Conversatio Divina

Part 12 of 19

Spiritual Direction: A Holy Art

Ancient Christian Wisdom for a Postmodern Age

Michael Glerup

Despite Jesus’ instruction to call no person rabbi or father, very early in the development of Christianity, in the Egyptian and Palestinian monasteries spiritual elders were referred to as abba (father) or amma (mother). These “fathers” and “mothers” were spiritual parents in the sense that they shared “both the loving kindness of God the Father and the charismatic gift of the Spirit to engender others in the spiritual life.”Donald Corcoran, “Spiritual Guidance,” in Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, Bernard McGinn, John Meyendorff, and Jean Leclerq, eds. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997) 447. These early “spiritual directors” fostered the spiritual development of their disciples through instruction and modeling. As Cassian said, “A saintly life is more educative than a sermon.”Corcoran, 446.

Over the centuries, as monastic life became more institutionalized, a rule of life for individual and community formation gradually replaced the charismatic interaction of abbas and ammas with their disciples. In this very brief review of ancient Christian writers on spiritual guidance, we will examine four important aspects of spiritual guidance: nature of the relationship, sharing one’s inner dialogue (disclosure of thoughts), discernment (diakrisis), and the qualities and responsibilities of a spiritual director.

01.  Nature of the Relationship

One of the most important sources for studying the practice of spiritual direction may be found in the collection of sayings known as the Apophthegmata Partum (The Sayings of the Fathers).See The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. with foreword by Benedicta Ward, SLG. (Kalamazoo: Cistern Publications, 1975). These sayings illustrate the personal nature of the interaction between elder and disciple. These interactions were typically short and to the point. The answer supplied sought to shake up the seeker and represented a personal knowledge that applied directly to the situation at hand. These personal words were not just advice; they were meant to clear away some blindness that produced some block in the seeker’s desire to progress in prayer.Progress in prayer was the goal of the monastic life. As an example,

Abba Zeno said, “If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything he asks.”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 67.

Or consider this:

A brother questioned Abba Poeman, saying, “What does it mean to be angry with your brother without cause?” He said, “If your brother hurts you by his arrogance and you are angry with him because of it, that is getting angry without cause. If he plucks out your right eye and cuts off your right hand, and you get angry with him, you are angry without cause. But if he separates you from God, then be angry with him.”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 87.

These responses were neither given nor received lightly in the desert. It was assumed that if a question was answered or a word was given, the word would be put into action. Similarly, a word was not given apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.See Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) 76–103.

02.  Sharing One’s Inner Dialogue (Disclosure of Thoughts)

The disclosure of thoughts is one of the least understood practices of the early desert communities. The disclosure of thoughts—the sharing of one’s interior dialogue, thoughts, and life experiences, insignificant or not, to a spiritual elder—was not for the purpose of absolution from sin and guilt but for the discernment of internal motives and deeper movements of one’s personality.

The disciple benefits from these disclosures in two ways: first, any dangerous or evil thought arising from the heart loses its power to deceive and distort. As John Cassian relates,

Not only will [the disclosing of thoughts] teach the young monk to march directly along the true road of discernment, but it will actually keep him safe from all the deceits and snares of the enemy. Someone who lives not by his own decisions but by the example of the ancients will never be deceived. The skill of the enemy will not be able to delude the ignorance of a man who does not, out of dangerous shame, conceal the thoughts arising in his heart and who rejects or accepts them following upon their quick examination by older men. An evil thought sheds its danger when it is brought out into the open, and even before the verdict of discernment is preferred the most foul serpent which, so to speak, has been dragged out of its dark subterranean lair into the light.John Cassian, Conferences, Colm Luibheid, trans. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985) 68.

