Faith, religion and spirituality in contemporary society

An exploration of the paradigm shift in western thinking, its impact on Christianity, spirituality and the ministry of spiritual direction by Rev. Joan Wright Howie (2009).


The dawning of the 21st century heralds a dramatically declining membership in mainline Christian churches across the western world. As congregations age, there are few younger people interested in filling the pews and participating in traditional forms of worship and church life.1 Social commentators like David Tacey, suggest that while there is a decline in participation in traditional forms of church, there is a growing interest in spirituality and he calls this a spirituality revolution2 . The term spirituality , however, is difficult to define and the exploration of spirituality plays out in many forms in popular culture. Where the Christian Church used to be the primary reference point with regard to matters of the Spirit, there are now many reference points for spiritual exploration. The church appears to play an insignificant role in what I will also refer to as the spirituality revolution.3 Christianity, however, has a rich spirituality tradition and provides a lens through which people can articulate God’s encounter with them and their encounter with God. Without a frame of reference, there is no context for spirituality. It can become whatever people want it to be. Clearly the church is challenged, with its rich heritage and resources, to participate in the dialogue about spirituality.

This essay offers an exploration of the cultural paradigm which surrounds the decline in church participation, the growing interest in spirituality and the implications for the ministry of spiritual direction. After a brief introduction to the context of my interest and an exploration of the definition of spirituality’, the essay will address in turn three key questions: What is the changing paradigm which creates an interest in spirituality, but not in the church? What is the voice of Christian spirituality in the context of the spirituality revolution? and, how can the ministry of spiritual direction be a forum for dialogue between Christian spirituality and the spirituality revolution?

My interest in this topic stems from the practice of spiritual direction and ministry context as an ordained Uniting Church minister. I encounter people unconnected with the church who name an active spiritual life but do not know how to name this in the language of the Christian faith. I also meet active church members seeking to grow in their relationship with with God, but finding little nourishment in their current worshiping community.

The ministry of spiritual direction is becoming a way I can dialogue with the growing community interest in spirituality. The spiritual direction relationship occurs as guide and pilgrim listen for the movements of the Holy Spirit in the pilgrim’s life. Commonly, the relationship takes form as an intentional, monthly conversation which develops over a significant period of time. With an attitude of contemplative awareness, God, guide and pilgrim engage in a discernment relationship.

During the process of writing this essay, life was put on hold when my one year old son suffered an acute attack of croup and spent twelve days in the Children’s Hospital, ten of which were in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). The experience created a rare opportunity to strip away all life’s excesses and distractions. The experience exposed me to the harsh reality of human suffering, the depth of my love for my child and the compassionate love of God for me and for humanity. Our time in PICU was what I would call an intensely spiritual experience. It is an experience through which I felt that I encountered God. The question is, where and how do people explore and articulate such experiences and by what criteria can I claim it as spiritual?


The term spirituality is an ambiguous word which can refer to what, in earlier centuries, was referred to by Christians as devotion or piety 4 . The term spirituality, however, is a trans religious word which is used in a variety of ways. People speak of Buddhist spirituality, children’s spirituality and new age spirituality, to name a few. At the beginning of a weekend retreat on women’s spirituality I attended years ago, the leader, Kathy Galloway, defined spirituality as the journey of the inner life. She pointed out that the people’s inner journey is shaped by the circumstances of the social, political, gender, racial, cultural and religious contexts in which we live. This is a useful broad definition, but begs the question: what is the inner life?

Spiritual director Tiden Edwards helps define the inner life in saying spirituality refers to “the most subtle dimensions of our awareness, where we sense ourselves belonging beyond our ego image to a larger, more valuable horizon of reality that impinges on all we are and do”.5 Although this horizon is ungraspable and beyond scientific instrument of descriptions, people through out history have claimed to know it’s reality. Edwards is suggesting that the inner life prompts an awareness of a horizon beyond our individuality. David Tacey reflects on his observations of a growing interest in spirituality amongst university students and western culture at large. Tacey names this horizon beyond as “a sensitive, contemplative, transformative relationship with the sacred”.6

If we agree that spirituality is about relationship with the sacred, then we are led to wonder, what is this sacred? Is it a relationship in which individuals can choose whether or not to participate? Ronald Rolheiser’s definition is helpful. He moves the relationship with the sacred to a very basic level when he acknowledges that everyone has spirituality, because everyone is motivated by desire. Rolheiser says spirituality is what we do with deep desire.

