KB Categories Archives: Christian Formation

Christian Counseling and Spiritual Direction: Bridging the Invisible Divide

Donald Richmond:

2011_06_SpiritualDirectionFathers William Barry and William Connolly, in their highly respected The Practice of Spiritual Direction, have written one of the most widely accepted definitions of this discipline.

“[Spiritual direction is] help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”[1]

Who could not agree with this definition?  It is informed, concise, eminently practical, and enticingly flexible. It is precisely this flexibility that commends it as an effective bridge between spiritual direction and Christian counseling.

Christian counselors and spiritual directors are increasingly being trained in each discipline. Schools like BiolaUniversity (with Rosemead School of Psychology and the Institute of Spiritual Formation both on campus) are flourishing. Unfortunately, although there certainly are some very important distinctions to be maintained between these two disciplines,[2] there are also a number of items that commend a seamless integration of the two. Common distinctions between the two disciplines may be highlighted as follows:

Spiritual Direction                               Christian Counseling

Ancient                                                           Modern

Wellness focused                                         Illness focused

God focused                                                 “Man” focused

Wrestling                                                       Resolution

Waiting                                                          Working

Spiritual /Biblical                                        Psychological

Personal                                                        Professional

Process                                                         Product

Although this is a brief and broad overview, the apparent dissimilarities between the two disciplines are amply demonstrated.  Spiritual direction is a very ancient practice, whereas counseling, including Christian counseling, has supposedly only arisen since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Counseling has been illness focused and intent upon resolving problems.[3] Spiritual direction on the other hand does not in any way assume that people come for direction because they are experiencing some form of illness or problem. Instead of a problem, spiritual direction is focused upon our potential in God, prayer, listening and discernment.  “Wrestling with God” is more important than the resolution of any particular issue one may be facing. Further details highlighting the supposed distinctions between Christian counseling and spiritual direction need not be made, although we will return to this issue at the conclusion of this article. Anyone trained in both disciplines understands and respects these distinctions.

My problem, however, is with the artificiality and arbitrary nature of these distinctions. The dissimilarities are not as dissimilar as we may think. We may be showing these dissimilarities too much unwise respect[4]. When properly understood and applied there are seamless similarities between the two disciplines, especially when referring to Christian (i.e., Biblical) counseling.

If we accept the definition proposed by Barry and Connolly, Christian counseling and spiritual direction are virtually the same. As a spiritual director and Christian counselor I can utilize this definition and its applications in either discipline. These similarities are the focus of this article. The purpose of this exercise is to not only demonstrate their similarities, but, by outlining the similarities between the disciplines, return the focus of Christian counseling to its roots in spiritual direction. To be more specific, one might consider Christian counseling as a subheading under spiritual direction. This will have a powerful impact upon those who come to us for spiritual direction and Christian counseling.[5]

Ancient and Modern

One of the primary distinctions between Christian counseling and spiritual direction is the antiquity of direction and the modernity of counseling.  Spiritual direction has been around for thousands of years, predating both Christianity and Judaism,[6] whereas Christian counseling is supposedly a “Johnny-come-lately” response to the psychoanalysis of Freud and others.  Spiritual direction is, indeed, an ancient practice. Christian counseling is, as understood, a relative newcomer. There are difficulties with this analysis, however.  The writers of both the Old and New Testaments were both shrewd spiritual directors and effective “Christian” counselors. Christian counseling, as a means of resolving intra and interpersonal issues, is clearly found in the biblical texts.  Christian counseling was imbedded very clearly within the priority and practice of spiritual direction as we examine many biblical texts.  Both functioned simultaneously and seamlessly.  Similarly, the monks of the 4th and 5th centuries were not only effective spiritual directors, but capable Christian counselors. Their understanding of the human psyche was profound.[7]  The collected writings of the Philokalia and elsewhere bear ample witness to the psychological (or soul) sophistication of these spiritual directors.

Long before there was psychoanalysis, Christians harnessed the process of Confession in order to help others experience catharsis and transformation. At its best, modern psychology, and Christian counseling in particular, can be seen as a form of Confession. Other examples might also be cited that challenge the assumption that there is a modern/ancient distinction between Christian counseling and spiritual direction. Does this arbitrary distinction (although having some measure of truth) really matter? It only matters if one assumes a dissimilarity between the disciplines and a blind embrace of Enlightenment rationalism as is commonly applied to the practice of theological exegesis and its practical outworking in the theory and practice of Christian counseling.  It only matters if, while maintaining certain elemental boundaries, we do not believe that our clients deserve a more cohesive approach to counseling that reaps the benefit of the long history between these two disciplines.

I, for one, do not accept such arbitrary distinctions, and believe them to be counterproductive to those who come to us for help. And, once again, Barry and Connolly’s definition in no way excludes Christian counseling being seen as a form of spiritual direction.

Wellness and Illness

It is an obvious fact for any Christian Counselor or spiritual director that the people who come to us are a mixture. Matthew Fox acknowledges this reality in his important (yet, in my mind, theologically questionable) Original Blessing. Larry Crabb bears similar witness with his reference to our being a “glorious ruin.” The Bible, as well as Church Tradition and dogma, affirms the same. At their best, sociology and psychology do not contradict this position.  History and personal experience bear this out.  Using the Methodist quadrilateral as our reference, Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all attest to the fact of humanity’s dignity and depravity, wellness and illness.  Such is the condition of every human being (apart from Christ who did not sin) who is created in the image of God and yet fallen.

Why then do we suggest that spiritual direction tends to be more wellness oriented (i.e. everyone needs spiritual direction, ill or not) and Christian counseling tends to be more sickness oriented (i.e. most people do not go to counseling unless there is some form of a problem)? It is my belief that this senseless dichotomy exists because we misunderstand both the focus and function of Christian counseling and spiritual direction.

A case can certainly be made that spiritual direction is primarily focused upon how a person can more effectively listen to God, respond to “Him,” and grow in grace.  On the surface, one need not be sick in order to experience God on an ever-deepening level.  As St. Brigit of Kildare has said, “Anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head.”[8]  Contrary to this, the common understanding of Christian counseling does imply illness as being the critical issue in therapy. Gary Collins opens his magnum opus with “I never thought there could be so many hurting people!”[9]  Larry Crabb suggests that his form of “Biblical Counseling” has a great deal to do with “stubborn problems.”[10]  A perusal of the literature of Jay Adams also focuses upon how the biblical text can address humanity’s manifold problems. Problems, sin, and sickness, are center stage. (And, on some level, must always be.)

I have no basic argument with either position. Spiritual direction and Christian counseling do have the focus and function that have been hinted at. Nevertheless, this view is both somewhat restrictive and unnecessary. Both of these reflect a cultural bias that is ill-informed. In both cases, people approach us who are a mixture. This is a “given.”  Christian counselors and spiritual directors know this.  There is nothing profound about this assertion.  Would it not be more productive, however, to understand that spiritual direction and Christian counseling both share the common focus, function and goal of having our clients know and experience God in such a way so as to further develop a sanctified life?  Aren’t both wellness and illness inherent to both disciplines? Cannot a focus upon the resolution of “sickness” (the Christian counseling product) be seen as the process of spiritual direction whereby, whether the problem is resolved or not, growth in grace and the experience of God is advanced? Listening to God and responding to what is communicated does in some way involve “digging” our ears and “purging” our hearts — both of which have distinct parallels to Christian counseling and spiritual direction.  Both practices share a great deal of common ground.

God focused and “Man” focused

It seems to be a simple equation to which everyone attests:  In spiritual direction we focus upon the prayer-focused listening disposition we must develop in order to discern the words, will and way of God, whereas in Christian counseling we focus upon the person who is front of us, their need, and how we (at best) hope to help the client achieve a godly solution to h/er presenting problem.

These distinctions, while moderately factual, are manifestly not functional. Even when we earnestly strive to keep what some perceive to be the very distinct professional boundaries between spiritual direction and Christian counseling, we cannot help but see the overlap and intersection between them.  In practice the boundaries are repeatedly blurred. Both Christian counselors and spiritual directors will focus upon God and the client.  Both will pray.  Both will be involved in the process of discernment. Both will rely upon the Holy Spirit.  Both will consult Holy Scripture and the traditions of the Church. Both will attend to issues of wellness and illness in the hearing and healing process. Both will involve one Christian coming to another for help and direction.

