey of faith and discovery of God’s will in his life. The spiritual guide aims to discern, understand what the Holy Spirit, through the situations of life, spiritual insights fruit of prayer, reading and meditation on the Bible, tells the person accompanied. The spiritual father or spiritual director may provide advice, give indications of life and prayer, resolving doubts in matters of faith and morals without replacing the choices and decisions to the person accompanying.
Eastern Orthodoxy comes from the same pre-schism traditions, but the role of a “spiritual director” or “elder” in Orthodoxy has maintained its important role. The original Greek term geron (meaning “elder”, as in gerontology) was rendered by the Russian word starets, from Old Church Slavonic starĭtsĭ, “elder”, derived from starŭ, “old”. The Greek tradition has a long unbroken history of elders and disciples, such as Sophronius and John Moschos in the seventh century, Symeon the Elder and Symeon the New Theologian in the eleventh century, and contemporary charismatic gerontes such as Porphyrios and Paisios. Sergius of Radonezh and Nil Sorsky were two most venerated startsy of Old Muscovy. The revival of elders in the Slavic world is associated with the name of Paisius Velichkovsky (1722–94), who produced the Russian translation of the Philokalia. The most famous Russian starets of the early 19th century was Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), who went on to become one of the most revered Orthodox saints. The Optina Pustyn near Kozelsk used to be celebrated for its startsy (Schema-Archimandrite Moses, Schema-Hegumen Anthony, Hieroschemamonk Leonid, Hieroschemamonk Macarius, Hieroschemamonk Hilarion, Hieroschemamonk Ambrose, Hieroschemamonk Anatole (Zertsalov)). Such writers as Nikolay Gogol, Aleksey Khomyakov, Leo Tolstoy and Konstantin Leontyev sought advice from the elders of this monastery. They also inspired the figure of Zosima in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. A more modern example of a starets is Archimandrite John Krestiankin (1910-2006) of the Pskov Monastery of the Caves who was popularly recognized as such by many Orthodox living in Russia.
In Judaism, the Hebrew term for spiritual director differs among traditional communities. The verb Hashpa’ah is common in some communities though not all; the spiritual director called a mashpi’a occurs in the Habad-Lubavitch community and also in the Jewish Renewal community. A mashgiakh ruchani is the equivalent role among mitnagedim (adherents of the mussar tradition). The purpose of hashpa’ah is to support the directee in her or his personal relationship with God, and to deepen that person’s ability to find God’s presence in ordinary life. Amongst Lubavitchers this draws on the literature and praxis of Hasidism as it is practiced according to Habad standards, and to Jewish mystical tradition generally. Spiritual mentorship is customary in the Hasidic world, but not necessarily in the same way.
In Sufism, the term used for spiritual master is murshid, Arabic for “guide” or “teacher”. He is more than a spiritual director and believed to be guiding the disciples based on his direct connectivity with the Divine. The murshid’s role is to spiritually guide and verbally instruct the disciple on the Sufi path after the disciple takes an oath of allegiance or Bay’ah (bai’ath) with him. The concept of Murshid Kamil Akmal (also known as Insan-e-Kamil) is significant in most tariqas. The doctrine states that from pre-existence till pre-eternity, there shall always remain a Qutb or a Universal Man upon the earth who would be the perfect manifestation of God and at the footsteps of the Islamic prophet Mohammad.
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