Spiritual direction, also known as spiritual accompaniment, is an essential ministry for anyone seeking to embrace contemplative Christianity. Not only is it a vital and beautiful ministry to receive, but many find meaning and value in providing this kind of soul friendship and guidance to others.
Recently a reader of this blog wrote to me and asked, “Do you have a list of books you recommend that discuss spiritual direction?” It has been over twenty years since my own formation as a spiritual director/companion, so my list of go-to books might be a bit dated. But here are five books I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the ministry of spiritual accompaniment, along with a couple of more recent books that I haven’t read but look really interesting.
Kenneth Leech’s Soul Friend: Spiritual Direction in the Modern World would be the book I would keep if I could have only one title in my library on this topic. It’s dry and textbook-y, and perhaps the first chapter on “the present climate” is a bit dated. But it’s grounded in the Christian contemplative tradition, steeped in prayer, and insightful in its understanding that the ministry of spiritual companionship is prophetic rather than analgesic: it’s not a practice intended merely to make us feel good, but aims to help the directee become holy by the grace of God. Leech traces the historical background of Christian spiritual guidance to a surprising headwater: the Irish Church, where the old Gaelic concept of the anamchara or “soul friend” (made popular in our time by John O’Donohue) was borrowed from the indigenous Celtic tradition to inspire one-on-one mentoring and guidance in a Christian context.
As important as Soul Friend is to me, if I could keep two books on this topic, my second choice would be The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William Barry, SJ and William Connolly, SJ. If Leech represents the Celtic headwaters of spiritual companionship, then Barry & Connolly represent the Jesuits, who perhaps more than any other religious order have truly embraced the importance of one-on-one spiritual guidance. This perceptive and practical book explores not only the characteristics of how we individuals relate to God, but also considers the equally important dynamics that occur between the director and directed. This was the book that helped me to see that human beings seem to have an inherent ambivalence about God: we want intimacy with God, and yet we resist God. Spiritual guidance is a wonderful way to unpack that ambivalence, to help us move through our resistance to embrace the intimacy and union God offers us.
Gerald May’s Care of Mind, Care of Spirit: A Psychiatrist Explores Spiritual Direction helped me to understand the often ambiguous line separating therapy from spiritual guidance. It really is an important issue: some people may innocently (or self-protectively) seek out a spiritual director when in fact their circumstances warrant the kind of therapeutic care that only a psychotherapist or professional counselor can provide. Therefore, it is incumbent upon a good spiritual director to be able to discern when this might be the case, and guide the directee accordingly. A person who primarily needs a therapist would likely find spiritual direction a distraction rather than a blessing. I suppose a similar dynamic could be at work from the other direction: some people may seek therapy when what they truly need is spiritual guidance! So perhaps May’s book would be helpful not just for spiritual guides but for mental health caregivers as well.
Kathleen Fischer’s Women at the Well: Feminist Perspectives on Spiritual Direction was required reading “back in the day” because so many of the writers on Christian spiritual direction were men, and this book provided a vital women’s perspective, both for those giving and receiving direction. What I took away from it was the importance of not projecting the classic masculine spiritual exercise of “surrendering one’s ego” onto women, who — especially if raised with traditional gender stereotypes — might need a spiritual practice that is more affirming than self-denying. Perhaps some of the issues surrounding gender and society have changed in the thirty years since this book came out, but certainly the underlying message — that directors need to be cognizant of the deep ways that gender affects our spiritual lives — remains as important as ever, not only for women but for men as well.
Another lovely book on spiritual companionship by a woman is Margaret Guenther’s Holy Listening: the Art of Spiritual Direction. Guenther uses metaphors such as hospitality and midwifery to celebrate a beautiful and gender-inclusive understanding of spiritual accompaniment. I read this during my formation as a spiritual companion, and at the time I thought it was overly gentle. But the older I get, the more I have come to realize that gentleness is a quality that a spiritual director could never have too much of!
The following two books I have not yet read, so my recommendation comes largely from the fact that these books have been recommended to my by colleagues I trust. But they are on my reading list, so I commend them to yours as well. Do check them out (and let me know what you think).
Grace Can Do More: Spiritual Accompaniment and Spiritual Growth by André Louf, OCSO, provides a Trappist/Cistercian perspective on this ministry. Louf, who for many years was the abbot of a French monastery, offers insight not only from his lifetime of monastic formation but also considering the relationship between spiritual guidance and psychotherapy.
These days I’m very much interested in how contemplative spirituality (including the ministry of spiritual companionship) function in the parish or congregational setting; so naturally Gil W. Stafford’s When Leadership and Spiritual Direction Meet: Stories and Reflections for Congregational Life is of interest to me. Stafford is an Episcopal priest with a background both in parish ministry and as a college chaplain.
Perhaps this book would be most useful for those who are in leadership positions in their local church, but since in my experience many people with a ministry of spiritual guidance also tend to be active in their parish or congregation, this might be useful for directors as well. Stafford describes leaders/directors as “holy listeners,” “advocates of silence,” and “wisdom teachers.” Amen!
So there are seven books to get you started. I’d love to hear from readers: what do you think of these books? And are there other titles you think belong on a “must read” list for spiritual directors? Please let me know, either on social media or as a comment on this post. Thank you!