Gordon T. SMITH, Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving & Receiving Direction, Formatio Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014. pp 99. $15.00. ISBN: 9780830835799. Reviewed by Eric W. HENDRY, Plano, TX 75026
In his brief and fairly basic text, Smith presents several arguments for contemporary Christians – predominantly those who identify as Evangelicals – to reconsider both the beauty and positive fruits of spiritual companionship and co-discernment offered by the historic Catholic approaches to Spiritual Direction. In particular, the author recommends traditional practices based on the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, along with the contemplative theologies of both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. By standing on the shoulders of several contemporary Jesuit spiritual directors and authors – William Barry, William Connolly, Thomas H. Green and John English – the author adopts some of their insights into Ignatian methodologies across his nine succinct chapters.
I actually found Smith’s first three chapters – the Ministry of Spiritual Direction, Theological Perspectives and Focused Conversations – encouraging and even fairly exciting to consider, as the author – an Evangelical missionary, pastor, and now college president – embraces and clearly advocates a sensitivity and respect toward issues of ecumenical dialogue and cooperation. As an Evangelical, he clearly encourages other Evangelicals to learn from Catholic spiritual directors. So, his particular ecumenical sensitivity and grace in these first three chapters should be clearly commended. At the same time, by midpoint of chapter four – Attending to What is Happening in Our Prayers – I began to have doubts about the author’s overall grasp of Ignatian spirituality.
First, Smith suggests that a good spiritual director will focus each session on the exploration of two topics – career and relationships – where the fruit of an active prayer life should display its most direct effect; but he also clearly indicates that he does not actually include prayer itself as a topic of conversation within his regular sessions with a directee – or even give special attention to how one prays. I found this to be fairly odd – given that many men and women typically seek out a spiritual director when they are faced with difficulty in their prayer lives. When the clear operating principle of a spiritual director is to actually not talk about prayer – we might need to ask if this text truly is a self-described guide to giving and receiving spiritual direction.
Second, throughout his text, the author seems to contradict himself in a number of important areas. For instance, early on he suggests that anyone considering a spiritual director should seek out a spiritual leader who has specific training in Theology, Pneumatology and the History of Spirituality – which seem to be commonsense and fairly laudable goals; but in a later chapter, the author seems to suggest that any elderly man or woman would suffice as a spiritual director and should not be dismissed simply because they lack training. Since Smith never really elaborates on why he clearly contradicts himself in this way, I think anyone reading this basic “guide” may find such a glaring internal conflict to be fairly confusing.
Third, the author goes to great length in attempt to convince Evangelical readers that a spiritual director is any woman or man who walks alongside the directee as an equal, a friend and spiritual companion – and is not someone who should be seen as infallible; but in several later sections, he suggests that spiritual direction will only work if a directee willingly “submits” themselves to the counsel of the director, is willing to regularly take down notes about what the director advises – particularly when they disagree with the director’s counsel – then willingly cooperates with their advice, even if it goes against their conscience. The author simply does not adequately address how or why equals would ever find a reason to freely “submit” their will to the will of another human being. This is a significant missing piece.
What also strikes this reviewer is the stunning omission of even the most basic criteria that might be used to establish or maintain healthy boundaries, or any basic advice to the new directee on how to discern and avoid the potential for spiritual manipulation or abuse. In an era when many billions of dollars have been spent in court cases involving abusive and even predatory spiritual leaders, these glaring omissions – by any author writing on spiritual direction – might now be assessed, unfortunately, as naïve and even irresponsible. This is also a significant missing piece.
Smith’s first three chapters are so very positive, it is all the more unfortunate that his last six chapters are peppered with confusing, conflicting and unsettling contradictions. But, ultimately, it is the obvious omissions – whether accidental or intentional – that make me fairly hesitant to recommend this text as a self-described “guide” for giving and receiving spiritual direction.