The Early Stages
Ongoing Spiritual Direction

Chapter 31, Orientations Vol 2: Part B

Some Introductory Remarks

        The Exercises journey, according to notation [19] or [20], represents a dynamic model with helpful structures around which perceivable spiritual experiences can develop. It is in terms of this dynamic and these structures (methods, themes, theology, etc.) that a director of the Exercises can discern the processes of the Spirit. Once a directee has begun the Exercises journey, the spiritual guide has a path to follow.

        But what about settings outside the Exercises journey? Is there a comparable path to follow in ongoing spiritual direction over a long period of time? for an evening prayer program? for an experiential adult education course on prayer? for the preparatory phases for the notation-[19] Exercises journey? Does there exist a similar dynamic model with helpful structures which a spiritual guide can follow in settings of spiritual direction different from that of the Exercises journey? This query may not be that important for seasoned spiritual directors. But for the spiritual guide, who is developing his spiritual direction skills, this question is important. This chapter answers the question affirmatively with regard to the early stages of spiritual direction. It does so by attempting to create such a model.

        The chapter proposes to set up an overall model to understand the contents, tasks and processes of spiritual guidance in the early stages of ongoing spiritual direction. This model can help a spiritual guide reflect upon his beliefs and assumptions that govern his choices as to how to proceed with what is being heard. This model emerges from three basic sources:

        Besides being helpful for an overall understanding of the preparatory phase for the Exercises journey, this model is also helpful for other spiritual formation settings. The reason why such a general model of the early stages can apply in a practical way to many formation and pastoral settings is that the beginning point of the notation-[20] Spiritual Exercises journey presumes a fairly high degree of spiritual maturity. This beginning point presumes that a directee has a felt appreciation of the Principle and Foundation and the ability to make the Colloquy with Jesus on the cross. On the very first day of the Exercises journey, the directee is envisaged as having the ability to make the Review and Repetition. All this represents a considerable degree of maturity in general, and of spiritual growth in particular. It is what can be named the Contemplative Attitude.(1)

Developing The Contemplative Attitude

        As a working definition, the Contemplative Attitude is the ability to allow God into one's heart. A person has this Contemplative Attitude when the word of God is allowed to affect one's interiority as in the text of Hebrews 4:14-16, "The word of God is alive and active like a two-edged sword ... revealing the secret emotions of the heart."(2) When a person is able to allow one's real reactions to surface and to allow oneself to be vulnerable with God in more than a momentary way, then that person has the Contemplative Attitude. As in any relationship of intimacy, this Contemplative Attitude manifests itself in a free-flowing movement between the persons in the relationship, in a kind of honesty in expressing one's feelings, in a fundamental trust that one is loved and accepted, and in a mutuality. This, along with the deep-felt appreciation that we are dependent beings of love, is the beginning point of the Exercises journey.

        But how is one brought to that point and how does a spiritual guide facilitate a directee's openness to God so that God can enter the directee's heart personally as outlined in notation [15]? A large part of the answer is to help a directee to `notice' the interior reactions that have been taking place during her prayer times and during her experiences of living between the times of prayer. Another part of the answer is that this `noticing' is achieved with those same active and reflective listening skills that have been developed and widely used in North America since the 1960s. These skills imply that same psychological literacy that every professional helper is presumed to have. However, in spiritual direction the primary focus of listening is the prayer experience itself. A spiritual guide, specifically in his role as spiritual guide, helps his directee to `notice' her interior reactions first in the prayer experiences and then in her life as it seeps into these prayer experiences. Obviously implied is the context of faith: one person of faith listening to another person of faith expressing what is going on in experiences of prayer and helping her notice the interior facts being expressed.(3)

        But there is a further question that needs to be addressed in a model for this early stage: How does a spiritual guide empower a directee to use these awarenesses by herself in the situations of life between the sessions of spiritual guidance and later when she is no longer engaged in the spiritual guidance process? The question is both one of human development and one of spiritual formation. Human development is enhanced when a directee is actively engaged in the noticing process and when she brings the consequent awarenesses to the level of `critical reflection' and then to conscious decision-making. Spiritual formation is achieved when the directee has developed self-reflective and discernment skills which she can use actively later on by herself and in cooperation with others. Helping another notice and express what she notices in dialogue with God is essential to the process of prayer guidance but, by itself, this noticing does not achieve the formation goals presumed in equipping a person for active Christian discipleship which is the heart of a spirituality based on the Exercises.

