Spiritual Friendship

Andy Hawes is Warden of
Edenham Regional Retreat House

At the Last Supper, Jesus said: ‘I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you’ (John 15.15). The relationship of the spiritual director to directee has often been compared to friendship. In 1977 Fr Ken Leech published his book ‘Soul Friend’, which remained for many years the best introduction to this relationship. He wrote at a time before many of the more powerful currents in the western practice of spiritual direction began moving. In 1977 the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises were still land-locked in Roman Catholic religious communities; but in a few years Open Door Retreats, Weeks of Guided Prayer ,and the seminal work of Sister Pia Buxton and Fr Gerard Hughes at the Spiritual Exercises Centre at St Beuno’s in Wales would open up a whole new world and resource for spiritual direction.

The influence of Roman Catholic communities in the development of spiritual direction is enormous: it was they who first used tools like Myers Briggs and Enneagram to work on the relationship between personality types and spirituality. Much of this was dispersed through England by the St Beuno’s connection. I provide this background because it helps explain just how far spiritual direction (as it is now ‘taught’ and ‘authorised’) has moved from the concept of friendship.

Another major influence has been the counselling profession. There has been much to learn from counselling about listening skills, and about understanding the dynamics at work in the one-to-one relationship of spiritual direction. There has also been, more recently, good practice ‘picked up’ in the area of supervision. Recent guidelines distributed by the National Retreat Association have been produced against a background of safeguarding concerns and the tragic misuse and abuse of the relationship of spiritual direction. This is perfectly understandable and I was involved in the early stages of delivering suitable guidelines.

But if we lose sight of the concept of friendship in spiritual direction, we have will have lost its essential and graceful character. If spiritual direction does not involve an open partnership of trust and generosity – a ‘laying down of our lives’ for one another – it will be very much less than it ought to be. We should not allow a ‘Facebook’ definition of friendship set the tone of the relationship in spiritual direction. In spiritual direction there should be a real friendship that is a committed engagement of the one to the other. Like all good friendships it will also be reciprocal.

I am not altogether negative about recent developments in spiritual direction but I do believe that there is a need to throw something simpler – something of the mysterious grace of God into the balance. When someone turns up at my door for spiritual direction, the first thing and the last thing that matters is friendship: a friendship that is honest and caring, and I hope too founded in the love of Him who laid down His life for friendship’s sake.