‘Spirituality is about what we do with the fire inside of us, about how we channel our Eros. And how we do channel it, the disciplines and habits we choose to live by, will either lead to a greater integration or disintegration within our bodies, minds and souls, and to a greater integration or disintegration in the way we are related to God, others and the cosmic world.’7

Rolheiser’s definition implies that spirituality is not a commodity which we can choose to consume or discard. Our spirituality is a relationship with the life beyond our individuality which shapes who we are becoming. He tells the lovely Norwegian legend, ‘before a soul is put into the body the soul is kissed by God and during all of it’s life on earth, the soul retains a dim, but powerful, memory of that kiss and relates everything to it.’8 This very helpful image describes the restlessness we all experience, a restlessness which takes people on different journeys, hence different spiritualities, in search of the sacred.

Holt makes the observation that the way to think about spirit will shape the way we think about spirituality. If we think that the spirit is separate from the physical world, then spirituality will lead us away into another world. If we believe, as Christian incarnational theology teaches, that the divine is also present in our physical reality, the resulting spirituality will encompass the whole of human life and will develop according to the variety of contexts in which people live. 9

It is clear that defining spirituality is not a simple task and it is difficult to do it justice. William Johnston even suggests that it is premature to codify a definition of spirituality and says that it is a cutting edge word of our time. 10 For the purpose of this essay the simple definition of spirituality as the journey of the inner life is helpful, but incomplete. The inner life is characterized by deepening awareness of the horizon beyond the ego which we call the sacred. Spirituality is more than just awareness of the sacred, it is about our relationship with the sacred. This relationship stirs our desire, shapes our longings, informs our self understanding becomes our frame of reference for practicing our spirituality.


On Sunday morning, I sit feeling hopeful in congregation of twenty people who spread themselves around a space designed for four hundred. Seemingly oblivious to the irony, they go through the motions of worship as if amidst a crowd. The organ bellows drowning humble voices of the largely gray haired gathering. One child comes nervously forward, hand in mum’s, to the ‘children’s talk’. Having listened to a story which reminds him to be good, a hat-clad lady ushers him to the Sunday School of one. When the service is over, an excited hopeful cluster offer me a cup of a disappointing instant coffee in same pale pink crockery I remember from childhood. I say I’m visiting because I have a child in hospital. We try to start a conversation. Together, we look blankly out the window. It feel like I am in the club room of a by gone day.

Another Sunday morning, I sit amidst a crowd who squash into a cafe designed to seat fewer people. The long bench tables invite strangers to share the space with one another. Friends gather bleary eyed from last evenings entertainment, telling stories over breakfast. This time music tells of inner searching and mingles with the voices of children drawing pictures on paper table cloths. This time the coffee, smelling rich, steaming and full of flavor, served in little glasses wrapped with paper cloth. Both writing in our journals, my neighbor and I smile at one another, then began a conversation. He tells me he’s a poet observing people. He sees a loneliness in the eyes of people and feels a longing in their hearts. Together we look out the window. ‘Hey’, he says, ‘see that leaf there, falling’. I become that leaf: transformed by sunlight, gently falling. 11

These observations of a Sunday morning moments illustrate contrasting experiences of church and popular culture. Of course, they only tell a fragment of the story about what is happening for people in the church and in the cafe, but they give a sense of the way popular culture seems to have rushed off and left traditional churches wondering what to do next. Even though people are not in churches, the fire or desire which sparks out spirituality is not diminished. There are, of course, many churches which are full of people and even in the small gatherings, there is life and hope. Popular culture provides many venues for people to gather and these can feel just a void of spirit as the hollow words in near empty church. While this example is simplistic, the point being made is that churches appear to struggle to connect with the seekers in their communities even when they step through their doors.

Understanding the reason for the decline in church participation and the emerging interest in spirituality requires more than listing the criticisms people have of churches. This trend is part of a much bigger social and cultural movement. Commentators suggest that western culture is currently experiencing a paradigm shift. The cultural paradigm is the ‘large interpretive framework that shapes how everything is seen, a way of constellating particulars into a whole.’12 This changing world view has been described as a shift from modernity to post modernity. 13 The church, which exists within the cultural context, is naturally also impacted by this paradigm shift.

