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When the goal is wholeness

30 August 2011

Bruce Duncan looks at spiritual direction and counselling


Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the long walk of faith
Henri Nouwen with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

The Human Being Fully Alive: Writings in celebration of Brian Thorne
Jeff Leonardi, editor
PCCS Books £15

FIFTEEN years after his death, we have the delight of a new book by Henri Nouwen. It is a compilation of his teaching and writings on spiritual direction, much of it previously unpublished, by two of his students, Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird.

Christensen’s notes from a spiritual-direction course taught by Nouwen at Yale Divinity School are supplemented by material from homilies, journal articles, and occasional extracts from his books. All is skilfully woven together to create a new “vintage Nouwen” volume with the familiar pattern of parables and personal and biblical reflection, intended for both spiritual directors and those seeking direction.

Spiritual Direction offers a structured and disciplined approach to spiritual direction based on developing habits of interior prayer (listening with the heart), sacred reading of scripture and other spiritual writings (lectio divina), and of discerning God’s active presence in the faith community of the Church. Each chapter ends with questions to stimulate discussion with a spiritual director or a group. Appendices include a helpful essay by Laird on how to set about finding a spiritual director, and a useful list of books for further reading.

Spiritual direction, like contemplative prayer, is thankfully no longer regarded as the preserve of monks, nuns, or mystics. Increasing numbers of lay people now recog­nise the need for a soul-friend, a mature and wise Christian who can help them grow in faith, provide guidance and prayer support, and hold them accountable for exercising the disciplines and practices of the spiritual life. Training courses for would-be spiritual directors are now commonplace.

It is important not to confuse spiritual direction with therapy or psychological counselling. A spiritual director is not a counsellor, but a Christian friend whom we trust to offer support, advice, and guidance for the long walk of faith. There is, however, some overlap on the counselling/spiritual direction spectrum in the particular area of non-directive, person-centred counselling pioneered by Dr Carl Rogers in the 1930s and ’40s and now taught and practised throughout the world.

Person-centred counselling is a risky and controversial approach to counselling, far removed from, say, cognitive behaviour therapy. Rogers insisted that the client knows best. Person-centred counsellors are not detached experts wielding professional power and authority over other people’s lives. Rather, they are companions, even friends, offering a tender, loving, listening presence.

It is that relationship with the client which aids self-discovery and self-direction towards a creative fulfilment of human potential. The goal is wholeness; or, to echo St Irenaeus, the glory of God expressed in a human being fully alive. Similarities between the person-centred dynamic and that of spiritual direction are clear.

The Human Being Fully Alive: Writings in celebration of Brian Thorne is a collection of seven essays edited by Jeff Leonardi as a Festschrift to one of the best-known advocates of the person-centred approach. Brian Thorne is a distinguished teacher, writer, and practitioner, Emeritus Professor of Counselling at the University of East Anglia, and a Lay Canon of Norwich Cathedral.

The contributors represent a variety of faith affiliations and philosophies, including nihilism. As Leonardi remarks, their essays touch on many themes: “passion and love, soul and spirituality, presence and tenderness, healing and wholeness, honesty and integrity, focusing and mindfulness, good and evil, truth and meaning, evolution and destiny”.

The general reader will find Nouwen’s book by far the most accessible. The counselling com­munity and those engaged in the ministry of spiritual direction will find much of value in both volumes.

Canon Bruce Duncan, a retired priest, is a former Principal of Sarum College.

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