Sacred Companions

This was a transitional book for me. It was the first book in which I began to speak in the first person singular and include some of my personal experience.  Looking back, I wonder what took me so long!  All I can do is put it down to my background as an academic!

My goal in writing this was to focus on the importance of friends in the spiritual journey.  I did not intend it to be simply an introduction to spiritual direction – something that it is often judged to be. It may be that, but it is also a discussion of how marriages and other relationships of intimacy and trust hold unique transformational potential when they are allowed to develop into sacred friendships.

Excerpt

Preface

Of all the social changes in the last several decades, nothing has surprised me more than the recent rise of interest in spirituality. For many in Western societies, a hunger for the sacred has emerged out of the bankruptcy of materialism and secularism. And for many in the church, a longing for a deep encounter with God has arisen out of the arid soil of knowing about God but having little personal, experiential knowing of him.

My world is full of people on a spiritual journey—people with a nominal background in mainline denominations rediscovering their church and faith, former atheists visiting aboriginal healing circles, Christians practicing Buddhist meditation, new age seekers pursuing encounters with the sacred, evangelicals discovering mysticism, Roman Catholics discovering Bible study and intercessory prayer, and Protestants discovering liturgy and the sacraments

Lunch hours in the public mental health clinic where I work used to be filled with the usual topics of conversation—gossip, weekend activities and plans, sports and entertainment. Now the number-one topic is often spirituality. (The number two remains clinic gossip!) People seem to be bursting to tell anyone who will listen about their spiritual quest. They long to share their journey with others. They want people who not only will listen to them but can relate to their story because they are on a spiritual journey of their own.

Spirituality means different things to these people. But a common component of those diverse meanings is the notion of being connected. These people all long to be connected—to God (however he/she/it is understood), to others, to themselves and often to the earth.

The hunger for connection is one of the most fundamental desires of the human heart. We are like immigrants in a new land, with no family or friends and no sense of place. We seem to have lost our mooring. Or perhaps we have lost some part of ourselves. Like pieces of a puzzle seeking their adjoining pieces, we long for connections that will assure us that we belong.

But it is not just connections in general that we seek. In the core of our being we yearn for intimacy. We want people to share our lives. We want soul friends. We were never intended to make the life pilgrimage alone. And attempting to make the spiritual journey on our own is particularly hazardous.

Paradoxically, however, what we most deeply long for we also fear. How else can we explain our reluctance to be genuinely known by those with whom we are most intimate? Often it seems that what we want is the fruit of companionship without the demands of genuine intimacy. Yet something within us remains dissatisfied with the safe but superficial relationships we experience. Our soul aches for a place of deep encounter with others. Our fears may partially mask this ache, but it won’t go away. We want companions for the journey, companions with whom we can share our soul and our journey.

Defining Our Terms

I have mentioned the ambiguity of the term spirituality. But now I have introduced another equally ambiguous term—soul. Because these two concepts are foundational to what I will be developing in the rest of the book, it is important that I clarify what I mean by these terms.

The soul that interests me in these pages is not the technical concept of the theologian or philosopher. My use of the term is more metaphorical. I use it to refer to persons in their depths and totality, with particular emphasis on their inner life.

This, it seems to me, is comparable to Jesus’ use of the term. For example, when he spoke of his soul’s being crushed with sorrow (Matthew 26:38), he was speaking of his inner world of feelings and hope. The same is true when he promised rest for the souls of those who come to him (Matthew 11:29). The soul rest that Jesus offers touches the whole of our being—physical, spiritual and psychological—but is particularly focused on our inner self.

A soul friendship is therefore a relationship to which I bring my whole self, especially my inner self. And the care that I offer for the other person in a soul friendship is a care for his or her whole self, especially the inner self. Soul friends seek to safeguard each other’s uniqueness and nurture the growth of each other’s inner self. They seek to meet each other as whole people and help each other become whole people. They offer each other the sacred gift of accompaniment on the human journey.

What, then, does the concept of spirituality add to this? I use the term in this book, spirituality to refer to a person’s awareness of and response to the Divine. On the basis of this I would argue that to be human is to be spiritual. Everybody has some awareness of God. We differ only in the degree of that awareness and the nature of the response we make to it. We all face the inescapable challenge of working out our existence in relationship to God. That is our spirituality. That is what it means to be human.

Christian spirituality is, of course, something much more specific. Christian spirituality involves working out our existence within the context of the Christian faith and community. More precisely, it is the deep relationship with God that exists when the human spirit is grounded in God’s Spirit. Spirituality is not Christian if it is not centered in the Spirit. Christian spirituality is our response to the Spirit. He is the one who initiates and guides the journey for Christians.