The jurisdictional province of spiritual directors may principally address our relationships with God, while Christian counselors may principally address how we can overcome certain problems in our lives, but both focus upon what might be termed both “spiritual” and “direction.” Are there any problems that are not essentially “spiritual” when we understand the nature of the Fall? Doesn’t even the mature practice of spiritual direction suggest that at times “dark nights” (always reflecting socio-psycho-pneumatic realities) must be addressed through the prayerful and careful use of psychology? And we must not forget that our “dark nights” do not always fall into neat spiritual or socio-psycho-emotive categories. Doesn’t even Dr. C. G. Jung suggest that most of our psychological problems are religious in nature and resolution?

Spiritual direction and Christian counseling are also often non-directive in their approach. This does not mean that either the counselor or director will not at times appeal to the Bible, or other Christian courts of discernment, to address an issue.  What it does suggest is that counselor and director will both have such a profound respect for the person and action of God so as to allow the client to make those choices that s/he decides to make. Christian counselors and spiritual directors cannot force issues, although expectations, goals and discipline are inherent to the practice of each charism.  In some way both disciplines are a “hands off” enterprise that depends not only on professional training and personal skills, but, more so, upon the Holy Spirit who is ultimately the agent of transformation. Both are exercises of faith, hope and love. The borders between Christian counseling and spiritual direction are at times exceedingly thin, at best.

It seems to me that the (at times) artificial “God focused” or “Man focused” boundary needs instead to be seen as functioning as a continuum where, depending upon the need of the client, the Christian counselor or spiritual director is led to utilize one approach above the other in order to help achieve the purpose(s) of God.

Let me be blunt: with proper understanding and training, a director is a counselor when required and a counselor is a director when required. Spiritual direction might be used as Christian counseling just as Christian counseling might be used as spiritual direction. It often depends upon where the client is “at” at any given moment.

Wrestling and Resolution

One of my favorite stories from the Old Testament is of Jacob wrestling with God. Apart from a host of personal applications, I have also employed this story in both “secular” and “sacred” settings, with Christians and non-Christians, and as a spiritual director and Christian counselor. In both Christian counseling and spiritual direction there is the constant holy tension between wrestling and resolution. The words of St. Augustine of Hippo illustrate why. Augustine wrote “the heart is restless until it finds its rest in [God].” All of us have known such restlessness.  If we are believers in Jesus Christ we have also experienced that peace that puts an end to sinful and/or senseless striving.

In spite of this, if we are honest, we also know that we are works in progress, always wrestling and always finding resolution in, by, and through, Christ and his liberating gospel. This holy tension between wrestling and resolution, between seeking and finding, between abject poverty of spirit and the bountiful riches of the kingdom of God are the staple of the Christian life.  They are both central to spiritual direction and Christian counseling.

Why do we suggest that wrestling is the domain of spiritual direction while resolution is the domain of Christian counseling? The answer certainly does not reside in either the nature of spiritual direction or Christian counseling. The answer resides in who we are as human beings, particularly those of us who live in the Western world. We live in a society that worships instant gratification. As inheritors of the scientific Enlightenment we are programmed to think that if there is a “problem” we need to “solve” it as soon as we can.  In some ways, this is a useful paradigm.  If I am dying from some disease, I certainly hope a miracle resolution will come in my lifetime. If the electricity is out, I hope that it can be fixed as soon as possible. If I am hungry I want to eat.

This simple framework does not always work, however, in either Christian counseling or spiritual direction.  We tend to pigeon-hole, compartmentalize and, consequently, fragment. We have come to think of therapists as “problem solvers” and directors as “guides” or “friends.”  In our thinking a guide or friend does not need to have “answers,” they just need to be there. In Christian counseling it is similar. A friend or guide may be good, but people come to counseling to get “real” help, and not generally to have the Christian counselor “be there.” We must remain mindful of these expectations, as faulty or limited as they may be.

Nevertheless, in spite of these social expectations, a case can and should be made for a crossover between spiritual direction and Christian counseling. To me, even given the commonly understood wrestling/resolution paradigm, such a crossover is natural and necessary. Both counselors and directors would agree that in each respective field there is the need for both wrestling and resolution. Moreover, if we understand that all of life is the proper jurisdiction of God and that there is a fluid relationship between what we would deem to be the natural and spiritual, the secular and the sacred, the competent director and counselor must “flow” with the need of the client.[11]  The compartmentalization of disciplines we have inherited, while offering some good, has also damaged how we see people and how we approach the practice of spiritual direction and Christian counseling.

Spiritual and Psychological

The human person is a single, unified, being. The artificial divisions we make between body, soul and spirit, between head (thinking), heart (feeling) and hands (acting), between spiritual and socio-psycho-emotive are (while at times useful) arbitrary when involved in the care and cure of souls —- whether as Christian counselors or spiritual directors. We are approached by the whole person and it is the whole person to whom we must attend.

It would be simple and safe to say that we are spiritual directors and that we only deal with the “spiritual,” or that as Christian counselors we only deal with the socio-psycho-emotive. Personally I am not sure where the division of disciplines in theory, practice, or life, begins or ends. Where does one draw the line? Of course professional competence must be respected. People who come to us must not be duped into receiving something for which they did not ask. We do need to be attentive to the norms and expectations of our society. Nevertheless, in practice and in principle they are one.

The life of Martin Luther is a good example of what I am suggesting.  It is well known that Luther had a spiritual director during his tumultuous years as a struggling monk. He suffered with what some people have come to know as “scruples.”  Obviously his struggle with “scruples” had some distinct socio-psycho-emotive overtones. It might also be said, in spite of the profound debt we owe this reformer, that Luther was certainly not the most balanced of human beings.[12] At least one author has carefully documented this imbalance.[13]

This being the case, what would you do with Luther if he came to you for assistance?  Is his problem spiritual “scruples,” psychological trauma, socio-religious environment, or some mixture?  Obviously Luther’s problems were in some way a mixture, and he needed both spiritual direction and Christian counseling. Certainly it appears, if we are to believe both Erikson and history, that Luther had some unresolved problems with his father. This may have been at least part of the source of his anxiety over thunderstorms, demons and authority.  As we all know, anxiety and depression often go hand-in-hand.  Luther’s “scruples,” albeit related to anxiety, may also have been tied to a profound sense of his guilt and the fear and depression that resulted from it.

Culture and religion also played a role in Luther’s problems. All of these issues were interconnected.  The “spiritual” and the socio-psycho-emotive were all wound up into who Luther was.[14] All of these needed attention. All of these are the proper province of trained counselors and directors.

Personal and Professional

There is an ongoing debate as to whether Spiritual direction should be considered a profession. Further debate centers upon whether directors should be certified and receive financial remuneration for their services.[15] In keeping with cultural expectations, however, Codes of Ethics are provided by such groups as Spiritual Directors International and The Center for Sacred Theology. And, although these Codes are not mandated, they certainly are strongly encouraged. On the other hand, Christian counseling is often considered to be a profession with distinct training provided to those who wish to exercise their ministry through this discipline.[16]  Christian counselors also have Codes of Ethics, depending upon the Association or Society to which s/he belongs.

These distinctions were greatly influenced by the history of each discipline. Spiritual direction was commonly provided by laypersons which were empowered with a charism appropriate to the exercise of this gift and ministry. Although pastors or priests (primarily through the administration of the sacraments and the pulpit) exercised some form of direction, it was the “common” people who often filled the role of directors. The revival of interest in this discipline in the 1970’s also understood that one need not be a “professional” in order to provide effective soul care. The care of souls was one of a personal (i.e. friendship) nature. Counseling, however, was and is seen as being more “professional.”  Even pastors and priests, although they may have had very little training in either discipline, are now seen as professionals whose responsibility it is to provide both direction and counseling.[17]

The breakdown between the “personal” and “professional” becomes evident in several ways. First of all, the division is artificial. When engaged in Christian counseling, while boundaries must be honored, one does in some important way befriend the client.  This is especially the case with Christian counseling that may take place within a church or a parish.  However, even outside of the church or parish, some measure of “friendship,” of the “personal,” cannot be entirely avoided. Nor should it be avoided. Many positive changes occur when we embrace the factor of friendship.[18] The implications of such friendship certainly had (and has) socio-psycho-emotive implications.[19] Second, the designation is arbitrary. “Personal” care transports “professional” practice. Relationship is one the most persuasive mediators of effective care. Many people embrace change — and are transformed — based not simply upon our professional skills, but also upon the personal safety that relationship affords them.

