How NOT to Teach Prayer or Be A Spiritual Director

CANOE Pictures, Images and Photos

A spiritual teacher
was rowing a boat along a lake shore.
He heard someone chanting the word, ‘Alleluia.’

Ah, thought the teacher,
they are chanting the most powerful prayer.
They say that if you chant it properly
all kinds of power will be given to you.
Now I have never experienced those powers,
but I do know that the teachers all say
you must chant the word as Al-LE-lu-ia and
this poor student is chanting Al-le-LU-ia.
I should help him.

So the teacher beached his boat and entered the student’s hut.
He told the student that the use of the chant granted wonderful powers.
But he had also heard the chant was properly sung as Al-LE-lu-ia.
The student was very grateful for this teaching.
And as the teacher left and returned to his boat
he heard the student chanting, Al-LE-lu-ia.
The teacher felt very good that he had helped this student.
But as he drifted out into the lake again he heard the chant change.
Now the student was back to his old ways, chanting Al-le-LU-ia.
Ah, the depths of human sinfulness and ignorance, sighed the teacher.

A few minutes later, a touch to his shoulder startled him.
He looked around and saw the student walking on the water.
‘I’m sorry, great teacher, but could you teach me the correct chant again?’

— Richard W. Chilson Meditation: Exploring a Great Spiritual Practice

This is a wonderful retelling of an often told tale that appears in Jewish, Christian, Islam, Buddhist, Sufi and likely more faith traditions. The so-called teacher is wrong on so many levels and would be rightly chastised by any suitably trained and certified spiritual director.  Here are a few rules he breaks:

1. He presumes to teach what he neither knows or has experienced.  One of the benefits of working with a trained spiritual director is that he or she can speak from personal experience.  How true what is often said: you can’t give to another what you yourself don’t have.

2. He tells the student what he MUST do, instead of making a suggestion.  Some so-called spiritual directors remind me of Doctor Laura who may a diagnosis of a person’s psychological, emotional, personal or spiritual problem in a matter of minutes and know exactly what that person must do to make a change and get better.  A trained and experienced director knows better to think he or she has all the answers.

3. He speaks without listening.  One of the spiritual directors I was assigned as a college seminarian in the late 1970’s spoke at least 90% of the time we met.  My director today probably speaks only 5% of the time, usually to ask a question for the sake of better understanding on the part of both of us.  If your spiritual director regularly spends more time talking than listening, you probably have a teacher and not a director.

4. He comes with his own agenda.  There is no one-size-fits-all spiritual program that works for well for everyone.  Why?  God created us with different personalities which means that we relate to people and God differently.  The Myers-Briggs Inventory seeks to identify which one of 16 personality types best describes the person answering the questions.  Whenever a parishioner shares his or her four letter type, I am able to give some suggestions on new ways of praying to try.  The results are quite phenomenal.

5. He believes method is the key to spiritual growth, not God.  Worse, a self-described spiritual director might think he or she causes the growth in a directee.   God is the key to spiritual growth.  Knowing what forms of prayer works well with your personality is good, but growth is a gift from God we are open to and accept.

Spiritual Direction can be a tremendous help to us in our spiritual journeys.  The story reminds us that there is a big difference in CALLING oneself a Spiritual Director and actually BEING a certified Spiritual Director under supervision.  It’s like the difference between a cook in a fast food restaurant and a chef in a five star or five diamond restaurant.


[PHOTO by toritoreytori on photobucket]

For a brief article on spiritual direction, please press HERE


About Paul Wharton

I am a cradle Catholic, a native West Virginian, and a priest since April 24, 1982. Spiritual Direction has made a tremendous difference in my life and I encourage people to try it out. My motto is "Progress not perfection." I am grateful that God has done for me what I could not do for myself.
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5 Responses to How NOT to Teach Prayer or Be A Spiritual Director

  1. Kathy lester says:

    Well done fr. Paul. Thank you. Spiritual direction has certainly enriched my relationship with God. I hope as a spiritual director I am doing the same for my directees. Many blessings to you for encouraging others.

  2. ralph says:

    good message. This is good for parents who are trying to teach their children as well as everyone.

  3. What a wonderful story Father. Thank you.

    Thanx also for visiting my Blog and commenting there. I have responded on my Blog.

    God bless you always Father.

  4. As a person who has been in personal spiritual direction for many years, and as a trained Spiritutial Director and Supervisor of Spiritual Directors, what I have also become aware of is the importance of TOTAL HONESTY in the dynamics of the Director/Directee relationship. That boils down to TOTAL UNCONDITIONAL COMMITMENT by all parties. The Directee commits, the Director commits, and both commit to the God of their understanding who is the true direcor of the relationship. The total honesty and the total commitment present ongoing challenges for the two humans who are on the journey. The third party has absolutely no problem with it.

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