Gerald May 1: Spiritual Direction

“Besides differing from psychotherapy in intent, content, and basic attitude, spiritual direction is generally surrounded by a characteristic atmosphere that is seldom encountered in any other interpersonal relationship. As one person put it, ‘Being in spiritual direction is just like being in prayer, only there’s someone with me in it.’”

—Gerald G. May in Care of Mind/Care of Spirit: A Psychiatrist Explores Spiritual Direction (HarperSanFrancisco, 1982), p. 113.

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When I took down Dr. May’s book Care of Mind/Care of Spirit from my bookshelf and opened it, a bulletin from September 1990 fell out. It mentioned a book group at my church that had been reading Care of Mind/Care of Spirit. There were no marks in the book, so I knew I had not read it. This happened more than thirty years ago, two months before I went into recovery.

In the previous year, our book group had read May’s book Addiction and Grace. For some reason, at that time I was not ready to hear May’s words; but on this day it was different. In 1990, I was becoming a missionary member from my church, going out to start another Episcopal church in a new part of our city. Alas, May’s book would have been helpful in starting a new congregation as I began a life in recovery, and even more so nine years later when I was studying to become a deacon.

This has been one of the best books I have read about spiritual direction. Dr. May emphasizes how spiritual direction is different from his own highly effective psychotherapy. In therapy, the director or caregiver “hopes to encourage more efficient living in the prevailing culture, seeking to bolster an individual’s capacity to achieve a sense of autonomous mastery over self and circumstances.” Spiritual direction “seeks liberation from attachments and a self-giving surrender to the will of God.”

This means that at some point spiritual direction may stand in opposition to many of the cultural standards and values supported by psychotherapy. May skillfully writes about how a spiritual director is constantly seeking out rabbit holes or traps that the directee may be encountering while at the same time looking for God in his or her life. May also reminds us that the real healer is God, and that the director and directee are merely channels.

May cautions spiritual directors about how easy it is to become distorted in our roles, “playing God.” This is a book I keep as close to me as possible while doing direction. I sometimes have to avoid obsessing about what May would say about something that comes up in a meeting. Then, after the time together, I hurry to look up the appropriate chapter. But, of course, May would say that our job is not to worry at that moment about what we say, but to concentrate solely and “most soulfully” on connecting this person to God during that moment!


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