In December 1985, seven thousand therapists gathered in Phoenix, Arizona, to hear more than twenty of the leading theorists and practitioners of psychotherapy in the world come together in a serious attempt at dialogue, clarity, and cross-fertilization. Recognized experts such as Bruno Bettelheim, Carl Rogers, Virginia Satir, and Aaron Beck represented fourteen of the more than three hundred distinguishable schools of therapy: Behavioral, Cognitive, Ericksonian, Existential, Family (including six distinct approaches to family therapy), Gestalt, Humanistic, Jungian, Multimodal, Psychoanalytic, Rational-Emotive, Psychodrama, Rogerian, and Transactional Analysis. Most would agree these were the most prominent of the modern approaches to therapy in the 1980s.
Dialogue and clarity were achieved goals. Cross-fertilization was not. Dr. Jeffrey Zeig, an Ericksonian therapist of note and organizer of the conference, reflected back on the conference (called, by the way, “The Evolution of Psychotherapy”) in these words: “There is no general reconciliation in sight for psychotherapy. Little convergence can be expected in the immediate future. This is unfortunate because patients would benefit most from interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. The field will probably continue to lumber along in elephantine theories and soar into a fogbank of techniques.”Jeffrey Zeig, ed., The Evolution of Psychotherapy (New York: Brunner/Mazel, Inc., 1987) xxv.
I just reread the book that was introduced by Zeig’s reaction; twenty-seven presentations, each with reaction and counterreaction, made up the twenty-seven chapters. It got me thinking. What would happen if all the notables in the field of spiritual direction were to detail their understanding of conversations and practices that spiritually form people into the image of Christ? If such a conference were held, I would plant myself in the front row with the excitement of a child staring at a toy store window before Christmas. I feel like a neophyte in the art of spiritual direction, and I’m eager to learn.
In the comics section of today’s newspaper (December 16, 2006), Dennis the Menace is sitting on Santa’s lap and saying, “First, we need to talk about what you forgot on last year’s list.” I wonder if I’d leave my front row seat at the end of the spiritual direction conference feeling, like Dennis and Dr. Zeig, disappointed in what I’d received. Or would I leave alive with hope, stirred with new ideas and a fresh sense of adventure, impassioned to think more, read more, pray more, and enter more fully into the high calling of following God’s Spirit as he forms people to resemble God’s Son more closely?
This issue of Conversations is a little like that imagined conference, and different in important ways from the psychotherapy conference. Something more basic unites the contributors to this journal than united the living legends of therapy. We all believe in Christian spiritual formation, the miraculous movement of Jesus Christ by his Spirit in the deepest recesses of the human heart, actually changing our hearts so we want to be like Jesus more than we want anything else. And the change the Spirit accomplishes empowers us, little by little, to satisfy that desire substantially (though in this life never completely).
God does the work. We cooperate. And we do so for the pleasure of the Father, not to accommodate our flesh-driven demand for fulfillment of our world-shaped understanding of what is best for us. I think we all agree: whatever change in us best pleases the Father is best for us.
That agreement on our vision and mission as spiritual directors provides a foundation that has no counterpart in secular psychotherapy. I am, therefore, optimistic that a conversation about spiritual direction can indeed promote dialogue, clarity, and cross-fertilization.
So, with that optimism energizing me, in this article I want to offer where I am today in my understanding of spiritual direction. I write not as a notable in the field who has any claim to an audience, but as a neophyte who is hungry for God and longs to know how better to live a life worthy of my Savior and encourage others to do the same. I suspect, if the truth were known, that we are all making our way through elementary school, learning the ABCs of spiritual direction even as we stand on the shoulders of godly men and women from past centuries who perhaps made it into college. No one graduates in this life. We graduate by entering the next life.