So what is spiritual direction and why are all these people of ordinary appearance so committed to it?
The usual definitions of spiritual direction have to do with "helping you to notice God at work in your life" or "helping you with your prayer." It sounds simple enough, and probably unnecessary ~ until you start to think about the other things you do and the level at which you practice them.
The closest analogy for me would be photography. Just as most people pray in some capacity, most people with the technology available to them take photographs. Most of those images are snapshots of family, friends, and vacation scenery, and consist of a subject plopped into the middle of the lens and photographed at a manufacturer-determined and preset level of speed and lighting. The low level of expertise does not preclude the attachment of significant meaning to the photographs; in fact, that image of a slightly-out-of-focus and badly backlit Grandma laughing on the last beach vacation may have far more impact on her family than the professional portrait that sits on the piano. But no one would submit it to a gallery for its consideration.
At the other end of the spectrum are the pros. They know all about lenses and illumination, their houses and workrooms are littered with equipment, and some of them are even paid for their work. They see the world differently than the rest of us do ~ constantly framing, lighting, assessing. They spend hours researching the habits of their subjects, whether those subjects be antelopes or Presidents or the changing colors of the mountains. Their entire lives, interior and exterior, are formed by their passion for creating images as an expression of their lives and ours.
And then there are those of us in the middle. We know a little about the technology, but we have to ask the most basic of questions at each step on the way. We have been known to follow famous photographers down woodland trails, trying to see as they see and once in awhile rallying up the courage to ask them a question or two. As we learn, we do begin to see the world differently than we used to: we notice light and color, we watch where people (and other subjects) place themselves, we notice seemingly unrelated visual connections and relationships. We do not necessarily possess the skill to reflect what we see, at least not on any regular basis, but we do see more textures than we once did. And we are able to do that, most of us, not out of any intuitive brilliance or untutored skill. We are able to do it because other people have helped us learn.
I think that pretty much everything I've just written applies to spirituality as well as photography. (Go back and re-read it and see whether you agree.) And I think that a pretty good working definition for spirituality would be that it is the way in which we encounter God ~ which, in the parlance to which I am becoming accustomed, means prayer. And prayer means an attentiveness to God in all things, so that our listening and our doing and our being all have the potential to become our prayer.
With prayer, I am in the middle once again, just as I am as a photographer. I'm not sure how it happened, but at some long and gradual point in my life, the prayer I heard and repeated in church and in private became a springboard for questions about the Being to whom we were praying, and what exactly it was that we thought we were doing, and what the reverberations might be, and what other means of prayer we might want to explore, and who each of us is in relation to the God we seek or don't seek. And guess what? I needed help. Lots of it.
There is a long history of spiritual direction in the Christian church. A lot of people are surprised to discover the long history of spirituality itself in the Christian church (which is a little bizarre, when you think about it, given that spirituality is about encountering God and church is about ~ what? something else?). My director, who has just moved away, suggested that I read a little Thomas Merton book on direction as I looked for someone new, and I was intrigued to discover that the concept of spiritual drection in Christianity developed in the early centuries of the church among the desert fathers and mothers. It was presumed that the pastoral needs of the people in the churches would be attended to by their priests and bishops. However, once a few hardy souls moved away from the community, it became apparent that a life in solitude could send one off the deep end with surprising ease, and that assistance in staying on track was of benefit. It's not so different today, although a life of prayer in the deserts of northern Africa and the Mideast is for most of us replaced by a life of prayer in the spiritual desert of (post) modern life. The challenging of staying on track has not faded.
What happens in spiritual direction? You talk, a director (or guide, or companion, or whatever you want to call him or her) listens and occasionally nudges, and the Holy Spirit works. It's not therapy, although the mysterious process of human relationship upon which therapy is founded is also at work and, of course, the Big Issues of your life have a way of emerging. It's not devoted to unraveling your past or plotting your future, although both come up as they bear on your attempt to understand and respond to God's disclosure to you in the present. It can be really difficult and serious, and it can be really difficult and humorous. And sometimes it's actually easy.
Spiritual direction (much like a polished photograph) is ultimately about discernment and its consequences. We tend to think of discernment in prayer as a process for the big things in life: Should I marry this person? Go to law school or go to work for Pixar? Pursue social justice or a 401(k)? Turn my life upside down and go to seminary or retain my employment and secure salary? (Yes, go ahead and laugh.) But discernment is a means for seeing God in all things, not just the big ones, and engaging in the process of spiritual direction nurtures that capacity in us. If you are called into the desert of prayer, it's good to have company.