A Brief History of Spiritual Directing


In the Old Testament, communication between Yahweh and his people was direct, nevertheless prophets, priests, kings and wise men were often used by God to urge His messages upon a wayward people.  Moses, Elijah, Joshua and the prophets like Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah.  Spiritual progress as an essential element in the biblical revelation.

New Testament – the notion of progress and growth continues here.  Jesus calling His disciples ‘to be with him’ (Mark 3:15) so that He can pass onto them all that His father has given Him (John 14:10).  We see Jesus encouraging change and growth as He encounters individuals, leading them into deeper understanding (woman at the well and the meeting on the road to Emmaus).  Both show Jesus as the supreme spiritual director.  The place of the Holy Spirit holds the key to this discussion as Jesus came to redirect us to the Father through His life, death and resurrection.  He receives the gift of the Holy Spirit at His baptism and then lives at all times ‘in the Spirit’.  After His death, He promised the gift of the Spirit to His followers ‘to lead them into all truth’ (John 16:15) and it is through the Holy Spirit that Christ is formed in us and we are nurtured into the ‘fullness of His stature’ (Ephesians 4:13).  So just as the Holy Spirit directed Christ, so He directs us.  As Anne Long says in ‘Approaches to Spiritual Direction’, ‘the locus of control is in God rather than man.  This is the very reason why good spiritual directors do not mind the title because they, more than anyone, recognize that the prime director is the Holy Spirit.’

Paul is a concerned guide or master for those to whom he writes who are learning the faith.  See Philippians 3:15 and 1Timothy 1:5 and lots of other examples.

Early Fathers, St Jerome and St Basil refer to the need for spiritual guidance, often in the context of penance and reconciliation with the Christian community.  Basil: ‘to believe that one does not need counsel is great pride’.  Jerome wrote copious letters to friends and was one of the earliest Spiritual Directors.


By the 4th century, the term ‘spiritual father’ was well established and it describes a relationship of teaching first by example and only then by advice.  As Kenneth Leech says, they were ‘not so much teachers as Spirit-filled figures in whom God was revealed.’  The Abbot Macarius said, ‘If we dwell upon the harms that have been wrought on us by men, we amputate from our mind the power of dwelling upon God.’  These holy men were known as Abba, Father – see Abba Peomen on p42 of ‘Soul Friend’.  Evagrius, known as ‘that man of understanding’ and his pupil Cassian, both lived in desert communities, the earliest monastic arrangements and they held conferences, lengthy discourses on spiritual problems and practices. Discretion, the discernment of spirits (diakrisis) was valued highly as the greatest gift of God’s grace.  The monks at Sinai from about 580 produced material about spiritual guidance and developed a spirituality of their own based strongly on the Jesus prayer which spread to Russia.

Augustine of Hippo, a bishop in North Africa and whose life writings have deeply influenced the church often wrote specifically as a spiritual guide and like Basil suggests that a spiritual guide is invaluable.


Then arose a remarkable tradition, basically monastic again of holy and dedicated men and women.  Stories abound of their courage and saintliness.  They valued the accompaniment of a ‘soul friend’ or ‘anamchara’ and a saying ‘anyone without a soul friend is a body without a head’ became well known.  Columbanus wrote a Rule for monks which contained a whole chapter on discretion, that gift so highly valued by the Desert Fathers.  Despite the monastic rules, there was a freedom in valuing the inner life of the individual; ‘the Holy Spirit must be allowed to lead as he wills.’  They stressed confession and penitence in these relationships but they also stressed mutuality.

Pope Gregory the Great, writing to his clergy in his ‘Pastoral Rule’, advises bishops on the care of the clergy and teaches about prayer.  He made the now well-known comment the ‘ art of ruling souls is the art of arts.’


The spirituality of this tradition grew out of the desert experience.  The development of the Jesus prayer became the central element in spiritual guidance and the purpose of all prayer that the pray-er should become one with God as part of the deification of the whole cosmos.  Both the desert and Eastern Orthodox spirituality were created by monks living in community or alone.  By the early 15th century we hear of St Nil Sorsky, Russian monk and mystic who lived in a forest hermitage.  He introduces the small group (skit) guided by a spiritual father (staretz).  Thus the Greek word for ‘spiritual father’ in use since the 4th century became translated into Russian as staretz (elder) as a spiritual counsellor, owing his authority to his spiritual gifts, usually a monk but sometimes a lay person.


Benedict’s Rule for his monks describes a relationship between the Abbot and the monks as one of apprenticeship, of ‘being with’, strongly reminiscent of Jesus with his disciples.  The monastic life was seen as a ‘school for the service of the Lord, and one of the strongest themes in the Benedictine Rule is that of the Abbot and each monk learning to listen to the Word of the Lord in Scripture.


The white monks whose first monastic home was Citeaux and who rose to celebrity through Bernard, later of Clairvaux.  Bernard and William of St Thierry both exemplify the important place given to a spiritual brother.  Bernard writes about making ‘the crooked path straight’ and the ‘rough place smooth’ for one of his younger monks.  A little later Aelred of Rievaulx wrote emphasising the tenderness and friendship which this relationship might engender and in his Pastoral Prayer, we can read very movingly, his intercessory prayer: ‘You know, Lord, my intention is not so much to be their superior as to lovingly help them and humbly serve them, to be at their side, one of them…’


Dominic founded a monastic order in Spain and France at about the same time as Francis was being called by God to a life of poverty and service in Assisi in Italy, and similarly drew others into his way of life.  Both of these movements spread rapidly across Europe and stressed ‘the care of souls.’  St. Bonaventure (a Franciscan) wrote much in the form of guidance for monks in formation and the Dominicans took spiritual direction very seriously even amongst the laity!  Laymen were encouraged to act as Directors.  St. Catherine of Sienna was a visionary like Hildegard and Julian.  She became a third order member of a Dominican order in Sienna, and spiritual director to a circle of her friends.


