Monday, September 07, 2009

Reader Query IV

Spiritual Direction

[The following remarks arise from my research and experience and form my very negative opinion about a very popular contemporary movement which in many cases seems to be little more than an elaborate pious scam, a kind of "spiritual" Ponzi scheme. While there may be well-intentioned and genuinely concerned practitioners and participants, it seems important to raise these issues, because far too many are in culpable denial. I have written at length about the problems associated with so-called spiritual direction in earlier posts on this blog, in the recent article "Jesus in the Balance" in the Lutheran journal Word and World (April, 2009), and in my books Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity, and The Fountain and the Furnace: the Way of Tears and Fire.]

The term and practice of contemporary so-called spiritual direction has all the destructiveness of the word "ministry" along with additional dangers peculiar to itself. The term is deeply misleading, for the term "spiritual" cannot be divorced from the entirety of a life, and the process of growth into the divine is precisely that of giving up direction or claims to direction.

There are so many evils attached to this movement that it is hard to know where to begin. It does not grow out of scripture, no matter how much it may blather on about scripture or use texts and images from scripture. It does not grow out of the desert tradition, no matter how many claims are made to that effect. In fact it grows out of the counter-reformation, the height of the Inquisition, and is about thought control, about substituting one set of imprisoning templates over another, about creating dependency relationships. Whatever its claims, more often than not it leads to the opposite of spiritual maturity.

Its resurgence has little to do with the care of souls and far more about the cynical desire to find a way to keep collapsing communities together, finance the maintenance of expensive properties and for certain kinds of individuals to make a lot of money. How do I know this? Because I was consulted by one of the major players when considering making this move. Through very clever marketing that plays on people's sense of inadequacy and the pseudo-authority of hierarchy, "spiritual direction" has expanded into big business that "certifies" people as "spiritual directors" who in their turn can siphon money off of the genuine but naive seeker looking for affirmation and reassurance.

As with ordination, the least appropriate people apply for this certification process, and the certification process seems to expand itself infinitely. While certification programs claim to filter their intake, the selection is weighted towards those who will play the game. To see a gathering of these so-called spiritual directors preening themselves is as much an absurdity as it is a nightmare.

The movement has spawned its own pious jargon, its knee-jerk reactions and its fashions and celebrities. It has contributed to the "academic" study of spirituality, a notion that is in itself an absurdity, as I have described elsewhere. Books written on so-called spiritual direction are loaded with jargon, aimed at gaining points with those whom the author considers authorities, as opposed to enlightening the reader; there is little truth to be found in these exercises in ass-kissing.

One sign of a developing cult (or a sick religious community) is that no one can tell you in plain language what psycho-spiritual dynamic underlies a particular phrase, such as "receive all things as if from the hand of God" (RB 7), a phrase that has been employed as an excuse for abuse by superiors of those under them and as an excuse for masochism by those on the receiving end of the abuse. In fact, this phrase refers not to the past (what has been done to one), or to a particular model of God, but to the future, to the attitude which will expose the truth and carry one forward. In consequence, RB and other texts have been mis-translated to weight them seem to invest more and more power in fewer and fewer authorities.

Merton has a lot to answer for in this debacle of spirituality, as does the degraded version of psychotherapy that is far too prevalent in our culture. The notion that there is a false self to be rejected and a true self to be sought is inherently destructive and manichean; it is presumptuous. We cannot know what bits of ourselves are useful and what are not; it is not for us to tie ourselves to a procrustean bed, to stretch and chop acccording to our extremely limited and fallible lights. As Julian of Norwich notes, it is precisely the effects of what is called the "false self" that brings us to know our need of God. The person in process of transfiguration is taken as a whole, and all elements are needed; nothing is wasted.

Another fallacy arises from the confusion between self-esteem and self-respect. The former is a "justification" for mere vanity, while the latter arises from integrity and is part of the emerging truth of the self, and becomes evident only when self-consciousness is not present. It cannot be seen by the person whose truth it is.

Yet another problem is attached to the word "discernment" which these days seems little more than "if it feels good, do it", or, in the case of threatened superiors of religious communities, means "eliminate anyone who sees through your smoke and mirrors, your distorted reasoning, to your quicksand interior, or who might seem to know what they are talking about in terms of the spiritual life, or, much worse, simply live it." Superiors such as these have only the perpetuation of their own power in mind, as opposed to the welfare and spiritual maturity of their community members, whom they prefer to keep at a manageable level by forcing them to deal with the same problems over and over with facilitators of the same mindset as the superior, and never moving on.

This is a particularly pernicious problem for women's communities where the notion of "obedience" is conflated with a distorted notion of the superior as a "spiritual mother". Men's communities in the RC church are protected somewhat by canon law as the abbot is forbidden to hear confessions or coerce information from his monks, but women have no such protection. Danger signs are a failure of collegiality, flowery ritualized praise ("this drawing would make a perfect cover for our dear mother's conferences" even when said conferences are pure twaddle) or excessive affirmation of the superior; living by slogan and a fear of speaking the truth. The inability to translate local pious phrases into plain language is an additional danger signal.

So-called spiritual direction will more often than not lead to precisely the opposite effect than it advertises. The spiritual life is essential simplicity. It is learning to listen for/receive the Spirit irrupting everywhere, in everyone and every thing. It requires ruthless honesty. It requires a single-hearted goal of seeking into the beholding, as Julian puts it, not now and then, or as an exercise (like meditation) that is confined to certain times and places, but rather what she calls beseeking, having the beholding as the source of one's life, the reference point, the genatrix. [The usual translation of this word as "beseeching" is wrong.]

To grow in the spiritual life requires perseverence in but two aspects of the same practice: 1) sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything 2) seek into the beholding.

It may help to speak to someone now and again for reassurance or testing the spirits, but such a conversation will arise naturally and probably in what one might think the most unlikely circumstances and with a person who may never have heard of "spirituality" much less "spiritual direction." In any event, one person will never have the whole story; the desert monks visited the elders (plural). It may only be in retrospect that one realizes that the Word has been given, and then only if one has trained oneself to acute listening, to nepsis, as were those monks who attached themselves to elders in silence and had to figure out for themselves why their mentor lived the way he or she did. The Spirit blows where she will, and works most often through inadvertency, through those who have suffered, through those who have never flinched from life or set up a smokescreen of jargon, ritual or piety.

The spiritual life and writing have a lot in common: if you want to write, write. Don't go to writer's conferences, which will only distract you. If you want a critique on your writing, go to someone who will line edit and be devastatingly honest.

As I see it, the so-called spiritual direction movement is contributing to the kind of disassociative splitting that in its extreme form leads to sexual abuse. One finds it in religion everywhere: in grandiose intercessions at Mass about the poor and the suffering, intercessions which ignore local issues; in so-called liturgies that are really about mutual ego massage instead of ego-transcendence; in the hawking of novelties in the "spirituality" carnival that is making lots and lots of money for a few people who exploit those who either don't know any better or are seeking distraction from the hard work of silence.

In short, the term and the concept "spiritual direction" need to be ditched and not replaced.


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