Discipleship and listening to wise elders is mentioned frequently in the sacred scriptures, but the actual ministry of spiritual direction is thought to have begun with the desert mothers and fathers of the third and fourth centuries. Thomas Merton argues that the ministry actually became necessary at that time precisely because men and women had removed themselves from community and local church to live as solitaries in the desert. Prior to that time, most people received spiritual support and guidance from their bishop or pastor. And so these men and women sought out a ‘spiritual father’ or ‘spiritual mother’.

From these beginnings, the ministry has had a rather chequered history. The Siloam formation program belongs in that history, indeed is the fruit of a long tradition. The focus on personal experience of God inherent in spiritual direction ministry, in fact, was lost for some centuries, replaced by a concentration on more external, behavioural practices of ‘leading a good life.’ There were notable exceptions: the charismatic spiritual directors of ‘the golden age of spiritual direction’: Julian of Norwich, Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Francis de Sales.

What I consider to be a revival of the ministry happened barely fifty years ago, since Vatican Council II. Aided by a study of the tradition and a return to early sources, the approach in spiritual direction practice focused again on the inner experience of the one asking for guidance. The writing on spiritual direction tells us how the ministry developed. Initially, spiritual directors tended to write more on what they were actually doing as spiritual directors, many including practical approaches to spiritual direction and the authors’ learnings from their experience in the ministry. A concern to clarify how spiritual direction differed from psychological counselling was uppermost in these writings.

The next development was most significant. The careful empirical approach of several experienced spiritual directors led to their writing not only what they were doing as spiritual directors, but also what was actually happening in their direction of others. Jesuits William Barry and William Connolly were fore-runners in this development. By listening for what actually happens in spiritual direction, these spiritual directors were reclaiming the ministry’s focus on God’s work and on people’s experience of God in their lives. Their writings have had lasting influence on the ministry of spiritual directors. Their primary concern was that ‘the focus of spiritual direction is religious experience’, almost taking for granted that this would overflow into the way people lived their lives and cared for one another. I will write later about my personal experience with these two pioneers.


-Brian Gallagher msc