The importance of friendship (with proper boundaries being observed) and relationship are critical to both ministries. Finally, the designation is abstract (impractical). It looks good on paper, but the professional/ personal paradigm does not work.  This is especially so when we understand that both fit the Barry/ Connolly definition, both have Codes of Ethics, both often include training, both involve “friendship,” both address similar issues, both have similar goals, and (in many cases) both involve the very same people.

Process and Product

In our society, as stated in a similar fashion earlier, people look for the end product. “What will we get for our investment,” we ask.  This is in some ways reasonable. If we buy a new car, we want to know that we are getting good quality for our dollar. If we invest $5000 on a new laptop, we want to know that we’re getting what I have paid for. This applies to almost any investment, including Christian counseling and spiritual direction.

However, as with the other subheadings, there are problems with such a division. It is true that direction may be more concerned about the journey. Spiritual formation is a life-long process that, quite likely, will continue for eternity. Hearing God and effectively responding to the Divine will is crucial to this process.  Nevertheless, counseling shares similar concerns.  While a person may come to me as a Christian counselor with an addiction problem, this does not mean that I must restrict myself to “addictions.”  The similarities between certain addictions and the spiritual life are abundantly evident.

As a Christian counselor, as one who has been approached for addictions counseling, I am morally and ethically compelled to provide the counseling for which the client came. However, as I am dealing with Christian counseling, I may need to move into the field of spiritual direction as the spiritual elements of certain addictions are manifestly and abundantly obvious.  Am I breaching any ethical codes if I am honest about the “spiritual” process we may need to use in order to achieve the product which the counseling originally sought?  I believe it was Dr. Carl Jung who said to Roland H.[20] that unless he (Roland) had a “profound religious experience,” he could not be delivered from his debilitating disease.  Thousands of alcoholics have found Dr. Jung’s suggestion to be absolutely correct. So have I.

This illustration applies to many, if not all, the non-organic disorders we may find in Christian counseling. While people may approach the counselor for a particular product (help with anxiety, addiction, depression, anger, marriage, dysfunctional family, etc.), this does not in any way preclude the possibility that the process by which we seek to arrive at the product may be distinctly “spiritual” and stray into what has commonly been assigned and accepted as direction.


There are numerous writers, familiar with both disciplines, who caution us regarding the integration I (and others) am proposing.  In Care of Mind/Care of Soul Dr. Gerald May writes “The primary danger in bringing [Spiritual Direction and Psychotherapy] together is that mental and emotional concerns may kidnap the gentle spirit of attentiveness required of both director and directee.”[21] While acknowledging “many similarities” between the disciplines,[22] he nevertheless questions (if not condemns) it because such a holistic approach requires “maturity and vigilance.”[23] May is quick to add, however, that we are “unified being[s],” and a “balanced attitude” is required.

Similarly in his cautionary article in Christian Counseling Today on “Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction: Reflections and Cautions on the Integrative Path,”[24] Dr. Gary Moon expresses several concerns regarding such an integration. He writes that we should “avoid importing rich resources across disciplinary boundaries that are only nominally understood […],” “dramatically” increase “training,” encourage “graduate schools” to offer more “formalized training” in this integration, and be careful to abide by ethical guidelines.[25]

These cautions by both May and Moon are well taken.  Caution is always wise. Proverbs tells us that the person who hastens with his feet errs. Nevertheless, one can at times be too cautious. Conservative theology has taught us that the process of theology can sometimes move too slow as well as too fast. It is balance, Spirit inspired balance that is biblically informed, to which we must aspire.

May, cited above, encourages such a “balanced attitude.” It is this “balanced attitude,” to the end of honoring our clients as “unified beings,” at which this article takes aim.  Similarly cautionary references to “attentiveness” and “maturity and vigilance” are qualities any Christian counselor or spiritual director must aspire to attain and maintain. There are cautions that must be observed. Ethical and moral boundaries must be respected.

With this in mind, we would be wise to ask ourselves how and if we can bridge the divide that many have suggested exist between Christian counseling and spiritual direction.  The fruit of such a task will richly benefit our clients and parishioners with a blessing that neither discipline could offer on its own.

[1] Barry, William A. and Connolly, William J. The Practice of Spiritual Direction. (Harper San Francisco, n/d) p. 8.

[2] Hedberg, Thomas M. and Caprio, Betsy. A Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors. (Dove Publications, 1992) p. 5 – 6.

[3] A very clear illustration of this is Christian Counseling by Dr. Gary Collins (W Publishing Group, 1988). While oversimplifying this important and useful book, it appears that, even from a brief scanning of its contents, Christian counseling is about the resolution of problems.

[4] Fr. Francis Benedict, OSB, Abbot Emeritus of St. Andrew’s Abbey, suggests that these two disciplines must be blended in order for effective direction to be provided. He goes on to suggest that the emphasis upon distinction may be unduly influenced by the “need” for professionalism and professional recognition.

[5]  It is to be understood that when an integration is proposed throughout this article, that the Christian counselor and spiritual director will have had sufficient training in each discipline.

[6] See: A History of the Cure of Souls by John T. McNeill. (HarperCollins, 1977).

[7] I believe the Rule of St. Benedict is a wonderful example of this. He understood the socio-psycho-pneumatic needs of people.

[8] Sellner, Edward C. The Celtic Soul Friend. (Ave Maria Press, 1985) p. Dedication page. Emphasis mine.

[9] Ibid. p. 15

[10] Crabb, Larry. Effective Biblical Counseling. (Zondervan Publishing House, 1977) p. 16.  It must be noted in quoting this, however, that this book represents the early Crabb. Since the writing of his profound text, Inside Out, Crabb has steadily moved toward the priorities, principles and practices of spiritual direction. If anyone presents an integrationist model for Christian counseling and spiritual direction within the evangelical community it is (with some reservations on my part) Dr. Crabb.  Evangelicals owe Crabb an enormous debt of gratitude.

[11] I think that a good example of the wrestling/resolution paradigm, that should in fact be a wrestling and resolution paradigm, can be found in the writings of M. Scott Peck, most specifically The Road Less Traveled and The People of the Lie. I am now given to understand that he has a new book out that deals with demon possession/oppression in his clinical practice. Demon possession is another very clear example of where spiritual direction and Christian counseling (psychology) meet.

[12] A case might be made that a great many “saints” were not terribly well balanced human beings.

[13] See: Erikson, Erik. Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. (W. W. Norton and Co., 1993).

[14] The life of Luther capably illustrates how, even when one has serious problems, the grace and calling of God can help one overcome one’s shortcomings in order to accomplish God’s purposes.  I am also reminded of J. B. Phillips who, while experiencing what we might deem to be clinical depression, overcame this debilitating problem in order to translate The New Testament in Modern English without chemical intervention. Similarly, Charles Spurgeon also suffered from severe depression and yet went on to be one of the world’s greatest preachers.

[15] I am grateful to Spiritual Directors International for drawing ongoing attention to these issues.

[16] An exception to this rule is pastors/priests whose ministry and role require them to be both SDs and CCs with, in many cases, very little training.  Parishioners come with many needs to the pastor/priest and require both Christian counseling and spiritual direction.  Thankfully, especially over the past thirty years, pastors/priests are being provided more training in these areas.

[17] I do not always agree with this, however. Properly trained and ordained/commissioned pastors and priests are, of course, professionals. Our responsibilities as priests do, at times, have a sacramental dimension that closely parallels or provides spiritual direction. Moreover, Christian counseling is inherent to the office of a priest who functions as a pastor. This may range from simple encouragement to more exacting forms of counseling that may require either more precise training and/or referral. Pastors and priests are professionals, but this does not mean that s/he is qualified to provide the direction and/or counseling that is sometimes required of them. Thankfully, many schools are providing more training.

[18]  See: Hunter, George C. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. (Abingdon Press, 2000) p. 47 – 55.

