Heal Thyself…

(c) 2005 by The Rev’d David P. Chalk

The Secret Service is assigned by our government to detect counterfeit currency. It is well known that rather than study myriad fraudulent permutations, rather than become expert in the subtle nuances which distinguish one illegal bill from another, experts in counterfeiting spend their time scrutinizing authentic money. Counterfeit experts can not anticipate the infinite permutations of the falsified. In fact, counterfeit experts are not experts in what is counterfeit at all; they are experts in the truth. The general public is enfranchised in the assistance of the work of the Secret Service:

“The public has a role in maintaining the integrity of our currency. [The public] can help guard against the threat from counterfeiters by becoming more familiar with [authentic] currency.[1]

This exercise of “maintaining… integrity” within our economy (i.e., our system of commerce) is entirely analogous to the economy of (i.e., God’s plan of salvation inherent in) the priest’s ministry in the art of spiritual direction. The pastor must study what is genuine in order to discern what is counterfeit or false; he must become more familiar with the real in order that he may discern the imitation.[2] “The central task in the ministry of the Church” according to Fr. Allen, “is Spiritual Direction.”[3] Since Christian spiritual direction is a process “whereby the director is welcomed and therefore enters the life story of another person”[4] it would seem that the most important point of spiritual direction is the need for the spiritual director to practice what he professes. If a spiritual director is to “provide the soul with wings,”[5] if he should ever participate in another’s transformation into Christ-likeness he must be always working on the focus and aim of his own life.

Therefore the ministry of spiritual direction must begin with the care of the spiritual director’s own soul and spirit. “Eternity is at stake… For a minister [sic] of the Gospel who has not been faithful to fall into the hands of a holy God is indeed a fearful and terrible thing.”[6] If transformation into the likeness of Christ is the focus and aim of one’s life, “if” as Fr. P. said, “If we are to help parishioners delve deeper into their self-awareness… [in order for them to] ultimately come to be united to God through Christ” then the pastor must learn from how in fact he is and has been helped. This is entirely consistent with the spiritual arc which is drawn in the maturation of the Christian soul as he grows from Metanoia ultimately toward Theosis through the practice and discipline of Contemplacio.[7]

Lying behind this arc or growth trajectory for the human soul is the core theological assumption that our praxis and theoria develop from a proper Christian anthropology. It is a properly conceived theological anthropology which sets the context[8] thus providing the spiritual director with the necessary background to the human condition. Without this background of context there are no reference points, no markers, and no boundaries to observe in human development and relationship. The spiritual director’s model for this proper Christian anthropology is provided in the Son of God, the perfect theanthropos whose life we are to emulate and not merely embrace. He is the goal, the objective, the aim, and the end of all our endeavors. The spiritual director must conform himself to this perfect model through the direction he receives. Not merely being an example for his own directee to follow, this is also the critical component of the spiritual director’s own growth. The syneidis, however needed for oneself, does contribute to the perceptions and awareness of someone else’s place in their spiritual journey. “Blindness diminishes us in our journey.”[9] Therefore the spiritual director should be aware. To be aware of his own soul’s condition requires the integrity (see above) of knowing one’s self authentically.

The mature spiritual director is in the process of understanding his own life. While never finished with his own battles, the mature director understands that his battles are his own and he does not seek to wage his spiritual war on the battlefield of someone else’s soul. The war in which the priest engages is the war against his own “vainglory,… anger, dejection, envy,” etc.[10] Spiritual direction of another is not merely a mirror, a reflection of one’s self, or an opportunity to project one’s self into/onto the life of another. The reflection one sees of one’s self is a powerful and necessary tool in the director’s tool chest precisely because it contributes to the director’s integrity and wholeness. Spiritual direction is an art and intuition, discretion, and discernment[11] are important tools to be used. However, insights gleaned from the spiritual director’s own direction need to be tested and careful discrimination must be exercised.

