Middle-class spiritual direction

Rows of contemporary middle class homes near Los Angeles, California.

Spiritual direction is sometimes accused of being for the worried, white, middle classes. It is true that many who come for, and train in spiritual direction are white and middle class – mostly women, mostly well into the second half of life. Maybe the criticism is correct. If others do not come for spiritual direction, what does this say? Do they not want or need it? Do they not know about it? Do certain cultures not encourage it, or perhaps actively discourage it? Do white middle-class people actively or implicitly discourage other cultures and classes? These are important questions, and I have honestly to say that I think the answer to the last three questions is “Yes”. We bolster a fragile identity by demonising difference.

But before I accept this critique and take down my shingle, I want to attempt a defence. I want to consider the possibility that there is something to be learnt, that there is meaning in this demography, and that those who come for spiritual direction are not being merely (or only) self-indulgent and snobbish.

The idea of the middle-class is fairly recent with values such as:

  • education as the route to a career or profession and an improved lifestyle;
  • hard work;
  • deferment of gratification;
  • independence from the inherited wealth of the landowners, and the lack of means of the peasants;
  • upward mobility;
  • an improved standard of living;
  • a good, secure, happy life.

I think these values are being found to be spiritually bankrupt. The means (education & hard work leading to wealth & security) have become the ends (economic growth as the final arbiter of success), and the ends do not satisfy. Beyond a certain amount, money, possessions, and independence fail to make us happier (discuss), but we keep going anyway. The investment does not deliver the promised returns. The means become confused and corrupted. (Unchecked economic growth will, like an untreated cancer, be our downfall.)

For example, the idea of education is being increasingly co-opted into so-called ‘vocational’ training – fitting a person for work, rather than stimulating a lively, innate curiosity through which a person finds work that fits. My children are no longer allowed to play – play being the primary way we explore the world and find “our place in the family of things” – but every experience becomes an educational ‘opportunity’ in which preordained aims and objectives are inculcated. (Recently one of my daughters has asked if she can stop taking clarinet exams and just learn more music in her lessons. Three cheers to that!)

We are enslaved to a human construct we think is real. We are magnetised by the belief that money and security lead to happiness. We become confused, lost, and desperate when they don’t. The temptation is just to keep going and try for more. But we have look elsewhere. We have to disentangle ourselves from our ‘attachment’ to this ideology and (through play?) discover values and ways of living that are more satisfying, fulfilling, or at least real. This is the point at which spiritual direction comes into its own.

Spiritual direction offers an opportunity to reflect upon questions such as, “What do I really want?” and, “How’s it going with God?” and, “Whose story do I want to be part of?” The idea of God is the idea of a reality outside, beyond, prior to, and separate from the reality we construct. And while even our idea of God is a construct, God – that which may not be named – is not a construct, but rather that upon which all our constructs depend, and within which they are relativised.

White, middle-aged, middle class women and men are deserving of spiritual direction. Meanwhile, the middle-class project can only take us so far. It provides momentary security and comfort, which is a blessing in an insecure, uncertain, fragile, and temporary life. For some, the ultimate failure of this project is the beginning of spirituality. Cue spiritual direction, stage left.


I wrote this piece a while ago. Today I read this:

Real conversion is centred on God; it results from a deeper turning toward him [sic] rather than a closer inspection of ourselves. But this very turning calls us away from our middle-class values, our self-righteousness, our complacency, or from a life ruled by fear. Conversion, at its root, is not the action performed but the source of that action, the experience of being loved.

Carroll & Dyckman, Inviting the Mystic Supporting the Prophet

Amen. Halleluia!

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