Because western culture is in a time of transition, people and communities are shaped by both movements within modernity and post modernity. The modern world view only emerged with the birth of the Enlightenment, 1600’s, and shift from agricultural to the industrial age. The pre- enlightenment period was characterized by God centered world view. People believed in a three layered universe with heaven above the clouds and hell beneath the earth. God was considered to be in the world and actively part of people’s lives. People believed that God sent the rain, provided the harvest and influenced the outcomes of human battles. With the dawn of the modern age, there began a shift in the way people viewed the world away from a God centered, pre-enlightenment, to a human centered, modern, world view. Descartes famous words ‘I think therefore I am’ demonstrate a shift which places the human thinking, rational self as the centre point from which all else is defined. This shift initiated a ‘turn to the human subject’. Descartes and those who followed launched the human experience centered quest for certainty: a quest to establish foundations.

Diarunid O’Murchu describes the modern world view as one which looks at the world as a machine. There is an assumption that the whole is the sum of its parts and that the way to understand the world is to take things apart. He observes that the impact on theology:
Under Newtonian science, the soul was removed from all aspects of nature. Interestingly, and ironically, God was not removed... God became the supreme mathematician, the inventor of eternal laws, who either once, or continuously wound up the universal time clock so that it continued to function blindly and rigidly under a predetermined plan.14

The Enlightenment project began with an attempt to use reason alone to establish necessary religious, moral and philosophical certainties. The modern pursuit of these certainties, or foundations, has developed in two directions. One being the empirical pursuit of certain indubitable data of the sense experience; and the other, the rational pursuit of universal and certain structures of concepts.15

The modern theological project has been characterized by attempts to justify itself by the criteria of modernity. The result has had a monumental impact on Christian theology. Hume pointed out that a statement about the existence of God is neither an empirical statement nor an analytical proposition. Kant used the tools of reason in an attempt to prove the existence of God. The result was a ‘turn to the human subject’ where God becomes a predicate of human experience; and a universalism by which the experience of one human being is assumed to apply to all human beings. The logical progression of Kantian thought is Feuerbach’s placement of the human subject as beginning center and end of religion; Freud arguing that God is nothing more that a human projection; Marx arguing that religion is a tool of oppression; and Nietzsche proclaiming that God is dead.

In the pre modern era, where people believed God to be at the center of everything, community life revolved unquestioningly around the church. The emerging modern view promoted the individual and called on the thinking self to explain God and the church was required to provide answers. With the enlightenment came the period of church reformation when people began to question the authority of the centralized church in Rome. Denominations formed and developed their own confessional statements of faith. Belonging to the church now required giving assent to a confession of faith. This required the individual to believe in the church’s confession.16 With this requirement is an example of the way the church is being shaped by modern individualism. It is unquestioningly assuming that the presuppositions of modernity are Christian and applying them to church life and theology.

There is not space in this essay to fully explore the implications of modernity on the Christian church theology and practices. It is useful however, to be aware of the implications of modern thinking on ideas about spirituality and the human experience of God.

Very simply, the modern world view creates a focus on the individual thinking self using the tools of reason to understand the world by taking things apart. There is a belief that things consist of the sum of their parts. With this belief, philosophers considered the nature of the human experience of God as something which requires interpretation. Some philosophers argued that any interpretation of human experience is socially constructed and therefore all experience is subjective; and others argue that there is something unique and essential in each person which could lead to an objective interpretation of experience.

As a consequence of modern thinking, there is an inescapable suspicion of the human experience of God which leads into an argument. Is the account of experience subjective or objective? Such an argument appears to have directed theologians to focus on the scripture and tradition as sources for reflection on the nature of God and down play the human experience of God as too problematic. It is not surprising that spirituality, with its focus on the personal encounter with the divine, is not a focus of modern western theology and church life.

As the modern period progressed, the focus on developing the critical mind of the individual thinking person created a suspicion of institutions and organizations. People do not want to submit themselves to a confession of faith, organizational rules or institutional way of operating. Church historian William Johnston calls this movement detraditionalisation.17 Johnston observes that in response to the detraditionalisation movement, the churches confessional period was followed by a period of deconfessionalism from 1900 till 1980. 18 During this time the ecumenical movement developed, Vatican II opened up the Catholic Church, uniting churches formed and there was a diminishing of ties to separate confessions. This, combined with the detraditional movement, lead many people to completely lose their Christian identity.