This intuition and discernment was clearly articulated by comments made by my colleagues. According to Fr. D, “priests also need healing.” That priests have human weaknesses, loneliness, for instance, was a common theme in Fr. D’s paper as well as his conversation. Fr. P mentioned “pride and distinctiveness” and yet he wondered at the conundrum of how God sanctifies our distinctiveness. Fr. B mentioned that he needed “healing from [him]self…” Fr. DS spoke of needing to be healed of “cynicism.” According to his brief, Fr. J believes that there is a “loss of awe” which clergy need to guard against and be healed of. He made the insightful remark that “if we are unaware of the marvelous work of God in our lives, how can we be aware of and appreciate God’s work in the lives of others?” I spoke of being healed of “alienation and isolation.” And Fr. V concurred with all our comments by merely stating, “yes, all of the above.” This deep sense of awareness of what needs to go on in the personal life of the spiritual director, even as he is engaged in helping and directing others, is indicative of the integrity the men in our class have. They do not suffer from “loss of awe” when it comes to this ministry of spiritual direction and the need for one to be at the task of his own spirit’s direction also. I would submit that the trepidation (anxiety?) expressed stems perhaps from the awesomeness of the task before him. Gregory Nazianzen wrote that God will hold pastors accountable.[12] It is not unlike the accountability that James says teachers will be held to.[13] This is enough to give anyone pause!

Therefore it is nothing less than the integrity of the central ministry of the Church which is at stake when we discuss the spiritual direction of spiritual directors. Spiritual directors cannot be truthful with themselves, nor can they discern the truth with another if they are in denial about their own spiritual condition. Fr. D reminds us that “where heaven and earth meet should begin with the heart and soul of the priest.” This is especially true if Nazianzen[14] is correct, that the pastor is the soul of the congregation. As St. Peter Damascene said, “to him who has come to know himself, to him is given to know all things.”[15]

All the growth and all the transformation and all the healing of the soul which the priest receives in his own spiritual direction is for the benefit of others and to the destruction of “the works of the devil.”[16] The direction that he perceives as necessary to himself can then be contributed to the stock of knowledge and experience he holds regarding the global condition of the needs of all humanity and the ministry he exercises with each human being.

And so there is a universal condition which may be addressed by the spiritual director. The ability of a spiritual director to attune himself through the awareness of his own places of healing with those places in others becomes another manifestation of discernment and intuition which is to be applied in the art of spiritual direction. There are associations and understandings that can be applied across the spectrum of humanity’s needs. While the type or kind may differ from person to person, Sin is not a variable in the human condition; neither is the need and capacity for growth a variable. The need for specificity in addressing one’s sin, the need for accountability and imparting a sense of appropriate responsibility; these are universal issues to be taken up. A sense of realism[17] is also important to the endeavor of recognizing one’s culpability in life. But as Fr. P wondered, one must never forget the distinctiveness with which God has blessed persons as well. The distinctiveness of each and every person is of profound importance in the exercise of Spiritual Direction for, as St. John Climacus says, “One man’s medicine can be another man’s poison and something can be a medicine to the same man at one time and a poison at another.”[18] Therefore in the midst of the universal the particular may never be overlooked or ignored.

This is again why a proper theological anthropology is critical as background to the art of Spiritual Direction. Knowledge of that which is consistent, of that which is congruent with the model for the human race takes growth and change into account. And growth and change should be a part of a spiritual director’s personal experience. Sensitivity to the vicissitudes of life and pain are very helpful. A spiritual director cannot be truthful, nor discern the truth in another if he is in denial about his own spiritual condition. The constant struggle to overcome and do battle with sin in one’s life is an opportunity for frustration and fear and self-loathing to enter in. A spiritual director needs to understand this and have come to that place where he loves himself. How can he love another if he does not love himself. Nor can he assist others to freedom if he is bound, since he has no freedom in which to exercise his ministry.[19] This is not to suggest that the spiritual director’s perfection is a necessary requirement to his art! If that were the case, humanity would be doomed. It is possible for a broken and hurt individual to help another person who is also broken and hurt.[20] However, merely because this is possible does not obviate the necessity of the spiritual director’s responsibility to pursue exactly what he yearns for in others: spiritual health and salvation.

Spiritual health and salvation are the final clues to a proper understanding of the spiritual director’s need to practice what he professes. The honest spiritual director, the mature Christian father of souls, the humble pastor who knows himself is intimately aware of how he is neither the author nor the master of his own destiny. This is an important point since there are many people with neurotic estimations of their sinfulness as well as grandiose[21] opinions of their fallenness. While human beings are in need of a serious wakeup call to a ‘devout and holy life,’ they are not—in and of themselves—as important in their isolated sins as they might like to think. A spiritual director in touch with his own humanity will be able to lend appropriateness to the matters presented.[22]

