Spiritual direction is the practice of being with people as they attempt to deepen their relationship with the divine, or to learn and grow in their own personal spirituality. The person seeking direction shares stories of his or her encounters of the divine, or how he or she is experiencing spiritual issues. The director listens and asks questions to assist the directee in his or her process of reflection and spiritual growth. Spiritual direction develops a deeper relationship with the spiritual aspect of being human. It is not psychotherapy, counseling, or financial planning.
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 their 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.
Within Christianity, spiritual direction has its roots in the 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 that John the Evangelist tutored Polycarp, the 2nd-century bishop of Smyrna.
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.
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.
- John Cassian (1894). The Conferences of John Cassian. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
- Thomas Merton (1960). Spiritual Direction and Meditation. Liturgical Press. ISBN 978-0-8146-0412-0.
- Saint Francis de Sales (1885). Introduction to the Devout Life (online). New York, Harper.
- Saint Jeanne-Françoise de Chantal (1988). Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction. Paulist Press. ISBN 978-0-8091-2990-4.
- Spiritual Directors International
- Spiritual Direction in Alberta
- Spiritual Direction in Calgary
- Spiritual Direction in Manitoba
- Spiritual Directors in British Columbia
- Tyndale Association of Spiritual Directors, Toronto, Ontario
- Evangelical Spiritual Directors Association
- The Retreat Association, an organisation facilitating Christian spiritual directors in the United Kingdom