Johnston says that the move away from the institution has led to a spirituality revolution which is part of the ongoing deconfessional movement. .19He calls it a revolution because it is a grass roots movement which thrives on personal exercise of choice that refuses to swallow any tradition. There is a shift in focus from institutional belief to believers; from doctrine to experience; from ecclesial authority to individual discernment; from study of theology to interest in macro, or individual spirituality. In response to people moving right away from the church, Johnston observes the church engaging in a reconfessional movement from the 1980’s onward. 20 It is not surprising that the church has reacted by refocusing on confessionalism and tends to be suspicious of the spirituality revolution.

Commentators tell us that we are now living in another time of paradigm shift, this time from modernity to what is being called post modernity. The quest of modernity has failed. The tools of reason can not solve all problems, produce certainty or not lead us to world peace, the tools of reason can not prove the existence of God.
O’Murchu parallels the emerging post modern view with the shift in science from Newtonian to Quantum theory. There is now an awareness that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Quantum theory claims we perceive reality, not in isolated bits and pieces (particles, or parts of the whole) but as quanta or what we might call lumps of experience....the real life (God) is within not outside [the universe].21

O’Murchu calls the post modern view a ‘holistic paradigm’, in which there is an awareness that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 22 This shift in awareness has monumental consequences. Where Newtonic science viewed the universe as an unchanging machine, quantum theory describes a universe in constant change. There is a shift in viewing systems as closed and self contained, to an awareness of open systems and that nothing is complete in itself. There is a shift from linear to lateral thinking and independent to interdependent interaction. Post modernity challenges static systems, organizational structures, traditions and the idea that people are isolated individuals. There is a greater awareness of the inter relatedness of all things.

Just as the modern world view has shaped western theology, so too does the post modern view. While this is only a brief summary of shifts in thinking, it offers an awareness that the decline in participation in Christian churches and the emerging interest in spirituality occur in a broader context. There is clearly a cultural paradigm which is shaping people’s interest in spiritually but not in the church. Since the Enlightenment, the church and its thinking has been responding to the dominant modern world view. As the world view shifts, there is a tendency for people to no longer be satisfied with the way in which Christian teaching is presented and with the the demands of Religious Institutions. More than that, post modern people are suspicious of institutions and reject perceived loss of individual freedom. The church has developed a dominant culture which is shaped by a modern world view.

Where people have left the church, they have not stopped having a spirituality. To return to our definition of spirituality, human beings continue to have an inner life characterized by an awareness of the sacred with whom they seek relationship. This relationship stirs our desire, shapes our longings and informs our self understanding. During the modern period, the church was the institution given authority on matters of the sacred and the modern world view influenced the way the church’s ideas and practice developed. Post-modernity rejects institutions and authority. As a consequence, people have looked elsewhere to explore their spirituality and this quest is being named as a Spirituality Revolution.


It is becoming clear that both the emerging Spirituality Revolution and the declining participation in Christian denominations are a reactions to shifts in the dominant cultural paradigm. Where the churches react negatively to the Spirituality Revolution with a return to confessionalism, or, argue about the validity of the human experience of God, they miss an opportunity for genuine engagement with people exploring a relationship with the sacred. The next part of this essay briefly considers the way Christian spirituality could interact with the spirituality revolution.

It may be helpful at this point to return to our definition of spirituality. The journey of the inner life which is characterized by deepening awareness of the horizon beyond the ego which we call the sacred. A definition of spirituality which is more than just awareness of the sacred, but about our relationship with the sacred assumes that such a relationship is possible. If this relationship stirs our desire, shapes our longings, informs our self understanding, then it is a primary and formative relationship. The Christian tradition teaches that, not only does humanity seek a relationship with the sacred Other, but that God also seeks a relationship with us.
The Christian spirituality tradition is based on the assumption that God is intimately involved in our lives and that God does ‘act in the world and can be experienced in the world.’23 This is an assumption which the modern world view has questioned.

The modern attempt to explain God and God’s action in the world led to the idea that God made the world and got things started, maybe even had a plan for how things will happen, but is now not really involved any more. This is the ‘watchmaker above’ image of God. God far away, powerful enough to do things to the world if we pray hard enough, but now really very distant.

