I have found myself wondering recently if Jesus had a spiritual director, and I have come to the conclusion that He must have. But who might it have been?
I need first to say what I mean by spiritual direction, because I think that we tend to define it much too narrowly. Classically it is understood as a conversation between two people in which one helps the other to recognise God’s presence in their life, and then supports them in responding to it. Today that tends to be a matter of regular meetings every couple of months. But I’m sure that most spiritual direction doesn’t take place like that! My sense is that it most often takes place between people who have never heard of the term, and who have no idea that that is what they are offering each other.
For example, I find it difficult to imagine how you could to be a member of any religious group without being party, from time to time, to conversations of this sort. Indeed, I seem to recall that Ken Leach used to argue that every Christian church will have at least one wise person to whom others informally go to seek advice on spiritual matters. It doesn’t need to be named as spiritual direction for that to be what is happening.
Many of Jesus’ encounters with men and women recorded in the Gospels fit my definition but they seem to have been just one-off meetings. So diaries and ongoing meetings are not obligatory!
I reckon that there’s a strong Christian tradition of spiritual direction being offered in groups. I belong to a couple of such groups, and the old Methodist class system used to work very much in that way I think. So it doesn’t have to be a one to one conversation.
And I think that the majority of church goers get their spiritual direction from the ethos of Sunday morning worship and the collective assumptions of the group, and usually don’t feel the need for anything more personal.
A lady who used to come to me for spiritual direction once told me that she had two spiritual directors. I was a bit taken aback. ‘Yes’ she said, ‘I value coming to talk with you…….but I often simply climb this big hill near our home because God has always felt very real there, and I’ve come to think of the hill as my other spiritual director!’ She taught me that places may act as spiritual directors. Cats and dogs often make good spiritual directors too in my experience, if we will but hear the wisdom that they offer. So human beings aren’t essential either!
So while there is a place for regular one to one spiritual direction conversations, most spiritual direction takes place as a part of ordinary everyday life without anybody thinking that anything special is happening and without recourse to overtly ‘spiritual’ language: such is the graciousness of God.
In this sense Jesus must have been on the receiving end of spiritual direction: how else could He have learned of the Jewish tradition within which He grew up? Somebody must have taught Him? And there surely must have been people to whom He talked as He developed the confidence to trust what He believed the God He came to know was calling Him to? So who might they have been?
You might think of John the Baptist? Tradition talks of them as cousins, and the Gospel assumes that they were ‘family’. But John does seem to have had his doubts about Jesus [Luke 7:18-23] which perhaps casts doubt on their having this sort of relationship?
Mary and Joseph seem more likely candidates. Its difficult to avoid the assumption that as His parents they must at the very least, have influenced His understanding of God.
Simeon, who blessed Jesus as a baby in the Temple, might be a possibility. We tend to think of him as an old man at Jesus’ birth but Luke doesn’t actually say that he was, and so he might well have lived on for some years and maintained a relationship with the growing boy.
What about one of the scholars in the Temple who engaged in discussion with the twelve year old Jesus in a process that might well have been spiritual direction? Maybe that conversation continued over time with one or more of them?
Or might there have been, there surely must have been, a rabbi or senior member in the synagogue back home in Nazareth or Capernaum from whom the young Jesus learnt much about His faith and the scriptures, by osmosis if not by more direct and explicit means. This seems perhaps a likely source of spiritual direction for the growing boy.
But there is another possibility. Kenneth Bailey in “Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes” writes of:
“a lay movement that sprang up in the villages of the Holy Land around the time of Jesus. In any given village, serious-minded Jews would gather and devote themselves to studying the Torah and applying its laws to their day. Everybody ‘kept their jobs’ but spent their spare time discussing the law. We can be confident that Jesus was a part of this group because in the Gospels he demonstrates skills in the rabbinic style of debate such as were nurtured in these fellowships. After those eighteen years of ‘theological education’ Jesus was ready to begin his public ministry.”
Now Jesus early ministry seems to have been based in Capernaum. Mark’s Gospel tells us He called Simon, Andrew, James and John there [1:16ff] He preached in the synagogue there [1:21ff] and then heals Simon’s mother in law in Simon and Andrew’s house [1:29ff] and the same evening heals those who were brought to Him, before going into the hills to pray and then leaving to preach throughout Galilee [1:35ff]. He returns to Capernaum where He was “at home” and heals a paralysed man [2:1-12] He calls Levi to follow Him [2:13f] and shares a meal “in His house” with tax collectors and sinners [2:15-17]. All this takes place in Capernaum. It would make sense to conjecture that Jesus got to know Simon, Andrew, James and John, and maybe even Levi, as members of the Capernaum group of the sort that Bailey describes
And maybe there is even more to this idea? I wonder if there might have been some group spiritual direction available to Jesus? There is no direct evidence for that, but there is circumstantial evidence.
Paul in Galatians [2:9] writes of visiting Jerusalem and there meeting the three pillars of the church who are named as Peter, James and John. Now these three are all from Capernaum, and the Gospels tell us that He invited them to be present at what we now call The Transfiguration and they were with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane too, so they seem to have been singled out. It was Peter who spoke on behalf of the Twelve at Caesarea Philippi and said that Jesus was ‘the Christ of God’, and who was then rebuked when he challenged Jesus for talking of his coming suffering; it was Peter whom Jesus said would betray Him and he did; and it was Peter who recognised the Risen Jesus [John 21:7] It was Peter and John who ran to the tomb on Easter morning [John 20]. It was John who was called ‘the beloved disciple’ [John 13:23]. It was James and John who sought special status from Jesus to the indignation of the other ten disciples and were rebuked by Jesus for doing so[Mark 10:35-45].
So there seems to have been a special relationship between Jesus, Peter, James and John, and Jesus appears to have confided in these three above the others. Might that have involved a degree of mutual spiritual direction which began in a Capernaum study group? All of this is conjecture of course, but I find it intriguing and quite compelling.
Or if we go with the non personal approach then the wilderness seems to have been a place of insight for Jesus, as do the lonely desert places and hill tops to which He seems to have retreated for solitude.
But of course we don’t know anything for sure: there is no hard evidence. Anybody or anything that did serve Jesus in this way has been forgotten of course, which I guess is how it should be.