Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee, ah saw thee?

The opening words of the ‘Yorkshire National Anthem’ * seem like a good heading to explain to (surviving!) readers why this site got off to a quiet but steady start in 2015, only to then sit seemingly inactive for four and a half years. ‘Where have I been’? No, I haven’t been in prison! No, I haven’t been in Yorkshire either (well, only to visit relatives now sadly Departed), but life and ministry can take unexpected turns, and I have been massively involved in supporting a Chaplaincy in the Diocese in Europe after the Chaplain retired and a long vacancy ensued, as well as in some teaching and formation assignments. If anything, I’ve been doing spiritual guidance and pastoral care, rather than writing about it!

Well, now Ask Fr Chris is back! When I started this site I felt I was responding to a definite vocation, and during this apparent absence the shape of that vocation has become clearer as I’ve taken time to read. pray and reflect. I’ll be honest and say that myriad distractions have sprung up every time my mind has returned to this task (don’t they always?!), but I’m now feeling I have some useful things to say.

In particular I’ve been reading and reflecting about the important but neglected subject of what is misleadingly labelled ‘spiritual depression’, a poor substitute for the untranslatable term ‘accidie’, or ‘akedia’, against which I have struggled all my Christian life. Until very recently the classical writing about this has been largely inaccessible to ordinary Christians. Very recently there has been more interest in the subject in the USA: this has led to some modern writing on the subject, so that information is a little easier to find. Hopefully help to fight this condition will become easier to find as well. I’m now convinced that the Church in the Western world is in the grip of an epidemic of this problem for which there isn’t even an English name, and that our failure to name and deal with the problem leads to the spiritual fading away of hundreds – thousands! – of Christians every year.

So… I’m not claiming to write from a lofty height of patristic insights, but I hope to write at a personal Christian level, as a fellow Christian dealing with the same problem, to share encouragement and hope wherever I find it. Watch this space – now, I’ve got a website to tidy up!

Fr Chris

* ‘Yorkshire National Anthem’ is of course ‘Ilkley Moor’. For Soft Southerners, this opening line translates as ‘Where have you been since I last saw you?’

Do I need a ‘Spiritual Guide’?

Do I need to find a ‘Spiritual Director’ or ‘Spiritual Guide’ or ‘Soul Friend’? St Bernard seems pretty sure of the answer to that question, doesn’t he?

  • ‘He who is his own Spiritual Director is the client of a fool!  (Bernard of Cluny)

The exact name we give this Spiritual ministry can vary. The ‘Director’ is there to help me to move in the right direction – not to be ‘directive’ and tell me what to do! The ‘Guide’ is a fellow-traveller on the journey, walking alongside me to make the journey safer and more fulfilling. The ‘Soul Friend’ is the experienced fellow Christian with whom one shares joys, trials and temptations: a relationship based on shared Christian humanity, where, for the soul’s sake, our best friend can say things we might not take from anyone else!

St Bernard’s warning above reminds us of the age-old human tendancy to deceive ourselves about the reality of our spiritual state. I think this is an eternal truth, but in my experience the problem often isn’t so much fooling ourselves as struggling to discern the reality of ‘where we are’ even when we sincerely want to. It can be hard enough to see ourselves as others may see us, let alone as God might see us! But until we know ‘where we are’, how can we hope to get to ‘where we should be’? Some traditions treat Spiritual Direction as an extension of Confession, but as I’ve hinted it encompasses a far wider and richer tradition that goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. Exploring that tradition in depth would take a thousand blog pages and more, and others are better qualified than I am to write such a work of detailed history.

In my practical experience Spiritual Direction starts with the ‘client’ (‘directee’? ‘patient’? ‘disciple’? – problems abound with all these words!) entering the conversation nervously, carrying the equivalent of a bin-bag full of mixed unsorted spiritual ‘stuff’. We tip this lot out in a heap and sort through the contents together, putting them into piles labelled ‘sins’, ‘doubts’, ‘fears’, ‘questions’ and so on. Quite often things are tangled up in each other, and it can take some time and care to untangle each element and put it in the correct pile. As the conversation develops across a number of sessions, we aim to deal with each pile appropriately, giving each the attention it deserves. Sins are the easiest pile to deal with, and in my experience people are surprised at how small that pile actually turns out to be!

My feeling is that even the most self-assured of us need this kind of help at times. It’s a bit like spiritual housekeeping – some may prefer to make it a regular routine, while others may prefer to deal with it when the need becomes urgent for some reason. Of course this isn’t the totality of Spiritual Guidance, but in my experience this is how it usually starts, and it’s the starting that most newcomers tend to worry about!

Please respond with your comments or questions: if you would like to ask for help, whether for yourself or for somebody you know, please get in touch using the confidential Enquiry Form on this site. I hope this account will encourage you to give it a try!

