Conversatio Divina

Part 1 of 19

Tending the Inner Fire

David G. Benner

After eight issues of Conversations on various aspects of the spiritual formation process, it is definitely time to devote an issue to spiritual direction. At one point we considered making this the thrust of the whole journal but decided we didn’t want to confuse a means with the end. But spiritual direction is such an important resource for journey that we are excited to be able now to present an issue that brings it onto center stage.

The articles that follow do this well, providing a variety of perspectives on the multifaceted jewel that spiritual direction represents. They also present a number of metaphors to describe this relationship. Let me briefly add one more to the list, based on the important work of the Canadian Catholic theologian Ronald Rolheiser.

Rolheiser suggests that spirituality is best understood in terms of how we channel our eros. This linkage of our passions with our spirits is far from novel, but it is an important reminder that what we do with our inner fires is right at the heart of spirituality. It also reminds us that spirituality must be incarnated, that is, grounded in our physical being. An unembodied spirituality will always tend to make us less, not more, human and must be counted, therefore, as dangerous to both spirit and soul. If our spiritual journey is not making us more whole, we should be extremely suspicious of any apparent holiness that seems to be associated with it.

A good spiritual director is uniquely able, therefore, to help us get in touch with our deepest passions and longings. She or he should also help us understand both the distortions in these passions and the things that block us from expressing them. Fear and shame are often at the core of this blockage, but the things that hold us back from full spiritual awareness and response are highly idiosyncratic. Good spiritual directors know this and don’t work with a crib sheet based on a one-size-fits-all approach. They know that there is no single path to the Divine and that Spirit always meets spirit in highly individualized ways.

Christian spirituality should never be a passionless spirituality. It invites us to come in from the cold and be awakened to love by Love. Love is right at the center of Christian spirituality: love of God, love of ourselves, love of our neighbors, and caring love for our world. Eros is an important source of fuel for this love. Brought to life by the Spirit as the flame of Love touches our soul, our passions awaken us and point us toward others and the Other.

But as any good spiritual director knows, tending our inner fires is not simply for the purpose of self-fulfilment. Christian spirituality calls us to channel these fires in such a way that it moves us with (com)passion into the world. Passion for God should lead to passionate engagement with the world and the others who share it with us. Christian spirituality is not supposed to be a private matter, something within us or between God and us. Spiritual direction should never focus on the inner journey to the neglect of the outer. Henri Nouwen described the three movements of the spiritual journey as reaching in, reaching up, and reaching out. All three are essential for contact with and discernment and channeling of our inner fire.

In his recent book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg reminds us that the transformation lying at the core of the biblical vision of life is both personal and sociopolitical. Two central biblical concepts anchor these two dimensions: being born again, which points primarily to the personal dimension, and the Kingdom of God, which points primarily to the social outworking of this. Too often Christian spirituality lacks this broader sociopolitical dimension, becoming simply a journey of interiority. Too often we have separated contemplation and social action. We need to find a way to restore the balance we see in the life and teaching of Jesus, not allowing the social dimension to be simply an optional emphasis for those with a social justice focus.

Spiritual direction helps us do this. At its best, it helps us tend our inner fire and channel it in ways that lead to responsible engagement with the needs of others and the world. It helps us embrace our longings and desires, and reminds us of the dangers of allowing our seeking to turn into a finding that is content with what we have discovered. It reminds us that the spiritual journey must be grounded in the human journey and helps us respond to an invitation to become not just more spiritual, but also more deeply human. It helps us come alive in a way that can happen only when our passions are involved. And it helps us know and respond to Love in a way that makes us whole and allows us to participate in God’s redemptive Kingdom work.