Finally, to be involved in Christian spiritual direction is to understand that it is God’s role in spiritual direction that is necessary.[23] It is God who calls; God confronts and convicts; God invites and inspires; God transforms and heals. Spiritual directors do not heal themselves. Nor do they transform themselves. And the spiritual director does not heal or transform others. They are ‘instruments of God,’ Chrysostom says. “It is,” as Paul says, “not I, but Christ in me.”[24] This is the final piece of the spiritual director’s understanding that must be firmly in place. The man who receives spiritual direction knows how futile, frustrating, ineffective, and ultimately impossible it is to accomplish anything without the power of God—in his own life much less in someone else’s. And so “[Spiritual direction is the] sharing of the ministry of the grace of God… looking upon a person… in the light of the fact that Jesus Christ lived and died for this person, who therefore has been forgiven and restored to fellowship with the Father. In Jesus Christ this person [is] God’s friend, and is now called through the Holy Spirit… to live this truth.”[25] As Prof. Purves noted “ministry is what God does; what we do is share in what God is doing”[26] in someone’s life.

All the listening, the thinking, the conversation and the advice, all the prayer, the spiritual exercises, the stillness, all the intuition and discernment that is the product of his own journey comes together at last in the integrity of the spiritual director in the relationship that is shared with that person who has trusted him enough to invite him to share his path to God.[27]

The life that is lived must be lived to God. For the spiritual director to live for God and not merely see ordained ministry as a role or a function, he must be engaged in what may be the more important part of his ministry, viz. his own spiritual direction. When the spiritual director prepares himself and sees that he is cared for himself, then he is intentionally on his own path to theosis. This is the critical issue surrounding all that the spiritual director does. This mystery of “union with Christ is the central, organizing feature of all Christian faith and life, a basic belief in the act of God that influences every other belief and every act of believing faith.”[28]


[1] Anonymous, “Know Your Money,” United States Secret Service, United States Department of Homeland Security, http://http://www.secretservice.gov/money_detect.shtml.

[2] “Evil adds something to what is created by God, it has a “miraculous” force of imitating creation” from The Darkness of Night, Georges Florovsky.

[3] Ministry of Spiritual Direction, DM02E Doc. Min. Program, September, 2005, the Lectures of Fr. Joseph J. Allen, Antiochian House of Studies, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Antiochian Village, PA.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nazianzus §22

[6] Andrew Purves, Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 125.

[7] Fr. Allen’s lecture, Aug/Sept 2005.

[8] Fr. Allen’s lectures

[9] Fr. Allen.

[10] Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, 77.

[11] Symeon the New Theologian, calls discernment (diakrisis) “the mother of all virtures” quoted by Fr. Allen.

[12] Nazianzus §19.

[13] James 3:1

[14] Nazianzus §3

[15] Fr. Allen’s lecture.

[16] Fr. Joseph Allen, The Ministry of the Church, 226.

[17] Accountability, responsibility and realism are items that Fr. Allen mentioned in his lectures.

[18] John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, trans. By Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell. The Classics of Western Spirituality, ed. Richard J. Payne, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), 233. This is analogous to Gregory the Theologian speaking of the mature priest’s ministry as a physician’s scalpel, quoted in Allen, 76.

[19] Fr. Allen.

[20] One is reminded, for instance, of Fr. Nenri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer.

[21] Fr. Allen’s lectures.

[22] As a humorous aside, I was once told that the two things that a spiritual director should never say to someone confessing their sin were, expressing amazement: “Wow!” or, expressing shock and dismay: “You did what??!!”

[23] Fr. Allen’s lecture, day 3.

[24] Galatians 2:20

[25] Purvis, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, 183.

[26] Purves’s lecture.

[27] Fr. Allen’s definition of spiritual direction.

[28] Purves, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, 80.

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2 Responses to “Heal Thyself…”

  1. bordermama Says:

    Ah yes! But the real challenge is to actually find a spiritual director. Easy enough for fellow clergy maybe, but what about for the average “mom” just struggling ‘to be God for our children until they know we’re not?’ I don’t want an “accountability partner,” I want a spiritual director!

  2. dpc+ Says:

    Thanks for your comment. I’m amazed. It is quite possibly MORE difficult for a priest to find a spiritual director. And not just a “good” one, but ANY one willing or with the temperament or charism of spiritual direction.

    To address your concern–which is a very important distinction to be made–Spiritual directors are sought out. Using the rabbinic aphorism: “get yourself a teacher.” And they are not tried on in the protestant consumer model of church shopping. They are souls whose fellowship we desire, whose wisdom we seek, whose spiritual journey is appealing… More anon.


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