From Marjorie Thompson, Companions in Christ Spiritual Director
Last month we began to supplement our understanding of spiritual guidance by listing key elements of the guidance process, and looking at the kind of things we might talk about in such a relationship. We offered a concrete example of a spiritual direction conversation. Of course, no particular sample conversation can be normative. Each of us has different needs and styles, not to mention constantly changing life circumstances that will shape the issues, questions, and musings of faith we bring to any relationship of spiritual guidance
This month we will try to identify some important characteristics to look for in a spiritual guide. Suppose you have concluded that you could use the help of a mature Christian in exploring or deepening your faith life. Perhaps you want very much to experience God first-hand, or you feel your prayer needs to "get a life." Maybe you are struggling to discern God’s will for you at this time, or wish you had a gentle but persistent encourager to help you be more accountable for your spiritual practice. Where do you go from here?
First, get as clear as you can about what you want from a spiritual guidance relationship. If you feel a need for a particular companion in your faith-walk, it is likely that God has planted the seed of this desire. God may well have in mind a purpose beyond what you can presently discern, but at least you will have some notion of what you seek by meeting with a fellow Christian traveler in a more intentional way.
Then ask yourself what kind of person you feel could best accompany you on your journey at this stage in your life. Would you prefer a man or woman, or does it make no difference to you? Do you have in mind someone older than yourself, or more of an age-peer? Are you looking for a person with a great deal more faith experience and spiritual maturity than yourself, or someone with perhaps a more similar level of life experience who seems a bit farther along the path than you? Would you rather meet with someone of your own faith tradition, or would you enjoy being stretched by someone outside the familiar contours of your particular denomination or tradition? Are you willing to travel to meet with someone, and if so, how far?
When you have answered these questions for yourself, be aware that God may lead you to someone who doesn’t fit your preconceptions or preferences. If this is the case, you are likely to find yourself blessed beyond imagination!
Before you begin to pray for God to guide you to the right person, identify in your own mind the personal qualities you seek in a guide. Here are some suggestions I have found helpful (published in my previously mentioned book Soul Feast, pp. 107-108):
1. Look for Christians with a certain maturity of faith. I want a spiritual mentor to have a wide-ranging experience of life and faith; to be practiced in a life of prayer; to be familiar with the scriptures and some of the spiritual classics; to be knowledgeable about the ways of the human heart; and to have an eye for discerning the "footprints of God."
2. Look for people who know they are not perfect. I look for someone who knows human suffering and frailty from personal experience; who is honest about her or his limitations and not afraid to be vulnerable. Humility and compassion for the weaknesses of others are important marks in her or his life. I want a guide whose faith is strong through flexibility rather than rigidity, whose wisdom is practical and salted with humor.
3. Seek out people who are patient and attentive listeners. I need a guide who is not easily shocked, who can hear all kinds of feelings, and acknowledge the human reality of all kinds of behaviors without condemnation. I want a guide who can listen to God as well as to me, who is attuned to the promptings of the Spirit when we meet.
4. Look for people who invite trust. I want someone who will hold confidences so I can speak freely. I also need to trust my spiritual companion to speak honestly to me about my condition when I am avoiding something I need to face.
5. Look for mentors who place their trust in the grace of God. God is the true director of every spiritual encounter. I am not looking for professional competence or confidence in one’s own ability apart from the work of the Spirit. I seek someone who is willing to stand before God with me as a forgiven sinner. I want this person’s love and prayer for me to be rooted in Christ.
Once you are clear what you are looking for, you are ready to start praying and keeping your eyes open for the person God may lead you to. This may take time. Prepare to be patient and persevering. If God is calling you into such a relationship at this time, the way will open.
P. S. Remember, one-on-one spiritual guidance is not for everyone, and not for every phase of your life. You may receive the guidance you need through other avenues in the church. There has never been a time in the history of the church when every believer has had a personal spiritual director!