Although secular psychology addressed a great deal about how we come to be the way we are and how we might live more efficiently, it can offer nothing in terms of why we exist or how we should use our lives," writes Gerald May in this classic discussion of the nature of contemporary spiritual guidance and its relationship to counseling and psychiatry. For millions turning for answers to the world of the spirit, May shows how psychiatry and spiritual direction are alike, how they complement one another, and how they ultimately diverge.
Heritage: History, Definitions,And Distinctions
The essence of spiritual guidance or direction can be seen whenever one person helps another to see and respond to spiritual truth. It is a human relationship that seeks realization of that which is beyond human comprehension. Such relationships have existed in all times and places throughout history; some have been formal, some casual, some creative, and some destructive. The person of the spiritual guide has been called by many names: shaman, guru, mentor, rabbi, priest, pastor, mother, father, director, friend. The priests and wise men of ancient judaism functioned as spiritual guides, though of course the Lord was clearly acknowledged as the "real" guide through the Law and Prophets. In Christianity, formal individual spiritual direction is usually seen as having begun in the third and fourth centuries, when many individuals sought guidance from desert hermits. Thereafter, the spread of monasticism had tremendous influence in refining and promulgating a variety of spiritual guidance traditions. It is somewhat difficult to trace the full history of this discipline in Christianity, primarily because there has been little consistency or consensus to its precise definition. This vagueness still exists today.
There were times when individual spiritual direction was seen as a component of pastoral care and the cure of souls, or as intimately related to confession. At other times it has been felt to be a more distinct and separate discipline. At various points lay people have been encouraged and discouraged from acting as spiritual directors. Sometimes careful training was felt to be essential, but at other times there was more affirmation that the ability to guide souls could come as a graced gift or charism even in the absence of formal education. Formal spiritual direction has variously been identified as addressing the most intimate heart-joumey possible for people (as in John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila), as relating primarily to matters of conscience and vocation (as in some developments that took place after the Council of Trent), as especially dealing with the discernment of good and evil spirits (as in Ignatius Loyola), or as involving psychological growth, individuation, and self-actualization (as in some modem approaches).
Amidst changing forms and emphases, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions have maintained some ongoing structures for spiritual direction. For Protestants, however, there have often been special theological problems with the idea of one person advising another on intimate matters of the spirit. Much of the concern here has to do with sacerdotalism, the possibility that the methods or personality of the spiritual director would supplant the role of Jesus as the prime mediator between God and the individual human being. Thus Protestants have characteristically tended to rely more on group spiritual guidance in faith-sharing meetings and on the private experience of prayer and personal scriptural reflection.
Psychology's relationship to spiritual guidance has been especially interesting and dynamic. From the time of Christ until well after the Reformation, little differentiation was made between psychological and spiritual disorders. Many forms of insanity were seen as spiritual problems, caused by demonic possession or moral deficiency. This attitude continued basically unchanged into the nineteenth century. While medical science was developing physical explanations of organic disease, psychology remained bound to faith and morality. With the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis, however, drastic changes began to take place. Freud's idea was that the human mind could be studied scientifically through observation and measurement, and for many people this took psychology out of the realm of spirit.
Considering how long the old ideas had been maintained, the onslaught of modern psychology occurred with emphatic suddenness. Within a generation after Freud's work became known, psychotherapy was in many circles supplanting spiritual and moral guidance as the primary method of alleviating mental disorders. There ensued an age in which psychologists and psychiatrists were seen by many as a kind of "new priesthood."
People turned in great numbers to the new psychological theories for guidance on all kinds of matters: how to raise children, how to preserve marriages, how to achieve success, even how to find meaning in life. People still attended church, but for many -- especially those in the so-called mainline churches -- a schism had taken place. Church still offered fellowship, moral guidance, and a sense of rootedness in tradition, but it was often no longer the source of psychological and emotional guidance it had been for centuries. People still participated in the sacraments, but for some, rituals such as confession lost much of their felt transformations in reconciliation and atonement. Frequently it seemed that psychology promised more hope for wholeness, health, efficiency, and happiness.
In an attempt to keep up with the times, droves of clergy took psychological training. Many left parish churches to set up private practice in pastoral counseling or to teach others in clinical pastoral education. In such settings, the clergy were in a position of offering individual in-depth guidance to people, but in most cases this guidance became increasingly psychological and less and less spiritual. It is interesting to note that this movement towards counseling was almost entirely a Protestant venture. Relatively few Roman Catholic or Orthodox clergy entered these fields. I have often suspected that one of the reasons was that some traditions of formal spiritual guidance had been preserved in Catholicism and in the Eastern Church, while Protestants had little or none. For many Protestants, counseling offered the only available possibility for individual depth-helping. It must be acknowledged, however, that only a very small minority of Roman Catholics actually partook of individual spiritual direction, and much of that guidance was itself becoming increasingly psychological in nature or being limited to institutional models of dealing with sin and its remedies.