The modern world view, with its focus on the rational mind and the individual, created an emphasis on exploring human ideas about God and the human experience of God. If we believe that in the beginning there was God, the primary question really ought to be about God’s ideas and experience of humanity. This focus on the human thinking self channels theology into assuming that mind and use of reason are the source of objective knowledge and the path to access the spirit. The body, experience and feelings are considered subjective to be treated with suspicion. While there are of course many exceptions, Christian thinking has inevitably responded to this dominant view. The modern world view assumes that the mind and reason are the seat of theological reflection, and consequently theology has followed a deductive pattern. James Nelson points out that ‘...male theologians, in particular, have long assumed that the arena of theology is that of spirit and mind, far removed from the inferior, suspect body’24. Theology has claimed communication begins with sound originating in God’s saying via the logos which leads to a focus on the intellect and the oral. The tools of reason are applied to deduce religious, moral and philosophical certainties.

Nelson offers a helpful focus on the incarnation as a means of speaking about the experience of God’s embodied revelation: ‘The human body is language and a fundamental means of communication. We do not just need words. We are words. This conviction underlies Christian incarnationism. In Jesus Christ, God was present in a human being not for the first and only time, but in a radical way that has created a new definition of who we are.’25 We are the result of God’s thoughts about us, not our thoughts about God. Because God experiences us, we experience God. Our present body reality is the word made flesh.

Discussing the human experience of God with the context of the debate about the objective verses subjective nature of human experience is not helpful. If we affirm that our experience of God is embodied and incarnational then, God is not only a separate being who encounters us from beyond ourselves. We can experience God as an inner movement or deepening awareness of who we are in God. The concern here is not about the subjective or objective nature of our interpretation. The primary concern is developing skills in discerning the movements of this incarnate God who is there waiting for us to pay attention. William Barry points out that an experience of God does not occur in the thinking self, but at a deeper level of being. 26 Christian spirituality can engage with the spirituality revolution with an awareness that if we base our notion of what is real on our ability to think about it rationally, God is quickly eliminated.

David Ranson has observed four different expressions of spirituality in the Australian context:

  • The personal quest for answers to personal questions with no need for a guru or god.
  • Seeking strategies of balance and wholeness, wellbeing and restoration. Use of therapies (risk that these are superficial solutions to complex human questions).
  • Allegiance to certain religious societies or subcultures. (He places Christian fundamentalism in this category)
  • Spirituality derived from revisionist theology seeking to discover the presence of god in our place and our time.27

Ranson’s first three expressions of spirituality all tend to occur in isolation from wider communities. The personal quest with no guide can leave people skipping from one nice idea to the next without any depth or substance. People remain isolated individuals at risk of creating gods in their own image. The wholeness quest has developed into a thriving spirituality industry. This therapeutic approach to spirituality plays on people’s deep longings and tries to provide the solutions. The problem is, however, that answers often only lead to more questions. There are no simple market place solutions to our inner longings for relationship with the sacred Other. Religious societies and subcultures tend to tell people what to believe and require people to fit into a defined mold in order to belong. The Spirituality Revolution is seeking an exploration of the inner life and the horizon beyond the self which we call the sacred. This exploration is about the personal experience of the sacred, but there needs to be some points of reference against which to engage the personal experience.

Ranson promotes the fourth as the place at which Christian communities should engage. Ranson argues that the first three expressions are much more popular than than the fourth, but that they lead to superficial imagery and jingoistic drivel! In contrast, revisionist theology, and spirituality, is the dialogue between two sources of human theology: human experience and the Christian event. These two need to be in conversation... ‘Revisionist spirituality is a conversation between the questions of our time and the deepest impulses of our particular tradition.’28

Spirituality without specific and particular tradition is also a denial of the fundamentally social dimension of spirituality. Whilst always being deeply personal spirituality is not an individual concern but finds its blossoming in life shared and dreamt together. Tradition thus gives spirituality its name, its anchor... but...tradition is not sufficient on its own. It must be in dialogue with contemporary human experience. 29

The call to develop a revisionist spirituality highlights the need for both tradition and attention to experience. ‘Spirituality without tradition becomes vague, self-serving and solopsist. Spirituality without attentiveness to human experience becomes doctrinaire and isolated.’30

It is into this dialogue between tradition and experience that Christian Spirituality has much to to offer the Spirituality Revolution. This dialogue between tradition and experience is all about discernment. We have agreed that spirituality is the journey of the inner life which leads us into relationship with the sacred Other, but not every inner life experience is of God and not every thing that look like the sacred horizon is what it appears. Revisionist spirituality leads into the practice of discernment and the task of discernment begins with the belief that God is intimately involved in each of our lives.

