I still remember the moment, although it happened nearly 15 years ago. I was an evangelical seminary student in my 20s, preparing for the Christian ministry and struggling through classes in everything from exegesis to administration to pastoral care. Struggling, too, with my call and with a prayer life that seemed to consist mostly of talking to the ceiling. One of my professors, a gentle and quiet man with a background in spiritual formation and psychology, had just delivered a talk on prayer and personality in that morning's chapel service. Maybe, I thought, he might have some answers to all the questions I was asking. Hesitantly I made my way down the hallway, knocked on his door, blurted out my confusions, and stumbled unawares into one of the church's oldest practices: that mentoring along our faith journey that goes by the name of spiritual direction.

Although I did not know it then, I was also stumbling into a larger trend among late-20th-century Protestants in returning to devotional practices with roots deep in the Christian tradition. Browsing the aisles in the "inspirational" section of the bookstore, it is hard to miss titles such as Celebration of Discipline, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, The God of Intimacy and of Action, Soul Friend, and The Holy Longing. While it has points of contact with psychotherapy, Christian spiritual direction is a different undertaking altogether. Spiritual directors focus on helping their clients attend to the presence of God in their lives and explore ways in which they might open themselves up to that presence more fully—everything from trying new forms of prayer to seeing God in the everyday to (if the situation warrants it) psychological or pastoral counseling. Together, they probe exactly the same sorts of issues that were troubling me all those years ago: What has God called me to do? How should I go about doing it? And how do I know that I am really doing His will when I try?

The ammas and the abbas

The Bible shows some mentoring relationships (Paul and Timothy, for example), and church fathers such as Basil, Jerome, and Augustine wrote letters of spiritual counsel and encouraged believers to seek out, in Basil's words, a trusted counselor "who may serve you as a very sure guide in the work of leading a holy life." (Basil also argued that "to believe one does not need counsel is great pride.") But the roots of today's practice of spiritual direction are most readily found in the practices that developed in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine around 300-400 A.D.

Called abba ( "father") and amma ("mother"), men and women who went to the desert to devote their lives to meditation as hermits soon found themselves dispensing counsel to spiritual seekers. (Much more has come down to us about the men than about the women, though sayings of four famous ammas are included in the famous collection Sayings of the Desert Fathers.) Most seekers stayed and began to live in community with each other, and out of these communities came the monastic tradition. But some, even then, took the words of advice back into their secular lives. Among the most famous of the early abbas were Evagarius (345-399), whose teaching formed the basis of our concept of the seven deadly sins, and John Cassian (360-435), the author of Conferences (a sort of "greatest hits" of spiritual advice from abbas all over the desert.)

Eastern Christian spirituality quickly became rich in these relationships, producing a sizable collection of works that encouraged Christians to use a spiritual guide and described how to go about finding—and being—one. No different from the manuals and devotional helps populating today's bookstores, many focused on methods and practices of prayer, not least the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), which believers were encouraged to repeat and to incorporate into their daily life.

In the West, the Rule of St. Benedict profoundly shaped spiritual practice (including spiritual direction). Written to regulate monastery life, it included advice on direction and developing rules or rhythms of devotional life. While many spiritual directors were monks, the role was also open to laypeople (a particularly strong theme in Celtic Christianity), and books on direction and confession addressed laity and clergy alike.

Retreat directors and letter writers

The tradition of direction remained strong in post-Reformation Christianity. Ignatius Loyola (1495-1556), besides founding the Jesuits, inaugurated a whole "school of spiritual direction" (in the words of Anglican priest and historian of spirituality Kenneth Leech) with his Spiritual Exercises, a book of instructions for spiritual directors who wished to lead believers through times of retreat. Such retreats remain a vibrant form of spiritual practice in the modern church, utilized by Protestants and Catholics alike. (They are even available online!) Other spiritual classics by Francis de Sales (1567-1622), Teresa of Avila (1515-82), John of the Cross (1543-91), Madame Guyon (1647-1717) and François Fénelon (1651-1715) assumed the guidance of a director in their advice on pursuing a life of prayer and contemplation. (These writers—especially Guyon—influenced founders of the 18th-century Pietist movement, the source of much of modern evangelicalism's theological emphases and devotional orientation.)

The Protestant Reformers and their spiritual descendents produced manuals for pastoral care and direction—such as Martin Bucer's On the Cure of Souls and, in a later generation, the works of Richard Baxter—but Protestant spirituality was also particularly rich in letter-writing as a means of spiritual direction. Many letters of Luther and Calvin have survived, and John Wesley—in addition to setting up an entirely lay-led network of meetings for spiritual direction among his followers—wrote hundreds of letters to people seeking pastoral care and advice. He urged one unidentified female disciple in a 1765 letter, "Go on, my dear friend, in that labour of love, unto which God has called you. And if any opportunity offers, of enlarging your sphere of action, be not afraid but cheerfully embrace it. I trust, you that are in one house, are of one heart, all striving together for the hope of the Gospel. But beware of thinking the Promise is afar off. Is it not nigh, even at the door?"

Letter writing was seen as an especially appropriate way for women to exercise the ministry of spiritual direction. This tradition dated at least as far back as Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), who wrote letters of counsel to several popes, and it found expression in the 18th and 19th century in influential female spiritual leaders such as Methodists Hester Ann Rogers and Phoebe Palmer and Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith.

Tradition and trend

While the tradition of direction never really died out, its resurgence in the modern day—especially in Protestant circles—is attributable to numerous sources. These include the desire growing in various segments of youth culture in the 1960s for "something more" than respectable mainline religion; the greater rapport between Protestants and Catholics developing in the light of Vatican II; the popularity of spiritual writers such as Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and Kathleen Norris (whose Dakota and The Cloister Walk, autobiographical stories of how a countercultural poet from Manhattan became a Presbyterian lay pastor and Benedictine oblate in the Dakotas, introduced an entire generation of readers to the spiritual guidance available from the liturgy and from the desert fathers and mothers); and the trend among younger evangelical and emergent Christians to search for some of the spiritual babies accidentally thrown out with the traditionalist bathwater.

Fifteen years after my crisis at seminary, not all of my questions are answered (especially the one about talking to the ceiling.) But I am still in the Christian ministry, and still on the journey of faith. And I have been most fruitful on that journey when I have listened to the wisdom of trusted abbas and ammas among the body of believers—and, through them, to those abbas and ammas who now (in the words of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols which graced the Advent season just past) stand "upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are one forevermore."

Jennifer Woodruff Tait is adjunct professor of church history at four institutions (Asbury Theological Seminary, Huntington University, Southwestern College, and United Theological Seminary).