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17 July 2000

Must rush! I’ve got to see my spiritual director

There's someone to prewash your salad, someone to do your nails, someone to make sure you burn off a

By Helen Kirwan-Taylor

Outsourcing, meaning the act of bringing in a second or third party to perform a duty we once did ourselves (such as walking the dog or making dinner), is the buzzword among today’s growing yuppie classes. Few seem to exercise these days without a 6ft 3in, £50-an-hour, former all-athletic champion running by their sides. Few look after their own mental health, either; that’s the job of the psychotherapist, cognitive behaviourist or, most recently, the life coach. Between having our nails done at one of the groovy new nail bars, and our organic vegetables prewashed and pre-peeled by Sainsbury’s, there isn’t much we know how to do by ourselves any more.

It was really just a matter of time before we found a way to outsource our relationship with God as well. With so much “stuff” to pack into one day, the idea of scheduling in a church service on a Sunday, let alone finding the time it takes to ponder the state of our spirit, is beyond the grasp of most of us. We live in a market economy – a service-oriented market economy – so if we can’t get to church any more, then sooner or later it has to come to us.

Enter the spiritual directors. Hollywood actresses and Bill Clinton have been using their services for years, but now the public at large is catching on. “Spiritual direction has been around since the first two human beings were on the planet, and one person told the other they experienced something beyond: what we call God,” says Jeffrey Gaines, a Presbyterian minister and executive director of Spiritual Directors International in San Francisco. “People have been acting as spiritual directors for a long time, and what’s happening as we enter the new millennium is that those who are not ‘religious professionals’, but have continually attracted people who want to talk about their experiences of the divine and prayer, are now seeing that this is a calling, and are seeking training to become spiritual directors.”

Suddenly, business is booming. Spiritual Directors International (SDI) has already seen its membership – which spans 156 regions around the world – more than treble since 1995 to 4,300. There are 117 training centres worldwide, with dozens more on the way. The picture in Britain is not very different. There is no certifying body yet, although the first set of ethical guidelines are currently being drafted.

A spiritual director is not to be confused with a psychotherapist, a counsellor or even a priest. He or she is more a provider of a safe place to talk; many prefer to call themselves “spiritual companions”.

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“Spiritual directors will engage directly in a problem,” says Paddi Lane, a spiritual director and administrator of the Retreat Association (which puts people in touch with local spiritual directors), “but they do not do crisis intervention. People come to us to try to make sense of the world we live in. We offer a place where one can ask risky questions such as: Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why are dead bodies shown on television every night and yet it’s presented as entertainment? Why is there so much food on the shelves at Sainsbury’s when people are dying of starvation every second? These are very scary questions that create tension in people’s lives.”

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Although spiritual direction was once reserved for and provided by members of the clergy (it is still part of the training for Catholic and Church of England seminarians), the modern-day version is just as likely to be a lawyer or a housewife. Some spiritual directors have degrees in psychology and theology; some are just trained in the business of life.

“Spiritual direction is an instinctive ministry,” says Lane. “It’s the person one comes to talk to by the kitchen sink or at the back of the church after a service. I call it the ministry of listening.”

Margaret Palladino is one of the growing numbers of British directees. Every four or five weeks, she visits her spiritual director to discuss the events in her life, and her spiritual life in particular.

“I think of it as a journey,” says Palladino. “I see it as the spiritual director’s job to listen. I wouldn’t be happy if there were no comment, but this isn’t about solving problems – solving is the wrong word. I would say that, since I’ve been in direction, I have a better handle on things. I can see how patterns develop in my life.”

A session with a spiritual director may take place at the directee’s home, at a designated time (weekly or monthly, and eventually quarterly). Sometimes the director and directee talk, sometimes they exchange the names of books, sometimes they pray, sometimes they just sit. God may be called Allah, the Holy One, the Other, the Ultimate.

Often there is a prop: an open Bible or a candle on the table to bring back the focus. Payment is as transcendental an experience as the session itself. In Britain, most spiritual directors don’t charge for their services, although many ask for travelling expenses. Some will charge the amount the directee earns himself per hour; some take chocolates as currency. (Although in the US, where spiritual direction is already big business, the price is set at between $25 and $40 per session, some spiritual directors accept frequent-flyer points, a free meal, even a bed for the night, in lieu of fees.)

One directee claims that sessions helped to cure his insomnia; another uses them to pacify pre-presentation nerves. Certainly, there is something about the calmness of the spiritual director’s manner and voice, combined with the lack of clock-watching or fat invoices, that truly pacifies the anxious soul (there’s nothing like getting something for free to bring out the best in one’s self and others). Prayer and meditation are really just the icing on the cake. “What happens in between sessions is often more important than what happens in sessions,” says Lane. “It’s the process of reflection that really matters, and the understanding and sense of connection that follows.”

Although spiritual direction is not a new phenomenon – it goes back to the days of the Desert Fathers – it has a particular appeal for today’s post-therapy generation who, having turned their backs on Freud, are now looking for meaning elsewhere. “Everything today is so rushed,” says Gaines. “We live by artificial deadlines. Telecommunications mean that everything is done in double time. I think people are increasingly coming to realise that there is more to life than deadlines, stress and making money. People are searching for meaning. They want to experience things outside themselves and ask the big questions. They want God in their lives.”

Greg Zelonka, the director of programming at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York, has seen a gradual shift away from the reason-based therapies to something altogether more mystical. “The path-ology went like this: the doctor gave you drugs because we all know God doesn’t exist. Then Freud came along with psychoanalysis. Then there was Woody Allen, and the whole process seemed self-indulgent and interminable; eventually behaviourism replaced psychoanalysis, but then the behaviourists hit an existentialist wall and in came the humanists. We’ve been cycling with emotions for a long, long time, but what people are looking for today are answers to the larger issues that have to do with the soul.”

Donald Miller, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, sees the rise in spiritual direction as “a kind of shift occurring in a much larger sense in the religious economy towards a democratisation of the faith. By that, I’m referring to the fact that the churches that are growing the fastest are those where the priesthood has really been returned to the people. This same democratisation is taking place in the area of spiritual direction, where you don’t need to be ordained in order to guide others who are seeking, in some very personal way, the experience of the transcendent.”

“Psychotherapy failed because it asks the wrong questions,” says Neale Donald Walsch, whose bestselling four-part Conversations with God has been translated into 27 languages. “It incites us to look at ourselves and understand our minds by using our minds. Spiritual directors will also fail if they set themselves up as the next authorities after mystics, astrologers and psychotherapists. In my opinion, the effectiveness of the spiritual directors rises in the diminishing need of return visits. If you have to keep coming back, then they are only replacing the church and psychiatrists. Quite simply, as long as we look outside for sources of insight, we will never find it.”

But this will hardly appease today’s cash-rich youth with lots of spiritual questions but little time for reflection.

“The human race is losing patience with itself,” says Walsch. “Our experience shows us that the tools that the world gives us – politics, science, education – haven’t been able to construct anything but a flimsy house of cards. People do not know the right way yet, but they certainly know the wrong way.”

And, right now, the quickest way to ensure a relationship with God is by having someone nearby to make sure of it. Like personal trainers who never let you off the hook (no matter how much you beg), spiritual directors are there to make sure that your spiritual life is, like your pecs, perfectly in tune.