There was a growth at this time of Solitaries, those who dedicated themselves to serving and worshipping in solitude, cutting themselves off from society.  Known as anchorites, such men and women often lived in a cell attached to the parish church and were supported by the local community.  The ‘Ancrene Riwle’ (late 12th century) was written in the West Midlands dialect as spiritual advice for such solitaries.  They were often sought out as spiritual advisers and the best known example is Mother Julian of Norwich.  We know that people came to her for guidance as Margery Kempe describes such a visit.

IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA (1495-1556) of Basque origin had a vast influence on spiritual direction over the next 500 years and whose experiences and the writing arising from them have recently undergone a huge revival.  Rather like St Francis, he rejected his wealthy background as a result of a religious experience and as he visited Manresa and later Rome and Jerusalem, had repeated visions of Christ and experiences in prayer on which he based his Spiritual Exercises, a scripture-centred framework for prayer to be undertaken with a guide which has led countless thousands into life-changing encounters with Christ.  His Rules for Discernment of Spirits are particularly valued.  It should perhaps be noted that most of the spiritual direction offered by Jesuits at this time was based on the Confessional.


Walter Hilton’s ‘The Scale or Ladder of Perfection’ may well have been written with Spiritual Directors in mind.  In a letter he wrote: ‘If not even the least of the arts can be learned without some teacher and instructor, how much more difficult it is to acquire the art of arts, the perfect service of God in the spiritual life without a guide.’  Thomas a Kempis wrote ‘The Imitation of Christ’, a very widely used spiritual guide book.  Readers were recommended to ‘take counsel with a wise and conscientious man and seek the advice of your betters in preference to following your own inclinations.’  Augustine Baker was an English Benedictine who wrote much about spiritual direction.  He said that a good director needs above all ‘good natural judgement, learning and experience’ and he complains that the role of spiritual director ‘is invaded by persons wholly unfitted for it.’


Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun and mystic of Spanish descent, wrote her own life story and also ‘The Way of Perfection” and ‘The Interior Castle’.  She was much helped by John of the Cross and indeed he seems to have owed a great deal of his understanding of the spiritual life to her.  They both wrote about the successive stages of the soul’s journey towards God and stressed the importance of wise direction.  Both also stressed the damage which incompetent guidance would do and John wrote of those ‘who know no way with souls but to hammer and batter them like a blacksmith.’

St. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva wrote most famously an ‘Introduction to the Devout Life and ‘Treatise on the Love of God’.  Both works were adapted for publication from instruction/advice given to individuals and both were highly influential.  He was probably the first person to state so unequivocally the necessity for direction: ‘And why should we wait to be masters of ourselves in that which concerns the spirit, since we are not so in what concerns the body.  Do we not know that doctors when they are sick call other doctors to judge as to the remedies that are right for them.’  He advocates a relationship of friendship and suggests that it is unhelpful to change one’s director too often.


  1. P. de Caussade, a French Jesuit wrote ‘L’ Abandon a la Providence Divin’ and other books of spiritual guidance, although he often maintained that direction was more a hindrance than a help! Nevertheless, he wrote many letters of guidance and in the end he seems to have advocated that, through good direction, the soul is enabled to learn how to rely on the Holy Spirit.
  2. N. Grou, the last of the great Jesuit writers in this period also stressed: ‘To direct a soul is to lead it in the ways of God, it is to teach the soul to listen to the divine inspiration, and to respond to it.’
  3. W. Faber had a Calvinist background but later joined the Catholic Church. He wrote a work called ‘Growth in Holiness’ and he describes the role of the director as ‘to go behind and to watch God going before’ and he reminds us that the three areas in our lives of ‘prayer, suffering and action’ are those in which we are most easily deceived and that the director is concerned with the whole of life.’

SOME ANGLICAN DIRECTORS (see Peter Ball’s book ‘Journey into Truth’)

George Herbert (1593-1633) and Nicholas Ferrar were both spiritual guides to many people.

William Law (1686-1781)

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667)

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), an Anglican lay-woman put herself under the direction of Von Hugel.  His letters to the many folk who turned to him as a spiritual counsellor, indicate the value they attached to these relationships.  She became an exponent of the mystical way, and wrote various influential books including ‘Worship’ and ‘Mysticism.’

Reginald Somerset Ward (1881-1962), a priest in the Church of England, received a call at the age of 34 to devote all his time to personal guidance.

Gilbert Shaw (d. 1968) was Warden of the Sisters of the Love of God, and made a particular contribution to their spirituality and they in turn have been very influential in guiding many souls.


Suspicion of ‘sacerdotalism’ or of anyone interposing themselves between God and man – however there were certain exceptions:

Luther (1483-1546) and Bucer (1491-1551) – ‘On the Cure of Souls’ – were both influential Protestants who encouraged a practice of the mutual cure of souls by laymen within the Lutheran church.

Zwingli (1484-1531)

Calvin (1509-1564)

Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603)

William Perkins and Richard Baxter

George Fox and Cotton Mather among Quakers more recently

Max Thurian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Neville Ward


Fleming, David (Ed): The Christian Ministry of Spiritual Direction

Jones, Cheslyn; Wainwright, Geoffrey and Yarnold, Edward (Eds): The Study of Spirituality

Leech, Kenneth: Soul Friend (Sheldon Press)

Long, Anne: Approaches to Spiritual Direction (Grove Siprituality Series)

Sheets, John R.: Spiritual Direction in the Church – in the Best of the Review 3

Waddell, Helen: Desert Fathers (Constable and Co., London)