What are the historical patterns of the role of spiritual trainer?
•a person ‘possessed by the Spirit’, characterized by personal holiness of life, a closeness to God;
•a person of experience, one who has struggled with the realities of prayer and life, who has encountered his/her own passions, inner conflicts, darkness and light;
•a person of learning (though without spiritual maturity this can be dangerous), one steeped in scripture, and in the Fathers and Mothers of the church;
•a person of discernment, one of perception and insight, of vision, one who can read ‘the sighs of the times, the writing on the walls of the soul’.
•a person who ‘gives way to the Holy Spirit‘, who helps others to recognize and follow the inspirations of grace in their lives, to assist in reading ‘ the breathings of the Spirit’.
Tilden Edwards in his book Spiritual Friend: Reclaiming the Gift of Spiritual Direction, has a chapter on ‘Seeking a spiritual friend’ (pp105ff). He canvasses such issues as:
•age: it is best to choose someone ‘in the second half of life: roughly thirty-five or older’.
•sex: where there is a choice between two good people of different sexes, Edwards suggests choosing a trainer of the opposite sex to yourself.
•experience: ‘seek out someone who is confident in experience yet humble in it’.
•personality: look for complementary – if you are analytical, seek a more ‘feeling’ type of person as spiritual trainer, and so on; avoid extreme differences as rapport may be difficult.
•your present spiritual path: it is important that your friend/trainer have some experience of and sympathy for your path; a sympathetic yet critical experience of different paths is best of all.
•someone outside your immediate institutional context; a lay person should look to someone other than his or her own pastor/minister.
•ideally a trainer/guide should not be too distant, because contact needs to be fairly frequent at least in the initial stages of the relationship; if necessary, letters and audio tapes may supplement personal contact, but can rarely replace it successfully.
•exploration phase: mutual expectations and basic compatibility need to be explored without a ‘permanent’ relationship being implied; there needs to be a reasonable ‘personality fit’ and sympathy (though not necessarily identity) of outlook; if in doubt, sleep and pray on it.
•covenant phase: clarify what is really important for you in the relationship, and how you will know if it is remaining ‘on the track’, and fruitful in your spiritual formation. Consider practical issues like frequency and place of meeting; length of consultation sessions; the place of discussion; shared and silent prayer, ‘homework’ and preparation, the primary role(s) of the trainer (listener, supporter, confronter, theologiser, prayer, counselor, etc.): other mutual expectations, times for evaluation, prayer.