Role and qualities of a Spiritual Director.

Traditionally a spiritual director is envisaged to have some sterling qualities like sagacity, deep faith and in possession of the truth of the interior life. In other words, the spiritual director as conceived by the likes of Fr. Adolphe Tanqueray (1854–1932) is gone and hardly even desirable. This blog post must take the form of points to construct a curriculum for the role of spiritual direction in contemporary life and also the qualities required in such a person who must guide others.

Socrates drinking poison at the behest of the State to prove the validity of his system.

The role of a spiritual director should be that of a catalyst, a Socratic metaphysician who gradually teases out the answers from the directed individual. The spiritual director’s role is not to be a source of external knowledge which is to be  piled upon the one seeking direction. Rather it should be that of one who gently brings to the fore those questions which need and are worthy of addressing. The spiritual director’s role is to efface his/her own self and allow the seeker to blossom out along with all one’s imperfections. The spiritual seeker must be allowed to understand that it is a failing on the part of the spiritual director if s/he continues forever to be under guidance. Responsibility for the self is of essence here. The Spiritual director must himself be resistant to the desires of his own ego to impose external injunctions on the directed, unless compelling and rare circumstances force him to do so.

There are indeed certain traits that are indispensable in the good spiritual guide; one cannot afford to play with the lives of others; so this author finds the following as essential qualities of a spiritual guide:

  1. S/he must be possessed by the Holy Spirit, have genuine holiness of life and closeness to God. If s/he is a non-Christian then s/he must have a genuine experience or swa-anubhava or direct experience of the Brahman.
  2. S/he must be a person who has the experience of having trod the spiritual path and having struggled with her own conflicts, darkness and light. A person must first herself be ready through great interior struggles to help others; till such times one should never tamper with the lives of others.
  3. S/he must be competent in prayer/meditation.contemplation and the silence of the heart. This along with Scriptural knowledge is a must for helping others. Without the latter, in any religious tradition, a spiritual director will not be able to objectively gauge the progress of the person who seeks help.
  4. S/he should be a spiritual friend to the directee, with the caveat that the roles of the two should under no conditions change.

So what further qualities a person must possess in order to guide someone spiritually? What has changed so much after the period of Tanqueray to warrant a new understanding of the qualities of a spiritual director?

  1.  S/he must be up to date with contemporary psychology in its various branches. This is to help the director in distinguishing say, hysteria from religious fervor. The Arthur Miller classic drama The Crucible is worth reading to understand why a spiritual guide needs to be first and foremost a man well-acquainted with contemporary developments in psychology.

    The hysteria in the Crucible

  2. S/he must be acquainted with neuro-psychiatry.

    The spirit resides in the brain and the spiritual director should know neurotransmitters

    This is to help the seeker after truth to stabilise those infirmities which arise within oneself due to serotonin-dopamine imbalances. For example, lethargy and even joint pains which might disable one from sitting still to meditate may be symptoms of depression. Drug-therapy[1] followed by counselling works the best in comparison with placebo or with any one system by itself. The modern spiritual guide must have the necessary acumen and prudence to help the directee to seek professional help if any pathology is detected.

  3. S/he must be a person who knows the human heart well. I eschew the cliched qualification that such a person should be God-centred for the simple reason people might seek spiritual guidance not for the sake of God but for simple spiritual solace.
  4. While empathy is emphasized by scholars as a necessary quality for the spiritual guide, yet this writer feels that one should have sufficient objectivity

    The cartoon says it all...notice the mermaid tail!

    in the spiritual-guide/seeker dynamics to prevent transferance and counter-transferance.

    The therapist

  5. Lastly, and most crucially, the spiritual guide should have that one quality which most of us lack: silence.

    Often the only thing a spiritual director can do is to be silent

    Often silence is truly more what the seeker needs than a lot of advice from the spiritual guide. The silence should not be a void meeting the seeker but rather a silence which allows the seeker herself to find what distresses/hinders her from being happy.

  6. The Spiritual Guide must of nature be a discreet man whom the directee can trust and worthy of respect in the Indian sense of the word, shraddha. If there is no mutual sense of trust, then the director will not succeed in helping the directee.
  7. The director, in this writer’s opinion, should be someone with sufficient human and religious experience. Without these the director will be unable to understand and see into the soul of the directee. While religious experience will commonly be needed, for an atheistic directee, the personal religious depth of the director will help propel the directee to the Divine.
  8. The spiritual guide must be open and honest with the directee, otherwise the latter will have false illusions about himself.

    Talking of illusions of grandeur!

    The former, if cowed down by the directee, will be of no help to her. Thus the spiritual guide needs to be courageous but not harsh and severe. S/he must not ever unsettle the beliefs of the directee suddenly. But rather over time have the ability to help the directee to overcome her fears and progress in the spiritual path.

  9. The spiritual guide must be familiar with the ways of the world. Intimacies, perversions, personal depravities may be bought before the director, the latter must have sufficient patience and inner resources to absorb the directee’s confessions, as it were.
  10. The spiritual guide must be competently incompetent. S/he must be competent in the art of listening and discerning the true spirits motivating a person but then leave enough space for God to act.
  11. The director himself should be emotionally mature and not be swayed unduly by the vicissitudes of life. S/he must resist transference and counter-transference so that it never happens that the directee ultimately consoles the director.
  12. S/he must be a flexible person, adapting to the needs of the directee. He must be able to adapt himself to different directees and their separate needs. S/he must be able to gauge the directee’s maturity, both emotional and intellectual and thus, be able to help each separate individual blossom to their full potentials without feeling drained of all vitality.
  13. The director herself must have a close relationship with God, without prayer and consequent humility, the spiritual guide will be of no help to anyone.
  14. The spiritual guide should be adept in picking up hidden verbal and non-verbal cues from the directee.

The above traits in a spiritual director are desirable but all are not necessary. Life is infinitely complex and who will click with whom at the emotional and spiritual level, only and truly God alone knows. Thus even the above-mentioned traits are just what one thinker thinks to be desirable but not indispensable.


[1] For brilliant rebuttals of my continuous emphasis on drugs like SSRIs and anti-psychotics and stress on dopamine-glutamine-serotonin models on the brain/mind, see Tallis, Raymond. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Durham [England: Acumen Publishing, 2011. Tallis is a prolific writer and a professed atheist. In spite of being a neuro-scientist he discourages too much reliance on chemical models of emotions.

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