The ‘cure of souls’, the pastoral guidance of a person’s spiritual life by counsel and prayer through the illumination, grace and power of the Holy Spirit, this defines what has traditionally been termed spiritual direction or spiritual training.
The discipline of spiritual training has had a long history and profound impact on the life of the Christian church down the centuries.
There is some resistance to the thought that any one person, clergy or not can ‘train’ another’s spirituality. Yet in the sense of prayerful counsel in the context of theological reflection and pastoral experience, it is not so easy to draw a line between ‘trainer’ and ‘counseling’. In the best understanding of the concept, a spiritual trainer is neither a judge nor a dictator, but ‘a physician of souls’, one who seeks to diagnose the condition of the soul with all its graces and ills, and to assist it into the way of growth’.
The role of ‘training’ might be viewed as a signboard indicating a number of alternative routes from where one is now standing – the route taken is finally the responsibility of the directee. Training or guidance must always be weighed against Scripture, conscience, church teaching, personal prayer, and the dictates of common sense. So spiritual training is really a form of pastoral care which offers to help another person relate better to God, and to live out with integrity the implications of that relationship.
The two areas most aided by the discipline of spiritual training are self understanding in the light of Christ, and growth in faith and prayer. Fairchild, in a 1982 article, has set out guidelines for spirituality and spiritual direction/training. He compares and contrasts psychotherapy, counseling and spiritual training, and suggests that the latter process begins in ‘yearning for coherence and communion’. Searching for God and personal meaning. A sense of shallowness or loss of soul and disillusionment’. The goal tends to be ‘continuous’ conversion; letting go of resistance to discovery of deeper identity evoked by God. Ego is reduced: ‘Now I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20). Desiring and choosing differently, for example, the Beatitudes. Again, the attitude of the guide/trainer is ‘to dialogue together in the presence of mystery; willingness for God’s intention to be realized through surrender of self-definition…’ According to the seventeenth century Benedictine Dom Augustine Baker, ‘In a word, (the trainer) is God’s usher, and must lead souls in God’s way, and not his own’ – in other words,, lead the searcher to the true ‘coach’, God himself, as he teaches and directs through the inward dwelling of the Holy Spirit.