The Christian faith teaches of a God who created the universe, and remains a participant in the ongoing work of recreation. The Hebrew scripture tells stories of God’s participation in the life of the people of Israel. God becomes human in the life of Jesus and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God lives as the risen body of Christ in the hearts of believers. Despite the scriptural testimony to a God incarnate in the world, aspects of modern western culture and theology mistrust accounts of personal revelation. Yet, personally and communally, people struggle to believe that God is indeed intimately involved in our lives.


Edwards describes a neighbor who is going though a ‘crisis of soul’. 31 Edwards’ neighbor felt there was no one to whom she could turn. The church liturgy was not specific enough, the priest not helpful and therapy didn’t seem to get to the heart of her struggle. Tinden suggests that this woman’s crisis speaks for millions for whom there is an awakening soul awareness, yet no context in which matters of the soul can safely be explored. How can we respond to these needs?

My recent experience of taking my baby to the hospital with life threatening croup is about the journey of my inner life. It evoked for me what Edwards would call soul awareness. This account of our arrival at the hospital is a description of my inner journey, my soul. According to the above definition of spirituality, this is a description of a spiritual journey.

The simple flowing of it through the atmosphere.
It is there full of properties unseen.
Hearts beat lungs pump and air travels through lovely open nostrils, past tiny clever filtering hairs and down the air way which, unobstructed, delivers precious air to waiting lungs.
Oh air - full of life giving oxygen- the lungs know how to receive you
and blood transports you through our bodies, giving life.

God gives sweet air, unseen yet vital.
So when little airways block, swollen red infection,
Parainfuenza 3, invades and does its nasty work:
Blocking airway, stopping air from passing.
Body gasps and reflex survival skills press lips in fish form sucking in Lungs suck as little gasps of air pass through the narrow passage.
Only not enough!
Arching back coughing hopeful.
More oxygen is required for body to function.
Toes are the first to turn blue, then skin gets speckled blue.

Oh, oxygen,
So lightly noted now longed for in desperation.
Body thrashes and gasping
Sounding like a vacuum sucking through a narrow passage.
How long could life continue thus?

Thank God for hospitals and open doors which invite us in at any hour.
Thank God for nurses who take quick look at us and usher us inside the system’s dear embrace.
Thank God for doctors who give years to learning how to help us. How to reassure and gently watch us.
Thank God for drugs which open airways and equipment which, put to use, gives life.
Thank God for watching eyes who notice when it is not working and make ready for what will be needed.
Thank God for telephones and trolleys and people who push them, for elevators and surgery and nurses there who speak kindly saying it will be all right.
Thank God they let me stay with my baby all the way into the operating room where we found a black rubber ring upon which to place his tiny head.
Thank God for friendly faces and words of recognition as an acquaint from years gone by , now in green scrubs in doctor’s seat, remembers my name.

Ushered away,
I hold my breath
As they prepare to restore yours to you:
my precious baby boy.

‘It’s very simple really. Quite routine.’

They routinely save the lives of people who,
left alone, may die of lack of breath.
And we are grateful to be here
And not in another place
Where none of this is possible. 32

Here is a description of an intense moment of fear and helplessness as my beloved child struggled to breath. I held him in my arms as skilled professionals assessed and aided us. As the hospital applied their tools, I was drawn very quickly into awareness of the horizon beyond my own ego. Although I was not conscious of it at the time, I fell into the arms of God’s embrace and what remained was only gratitude for the gift of life restored. In keeping with the above definition of spirituality, this experience exposes my desires and longing, reflections on the encounter shapes my self understanding. Given the deep yet slippery and complex nature of the inner journey, having some frame of reference through which to articulate the experience becomes an important tool in the practice of spirituality.

The ministry of spiritual direction seeks to provide a space in which to receive, notice and reflect on God’s intimate involvement in our lives. It is a space in which my journey into hospital can be explored prayerfully with the intention of naming it as encounter with the sacred. Spiritual direction creates space to articulate the process of discernment and pay attention to the transformation occurring within. Without such space, my story is easily dismissed, belittled and forgotten in the whirl wind of life.

