This essay examines the practice of spiritual direction in the Orthodox Christian tradition. Spiritual direction is first defined as leading the believer to the knowledge of God. A historical sketch of the practice of direction is followed by an outline of the process of spiritual transformation as seen in the Orthodox tradition. The role of the Orthodox spiritual director is analyzed along with the duties of the disciple. An analysis of the indicators of spiritual maturity notes the importance of the attainment of dispassion and the development of virtue. Conventional psychotherapeutic methods are compared with Orthodox spiritual direction, noting circumstances under which the Orthodox spiritual director would make a referral to a mental health professional.
Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong" (Theophan the Recluse, trans. 1966, p. 51).
The center of the Orthodox Christian life is communion with God, and the essential characteristic of a life lived with God is prayer. But how do we learn to pray? Jesus' disciples came to him asking that question and received instruction in the form of what is now called the Lord's Prayer. Through the centuries Christians have sought God. And they have learned to find Him by turning to those who themselves had drawn near to the "consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29). In this essay we will look at the practice of spiritual direction, the leading of a disciple to God, in the Orthodox Christian tradition. The history, theology, and practice of Orthodox spiritual direction will be examined in detail. In addition, we will briefly consider the relationship of modern psychotherapeutic methods and the traditional conception of spiritual direction in the Orthodox tradition, noting especially circumstances under which the Orthodox spiritual director would consider referring a seeker to a mental health professional. Finally, we will recommend two books for further study.
WHAT IS SPIRITUAL DIRECTION IN THE ORTHODOX TRADITION?
The spirituality of the Orthodox Church centers on the healing of the soul, the restoration and fulfillment of the image and likeness of God in the human person who, in the process, grows into a relationship with God, which is ultimately so intimate that it can only be described as union. Spiritual direction in the Orthodox tradition, then, involves leading a person through the process of healing the heart and into an ever-deepening relationship with God. This process occurs in a sacramental and corporate context as well as in a personal one-on-one relationship with a spiritual guide.
In the modern world it is easy to think of spirituality as purely an individual concern. A practice is said to be spiritual if it brings one into some consciousness of a transcendent reality, a higher level of ethical awareness and practice, or even some kind of new age mystical experience expanding the boundaries of love and brotherhood. It is even defined in terms of an individual's psychological adjustment, whether to the traumas of one's own background or to the environment in which one lives.
In the Orthodox tradition, the individual experience of God, which is certainly to be sought, is grounded in the sacramental and corporate life of the church. Orthodoxy takes seriously the mystical union of Christians in the body of Christ, and sees the sacraments as the fundamental foundation of the spiritual life. Thus, in the Orthodox tradition the spiritual development of a person begins with baptism, continues in the experience of Eucharistic communion, is advanced and renewed by the sacrament of confession, and then further developed by specific guidance from an experienced spiritual director. …