        Therefore, what other items must be added to our emerging model? As you will find out from the reflective exercise below, you already know the items! With some reflection by yourself and/or some discussion with others, you can easily generate your own list. You could check the partial list in the second chapter of the Running Commentaries and/or the more complete listing in the endnotes,(4) but it would be more helpful for you to do this exercise first.


do this exercise
before you move on -- otherwise this chapter 
will seem unhelpful
and too

Some material for your study, reflection, discussion

        Simply reflect on your own experience of having received and/or having given spiritual guidance in the initial stages. Reflect also on your own personal experiences of making the Exercises such as:

        Now by reflecting on these experiences, you can generate a list of the "things" that had to be in place so that you were able to receive the benefits of all that spiritual work. Remember that, even from negative experiences, you can glean positive insights for this reflection exercise.

        As you reflect on your own experiences, you might list, for example, "the ability to pray with scripture." What other items need to be in place for a person to be able pray with scripture? No doubt, you would expect the person to be able to find the scripture text in the bible! Again, what methods for scriptural prayer would you list as helpful?

        Here is another example. Assume that on your list you write, "In our present culture, a person in the early stages of spiritual growth ought to recognize how, as members of the human family, we are called to cooperate with others in taking care of the earth." What other items need to be in place in order for this to be realistically appreciated as an imperative of basic Christian discipleship and spirituality? No doubt, you might presume a directee to have read and considered seriously some Christian resources on the care of the earth.

        For another example, you might write, "Growth in spirituality is primarily the result of God's initiatives of grace," or a similar principle, "All is gift." What other items need to be in place in order that a directee really believe this? You might respond by writing something like "an open attitude to life" or "growth in seeing life as mystery."

        Whenever I have asked a group of beginning spiritual guides to generate lists of their own, they generate lists very much like the one you have just done in the above exercise. Their labels may be different but their intuitive responses are similar. The point is that with a bit of reflection, most beginning spiritual guides, who themselves have been living the spiritual journey, intuitively know what aspects are needed for the early stages of spiritual direction. If they have had a good experience of the Exercises and some training, they will probably be able to articulate such a listing in a more focused way. What is significant about the listing that was generated while doing the foregoing reflection exercise is that the items on the list can usually be arranged under four major categories:

        Before we continue to develop our model further, let me make some observations about number 4 above, Common ______ Spirituality. Hypothetically, with respect to a directee belonging to the Anglican Church of Canada and in the beginning stages of prayer guidance, one would expect that she would know something about her root tradition, its history, practices, worship styles, and unique denominational values. A Roman Catholic in the early stages of prayer guidance should have appropriated the Common Roman Catholic Spirituality; a Presbyterian in the early stages of prayer guidance should have appropriated the Common Presbyterian Spirituality, etc. All this may very well be applicable if a directee does belong actively to some denomination. It may also be applicable if the directee is not practising her religion but still has good feelings about her heritage.

        So much for the hypothetical directee. In the concrete unique situation, such attention to the traditions of her heritage may apply much differently when the directee's denomination does not seem to have any connection to a coherent system or structure of belief and practice. The application is even more problematic when a directee is extremely alienated from her own heritage. In these situations, the need for the directee to appropriate her own roots or the need to make connections with some coherent tradition can be addressed by the application and coalescence of some of the following values concerning directees being guided in their prayer and the life of the Spirit:

        In general, subjective spiritual experience is recognized as authentic not only by the inner coherence of truth but also by the verification that comes from the interaction with others in the present and from the past.

Some material for your study, reflection, discussion

        At this point, pause to reread and consider the items needed in the early stages of prayer guidance or spiritual direction. Then complete your personal list and re-assemble each aspect under one of the four categories.

        Why do I propose that you do this exercise now? To demonstrate for you how you can trust your own intuition; with a bit of reflection around your own experiences of being directed and the understanding of the beginning point of the Exercises, you can formulate some of the components for a model for the early stage.