The term spiritual direction like so many terms is problematic. It sounds like the conversation is just about spiritual things. Spirituality defined as the inner journey of a relationship with the sacred other plays out in a multitude of ways in exploration of the dis-ease, inner longings and questions which motivate. The topic of the Spiritual Direction conversation leaves space to reflect on just about anything.

The other problem with the term spiritual direction is that it sounds like one person is directing the other. At Wellsprings, where I did my formation program, we use the terms pilgrim and guide and the relationship unfolds as pilgrim and guide listen for the movements of the Holy Spirit in the pilgrim’s life. The direction being sought is the direction of God in the pilgrim's life. In this way, the spiritual direction conversation is a form of prayer. It is a conversation of prayerful listening through which both guide and pilgrim are transformed.

Spiritual director and psychologist Gerald May says ‘the essence of spiritual guidance can be seen whenever one person helps another to see and respond to spiritual truth.’33 Where other caring professions focus on the mental and emotional dimensions and aim to encourage the individual to function more effectively, the focus of spiritual director is on religious experience and relationship with God. The intent is not so much on how to better function as an individual, but the surrender of the individual to the divine. 34

In spiritual direction prayerful attention is given to the direction of the Holy Spirit in the pilgrims living. 35 The images of heart meeting heart, lover of souls and of abiding in God express the focus of spiritual direction as prayer. In prayer we listen for the spirit groaning within, the deep desire of God to find an home in us and the deep desire in us to find a home in God. As Douglas Steere indicates, listening in this area involves a listening beneath the conscious words, listening for the unconscious movements of the soul. 36 So, as I take my child into hospital, my desire for God is lived out unconsciously with intense aware of the need for air. Afterwards in spiritual direction I connect air with Christian images of God’s Spirit being the breath of life, ruah, the oxygen which enables us to live, and my baby’s struggle for breath connects me with humanity’s desperate need for God.

The kind of analogical imagination Ranson says is necessary for the development of revisionist spirituality is the kind of imagination which spiritual direction invites. Ranson says ‘the Spirit of God is in and through the questions of our hearts and the desires which they represent. The deepest questions of a person or of a people are always spiritual since they are the incarnation of Spirit in our life.’37 The spiritual direction relationship seeks to do just this. To create a safe holding space for the pilgrim to explore their deepest questions and inner longings, while being, as my hospital story indicates, sensitive to divine revelation in the ordinariness of life and alert to the possibility of the Spirit in the unexpected.

If we believe that God created the universe and continues to participate in the ongoing work of creation, and if we believe God’s nature is a hospitable Trinitarian community, and if we believe that we are created in the image of God, then, we listen in creation to the call into community.The eschatelogical vision of God’s reign becomes a present reality as we respond to God calling us toward deep communion with God in creation. God calls us from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from death to life and this call is manifest in all things. Where secular spirituality may fall victim to modern individualism, Christian spirituality calls people into a community which proclaims light, freedom, life and hope for all creation. Through the Christian lens, my son and I are not alone. I sense God’s community in the saving embrace and skills of the hospital, I sense the injustice that this service is not universal. Yet, in spite of the system’s inadequacies, there is hope for all humanity. My only response can be the primary Christian response to God’s work in creation and that is gratitude.

God leads us in the way everlasting, but there are also inner leadings which counter the movements of God’s good Spirit. Human beings are created with the freedom to make choices for both good and evil. There is a sinful, brokenness in humanity which draws us away from living in the love of God. St. Ignatius describes the inner movements which lead us closer to God as creating a sense of consolation and an experience of peace, courage, strength, inspiration and God’s love.38 The inner movements which lead us away from God are described as counter movements and these create a sense of desolation and the experience of hopelessness, isolation, self-centredness.

The Christian tradition has much to offer here to the secular spiritual quest. The Christian faith offers a framework or lens through which to engage in the process of discernment. To continue with the example from Ignatian teaching on discernment, the spirit of God is described as Paraclete, advocate, the defender. The evil spirit is the devil, the accuser. ‘God draws, the destructive Spirit drives...God is gentle: the evil spirit is violent’ 39 Ignatius teaches the importance of testing the spirits. It is useful to be aware of useful sign posts by which to test such movements. 40 Movements of God will lead to:

1. life which reaps the fruits of the Spirit
2. living the way of Jesus, grounded, earthy, and drawing us into the Paschal mystery which leads from death to life.
3. living in relationship with the scripture
4. living amidst the community of faith
5. experience of consolation which brings faith, hope, freedom, self esteem and love
6. receiving a gift, freely given to reveal deeper truth 41
7. an aim to serve God in life

