- To Tell The Sacred Tale: Spiritual Direction and Narrative
Janet Ruffing’s scholarly publications, teaching and public leadership have made a major contribution to the field of Christian spirituality. This latest work returns to many of her original insights from her 1989 publication Uncovering Stories of Faith: Spiritual Direction and Narrative (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1989) and both updates and expands them. The expansion, however, is not primarily leading to radically new insights about the praxis dimension of spiritual direction, but going back to its theoretical foundations, and more securely establishing the literary, developmental and neuropsychological pillars on which a narrative approach is grounded. By incorporating the more recent findings from these diverse fields into her focus, she not only broadens the foundation of narrative approaches to spiritual direction, but also sheds new insights into the power of narratives to disclose, shape, and transform our relationship to the divine.
The book opens with a preface containing a good road map for approaching the material and points out key authors whose recent scholarship informs the project. An introduction provides a familiar typology of six models of Christian spiritual direction, each introduced in its historical context with an appreciation for the type of story each model elicits from the directee. For example, Ruffing notes that the Post-Tridentine model begins with the directee’s “sin” story while the Vatican II model begins with the directee’s “grace” story. She invites the reader to consider the way respective models shape the directee’s relationship with the Divine. Chapter One provides two case studies (sacred tales) of spiritual direction and parallels most closely the narrative material from her earlier book. While this chapter gives the reader a sense of the direction process itself, much as one might find in an introductory text focused on praxis, in fact, the case material reappears throughout the book to illuminate theoretical insights regarding narrative’s structure and function for spiritual direction. Chapters Two through Four provide the theoretical material and its embodiment not only with the two case studies of Chapter One but with new material from Ruffing’s more recent directees. Chapter Two is focused on the nature of the spiritual direction conversation in a pluralistic world (following Gadamer) where stories from the margins have dethroned cultural stories of privilege in favor of an emerging new story co-created by God and humanity (following Tracy and Metz). “The Narrative Impulse in Human Experience” is the stuff of Chapters Three and Four. Ruffing draws first on the foundational theory of narrative from her earlier work but expands these literary critical sources with insights from neuroscience. In contrast to postmodern literary theorists who see the self in a state of constant flux, Ruffing uses Dan McAdams’s insights as a corrective to an overly fragmented understanding of the self. McAdams speaks of the continuity of character over time that exists even in the midst of development and transformation.
Drawing on the insights of cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, Ruffing explains that there are two modes of cognitive functioning used as a means of explanation: a well-formed argument and a good story. By telling stories of encounters with the sacred and with the mysteries of faith, directees deepen their appreciation for their own religious experiences. Sharing stories of faith with a spiritual director [End Page 320] gives directees permission to explore the subtle, elusive and vivid aspects of their religious experience. Chapter Five and the conclusion return to a focus on the practice of spiritual direction and explore the role of narrative in the life of the directee and the director, especially as the director engages the sacred stories of the directees. Extensive endnotes composed not only of cited references, but with additional clarifying material are worthy of careful attention. Ruffing’s writing style is engaging and accessible throughout. Occasionally the shift from her earlier material dating from the 1980s to the more contemporary research is overly evident, but for the most part the transitions are seamless. Those who...