Or John Climacus:

There was a brother there, the bursar of the monastery, who had this to say to me in confidence: “When I was young and had charge of the animals, I had a very bad spiritual failure, but since it was never my custom to conceal a snake in the hiding place of my heart I grabbed it forthwith by the tail—meaning that I ended the matter—and I revealed it at once to the healer. He gave me a light blow on the chin, smiled, and said to me, ‘All right, child, go back to your job and do not be in the slightest way afraid.’ With heart on fire I did as I was told, and within a few days I knew I was cured; and so, with mixture of joy and fear, I carried on.”John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell, trans. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press,1982) 102.

In this passage, Climacus’ reference to the spiritual elder as the “healer” directs us to the second benefit of the disclosure of thoughts: disclosure fosters healing and the restoration to wholeness. Revealing one’s thoughts to a spiritual elder allows the elder to become a physician to the disciple’s soul. Once the thoughts are made known to the discerning elder, an appropriate treatment may be prescribed. John follows the traditional teaching on the subject, as illustrated by the earlier advice of the great spiritual leader of Gaza, Barsanuphius:

Brother, do not rush headlong into the discernment of thoughts that come to you. You are not up to it. . . . But mention to your abba the thought that lingers with you and makes war upon you, and he will heal you through God.Tomáš Špidlík, The Spirituality of the Christian East: A Systematic Handbook, Anthony P. Gythiel, trans. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistern Publications Inc., 1986) 284.

03.  Discernment

In Step 26 of The Ladder of the Divine Ascent, John Climacus defines discernment as follows:

Among beginners, discernment is real self-knowledge; among those midway along the road to perfection, it is a spiritual capacity to distinguish unfailingly between what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good; among the perfect, it is knowledge resulting from divine illumination, which with its lamp can light up what is dark in others. To put the matter generally, discernment is—and is recognized to be—a solid understanding of the will of God in all times, in all places, in all things; and it is found only among those who are pure in heart, in body, and in speech. . . . Discernment is an uncorrupted conscience. It is pure perception.The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 229.

Discernment for the mature, then, is insight into the spiritual needs of others: the ability to read hearts. This ability is a direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As a result, the Holy Spirit is the true guide of the disciple’s soul, and the spiritual elder serves as a mediator.

Cassian dedicates Conference Two to the topic of discernment: “the source and root of all virtues.” Through the words of Abba Moses he describes how discernment is acquired:

True discernment is obtained only when one is really humble. The first evidence of this humility is when everything done or thought of is submitted to the scrutiny of our elders. This is to ensure that one trusts one’s own judgment in nothing, that one yields to their authority in everything, that the norms for good and bad must be established in accordance with what they have handed down.Conferences, 67.

The path to discernment begins in humility, the renunciation of personal initiative in spiritual matters, and the direction of a spiritual elder.

As these passages illustrate, a spiritual guide is necessary to progress in the spiritual life. Therefore, it is very important to find a spiritual father or mother even though he or she is not easily found. In fact, one must search diligently and choose carefully. As John Climacus suggests,

We should analyze the nature of our passions and of our obedience, so as to choose our director accordingly. If lust is your problem, do not pick for your trainer a worker of miracles who has a welcome and a meal for everyone. Choose instead an ascetic who will reject any of the consolation of food. If you are arrogant, let him be tough and unyielding, not gentle and accommodating. We should not be on the lookout for those gifted with foreknowledge and foresight, but rather for those who are truly humble and whose character and dwelling place match our weakness.The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 119.

04.  The Qualities and Responsibilities of the Spiritual Director

A spiritual guide should be chosen according not to his age but to an “untarnished life,” as Abba Moses advises:

We must follow those who, we know, stamped their youth in a praiseworthy and admirable fashion and who were trained not by their own presumption but by the traditions of their elders.Conferences, 67.

