David G. Benner. 2003. Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction. Downers Grove: IVP Books.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
The term, soul mate, is often bantered about in the popular media without a clear definition. Usually, a soul mate is simply a photogenic member of the opposite sex who understands you. In seminary a friend spoke intriguingly about spiritual friends who: nurture the development of each other’s soul (16). This definition sounded remarkably like the relationship I shared with my best friend in high school who went on to become a pastor. When I learned that my friend took his comments from David Benner’s book,Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction, I immediately ordered a copy.
Some books are good for information; others offer solace in life’s journey. Benner’s work clearly falls in both camps. He writes: The essence of Christian spirituality is following Christ on a journey of personal transformation…Spiritual friends accompany each other on that journey (26). Reading along I discovered things about myself that had never previously been expressed in words.
One such point was Benner’s comment about spiritual direction. The objective in offering direction is not to provide counsel or even react to things said, but rather to point friends to God’s work in their personal lives. Benner writes: spiritual direction is not primarily about theology. It is about personal, experiential encounter with God (155). Soul care consists, not of advice or disciplining, but of compass reading. Disciplining focuses on first steps while spiritual direction focuses on later stages in the journey (28).
Jesus modeled this focus saying: I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3 NIV). Only someone well along in the journey of life needs to reflect back on childhood experiences. Paul likewise appeared to position himself primarily as a spiritual traveler rather than teacher. For example, Paul writes: Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8 ESV). As a fellow traveler, Paul’s work as an evangelist placed him in the position of a guide pointing the way to Christ. A guide travels; a teacher waits for students to appear.
This “compass reading” objective of spiritual direction and spiritual friendship is critical in offsetting the idolatry of individualism. Normally, a preoccupation with holiness is critiqued by our society as “navel gazing” or becoming all churchy. While is certainly possible to become obsessed with the programs and trappings of the church, becoming sensitive to God’s work in our lives normally has the opposite effect. God is unseen and speaks through people and things seen. When we become sensitive to God’s work, we become more fully aware of everyone and everything else in our lives. This sensitivity accordingly strips away the pretense of individualism. Compass reading has the effect of providing us a better set of priorities because God moves closer to the center of lives. Jesus focused on children, in part, because they are more sensitive, not less sensitive, to what is happening around them than most adults.
Background and Organization
At the time of this book’s publication, David Benner was a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Spirituality at eh Psychological Studies institute in Atlanta, Georgia. His book is written in 9 chapters:
- The Transformational Journey;
- Hospitality, Presence, and Dialogue;
- The Ideals of Spiritual Friendship;
- Demystifying Spiritual Directions;
- Soul Attunement;
- A Portrait of the Process;
- Becoming a Spiritual Director;
- Spiritual Accompaniment in Small Groups; and
- Spiritual Accompaniment in Marriage.
The first 3 chapters focus on spiritual friends; the next 4 focus on spiritual direction; and the last 2 focus on combining the two. These chapters are introduced with a lengthy preface and followed by an epilogue.
If our faith in Jesus Christ is more caught than taught, spiritual friends play a critical role in our walk with the Lord. Reading Benner’s book was a key point in my journey.