[19] Ibid. p. 69 – 70.

[20] When we advertise ourselves as CHRISTIAN counselors, my assumption is that people approach us because they want a particular emphasis in their counseling.  They most likely are Christians —- and this should be ascertained as early as possible. However, some people might approach us, knowing full well that we are CHRISTIAN counselors, without any personal commitment to Christ.  This does not mean that we should not address issues related more strictly to spiritual direction, IF, through the process of Christian counseling, we find that a “spiritual issue” is in some way impeding the resolution of a socio-psycho-emotive problem.  The opposite is also true. If a person comes for spiritual direction but we find that a socio-psycho-emotive issue impedes “spiritual” progress, we must also address this — either through our own care (if trained) or through referral. Using Jung as an illustration, Roland H approach Jung for a psychological problem, but Jung provided him with a “spiritual” solution.

[21] May, Gerald G. Care of Mind/Care of Soul. (HarperCollins Publishers, 1982, 1992) p. 15.

[22] Ibid. p. 14.

[23] Ibid. p. 14.

[24] Moon, Gary. Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls: A Guide to Christian Approaches and Practices (InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[25] Ibid. In the original document I was sent, these cautions fall on page 9. In the book, which I have not seen, they likely fall on the last few pages of Dr. Moon’s article.

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Advent Begins with Trouble

Edwin Searcy:

UntitledAdvent_FellowshipCommunityAdvent begins with trouble. This is the odd counter-cultural movement of the Christian year. Just when the stores are in full swing with jingling bells providing encouragement to Christmas shoppers, along comes the season of Advent. Advent is the first season of the year. Its liturgical color is blue. Advent is the season that tells the truth about the blues. It is the season that refuses to ignore the troubles that plague the world, the nations, the church, the family and the soul. Advent is the deep blue of the morning, just at dawn as the dark night is coming to an end.

This could be depressing. But it is not. Telling the truth about the trouble can lead to liberation, to transformation, to the new life that awaits on the other side of repentance. Telling the truth about the trouble draws God into the fray. In the ecumenical lectionary the first Advent text of the first year of the three year cycle begins: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” We often imagine that our sung kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) is all about our guilt and transgression. But it is much more. It is also a daring, bold cry to rouse God to save us from the forces of greed and envy and violence that separate us from the kingdom come, God’s will done.

Over the years Advent and Christmas have regularly been domesticated, their high voltage reduced to a pleasurable buzz. Advent is an invitation to host the odd texts that take the church deep into the ache and grief that cries out for a savior. Instead we often reduce the four Sundays of Advent to four safe platitudes: hope, peace, joy and love. Christmas is a journey into the vulnerability of God’s mission to save the earth. The savior cannot escape the troubles– born in obscurity, hunted down by the powers. How much of this fragility and danger remain in our festivities?

There is no more difficult season in the year than this one in which to practice the challenging work of forming alternative Christian identity in western culture. My friend and rabbi, Martin, likes to say that it is much easier to be a rabbi at Hannukah than to be a minister at Christmas. “After all,” he says, “no one else in the culture is trying to tell our children what Hanukkah is all about.” Without careful work, the recovery of Advent can feel like the “scrooging” of Christmas. The prophetic rage of John the Baptist does not easily transform a culture that is determined to party in the middle of winter.

Over the years at University Hill Congregation we have worked to cultivate Advent as a distinctive alternative to the celebration of Christmas that surrounds us. We often mark New Year’s Eve on the Saturday night before the first Sunday of Advent. We share a potluck meal and looked to the seasons of the Christian Year ahead. We taught our children that we hold dual citizenship– as Canadians and as citizens in the reign of God. We mark time with two different calendars- the secular calendar and the Christian Seasons calendar- to remind us of the oddness of living between times.

qavahOn Sundays in Advent we prepare for the amazing news of Christmas. We wait. We do not sing carols, yet. We long for the coming of Jesus Christ, just as our children long for the arrival of gifts. We do not open the present early (just as we do not sing Easter hymns during Lent). We practice “waiting upon God.” We remember that the root word for “wait” in both Hebrew and Latin also means “hope.” We will not give up on God, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary that is around us. We prepare our lives and homes for the reign of God with all the vigor that goes into our preparations for Christmas morning and Christmas dinner.

When the season of Christmas arrives we delight in knowing what the culture around us has forgotten: there are twelve Christmas mornings, twelve Christmas dinners. Others move on to Boxing Day sales and New Year’s plans while we are just beginning our Christmas celebrations. This bi-cultural life is a challenge. We easily fall into the habits and patterns that shape Christmas as mid-winter feast rather than as the rending of the heavens. But it is dawning on us that the twelve days of Christmas are a subversive gift, given to us by our ancestors as a mid-winter Sabbath. Twelve holidays– holy days- to tell the story, to sing the carols, and to enjoy living in the good news that God still answers the earth’s aching cry in the cry of Mary’s child.

Image above right: Untitled work on Advent. Fellowship Community, Louisville, KY.

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The Broken Body: A Lay-Monastic Perspective

Donald Richmond:

Although significant positive ecumenical changes have occurred over the past one hundred and fifteen years, and most especially since the Second Vatican Council (1960’s) and Pope John Paul II’s landmark Encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1990’s), considerable progress has yet to be made. The body of Jesus Christ continues to be divided, and our shared evangelistic task continues to be compromised. More working, worshiping, and weeping are desperately needed.

We may indeed lament over our separated state, and properly so, but what can be done in the meantime? What can we do to mend fences and build bridges? How can we more faithfully come to the Table of Christ’s “once for all” sacrifice when, at times in practice and for a variety of reasons, we are not functionally faithful to our Lord’s and Saint Paul’s admonition to reconciliation BEFORE participation?

One of the advantages of increased ecumenical cross-fertilization, as Roman Catholics and Protestants begin to more fully share a common language and a measured common life, is the pronounced interest in monasticism both as a vocational occupation and as shared means of discipleship among those who may not be called to live within the “enclosure.” That is, in other words, there is increased interest in (and provision for!) those who are called to become “friends” or “oblates” of the monastery who may not be Roman Catholic– and may, in fact, entirely reject certain Roman Catholic perspectives.

When people visit the monastery where I am an Oblate they are greeted by the monks and brothers, a number of whom are friends, with utmost charity. The monks and the brothers seek to demonstrate their commitment to the Bible, the Rule, and the spirit of Saint Benedict by being as warm and welcoming as possible. We are welcomed, frequently, as Christ himself. This is in keeping with both the spirit and the letter of Benedict’s Rule of life.

Often, after arriving, I pillage the monastic bookstore, receive spiritual direction, take a walk, and pray. As an Oblate who takes “the work of God” (Liturgical Prayer at set times) and monastic discipleship seriously, participation in the Service of Worship is central to a visit to my monastery. Attending the corporate Worship is, for most visitors, attending to our most urgent needs as homo-liturgical beings. Public worship and personal-worth are in some ways connected.

arms_crossHowever, as an Benedictine Oblate who is ordained in a separated Ecclesial Community, I (and a great many other people) am not allowed to participate in the Communion Sacrament. I am, according to Roman Catholic teaching, canonically restricted from partaking of the Real Presence of Christ who is our common Lord. I grieve. I struggle. My wife weeps. I think there are many Evangelical Christians who find themselves in the same predicament. Having a pronounced interest in monasticism and its disciplines, we attend some monastic Roman Catholic services but find ourselves blocked at the very center of our shared faith: Holy Communion. As such, for many, celebration becomes lamentation.

For some years now I have been thinking about this most poignant and painful problem. I want to share in this Bread and Wine, this Body and Blood, but cannot do so. It is, indeed, a problem. How might we all, not just me and my wife, more fully participate in this Sacrament while remaining respectful of these monks whom we have come to love and count as members of our very own spiritual family? In short, how do we partake of this most precious Body and Blood without ever taking the consecrated Bread and Wine upon our tongues?