        Now, after demonstrating that you already know intuitively the various items needed in this early stage of spiritual guidance, let me offer this model:

click here

click here
        Why the circle and why the arrows going back and forth from the key points along the circle? Because, in the early stages, unlike a more forward-flowing dynamic of later stages, a spiritual guide's activities seem to be "all over the place." A spiritual guide's primary interaction with the directee may very well be to help her notice the interior facts present in her prayer experiences and encourage her to express these in dialogue with God in prayer. However, in addition to this main activity in this early stage, a spiritual guide exercises his role in a combination of other ways. At times, he functions as a ballet instructor, a pastoral counsellor, an educator, a guide, and a soul friend.

        As a ballet instructor, he encourages (by motivating, coaching, demonstrating) the practice of disciplined harmony that a directee needs in order to do the above. Different traditions will have different practices which have to be learned. Some practices help to dispose the heart for God's influence. Other practices help a directee to notice these influences by paying attention to her interior reactions. Other practices involve worship styles that give outward expression to her spirituality.

        As a pastoral counsellor, he helps a directee get in touch with her own images of God and helps in the development or transformation of these images. In the biblical tradition, healing the spirit is ultimately not a matter of good counselling and therapeutic techniques; it is finding oneself engaged in a relationship with God through an encounter with the biblical stories of God's work with God's people. In our Christian tradition, this is manifested through the story of Jesus. While the need to be healed might be recognized and understood cognitively, the actual process is neither rational nor programmatic. Healing has more to do with learning to tell our own life stories, thus re-establishing them in the light of God's story, and opening ourselves for the acceptance of mystery into our lives through the rituals and symbols of communal religious celebrations.(5) No doubt, there are times when the skills, used by spiritual guides to help directees enter Christ's story more completely, have similarities to the listening skills of psychotherapeutic counsellors. However, the focus differs in terms of the practice and rationale for using such skills. At these times, a spiritual guide's role may be more analogous to that of a pastoral counsellor.

        As an educator, he teaches the technology that will become the common ground for discernment later in ongoing spiritual direction or later in the Exercises journey. This includes exposing those Spiritual Truths that help a directee be disposed for God's grace.

        As a guide of prayer, he suggests the use of certain scripture texts and methods of using them. Through these suggestions, he hopes that his directee will encounter God personally at deeper levels and that she will come to understand, appreciate, and make her own, the `spiritual truths' of the model. He helps her to respect and notice the interior movements that are manifested through prayer upon these scripture texts [2], [15]. He may also suggest the use of other resources, such as art, poetry, literature, clay, video, etc., to become more disposed to receiving God's influences.

        As a soul friend, he relates with the directee with some of the same qualities that characterize the intimacy of friends -- confidentiality, trust, fidelity, and honesty. They are companions on a spiritual journey. Since a spiritual guide has gone along part of the journey and is familiar with some of the terrain, he can occasionally share what he knows with his directee in an atmosphere of friendly mutuality. However, the relationship between spiritual guide and directee is not one of friendship in the usual meaning of that word. The trait of mutual openness and interdependence that characterizes the intimacy between friends must generally be different. Otherwise, a confusion of roles with ambiguous boundaries would undermine the very work of spiritual guidance. The "soul" of soul friend implies some sort of a bond, a kind of heart-to-heart connection with deep reverence for each other's mystery. Years later, a directee will often gratefully remember such connections as signs of God's loving care.

        What does the spiritual guide hope for as he guides the directee through the various components in this back-and-forth circle? The emergence of the Contemplative Attitude and the appropriation of a sufficient number of the individual components listed. When these aspects emerge with a deep-felt understanding, the spiritual guide can, at this point, become less active and can begin to track the directee's experiences and to accompany her "like a balance at equilibrium" [15]. In the Exercises, this balance is expressed in notations [2], [5], [22] and [231].