In The Rule of the Master (Regula MagistraA rule composed by an unknown author probably in the first half of the sixth century in either Rome or Campania. Though still contested in some quarters, most scholars acknowledge Regula Magistra as the principle source for the Rule of Benedict of Nursia.), we find these same qualities required of the abbot:

An abbot who is worthy to rule a monastery must always remember what he is called and be in fact what he is in name. He is believed to be the representative of Christ in the monastery, for he is addressed by his name, as the apostle says: “You have received the spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out to the Lord, ‘Abba, Father!’” Therefore the abbot must not teach or exact or command anything that is beyond the law of the Lord, so that his bidding, admonition and teaching may enter the minds of his disciples like the leaven of divine justice. . . . When anyone receives the name of abbot, he must direct his disciples by a twofold teaching, namely, make known all that is good and holy by his deeds even more than by his words. How? By declaring the Lord’s commandments in words to disciples who can understand, but to the hard of heart and the simple-minded by demonstrating the divine precepts by what he does.The Rule of the Master, Luke Eberle, trans. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistern Publications, 1977) 111–112.

Since a spiritual guide teaches not only by words but also by her or his life, the guide’s life should be praiseworthy and fashioned in humility. A spiritual guide should manifest gentleness, patience, charity, and the willingness to confront and reprimand:

In his teaching the abbot must always observe the procedure of the apostle as he states it: “Reprove, entreat, rebuke”; that is, alternating severity with gentleness, as the occasion requires, he must show now the harshness of a master, now the affection of a father.The Rule of the Master, 112–113.

The importance of choosing an appropriate guide and then submitting one’s thoughts and life to his or her direction is found throughout early monastic literature, but what about the responsibility of the spiritual guide or the abbot? Again from The Rule of the Master:

Let the abbot ever be mindful that at the fearful judgment of the Lord there will be an inquiry into his teaching as well as into the obedience of his disciples, both the one and the other. And let the abbot know that whatever the Father of the family finds lacking in the sheep will be laid to the blame of the shepherd.The Rule of the Master, 111.


The abbot must always remember what he is, remember what he is called, and keep in mind that more is required from him to whom more is entrusted. And let him know that he who has undertaken the ruling of souls must prepare himself to render an account. Furthermore, no matter how great the number of brothers he knows he has under his care, he may be sure that on the day of judgment he will have to give the Lord a full account of all these souls, and most certainly of his own as well, for, so as not to do their own will in the monastery, the brothers always served in all obedience to his commands. . . . Ever fearing the future examination of the shepherd regarding the sheep entrusted to him, he will, while concerning himself about his accountability for others, be made careful about his own, and while correcting others by his admonitions, he will be freed from his own faults.The Rule of the Master, 113–114.

As the author indicates, from him to whom much is entrusted, much is required. Spiritual guides will be held accountable to God not only for their own lives but also for the lives that have been entrusted to them.

In the early patristic literature, the roles and responsibilities of the director and directee were clearly demarcated. From both, much was expected, yet the only context for understanding these responsibilities properly is in light of the empowering work of the Holy Spirit. As the author of the The Rule of the Master suggests, “The abbot is the master of this holy art, not attributing the performance of it to himself but to the Lord, whose grace achieves in us whatever we do that is holy.”The Rule of the Master, 114.

Gregory of Nazianzus describes spiritual direction as the “art of arts and the science of sciences.”Bishop Kallistos Ware, Foreword in Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistern Publications, 1990) xxvi. No task is more difficult, and yet, none more important. Who, then, is qualified? Candidly, no one. But as Jesus shared with his disciples, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”Matthew 19:26. God, the true Father, begets spiritual children conformed to the image of his Son who recognize and cooperate with the divine will. These spiritual children, known by their humility, gentleness, charity, willingness to submit to the care of others, and discernment, over time discern their calling as directors through the repeated requests for guidance by those seeking spiritual maturity.


Michael Glerup serves as the Research and Acquisitions editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), a twenty-eight-volume patristic commentary on Scripture. ACCS, published by InterVarsity Press, is an ecumenical project, promoting a vital link of communication between the varied Christian traditions of today and their common ancient ancestors in the faith.