Apart for the self-sacrificing love that we have for our brothers, they key is in our RADICAL AND INTENTIONAL IDENTIFICATION WITH JESUS CHRIST. Holy Scripture tells us that our Lord was crucified outside the walls (Heb 13:12). As one who hung upon the tree, our Lord was considered accursed (Deut 21:22-23 and Gal 3:13). As the Lamb “slain from the foundation of the world,” taking our sin entirely upon himself, he was driven into the wilderness where, after many trials and temptations, only angels were his ministers (Rev 13:8; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Mark 1:12; Matthew 4:11). And it was precisely this separation which God consecrated, accepted, sanctified, and glorified (Isa 53:10, KJV).

When non-Catholic Oblates and Friends attend “Mass,” but cannot physically partake of the Sacrament as those who with Christ are “outside of the walls,” we must do so intentionally– fully recognizing that our radical identification with Christ by non-participation is taken, consecrated, and blessed by God. In other words, humble yet hopeful non-participation empowers us to fully participate in the Sacrament precisely because we choose to identify with Christ himself in his own suffering of separation.

When after the Consecration of the Bread and Wine we move forward, crossing our arms upon our broken hearts to indicate our non-participation in the physical sacrament, we in fact open our arms to receive the blessing of God upon our sacrificial action. We, by the grace of God, are cruci-formed. Our humble and hopeful “no” to our most earnest desire for physical participation is seen and accepted by God as personal participation that embodies the spirit of Eucharistic devotion. To reference the words of Thomas á Kempis in his first book, he who would perfectly understand the words of Christ must entirely conform himself to the life of Christ. Doing, identification with Christ, provides revelation and release.

Many ecumenical advances have occurred for over a century. More work remains. In the meantime, most especially for those of us who are Oblates or Friends of Catholic monastic Orders, let us share in our Lord’s work by loving others enough to be separated from them. Let us, by our small sacrifice (and theirs), share in our Lord’s redemption of his Church.


I cut my teeth on Your Flesh

“Chew,” You said, “Chew.”

It was tough, and no tenderly melting intinction,

to taste of the velum of Your living life.

To take within and upon myself

this very bread and this very wine,

this Jordan of our shared humanity,

this excruciating genuflection,

this Table so shabbily set

as unsavory courses.

It was and is our wilderness.

And so I took

(or not, as so painfully necessary)

this Bread and this Blood,

crossing my arms upon the scattered scraps

of my own fragmented life,

Offering all to You

for all of Your gestures,

Your denial

And mine.


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Practical Holiness

Donald Richmond:

PracticalHolinessEvery true Christian hungers and thirsts for holiness. This inherent inclination (which must be followed by crisis-experience) is because we are “born again” by the Holy Spirit, and it is this Spirit of holiness that dwells within every regenerate believer. That is, in other words, we want to be holy because we have the Holy Spirit living within us (emphasis mine).

This said and understood; what practical steps can we take in order to become more holy, more Christ-like in our nature, disposition, and affairs? We must, briefly stated, walk in and by the Holy Spirit in order to both avoid (when we can) and overcome (by God’s grace) the corrupting influences of Satan, sin, self, and society. Granted, sanctification is a crisis experience. Granted, as well, we must make ourselves available to the ongoing sanctifying work of the Spirit. And yet, with these truths both believed and obeyed, are there practical steps we can take in order to enjoy the Christian perfection that God, through Christ by the Holy Spirit, has for us? The answer to these broad and brief questions is a resounding “YES!” There are indeed practical steps we can take in order to enjoy the sanctifying gifts and graces that God has for us. These, in part, are found in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-9). (more…)

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Calling Students to The Call

HewellRobMicrophone (2)Audio Content: AFFN Contributing Member Dr. Robert Hewell talks with Chris Alford about sharing Bob Webber’s “Call” with his students at Ouachita Baptist University. Rob is Director of the Worship Studies Program and Chair of the Department of Worship Arts at Ouachita Baptist University (OBU), and is a member of OBU’s Christian Studies and Fine Arts/Music faculties. So, how is “The Call” being received among 20-something students?

Click on the play button in the audio player below to hear the interview with Rob:


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Learning Mysteries


Donald Richmond:

In silence and in stillness a religious soul advances…and learns the mysteries of Holy Scripture.                                                                       – Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ

sitting-in-silence-by-alice-popkornOver the years I have become increasingly surprised by the number of Christians who have no devotional life, not to even suggest a life of devotion. It seems that, at least from my contacts and conversations, these people have little will or wherewithal to properly discipline themselves. Oddly, refusing to spend time with God, they wonder why they exhibit minimal growth and experience maximum temptations.

A man I know quite well experienced the socio-psycho-pneumatic fallout of this neglect almost immediately after his reversion (he was raised within a Christian home) and return to the church. Having barely emerged from the drug-using subculture, in all of its expressions, he did little more than attend weekly services of worship. Little attention was paid to prayer, the reading of Holy Scripture, and other devotional practices. In short order he returned to his old wayward lifestyle and, for about a year, was much worse off than he had previously been. He himself admits, now for some years stable in Christ, that he was as “a dog returned to its vomit.” Anyone who refuses to actively walk with God, to practice disciplines, is subject to the same spiritual dereliction.

Thomas á Kempis, in the above-cited quotation from his first book, outlines a pattern and process for spiritual growth. If the soul wants to advance in her relationship with God, she must apply herself to rigorous – or at least regular and consistent – discipline. There are at least four disciplines, and / or dispositions, to which the soul must avail itself.

If the soul is to “learn the mysteries,” she must first be inclined to strive toward God. She must “hunger” and “thirst” for the Beloved. This is not our work, it is the work of God. The Spirit must incline our hearts toward God. It is not a goal that we achieve, it is a grace that the Christian receives. If we are not passionate for God, if we do not desire the Divine, we must carefully examine our relationship with God. Those who are alive by the Holy Spirit want to live holy lives. While there will be struggles, and failures, the perpetual passion of the Christian is to want to be holy. We want to walk with God. We want to be with him. If there is no desire, we are in a state of spiritual decline and are on the path of spiritual dereliction.

Moreover, to learn the mysteries, we must cultivate silence. One of the highest compliments I have given my wife, a compliment that she had no difficulty in understanding, was when I told her that “being with [her] is as good as being alone.” Think about it. Although my wife and I do enjoy wonderful conversations, we also enjoy periods of protracted silence. We simply sit and enjoy each other’s company. We “be.” One of the primary monastic disciplines, and ascetic Christian discipline, is silence. Often, when we pray, the conversation is almost entirely one-sided. We speak and, we think, God listens. While God does listen, and while God does want to hear what we say, God also wants to speak with us. Sometimes God wants to speak, or simply be, with us. Without cultivating the discipline of silence we will not be prepared to hear the voice, or the presence, of God. Silence prepares us to hear Scripture and Spirit– as well as the “saints” who also have something to speak into our lives.

Stillness, a third discipline, takes us beyond the place of silence. Silence is practiced so that stillness may be attained. In any relationship there is “baggage” needing to be addressed. If we are not attentive to this “baggage,” life begins to pile up and problems begin to occur. Soon, if we do not address these issues, they begin to make demands upon our attention. The issues begin to shout for our attention. Soon, if we are not attentive, they begin to scream. This applies to silence and stillness. Anyone who has sought to cultivate silence in her life will invariably experience a number of “voices” or obligations clamoring for attention. As soon as you settle down to be with God, a host of distractions seek to dissuade us from our intention. These distractions that dissuade, these “voices,” must be committedly and consistently set aside by the practice of silence. We must, during our time with God, refuse to attend to their insistent demands. Solitude is achieved when the discipline of silence gives way to the disposition of stillness. When we no longer are distracted by demands, when no voice but God’s insists upon our attention, stillness is achieved. How might we accomplish this, keeping in mind that stillness is a grace received as well as the reward of discipline? Several practical practices can be helpful. First set aside a fixed time, morning and evening, when devotional practices (time with God) can be cultivated. Second, especially if you have children and are busy, set aside a place in your home where you can be uninterrupted. This may require that you tell your spouse and children, as well as any roommates you may have, that you are not to be disturbed (apart from dire emergencies) when you are in this place. Some people have a room dedicated to this discipline. Others have family altars. Others, yet, may simply have a chair, designated as the prayer-chair, where others know that they are not to be disturbed when sitting in this particular place. Sacred space must be secured and developed! Finally, begin your time with silence. Stop. Wait. Wait. Listen. Listen. Let go of your desire. Let go of your responsibilities. Release all of these things to God. Let Go and let God. If insistent items still demand your attention, write them briefly down in a notebook to attend to at a later time. Silence prepares the way for stillness. Silence prepares the way for speech and for song.

