Book Review: Spiritual Direction

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Thornton, Martin, Spiritual Direction, Wipf and Stock: Eugene, OR, 2012 (previously published by Cowley Publications, copyright 1984) 145 p.

I made my first acquaintance with Martin Thornton in English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology according to the English Pastoral Tradition. It is a very meaty tome and is true to its title. I heartily commend it to anyone with Anglican affinities.

Spiritual Direction is roughly one-third the length of English Spirituality, but I found it to be no less illuminating. In some ways, it is more so. The biggest benefit for me is that it more fully and clearly explains Thornton’s idea of speculative-affective synthesis, which he holds to be a key element of Anglican spirituality. This is the marriage between an analytical bent and an emotional bent, embracing both the Thinkers and Feelers in the Myers-Briggs typology.

Thornton writes for spiritual directors and he writes from experience as a spiritual director and as a trainer of spiritual directors. He gives many useful categories by which to examine “clients” but not in a modern answer-these-ten-questions sort of way. He is comfortable with shades and blending between them. These include not only speculative and affective, but world affirmation and world renunciation, amateur and professional, and grim and gay.

While I found these distinctions realistic, what was most useful was being able to see myself in them. I had several gentle epiphanies with regard to my own attrait as I read. Attrait, another of his terms, is a French word meaning predisposition or bent. “…while it has been insisted that attrait is to be nurtured, part of such nurture is that it should occasionally be curbed.” (p. 114) In other words, sometimes some pruning is in order.

In chapter twelve, Thornton provides insight on the idea of progression in the life of prayer (which he calls the end and means of the spiritual life). He discusses the classic models of progression, but cautions, “They can offer various routes towards your destination, but they are to be read with care and they are not in themselves routes.” (p. 94)

He provides a solid metric by which to measure all spiritual progress. “…the only valid test is moral theology: progress, whatever its exact nature, means committing less sin and growing more joyfully penitent.” (p. 94) It is Thornton’s ability to pull such sharp distinctions out of what can be such murky waters that make his writing valuable.

The book has 2 appendices, giving Thornton’s rough outline of the various schools of Christian thought and a chart showing roughly where certain schools and authors fall on the speculative-affective continuum. Those who have read English Spirituality will find these familiar.

Spiritual Direction is a good book for both priest and parishioner. It can serve as guide toward learning the art of being a spiritual director, but it can also be a useful guide for seeking the benefits of spiritual direction while lacking a director. It was in this later category that book shined most for me.

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Filed under Anglicanism, Asceticism, Book of Common Prayer, Book Review, Martin Thornton, Prayer, Priesthood, Progress, Sanctification

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