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History of Spiritual Direction

History of 
Spiritual Direction

While spiritual direction has always been a part of the history of the church, its practice gained momentum in the 4th century during the rule of the Roman emperor Constantine (312-327AD).  During this time followers of the way of Jesus increasingly found it difficult to experience God within the walls of the church.  Many perceived the church was beginning to compromise and mirror the principles of the world while waning in her calling to sculpt culture in ways reflecting the beauty and goodness of God.  Much of this shift was a result of Constantine legalizing Christianity through his Edict of Toleration.  Prior to Constantine's reign, Christians had undergone intense persecution at the hands of the state for their faith.  Following the way of Jesus had been costly.  With this new legal status and good standing with the state, Constantine had ushered in an unprecedented age of peace for the church.  With the state's blessing upon Christianity and the fear of persecution removed, churches experienced an influx of people, which was welcomed by many, such as Eusebius of Caesarea, who viewed it as a fulfillment of God's divine purposes.  But there were also unintended results with this great inflow of souls.  As one historian describes, "The narrow gate of which Jesus had spoken had become so wide that countless multitudes were hurrying past it-some seemingly after privilege and position, without caring to delve too deeply into the meaning of Christian baptism and life under the cross.  Bishops competed with each other after prestigious positions.  The rich and powerful seemed to dominate the life of the church.  The tares were growing so rapidly that they threatened to choke out the wheat." 


No longer afflicted with the fear of persecution or its purifying effects, the church became filled with a flavor of nominal Christianity.  Increasingly more at home in the ways of the world and kingdom of man, the church filled with "worry, tensions, pride, greed, fear, and a desire for power and fame."  It was failing in its calling to be salt and light and a city on a hill.


Finding it difficult to experience God in the buildings of the church and grow in spiritual formation, devoted followers of Jesus began to retreat to the desert to seek out the wise fathers (abbas) and mothers (ammas) of the faith.  These wise sages dwelling in the desert lived lives transformed by the Spirit of God.  They "showed by simple and practical living that the gospel is both true and real, not intellectually difficult or for a rich or clever select few, but open to all who in sincerity wanted it."  Seekers of truth would travel for miles to ask the abbas and ammas a simple yet profound question, "Give me a word?"  

In asking for a word, these seekers were asking for the fathers and mothers, as led by the Spirit of God, to speak custom tailored truth over their lives that guided, challenged, and encouraged.  But they received more than just a word of spiritual direction.  Through sitting with the fathers and mothers these seekers learned to hear and discern the the movements of God's Spirit in their own life.  With this new wisdom and understanding, they were able to move back into the world as those who themselves were being truly transformed.  They were increasingly able to sense God's peace (shalom) in the midst of chaos, recognize meaning in the seemingly mundane, discern His voice in making decisions, and experience the loving presence of God in the whole of their lives.  They returned to their churches and communities empowered by the very Spirit of God as authentic witnesses to the good and beautiful way of life, the Way of Jesus.

Spiritual direction and monastic movements continued through the centuries sometimes offered by priest and pastors and other times by the laity.  In its different forms, however, the goal has remained the same: to help souls in their quest for experiencing God, to be transformed by His grace, and grow in awareness of His loving presence in every circumstance.  

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