Thomas á Kempis’ above-noted quotation suggests that silence and stillness prepare us to learn the mysteries of Holy Writ. This is true, but not exclusively true. Reading and reflecting upon Holy Writ also prepares us for silence and stillness. It is not without reason that many Prayer Books begin with a biblical quotation, often coordinated with the Seasons of the Church, as an opening to prayer. As an example, one among dozens, a “Sentence” I like to say is “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him.” Another introductory Sentence I enjoy is “I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in his word do I hope.” These, as well as other biblical quotations that are silently reflected upon, can prepare us to hear and heed God. (Another, easily remembered because of its frequent usage, is “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”) The reverent reading of and reflection upon the written Word of God can prepare us for silence and stillness.

Growth in God, striving for sanctification, is the natural state of the person who is alive in God. It is, so to speak, the normal Christian life– and not extraordinary in any way. By God’s good grace we have been afforded certain priorities and practices to assist us along our pathway into what has been called (improperly I believe) the “deeper life.” As the old hymn celebrates, “As we walk with the Lord / In the light of his word / What a glory he sheds on our way.…”


DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.


Image above, right: “Sitting in Silence.” Photograph. Alice Popkorn.

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No Small Matter


Donald Richmond:

community“It is no small matter to dwell in a religious community, or congregation, to converse therein without complaint, and to persevere therein faithfully until death” – Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ

The Rule of Saint Benedict (RB), in its very first chapter, considers four kinds of monks. Only one of these, however, is crucial to Benedict’s forthcoming Regula: The Cenobites who are submitted “to a Rule or Abbot.” The Sarabites and the Gyrovagi, respectively referenced as the “worst” and the wanderers, are directly dismissed as a disgrace to their monastic profession, while the Hermits consist of those who have attained sustained spiritual maturity. Saint Benedict writes for those who are Cenobites, “the most steadfast.”

Remaining steadfast is “no small matter,” as both Benedict and the author of the Imitation indicate. Anyone can claim to be under authority when, in practice, there is no one (“Abbot”) or nothing (“Rule”) to which we must submit. It is easy, dangerously easy, to assert and embrace spiritual disciplines for which no one holds us accountable. If we would embrace the life of an ascetic, monastic, Oblate, or simply a committed Christian, we must with Benedict reject spiritual grandiosity in every isolationist expression and seek to live in faithful community with others.

But how do we accomplish this? How do we remain steadfast? Given the fact that people are difficult, and that sustained relationships can be hard? What are some “how to” priorities and practices that we can take to heart?

In order to be good monastics, or faithful Christians, we must realistically face the fact that remaining in community can be difficult. As Thomas á Kempis insists, it is “no small matter” to establish stability as one of our guiding spiritual priorities. This difficulty is exacerbated in a culture that celebrates (and suffers from) unrestrained “freedom.” However, like it or not, such freedoms do not make us free. Instead, freedom of this sort only asserts a socio-psycho-pneumatic theology of bondage. This type of “freedom” only asserts chaos. Instead, to be truly free, we must have constraints. We must be under authority. To be truly be free we must learn to say “no,” and not simply “yes.” We must learn to embrace, stealing from St. Paul, the profitability of Christian living and not simply the permissibility of sub-Christian living. Many things may be “permissible” to the Christian, but, in order to grow, we must govern our lives the ethic of profitability. Only spiritual children live from the perspective of permissibility. If we live from permissibility we are spiritually immature. Stability under established authority is the profitability we should strive toward.

Growth occurs, by-and-large, through dwelling in a religious community. This is not the same as having an accountability group or a spiritual director. While both of these are commendable, they are insufficient. We can hide from an accountability group. We can hide from our spiritual director. It is far more difficult to hide from those with whom we share a common life. We must “dwell” with others intimately if we are to grow exponentially. We must live in and as community, with an authority over us, if we are going to avoid hiding.

But what does it mean for us to “dwell” together? I am sure that many of us are aware of those who “dwell” together but live apart. Such “relationships” exist in marriages, homes, workplaces, congregations and monasteries. Technically they “live” together, but, practically speaking, they are divorced from each other. They share space but they do not share life. To dwell in a religious community, therefore, suggests at least three practices: religion, conversation, and confession. These, together, determine the faithfulness referenced by Benedict and refined by á Kempis.

Religion is critical to dwelling effectively together. This includes both rituals and relationships. The quality of our religion is determined by how we live our lives, by how our rituals define and refine our relationships. St. Benedict’s entire Rule seeks to regulate relationships around the priority of prayer. Every ritual and every practice revolves around what is “profitable for another” (RB 72) so that prayer will be unhindered. Every gathering, discussion, and engagement attends and submits to certain rituals so that we might more effectively live lives devoted to prayer. As such, prayer is not just a private devotional practice (although we must pray privately) it is a poignantly social discipline. Spiritual disciplines for the purpose of prayer require disciples. There must, citing the Lord’s Prayer, be a practical “Our” if God is “Father.” Practically speaking, therefore, the Christian religion must be entirely relational and familial.

Conversation also determines both the quality of our relationships and of our prayers. Let us face, again, some facts. Living as a community will at times be difficult. Being accountable to proper authority is not easy. Every relationship will be prone to entropy. The “answer” to these problems may be found in having conversations. This, in part, is why Saint Benedict called the brothers [and sisters] to Council. In order to make sure that our relationships were sound and that our prayers would be heard, Saint Benedict insisted upon conversation. Any type of conversation was not adequate, however. True conversation for the purpose of prayer has guardrails: the Abbot, the Rule, and the voice of the young (RB 3). To neglect any one of these is to court shipwreck. We must listen to the Abbot, our guide, if the ship of “our” supplication is to be piloted properly. We must attend to the Rule, our map, if we are to safely arrive at “our” destination. We must listen to the young, the novices, if we are to avoid the many sirens of spiritual seduction that so often tempt the elder shipmates. Each must be heard. Each must be heeded. The “how” is conversation, with a priority given to Abbot and the Rule. Talk is the true tradition of the Church.

Confession is required in any relationship, and critical to the life of every disciple. We will fail. We will fall short. We will struggle and we will sin. At times our best intention will be grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. We have all experienced the painful disappointments associated with living in a community. The issue is, however, how to move beyond these difficulties and disappointments. It is easy simply to move on. It is easy to write off the offending party; but not if we live in and as community for the purpose of prayer. If we live the priority of community, according to the RB, we will need to find ways to build bridges. We must find ways to “persevere” “without complaint.” As such we must at times be committed enough to put up and shut up. Obedience (RB 5), Silence (RB 6) and Humility (RB 7) are critical to this– most especially when reconciliation is hard, or at times impossible, to achieve.

Faithfulness is what is needed. Faithfulness is the first and foremost quality required of a servant. This, as well, requires fidelity to and within the community, being fixed within the community, demonstrating practical functionality within the community (not distance and withdrawal), and seeking to embrace and abide by a fullness of faith when things do not happen as we would like to see them happen. When everything seems to fly apart, when the ship seems to be sinking, we must stand our ground. We must stand firm. We must do our duty. It is “no small matter” to be in community and to submit ourselves to proper authority. But this we must do if we are to grow.

Again we must return to the wisdom of Thomas á Kempis and the wisdom of the Community of the Common Life as articulated in the Imitation of Christ: “The wearing of the religious habit…[does] little profit, but change of manners and perfect mortification of the passions make a truly religious [person].


DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

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Donald Richmond:

????????????????????????????The Rule of Saint Benedict asserts that, for the love of silence, we should at times refrain from speaking. But this is not simply monastic wisdom. The Bible itself, in St. James 1, tells us that we should be “slow to speak.” This admonition is simultaneously connected with God’s own creative word (“the word of truth,” in our text) and the absolute necessity for us to hear it (“quick to hear,” in our text). That is, in other words, we must be “slow to speak” because God’s creative word must be clearly heard before we dare to communicate anything.

Asceticism of speech is an important spiritual discipline. Wisdom suggests that we learn to live by this ascetic practice. How very odd, therefore, that God’s insistence upon silence is often met by a preponderance of words.

