Non-Christian Spiritual Direction

Oxymoron or Tautology?

by Julian Maddock

One day, when I was a neophyte trainer on a spiritual direction course, I rôle-played someone who had come to talk to a spiritual director, as a foil to a course participant. The rest of the group watched us. I spoke about a time in my life when I would wake up as the sun rose and lit my bed-sit. I used to sit quietly in the sunshine. I didn’t use the word God but spoke about my thoughts and feelings of awareness of, or connection to, the people in the house and the cars in the street, and other elements of Nature. I enjoyed talking and felt heard. When the session was finished, the group unpacked what had occurred. One of the participants asked, “How would you cope with a person like that?” On questioning further, she explained, “How would you cope with a person who doesn’t use Christian language and talk about recognisably Christian experiences?” I had two private reactions. One was surprise: “What’s the problem; what’s there to cope with?” Surely, what I had talked about was, in some sense, ‘spiritual experience’ and ‘of God?’ My other reaction was hurt and fear: “I am strange and ‘they’ will not accept me.” Her question is valid though: how do we ‘cope’ gracefully with what a friend of mine calls “the unfathomable otherness of the client”?

One day, someone new comes to talk and sits down in the chair opposite me. We look at each other with the usual trepidation wondering who this person is and whether we’ll like each other. We begin, haltingly, to find our way into a conversation. She’s been talking to a friend who suggested she come for spiritual direction and mentioned my name. She says she is spiritual but not religious, not a Christian, and doesn’t like the word ‘God’. She’s anxious because her experience of most Christians is that they want to ‘save’ her and make her believe six impossible things before breakfast. This kind of language is impossible and repellent for many Christians as well: it is an issue for anyone who struggles with how language is used in the church.

Is this so very different from when a Christian sits in the chair opposite? Isn’t this just a special case of all relationships? Here is another not-I, the other, the transcendent, someone I can never really know, who will mean something different even when using the same words I do. We will have to struggle so I can enter her experience and language-world to get some momentary glimpse of honest recognition.

She is here because she wants direction in her spiritual life. Now, I understand ‘spiritual life’ to be two-fold: it is touching more intimately what really matters, and living accordingly. Spiritual direction, then, is giving people opportunities to know their deepest desires (ultimately, to find God, whatever God is for them), talking through the practical and practicable implications of this and, crucially, trusting (God).

By this last I am invoking Ignatius‘ Principle and Foundation and Presuppositioni. The journey (Christian or otherwise) begins with (God’s) love for us: we are not required to make a confession of faith, or to repent, or to convert, or to be born again. The initiative belongs to God. The Universe is the primary revelation of the Divineii and God is to be found in all things. We can trust that both of us are speaking and listening in good faith. We wouldn’t be in this spiritual direction conversation otherwise and if we do not understand or agree, that is not heterodoxy but a failure of listening.

Spiritual direction also involves: being comfortable with where I stand (while knowing, of course, that reality has a habit of pulling the rug out from under my feet); allowing the other to stand elsewhere; and being prepared to trust their desires, discernment and choices (because we can never know these for another).

In some ways, working with someone who is not a Christian is easier: there’s less room for assumptions. She will not use some religious language and I will have to be more careful to check that I do have some through-a-glass-darkly glimpse of her experience. But then, what do people mean when they say they are saved, or have a personal relationship with Jesus, or that God said something to them? I will have no idea unless I invite them to tell me more about their experience of these things.

So, what of my Christian faith do I not want to abandon when working with a non-Christian? For me it comes back to Micah 6.8: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. However this is expressed, I listen for the presence of love in someone’s life: love received, love given. I listen for their sense of being part of something bigger than or beyond themselves – relationship, family, work, society, the earth/Earth – such that their area of concern is wider than their own (little) life. A wholesome spirituality is not finally about building up the self - acquiring the whole world… – but about the body of which we are atoms.

Much spirituality is about building up my (little) self. Christianity begins with God’s loveiii and is lived in God’s loveiv. And this is no different from Human Being: to come to understand that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, which loves and desires us fiercely, and to which, ultimately, we must surrender, and that this is the simplest and most difficult thing in the whole world. I can hear this present in the threads of a life without using the special Christian language-world.

Finally, working with a non-Christian is just like working with anyone else: when I reach the limits of my competence then it is responsible to make a referral. When I can't cope, I'll find someone who can.

Notes

  1. Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, para. 23 & 22 resp.
  2. Thomas Berry, quoted in Matthew Fox Original Blessing (Bear & Co, 1983), p 86
  3. ‘In the beginning, God…’, John 3.16 & Luke 15.20 ‘While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.’
  4. ‘Blessed are they who know their need of God’