On not treating souls as dittos - by Trevor Mapstone

Posted on September 2nd, 2020

Eugene Peterson found world fame for his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message. The motivation for that work was his experience over many decades as a pastor and spiritual director who sought to help people to discern the ways of God for them through their engagement with the words of the Bible. Peterson’s earlier writings (Working the angles, for example) speak of the high priority he gave to spiritual direction in his work over several decades as the pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in Maryland and of his delight in listening to people as they told their stories.

There is a line in his autobiography, The Pastor, which gets to the heart of his approach to spiritual direction and which I find both encouraging and challenging. He is describing the inspiration which he drew from the letters of Baron Friedrich von Hugel when he writes,

I didn’t want to be a pastor who treated souls as dittos.

What a provocative sentence! Do I ever find myself treating souls as dittos?

Peterson was alert to the temptation to make assumptions about individuals, to pigeonhole them according to psychological and spiritual type, or a whole host of other categories, and to miss both the uniqueness of the person before him and the particularity of their story.

As spiritual directors, we bring to every appointment an impressive set of tools and a wide experience of accompaniment. These can equip us to be wholly present to the fresh, never-to-be repeated encounter with this unique person at this specific, never before experienced moment in their life. It is in our gift to treasure the threads of the other’s tale and to remind them of disclosures, discoveries, and discernments previously shared. Our struggle, even as we appear to be listening, is that we can find ourselves thinking that we have heard all this before or processing people according to a spiritual direction algorithm. This struggle, I think, is what Peterson puts his finger on.

As I ponder Peterson’s poignant phrase, I sense an invitation to rejoice in the ministry of spiritual direction and a call to lay aside anything which causes me to treat souls as dittos.

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