For Christians, the spiritual journey is at the core of the human journey. We believe that the ultimate fulfillment of our humanity is found in union with God through Christ. Nothing is therefore more important than discovering and actualizing the unique self-in-Christ that is my eternal destiny. This is the core of Christian spirituality.

Spiritual Friends

If you are making significant progress on the transformational journey of Christian spirituality, you have one or more friendships that support that journey. If you do not, you are not. It is that simple.

Spiritual friends nurture the development of each other’s soul. Their love for each other translates into a desire that the other settle for nothing less than becoming all that he or she was intended to be. What they offer each other in response to this desire is not a professional role. Nor is it specialized expertise. Rather, it is the gift of themselves and their companionship on the transformational journey of Christian spirituality.

Spiritual friends are soul friends. This means that they care for each other as whole people, not simply as spiritual beings. Soul friends become spiritual friends when they seek to help each other attend and respond to God. In what follows I will generally refer to spiritual friends. I will, however, use the term soul friends when I wish to emphasize the basic aspects of caring for others in their depths and totality, and true friends when I wish to emphasize the ideal nature of these relationships.

The potential for spiritual friendship lies undetected all around us—not just in our churches but also in our homes, workplaces and communities. Tragically, those who seek such friendships often fail to see the possibilities that already exist in their lives. They fail to see a spouse as a potential soul mate, instead seeing only a husband or wife or a partner in parenting. They miss the possibility of genuinely spiritual friendships with their children, understanding their role in terms of supervision and training, not accompaniment. Other people are judged ineligible because they do not seem to be like them.

Friends, spouses and family members all have opportunities to offer each other genuine companionship on the spiritual journey. While these forms of soul friendship differ in a number of ways from the more formal and structured relationship of spiritual direction, we shall see that they also share many qualities. Ideally, they also form the dynamic core of the church. Spiritual communities are, after all, simply networks of spiritual friendships.

Spiritual Direction

The second form of soul friendship that we shall examine is spiritual direction. Spiritual direction is more structured and less mutual than spiritual friendship.

Often referred to by such terms as mentoring, discipleship or spiritual guidance (these all describing slightly different but closely related forms of relationship), spiritual direction has been recently discovered by large numbers of Protestants. But it is more appropriate to describe this rise of interest as a rediscovery than as a discovery. Spiritual direction is an ancient form of Christian soul care that goes back to the earliest days of the church. It has never really gone away. It is just that large sectors of the Christian church have forgotten their own heritage.

In its classical form, spiritual direction is a one-on-one relationship organized around prayer and conversation directed toward deepening intimacy with God. As we shall see, spiritual directors are not experts, nor do they direct. They do not follow a standardized curriculum or implement a prepackaged program. Rather, they journey with others who, like themselves, are committed to the process of spiritual transformation in Christ. And most important, they seek to help those with whom they journey discern the presence and leading of the Spirit of God—the One Jesus sent as our true Spiritual Director.

To describe spiritual directors and friends as “sacred companions” is to note the way they help us become more aware of the presence of the Sacred. The supreme gift that anyone can give another is to help that person live life more aware of the presence of God. Sacred companions help us remember that this is our Father’s world. They help us hear his voice, be aware of his presence and see his footprints as we walk through life. They accompany us on a journey that is made sacred not by their presence but by the presence of God. In doing so, they make the journey sacred. In doing so, they help us live with a keener awareness of the Sacred.

Speaking Personally

Before embarking on an exploration of these forms of spiritual companionship, I would like to say a word about how I, a clinical psychologist, happen to be writing a book on spiritual direction and friendship.

While I have long been interested in the interaction of the psychological and spiritual dimensions of the soul, until recently the focus of my work and writing has been more psychological than spiritual. Most of my previous books were on counseling or psychotherapy. While they all focus on spiritual considerations as important dimensions of such clinical activities, they are primarily addressed to professionals.

I am in no way turning my back on counseling or my professional discipline of clinical psychology. I remain deeply impressed by the value of psychology, not simply as a technology of change but as an aid to understanding the dynamics of the soul. I also remain deeply committed to training counselors and psychotherapists and to providing therapeutic services myself.

However, I am concerned about the predominantly therapeutic face of soul care in our culture’s church and society. We have entrusted the care of the inner life of persons to experts who understand their role primarily in problem-solving and therapeutic terms. But therapeutic soul care should not be the model of Christian soul care. Nor should clinically trained professionals be relied on to provide the bulk of such care.

