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  • Spiritual AuthorityA Christian Perspective
  • Karl Baier

One could define spiritual authority as the power to support the opening of the entire universe —and especially of the life of human beings—toward union with the redeeming ultimate reality. Christian tradition knows several holders of this power: God, Jesus Christ, the angels, the saints and priests, spiritual guides, and last but not least each and every Christian and person of goodwill. They all are spiritual authorities and together create a field of liberating power with many interdependent centers. One can conceive of spiritual authority in Christianity as a complex interplay between these various forces. The manifestation of spiritual power through them does not take place for its own sake, or to celebrate the holder of spiritual authority, but to empower other centers. Thus, spiritual power is not private property. It is only real insofar as it is passed on to others. In the field of human spiritual authority, tensions and struggles arise if the flow of authority is blocked by a particular center attempting to monopolize spiritual power for the establishment of an illusionary self-identity.

Rather than going into an analysis of the entire field, I would like to take a closer look at one of its facets: “spiritual guides,” those who are acknowledged specialists in helping others to a life in the presence of God. Of course, other centers of spiritual authority will sooner or later also come into the picture, because in the field of spiritual power one authority cannot be understood without the others. Fields of other forms of power and their centers of authority (scriptural authority, political authority, etc.) also influence and partially permeate the field of spiritual authority, but that is a subject for another enquiry.

Spiritual Guidance in the History of Christianity

A central socioreligious form of spiritual authority manifests itself within relationships of spiritual guidance, or (to use the common Christian phrase) within spiritual direction. The remaining part of this paper deals with concepts of spiritual direction and ways of understanding the authority of the director in his or her relationship to [End Page 107] the directee within Christian spiritual life. Before looking into the current situation, I will highlight some milestones in the history of Christian spiritual guidance.

From late antiquity onward, spiritual authority was accepted within Christian communities as a specific form of authority, quite different from other forms and especially different from the authority of the clergy to lead the Church.

The earliest context in which this difference appeared coincides with the beginning of spiritual direction. Spiritual direction in Christianity originated as a monastic concept.1 “Historically it was from the movement of desert monasticism that we received the idea of spiritual direction within the framework of Christian practice.”2 As abba (“father”) and amma (“mother”) ascetics, holy men or women, like the hermits of the Egyptian desert who lived on the periphery of the socioreligious zone controlled by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, functioned as independent spiritual authorities for their fellow monks and nuns as well as for people from further afield who visited the desert to ask for spiritual advice. As one can imagine, the relationship between the two forms of authority was complex, and one can observe tensions and attempts at reconciliation between the authority of the charismatic ascetics and the authority of the bishops, as well as between ascetical ideals taken from monasticism and the pastoral care for lay Christians from the fourth to the sixth century.3

The Decretum Gelasianum, an official document dating back to the beginning of the sixth century, assessed that the vitae patrum—the books containing narratives of the lives and the spiritual teachings of the desert fathers—were to be accepted by the Church as valid teaching with all honor (cum omni honore suscipimus). The use of the term “father” in this text indirectly confirms that no ordination was necessary to receive this honorary title and the ministry connected to it. Most of the fathers acknowledged by the Decretum Gelasianum have never been ordained priests.

When the desert tradition was superseded by organized monasticism, the charismatic authority of the abba or amma became institutionalized in the form of monastery rules, which functioned...