Fr Chris

Care, or Guidance? – showing the link

A recent comment asked me to expand on my opinion about pastoral care and spiritual guidance that properly understood, the two are closely linked. In recent years, there has been a demand that churches must move from maintenance to mission. In my experience, pastoral care has become lumped with other tasks under the heading of maintenance – keeping people happy, attending, and of course giving(!) – the human equivalent of keeping the roof on the building. (Spiritual guidance, meanwhile, is treated as a luxury extra for a few individuals!) This, I think, is completely wrong: English Church Law regards pastoral ministry as one of the four aspects of mission to which the Church Council must attend, and, although that requirement dates back to the 1950’s, I can see no reason to ignore it now. In a previous job I was challenged to come up with a mission-focussed definition of pastoral care. This what I wrote, and still stand by ten years later. under the quotation Jesus said: I have come that you might have life, life in all its fullness. (John 10, v10)

What is pastoral care? Pastoral care (from the Latin pastor, meaning shepherd) is a practical expression of our faith in a God who loves us all, and who wants the best for everyone. In our pastoral care we aim to continue the healing, forgiving and reconciling work of Jesus Christ. The purpose of this care is that those within the Church receive the help they need to live Christ-like lives to their fullest potential, and that those outside the Church may encounter the Gospel in action through loving deeds as well as the preaching of Christ’s message.

Obviously that definition can encompass a whole range of activities, but spiritual guidance strikes me as clearly being about continuing the healing, forgiving and reconciling work of Jesus Christ in the context of an individual Christian’s life. In my experience, guiding a Christian to grow involves extended conversations where healing, forgiveness and reconciliation need to flow as naturally as teaching, encouragement and all the other elements. It was that thinking which led me to describe pastoral care and spiritual guidance as closely linked. I would go further than that – instead of being treated as something mysterious and ‘other’, I would want to see spiritual guidance as a (maybe more advanced?) facet of the pastoral mission of the Church. I would want the wider Church to have a higher regard for spiritual guidance, as part of a renewed regard for pastoral care as a vital aspect of mission. I think this revolution is long overdue! Does that help? I hope so! Fr Chris

The starting line – how did I get here?

Although I was sure I was called to the priesthood, I didn’t feel naturally ‘wired to be a pastor’. I knew I was ‘called’ to that aspect of priestly ministry, but I certainly didn’t feel especially ‘gifted’ in that direction! Although my early training included the usual elements of psychology and practical skills, I’ve always been aware that there is plenty more to learn, so I’ve grabbed learning opportunities with the aim of keeping skills and knowledge up to date. Especially I thank God for the gifted and effective pastors, ordained and lay, that I have encountered in my Christian life: I have learned so much from them, in my wish to be a competent pastoral minister – the best I could be – for God. Continuing my own life-long learning became even more of a priority for me when I found myself teaching ‘spirituality’ to candidates for ordination in 1989 (the syllabus for the course turned out to be a blank piece of paper!). Since that date, as well as continuing to serve parishes (mainly rural) in Wales and England, I’ve enjoyed various roles in training people to serve as Readers and in similar licensed ministries.

I’ve always been heartened by the Bible saying that

(God) “gave gifts to people”; he appointed some to be apostles, others to be prophets, others to be evangelists,   others to be pastors and teachers. He did this to prepare all God’s people for the work of Christian service, in order to build up the body of Christ.  Eph 4, vv11-12 (Good News version)

I gladly embraced the truth that God’s gifts are shared out in the Church – surely a sign of God’s sense of humour, that such unlikely gaggles of people would need to learn to work together in order be the Body of Christ in that place! In recent years the emphasis has moved towards ‘Every Member Ministry’ – sometimes through genuine conviction, sometimes as a strategy to compensate for a shortage of clergy and money to pay for them. Pastoral care is one of the main roles being delegated to willing(?) volunteers today. Yet here is the rub: a Church which has largely forgotten what pastoral care is really about then tries to get the laity to take on that work, often on the basis of a six week course in a cold Church Hall. Yet we are asking those volunteers to go with limited support into situations that may need skilled and delicate ministry – a bit like like a health service deciding to delegate sophisticated surgery to first-aiders!

This blog sets out with two aims – one is to encourage good pastoral care in God’s Church, the other is to offer a particular  ministry of pastoral support and spiritual guidance to those who strugle to find it in more usual ways. In doing this I feel I am am responding to a Call from God, who is moving my own ministry in this unexpected new new direction, of offering pastoral and spiritual help via the internet.

Thank you for reading this far: I hope you’ll pray now this new venture, and come back to the site on future visits to see how it all develops. In the meantime, may God bless you in your own walk with Christ.

Father Chris