The sign posts of counter movements are also important to become aware of. 42 Movements away from God will lead to:

1. a closing down of self which leads to isolation from others, community and from God.
2. a covering of the truth
3. getting lost, or stuck in the ‘death’ experience with no hope and no way forward into new life
4. feelings of being driven, pressure and heaviness
5. feelings of loss of self esteem and fear
6. an aim to serve ones self in life

The way of Jesus Christ is a journey toward the cross which brings death and three days of waiting in the absence before the new life of resurrection. Movements of the Spirit can lead into a place where people experience pain and struggle, and the absence of God. This is illustrated in the confusion I sensed as the croup became worse.
Blocking airway, stopping air from passing.

Body gasps and reflex survival skills press lips in fish form sucking in Lungs suck as little gasps of air pass through the narrow passage.

Only not enough!

There is a sense of God’s absence in this moment; but , ‘absence in not simply the lack of presence; absence itself is often a mellow mode of being present.’43 Unlike some of the secular spiritualities, the Christian path is one which acknowledges the places of darkness. Christian spirituality is not about feeling good or and individualistic quest for wholeness, but about being transformed by our encounters with struggle so that death can lead into new life.

God can lead into what the tradition calls ‘the dark night of the soul’. This darkness has evidence of movement of the Spirit and in this darkness, God can lead us toward a new understandings and revelations. The role of the Spiritual Director is to sit alongside the pilgrim in this kind of darkness and to offer companionship. It is important to distinguish the experience of the ‘dark night of the soul’ from other human experiences of darkness. Neglecting God, the darkness of the world, illness, exhaustion, depression, grief and trauma in life can lead to a sense of being in the darkness. These may or may not include a sense of the the absence of God. The Spiritual Director has a role in helping discern the nature of the darkness and guiding the pilgrim to discover God’s movements within this place. Crisis can offer an invitation. For example, in mid life the absence of an older generation is described as ‘the empty but fertile soil in which our midlife responsibility is compelled to grow”44 Here we are drawn by God from childhood, to lover to wrestler in our relationship with God. Absence is the fourth phase of religious maturity

The journey through these dark places can become a pathway to growth. We can grow through dying to an old self and birthing the new. In this sense, when life circumstance thrust us into the darkness of crisis, a sense of God with us in this place can lead to a renewed sense of the presence of God and religious maturing.45

Spiritual Direction also listens with awareness of psychological issues which could be impacting on the pilgrim’s life. Things going on in the unconscious can impact on the conscious experience. 46 Psychological issues which impact on the unconscious mind have potential to both disturb and enhance the pilgrim’s journey with God. The relationship can be disturbed when issues lead to transference 47 or cause blockages and resistance in a pilgrim. Psychological issues, when experienced fully, can also lead to growth and the pilgrim journeys with God in the struggle.

‘Spiritual guidance out of a Christian tradition at its best is not meat to be a narrow ‘in house’ affair but a personal bridge to the Ground of all human life, on holding a particular broad lineage of experience an interpretation of that Ground. ... it is a bridge, a way in, to our shared Holy Ground available for all people yearning to touch that Ground more firmly......the way of the future is will be the way of the founder: not to expect the world to submit to clerical authority, but to transform the world by revealing the presence of God where it least expects to find it, in the everyday and the ordinary’48


David Tacey writes of an emerging spirituality which ‘seeks a sensitive, contemplative, transformative relationship with the sacred, and is able to sustain levels of uncertainty in its quest because respect for mystery is paramount.‘49 The church of the modern western paradigm has evolved with language and forms that are not meeting this hunger for spirituality. Tacey suggests that the church has a lot to offer if it can find a way to speak into the emerging paradigm.

The ministry of spiritual direction is a forum for dialogue with the spirituality revolution. The personal experience is taken seriously and honored, but not taken at face value. Spiritual direction gives a context for discernment of the movements of the Spirit of God and the life death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ offers spirituality an interpretive lens and framework.

Rev. Joan Wright Howie is the Minister of the Word at Habitat Uniting Church in Yarra Yarra Presbytery within the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania. Rev. Wright Howie has a longstanding interest in spiritual formation which she writes about on her Minister's blog.


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