While counselors and therapists have an important role to play in restoring wholeness that has been lost, spiritual friends and directors have an equally important role in helping others become all they were intended to be. It is my hope that the predominantly therapeutic face of contemporary Christian soul care will be balanced by an increasingly spiritual one as more Christians offer themselves in relationships of sacred companionship. The care of souls is much too important to be left to clinical professionals.

The Passions of an Amateur

I write about spiritual friendship and direction as an amateur, not as a professional. I hold no formal credentials in these areas, nor do I make any pretense of expertise.

What I know about spiritual friendship and direction comes first and foremost from the experience of journeying with my own spiritual friends. I have also been richly blessed by my exposure to spiritual direction through several personal experiences of receiving it, through reading and a modest amount of training, and by a number of years of offering it to others. These experiences have not made me an expert. They have, however, fueled my passion for spiritual companionship. It is on that basis that I write this book. Amateurs do what they do out of passion. This precisely describes my feelings about the enormous value of the gift of spiritual friendship and direction.

In recent years the church has been tragically marginalized as a provider of soul care. The rise of the therapeutic culture dominating the West in the last century led to an artificial separation of the psychological and spiritual aspects of persons. The acceptance of this distinction resulted in the church’s being judged relevant to only the spiritual part of persons. I feel very concerned about this development and have committed two decades of work to reversing it.

If the church is to be restored to its rightful place of relevance to and preeminence in supporting the care and cure of souls, we must equip and encourage people to offer themselves to others in relationships of soul friendship and spiritual companionship. This will continue to include counselors. And it will require many more well-trained spiritual directors. But it will also require parents, spouses and friends who refuse to settle for anything less than the genuine spiritual friendships for which they themselves long. It also needs elders, small group leaders and others who understand how to structure relationships in ways that best nurture spiritual growth. My commitment to assist in these efforts has been the motivation for this book.

I offer this book with the prayer that it may be used by God to raise up an army of people ready to accompany others on the spiritual journey. In other words, I want it to make a difference. To that end, I have included questions for reflection and discussion at the end of each chapter. Simply reading a book is often insufficient to produce changes in behavior. Prayerful reflection and discussion with others always help unpack the implications of what we read and prepare for any changes that the Spirit may suggest. It is my hope, then, that these opportunities.

Reviews

This is an excellent book that will challenge and expand your view of spiritual mentors and directors. I read this book with my small women’s group and we got a lot out of it. The best part is it not only talks about spiritual direction, but it also gives practical advice and examples. Highly recommend!

~ Susan (Amazon.com)

This book is essential for anyone who wants to go deeper with God. It discusses all aspects of spiritual friendship and spiritual direction, with an emphasis on prayer and experience over answers and advice. There are key insights about our relationship with God and with others. A wonderful, inspiring, and motivating book.

~ Penni L. Smith (Amazon.com)

This book is an exceptionally good introduction to the meaning of personal relationships that are called “spiritual friendship” and ” spiritual direction”. I highly recommend it for those who want a good understanding of what it means to be sacred companions.

~ Paul M. Dubuc (Amazon.com)

If you’re looking for an excellent introduction to spiritual direction and spiritual friendship, Sacred Companions is your book. Benner knows what he’s talking about, and says it in an easy-to-read manner.

~ Made4purpose (Amazon.com)

Very insightful and practical for the person interested in spiritual direction. I will definitely be reading it again. It will stay on my desk for awhile.

~ Neil Taylor (Amazon.com)

I eagerly await every one of Dr. Benner’s books. This one has not disappointed me. He has produced a thorough and practical guide on one of the most important spiritual topics of our day. A landmark book which I am delighted to recommend highly.

~ Selwyn Hughes

Only real depth will serve us now. The marketplace of possibilities has sent the Western mind and heart into a tailspin. David Benner’s excellent teaching is a way out of the tailspin and into the depth. This is mature religion and will feed us all well.

~ Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

If you’re looking for a book that provides a good introduction to spiritual accompaniment, then this is a book I would certainly recommend.

~ Lucas M. Engelhardt (Amazon.com)

Many Christians in our day are discovering (or rediscovering) ancient wisdom about the Way of Christ that brings life. David Benner is a welcome guide on this journey, both because of his clarity and because he, too, is a pilgrim.

~ John Ortberg

This is one of the best books I have read on the topic.

~ Leighton Ford