        Why not simply use the list you generated as is? Why arrange the various components under any categories at all? The reason is simple and it may strike you as trivial. In addition to the activities of helping the directee to notice her interior experiences and to express these in dialogue with God, the essential feature is The Four Categories, not the items that one generates under each category! Different spiritual guides will have their own lists that will emerge from their own reflection upon their own experience of this early stage. Once a spiritual guide understands the need for these categories, plus the dynamic of helping another `notice,' plus the cyclic activity of returning in different ways over and over again to some of the same components, plus the emerging Contemplative Attitude, then, when that spiritual guide trusts his own intuition and God's grace, he can apply this model automatically in many different situations of prayer guidance.(6) Some readers may find it more helpful to think in terms of a different set or number of categories. No doubt, a model having more categories would function just as well.

        You may question the very activity of reflecting upon your own operational beliefs and intuitions about the early stages of prayer guidance, and you might ask: "Why bother with a listing under the four categories at all? Why not simply practise the art of helping a directee to notice her interior experience in a faith context?" A summary answer is this: Without some kind of attention to these four categories, spiritual guides run the risk of doing only "psychology in a faith context." This is not bad in itself, but if we do not attend to the essentials of our art, we run the risk of defaulting to a psychological model alone. For some spiritual guides, an operational(7) belief seems to be that, in addition to faith, prayer experiences and religious language, psychological literacy accomplishes the prayer guidance task. However, psychological literacy alone does not achieve the goals of spiritual guidance which deal primarily with the ultimate meaning of life. This theme is explored in Chapter 33, "Spiritual And Psychological Horizons And Your Spiritual Direction Paradigm."

        How does our model of the early stages of spiritual direction apply to a directee being prepared for the Exercises journey according to notation [19]? The first five chapters of the Running Commentaries give an "on-the-hoof" example of such an application. These chapters illustrate the directee's preparation for the Exercises journey in a five- or six-week period. Like an accordion or an elastic band, this same material might be stretched over a nine-month period working with people individually or in a group. This same material might be covered in a series of one-day experiences. Is it necessary for a spiritual guide to use the first five or six prayer units suggested in this manual? Of course not. The prayer material of these prayer units and the order outlined are merely suggestions. It is the Noticing and the Four Categories of the cyclic model that are the important things!


1. For further study and reflection, Consult William A. Barry, S.J., and William J. Connolly, S.J., The Practice of Spiritual Direction (New York: The Seabury Press, 1982). The elements that I imply for the Contemplative Attitude include everything that this book describes well.

2. This translation is from the original English version of the Jerusalem Bible.

3. A directee expresses her personal experiences from times of prayer and from her life. This articulation includes her spontaneous reactions -- feelings, thoughts, desires, judgments, etc. These are sometimes expressed clearly, but most often they are less than clear as the directee is often clarifying for herself what is going on. Her spiritual guide listens and helps her to clarify her feelings and thoughts by focusing carefully on what is being said, what is being left out, what is implied, and the feelings that are present. Thus, the meaning behind these reactions begins to surface along with a growing awareness of their direction. These are interior facts which the guide helps the directee to notice. A fuller exploration of this is found in The Practice of Spiritual Direction by Barry and Connolly.

4. A random listing of possible items that a spiritual guide would assume, deal with, look for, hope that a directee will have developed through the early stages of spiritual direction:

5. This is adapted for this chapter and comes from the essay, "Church and the Sea of Life: Ship or Lifeboat?" by Mark S. Muldoon, Ph.D., in collaboration with Caroline Dawson, IBVM, D.Min., and myself, published in The Way (April 1996).

6. This model has many applications: the setting of ongoing spiritual direction, Week of Directed Prayer in a Church Setting, Disposition Days in preparation for the Exercises, directed retreats of any length, conference-style retreats, Lenten program with university students, etc.

7. "Operational" here means the belief implied in one's practice, not the conscious or stated belief, but the real belief. As we well know, our actual images of God, self, and the way we relate to others often do not coincide with our theories and with the explanations we give ourselves.

Gratitude is a wonderful virtue that God allows us to have. To be able to be thankful and to keep a sense of gratitude inside us is a powerful gift. You can't be grateful and selfish or mean at the same time -- there is no room in your heart. If you are truly grateful for the blessings you have received, then you are not jealous or envious; you are not petty or small. And so we thank God ... for today ... for what has happened over the years.
-- from a talk given by Brian Massey, S.J.,
in 1996 at a 25th anniversary celebration.

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