Fr Ken Leech
It is over 15 years since I wrote a book called Soul Friend. At the time, and for some time afterwards, it was the only modern book available on the British and American markets about the ministry of spiritual direction. It still sells, to an audience quite different from the one I anticipated, and indeed has recently been reprinted in the original edition in the United States although it is urgently in need of revision. When I wrote this book I specifically rejected the idea that it should be seen as a guidebook, a "how to do it", and I expressed grave doubts as to whether such a book were possible or desirable. I also strongly emphasised my belief that spiritual direction was part of the ordinary ministry of the Church, not a specialist field reserved for experts.
Now, in 1993, where are we? Spiritual direction is "in" again with a vengeance. There are workshops, institutes, cassettes, courses, books galore. Everywhere, and in all traditions, there is a concern with the "inner life" and with personal guidance. Popular books have been produced, in Britain and the United States, aimed at a much wider market than mine was. Institutes and networks have grown up to train people, mainly lay women and men, as spiritual directors. There has been considerable attention to the role of women. And, of course, there has been the remarkable revival of interest in and practice of Ignatian retreats. All this has been exciting, healthy, positive, hopeful. Why then am I worried?
I am worried, first, that spiritual direction is being seen as more important than it is. It is, after all, one ministry among others. Directors play an important but quite a lowly and limited function within the wider context of pastoral care and theological formation. I detect now a tendency in some quarters to make the spiritual director more important than he or she is, in a way which is at variance with the mainstream of Christian tradition.
I am worried that this ministry is being professionalised and seen as a specialist ministry in a way which is potentially extremely dangerous. There is now an international organisation of spiritual directors with headquarters in the United States. There — and here maybe — some spiritual directors charge fees for their services, something which would have horrified the saints in all ages. People are being "accredited" with certificates, diplomas and doctorates in spiritual direction by the many institutes and departments which have sprung up. I stand by my insistence in 1977 that spiritual direction is not essentially a ministry for specialists and professionals, but part of the ordinary pastoral ministry of every parish and every Christian community. Even more so do I stand by my suggestion that the role of "training" is extremely limited, and that this ministry is essentially a by-product of a life of prayer and growth in holiness. Part of our task is to discover, help and affirm the work of direction which is already being done by unknown people who do not write books or run courses.
A whole chapter of Soul Friend was devoted to trying to clarify the differences between spiritual direction, counselling and psychotherapy, recognising the significant areas of overlap. I am increasingly worried not only by the tendency in some quarters to blur these distinctions and to assimilate direction into a therapeutic model but also by the uncritical and simplistic adaptation of certain quasi-therapeutic tools. The most obvious example of this is the use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This grid of 16 personality types, based on a rather questionable theory of temperament, has rapidly become de fide in parts of the spirituality circuit.
There are other examples of the way in which methods and techniques, in themselves helpful, have become part of a cult. I am entirely in favour of people keeping journals, and have done so myself for many years, but the way in which Progoff s "intensive journal" method has been taken up so that the whole of spiritual formation is reduced to it — when did "journal" become a verb? — is alarming.
I am worried, finally, because much spiritual direction assumes a view of spirituality which is not wholesome and only tenuously Christian, and which reflects the individualism and privatisation of religion in the West rather than any embodiment in a corporate tradition. Within classical Christian understanding, spiritual direction is a personal ministry which takes place within a corporate framework of sacrament, discipleship and social action. It takes place within a context of theological reflection and social struggle. Only within such a context can it make sense and make progress. It is because I see a loss of such a context that I remain, and become increasingly, worried.
(This appeared in the early 1990s. At that time Ken was community theologian at St Botolph's Church, Aldgate, London.