Archive for March, 2017|Monthly archive page

Otherness and Spiritual Direction

In Uncategorized on March 29, 2017 at 8:30 am

“Towards a Non-judgmental Life

One of the hardest spiritual tasks is to live without prejudices. Sometimes we aren’t even aware how deeply rooted our prejudices are. We may think that we relate to people who are different from us in colour, religion, sexual orientation, or lifestyle as equals, but in concrete circumstances our spontaneous thoughts, uncensored words, and knee-jerk reactions often reveal that our prejudices are still there.

Strangers, people different than we are, stir up fear, discomfort, suspicion, and hostility. They make us lose our sense of security just by being “other.” Only when we fully claim that God loves us in an unconditional way and look at “those other persons” as equally loved can we begin to discover that the great variety in being human is an expression of the immense richness of God’s heart. Then the need to prejudge people can gradually disappear.” – Henri Nouwen[1]

A spiritual director would find it necessary and helpful to consider studying Otherness, postcolonial theories, issues of race, equality and diversity for the purpose of giving spiritual direction and exercising spiritual discernment. A spiritual director, for example, could benefit from having a book like this to refer to; Readings for Diversity and Social Justice.[2] As an outsider myself to North America, I would also suggest Edward Said’s book, Orientalism.[3] This is a helpful book to help non-white spiritual directors understand how they might be perceived as the Other by those coming to them for spiritual direction.

Otherness is the term used to signify difference and separation from one group’s or one person’s position. The spiritual director putting herself in a position of privilege (having the status of being a spiritual director, having been trained in spiritual direction, having received spiritual direction, etc.) may forget that spiritual direction is humble listening to and accompaniment of the other. A person going for spiritual direction may understand the cost of doing so. The now often clearly stated “suggested” giving for the spiritual direction indicates a socio-economic class one comes from. A spiritual director who is paid clergy may not charge for giving spiritual direction as her/his employer (the church/denomination) pays her/his salary and s/he is assumed to carry out such direction as part of the pastoral ministry. Spiritual directors, on the other hand, who are part of a religious community or who are independent contractors may have suggested amounts a directee may contribute. In some retreat centres, a box for donation/payment is strategically placed before one proceeds to where offices are.

This pre-amble is simply to set the scenario of a certain standard that has been put in place for spiritual direction here in the west and which is also moving towards the rest of the world. All these assume that people seeking spiritual direction (not therapy) need to know that there is monetary cost connected with spiritual direction. Time is money. The spiritual director is to be taken seriously because the directee is reminded that s/he is coming to a person who is recognised as having achieved some expected standard of what it means to be a spiritual director. This expectation of met standards has to do with how societies view professionalism, education and status. These, to me, are part of what I consider “class.”

In many societies, there are class differences. There is this:


In India, there is the caste system which places people in social classes. While it is rooted in Hinduism, it has become so much part of Indian culture that I have observed Indian Christians who “put themselves unwittingly” into social strata, too. The Chinese have Confucianism which also places people in “their proper place” such as scholars, farms, artisans and merchants. There is also right relationships which are meant to maintain social harmony. These are ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder to younger and friend to friend. Authority and hierarchy are keys to (Chinese) society functioning properly.

Spiritual directors need to recognise that they may not be free from all these beliefs, expectations and prejudices within their own paradigm. Theologically, we need to recognise that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”[4] This implies that both the spiritual director and the directee will have brokenness. This brokenness could include ideas about class and class differences which may or may not hinder the process of spiritual direction. If the spiritual director has not yet recognized within her/himself prejudices about how people in certain socio-economic classes are stereotypically believed to behave and function, the spiritual director may put up blocks which may hinder openness, acceptance, empathy and compassion towards the directee. The directee, on the other hand, may be coming with her/his own class prejudices or feelings of superiority or inferiority. This may prove challenging in how the spiritual director may try to suggest movements the directee can make or the directee may become deferring towards the spiritual director and take everything with such deference that the directee does not listen for the Spirit’s voice.

Class differences can lead to judgmentalism if left unchecked. It would make spiritual direction a hard thing to do if the spiritual director harboured a spirit of judgmentalism towards the directee. If it was reversed, the directee would not be open to the spiritual director. I referred to this article in my reading ( and was glad to see this closing paragraph, “Social class differences come about because of the ideas and values you are surrounded by, the types of social interactions you have at home, school and work, and the sorts of institutional practices and policies that are common in your community,” she says. “That means that these differences are not immutable.” Attitudes towards class differences CAN be changed!

In the context of Christian spiritual direction, the recognition and acknowledgment of Otherness or of the Other is necessary and important – both in oneself and in the directee. It seems like the daily disciplines one practices are crucial in ridding oneself of prejudice towards the other as well as self-loathing. We need to name our brokenness, our prejudices, our gifts and our calling and allow the Spirit of God to continue the work of conversion and transformation. Paul wrote these words to the Philippian Christians,

“be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,”[5]

Regarding the other as better than oneself seems to be what will break the classism that is subtle and insidious. I believe Jesus shows us how to subvert the dangers of isms which rob the Other of dignity. His Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5-7 (and the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke) speaks to the subverting of the world’s value systems which often elevate the powerful and oppress the other. In spiritual direction, we need to recognise that the sin of Othering is present in our societies and sadly even in our churches, but we have the responsibility of resisting those sins and of breaking down the structures that perpetuate them…starting with ourselves.


[2] Maurianne Adams e.a. (eds.) Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (NY/London: Routledge, 2000, 521 pp. ISBN 0-4159-2634-3)

[3] Edward W. Said Orientalism (New York:Pantheon Books) 1978

[4] Romans 3:23

[5] Philippians 2:2b-5