God exists from eternity and to eternity. For untold and untellable millennia God was, from a strictly human perspective, silent. God, as far as we know, “said” nothing. At a point in time God spoke “Let there be,” and from this point of time the “good” and “very good” speech of God entered into history. Henri Nouwen has properly suggested that this good speech was rooted in and structured upon silence. God’s speech was predicated upon God’s silence. (See: The Way of the Heart)

God, by Divine prerogative, determined to provide us with verbal (Speech), written (Scripture) and visual (Savior) revelation. That which God spoke, was written and ultimately revealed in and through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1: 1 – 2). Without the Bible (and to some degree, Holy Tradition) we would have no ability to know or understand the verbal and visual communication of God. Without God’s written revelation, we would be entirely impoverished.

Let us take a moment to reflect upon God’s written revelation. We have been given the Bible, the Canon of Scripture, by God. It is a joy to be able to take, “mark, learn and inwardly digest” what God wants to say to us. This is to be celebrated! But have we ever taken the time to think about what God has NOT said? Think about it. God, who inhabits eternity and exhibits all of the character qualities appropriate to unique Divinity, has not verbally said very much.

Holy Scripture is a collection of books, gathered over a period of some 1500 years, which reveals God’s will, works, ways, and Living Word (Jesus Christ) to humanity. It is important that we revere this revelation. It is important that we read this revelation. It is important that we apply and articulate this revelation. There is, humanly speaking, a lot to learn and live. Given this, however, it is very odd that the Logos, the Living Word, has said so very little. Being God, the Eternal, He could have said much more, but instead God was textually temperate.

This is a lesson for us, a lesson that we have not entirely learned.

When we consider God, the “All-in-All,” He has remained “silent as light.” And yet we have an entire “Science” devoted to His study. The Queen of Sciences, Theology, is therefore intended to be a Theology of reserved speech. The multiplication of “mouths” has only resulted in theological Babel.

When we consider Scripture, God’s Written Revelation by, of and for Himself, He has not really spoken a great deal. And yet, how many commentaries and homilies have been composed and communicated about the Bible? Millions! This becomes most painfully illustrated through some Christian educators who have, quite literally, spent years teaching one book of the Bible. I know of pastors who have actually spent between seven and ten years teaching exclusively, barring holidays, from one book of the Bible. Seven to ten YEARS!! This is really nothing to celebrate. While I do not doubt the intention of these educators, the verbal path they have chosen may communicate far more about them than it does about the true and temperate written word God seeks to speak. Scripture communicates reserved speech, and so should we.

When we consider the Gospels, centering chiefly upon our Lord’s three-and-a-half year ministry, we will be surprised to know that only about three months of our Lord’s life is actually discussed. Yes, we do have references to our Lord’s incarnation, youth and ascension, but such references are brief. Primary attention is given to his adult ministry which is also exceptionally sparse in specifics and time: Three months out of a three-and-a-half year revelation of Christ and his life and ministry. In short, once again, very little is actually said. Silence is largely the “voice” God has chosen to use.

This reservation in revelation, this slow speech of God, is important. God has a great deal to speak to us through the punctuated silence he has “written” into our world and His revelation. But, instead of silence, we cultivate sound. Often the soundings of our searching have resulted in separation from God and neighbor.  Our sound has created a barrier that often limits the proper intimacy that only silence can attain.

The early desert Mothers and Fathers were frequently asked for a “word” from their Abbas or Ammas (spiritual Fathers and Mothers). When they spoke this “word,” the disciple would seek to apply it for days, weeks, months and years at a time. I have myself repeatedly stopped my reading of 1 Corinthians 13, the “Love Chapter,” when I reached the statement “Love is patient.” Why read more when I have not entirely applied this?! This orientation is seen in one of the stories of the desert Fathers. Three young disciples approached their Abba for a “word.” The Abba graciously gave them a “word,” a spiritual life-principle, to work on. Every week, for the next year, two of the three disciples returned to their spiritual master for another “word.” But the third disciple did not return until a year had passed. After a year, he returned to his Abba and requested another “word.” Surprised by the disciple’s year-long absence, the Abba asked why the disciple took so long to return. The disciple’s answer was telling: “It took me a year to apply the ‘word’ you gave me, so why should I return to hear more words if I had not entirely applied the first?”

I close with another monastic illustration. A great spiritual Father of the desert was asked to speak a “word” to his guest. He refused. Again his disciples asked him to offer his guest a “word,” and again he refused. Irritated by this, his disciples asked why he would not speak to his guest. His answer was simple yet profound: “If my guest would not be edified by my silence, my guest would not be edified by my speech.”

Thomas Merton was right. We are “glutton[s] for words.” We want to hear and speak them — more the latter than the former. Let us learn the lesson of silence. Let us be slow to speak.


DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.

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Minimalism: An Ecumenical Possibility


Donald Richmond:

A recent discussion, sponsored by First Things on “The Future of Protestantism,” has generated many important considerations. During one of the exchanges between the Rev. Dr. Peter Leithart and Rev. Dr. Carl Trueman, the latter questioned what appeared to be Leithart’s Christian minimalism— a challenge which Leithart rejected. Upon hearing this exchange, especially Trueman’s inquiries, I had an immediate response: Why not Christian minimalism?

minimalism-9Indeed! Why not? Although I am not an historian, it seems that the Church has repeatedly rejected simplicity. Instead, and unfortunately, we have complicated the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. Out of fear, much like Eve’s, we have consistently added to God’s revelation. This inclination is not in keeping with biblical revelation as evidenced at the first Jerusalem Council, and suggests (albeit under different categories) ongoing Judaizing tendencies within the Church. That is, in other words, we have established dogmas that are not biblically justifiable (strictly speaking) and enshrined doctrines that tend towards isolation. The systems we have created smother God’s simple revelation and retards relationships. We have, as such, built walls and not bridges.

The first Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) asserts a principal that must be prioritized. Having converted to Christ, Gentile Christians were being told that salvation in and through Christ was not enough. Specifically, according to the “party of the Pharisees” (vs. 5a), they needed to keep the law and its expectations of circumcision (vs. 5b). After hearing a presentation by Paul and Barnabas, Peter asserted that the Gentiles should not be “troubled” by additions to the gospel of Christ (vss. 12–19) but should embrace certain basic expectations. This “seemed good to the apostles and the elders and the whole church” (vs. 22); a position that had both theological and practical implications. Paul accepted and applied this emphasis upon minimalistic simplicity.

But the Church has not been so swift to assert such simplicity. Examples of this would, no doubt, fill a book. However, let me cite a few Socratic inquiries: Are Copts, because they reject all Councils beyond the 3rd, truly not Christians? Are members of our Orthodox family not truly Christian because they venerate icons? Are monks not Christian because some of their historic teachings MAY lend themselves to “works righteousness?” Is the Latin Church excommunicated because of the filioque? Is the Greek Church excommunicated because of its rejection of the filioque? Is the Eastern Church excommunicated because a Pope said so? Are Luther and Calvin heretics because Latin and Eastern churches reject them? Are Anglicans heretics because at least one Metropolitan, or even an entire denomination, said so? The questions are endless, and more often than not reflect an unwise and impractical emphasis upon pronouncing “shibboleth” properly (Judges 12: 6).

To be sure, issues of orthodoxy and orthopraxy DO matter. Essential shibboleths do exist. Theology and thought, liturgy and life, dynamically intersect. God IS interested in these things. Nevertheless, examples of hair-splitting exist to the point of producing baldness. And, by extension (pun not intended), the realization of our receding “hairline” has resulted in our applying a host of theological gels, goops, glues and sprays that render us ridiculous. Much of our Theology has become a sad yet obvious comb-over.

The question, among other questions, is “What is essential?” When Leithart was asked what his “Reformed Catholicism” would look like, his answers (no doubt tied to the schedule he had been keeping) were succinct yet scant. When offered, they were also far too broad (by and large) to be functionally applicable— although his emphasis upon local communities, while limited and limiting, was well taken. As such, adding to a cacophony of voices, I will add my own limited perspective.

An effective Christian minimalism will be bounded by the following guidelines.

Holy Scripture will be acknowledged, asserted and upheld for what it is: The “inspired” (2 Timothy 3: 16) “word of God” (1 Peter 1: 25) to humans, from God, through humans (Hebrews 1: 1). It must be admitted, however, that problems exist among fellow Christians regarding both the nature of the Text and the number of books that are contained therein. In both cases, however, a reserved minimalism should be employed. Regarding the latter, ALL Christians embrace the 66 books of the “Old” and “New” Testaments. These should be firmly proclaimed. Regarding the other books, varying in number between Greek and Roman Christians, we should have freedom to choose. I, as an example, hold to an Anglican perspective: The other texts, known variously as the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical texts, are good for edification but not for establishing doctrine. As such I would encourage their private reading— as did Athanasius. It must be stated, as well regarding these 66 books, that the Church has uniformly accepted the Holy Bible as “authoritative” and imperative to life in Christ in all of its socio-psycho-pneumatic applications (2 Peter 1: 3). Regarding the former, the nature of the Text, it is sufficient that we acknowledge and adhere to these texts as the inspired written word of God that has practical authority over our lives.

Historic Creeds are central to an ecumenical authority, antiquity and apostolicity. They are not, as they are rooted in the Sacred Text itself, disposable declarations. I recall some years ago hearing a minister (I use the word loosely), after urging us to recite one of the Creeds, encourage the assembly to sit or stand according to our rejection (sit) or acceptance (stand) of this Creed’s affirmations. Talk about misfiring “pistons”!! As CHRISTIANS we do not have an option on this matter. We either say “no” or “yes.” If we say “no” to these assertions, we are not Christians. If we say “yes” (keeping in mind that these assertions reflect significant head, heart and “hand” changes) we are Christians. Please know that I am well-aware of the need to wrestle with questions and issues. Some people, at times, struggle with certain articles of faith. As well, there is the unfortunate gloom of the filioque to be addressed— which, thankfully, has begun (but inadequately) to be rectified in some corners of the Church. When I was first “Commissioned” in 1980 my certificate suggested that this document would remain effective as long as I upheld “the three articles of faith (the Apostolic, Nicene and Athanasian)” and “shall be found living and teaching in accordance with Holy Scriptures.” This tri-fold expectation (believing…teaching…living) seems very reasonable to me, and I have found that such broad rubrics work well in a wide variety of denominational settings– including among those that are not, strictly speaking, creedal. I am reminded by my friend, the Rev. Dr. Chris Alford of the Epiclesis Community, that the Creeds are models of minimalistic simplicity. Amen!

Catholic Practice is also critical to ecumenism. Admittedly this is a difficult concept to embrace. One problem, among many, is the issue regarding the nature and need of being “Catholic.” My ROMAN Catholic friends assert an entirely ROMAN focus. My Protestant friends assert a far more “universal” application— even to the point of changing the word “Catholic” to “Christian” in the Articles of Faith. Some of my other friends, drawing from both, assert a catholicity that profiles Vincent of Lerins’ dictum. Each of these positions has advantages and disadvantages attached to them. The “catholicity” folk, as an example, cannot entirely assume or assert a time when all Christians subscribed to an essential Vincentian Canon— in its emphasis upon an all…everywhere…always experience. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, will have a hard time asserting its claims to sole authority, antiquity and apostolicity. Similarly, as well, my Protestant friends will need to account for their flat (quite accurately described) rejection of “Catholic” priorities and, instead, insist upon a tepid “Christian” qualifier. Properly understood, we are Catholic or we are not Christian. Christians must have distinct Catholic identifiers. As such, along with Holy Scripture and Historic Creeds, a viable and visible Catholic ecumenism will enthusiastically embrace biblical Sacraments. Baptism and Eucharist inform the day-to-day practices of committed Christians. While endless discussion and debate has been generated by the Sacraments, and their number, the Bible is quite clear about two. We are told in Holy Writ to be Baptized. We are told in Holy Writ to participate in Holy Communion. Both Sacraments, regardless of denominational nuancing, assign salvific importance to them (1 Peter 3: 21 and John 6: 53). As such, regardless of subtle nuancing, we cannot escape the biblical imperative attached to each. Quite frankly I do not care one whit about sprinkling, pouring, dunking, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or a whole host of other negotiable qualifiers. What I do care about is active, informed and transformative participation in them— leaving each assembly, even within denominations, to embrace the practice(s) suited to them.

Moral Imperatives are also crucial to Christianity— a word, frankly, to which I have some resistance. Our life in Christ engages “head,” “heart,” and “hands.” Faith is not simply a matter of belief (although proper belief is important) it is a matter of behavior. Walking with God has certain moral expectations. If we BELIEVE in God, we must strive to BEHAVE accordingly.  In other words, Scripture, Creeds, and Sacraments challenge us to live according to the calling of Christ (Ephesians 4:1–16). Christians do not get to do as they please. We are called to live in and by the Holy Spirit as a holy Catholic Church.

This calling has dynamic implications, and is found in the Apostles’ Creed. Here we say that we believe in the Holy Spirit, under whose creedal and practical subheading exist the HOLY (my emphasis) Catholic Church, the communion and saints and the forgiveness of sins. These affirmations are not arbitrary. It is not as though the composers and compilers, having arrived at the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, were scrambling as with an Appendix to draw their thinking to a swift but carefully notated conclusion. NO! To be a HOLY Catholic Church, who lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, will have dynamic impact upon our communion and upon our need to live lives of radical forgiveness. Our behaviors are not afterthoughts of our beliefs— they are inherent to them. To BELIEVE in God, as well as in each of the other creedal affirmations, places behavioral expectations upon us that dynamically intersect (and at times interfere) with the lives of other people. Morality is critical to a Catholic ecumenism.

The forgiveness of sins, for many reasons including “the life everlasting,” is where a robust Catholic ecumenism must begin. And, sadly, it must begin with ME. Near my community is a church that appears to be enjoying some evangelistic success. Their numbers are very high. Their programs are expansive. They do “good work” in our communities. However, when they are mentioned to me, I have frequently referred to them as the “Jesus Lite” church. This was and is not a holy response. It is not, properly speaking, a “spiritual” response. It is, quite frankly, biblical slander. Thank God for a brother who challenged me regarding my attitudes and actions! And maybe that is what we should do for each other. We could all use a good challenge to our pet doctrines, arrogant assumptions, bold assertions and militant dogmatism about the non-essentials. Leithart is correct: We need each other as communal and Christ centered correctives. (And, as Leithart also noted, we will have a lot to discuss.)

The Eucharistic Expectation provides a fitting conclusion to these thoughts. In 1 Corinthians 11, the setting of which is a divided Church, St. Paul’s review of “The Lord’s Supper” calls us to serious personal and social reflection (vs. 28). His warning, not to eat or drink in an “unworthy” manner, is chilling (vss. 27 and 29). I think most Christians are aware Paul’s cautionary statements. Unfortunately we all-too-frequently apply them personally, but not socially. We acknowledge, and seek to rectify, our personal guilt— but fail to do the same regarding our denominational guilt. We prohibit Christians who share a basic faith and practice, a “mere Christianity,” from the Table because they do not speak “shibboleth” with the same denominational accent. What nonsense! What SIN and unmitigated arrogance! Is it not enough to say, and agree upon, that we affirm what Jesus and St. Paul said about Holy Communion? It is, according to both, “body” and “blood.” Let us not get lost in a tangle of misguided philosophies and denominational qualifiers. It is simple: DO WE OR DO WE NOT ACCEPT AND BELIEVE WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS ABOUT THE TABLE? This same simplicity might be applied to a great many other theological issues that we have systematized and philosophized out of all practical reason or usefulness.

If we Christians are serious about the foundation of our faith and practice, Holy Writ, God’s written revelation, maybe we should suspend all Eucharistic celebrations until such time as we are reconciled (Matthew 5:24). No functional ecumenism = No Eucharist. I am quite aware of many of the difficulties with this proposal. I am well aware of the difficulties associated with confessional and denominational rewrites. History CANNOT be re-written, but much of it can be repented of. Come let us reason TOGETHER. No functional ecumenism = No Eucharist.


Image at top: “Minimalism 9.” Photography by Joe Lencioni. March 24, 2008.

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