Early Christian Models and Methods of Spiritual Direction

 Based on: Desert Hermits
Byz. MS. illum., ca, 1081 Princ. U. Libr., image modif .


Please note that is a “dynamic syllabus”:  it will be adapted and updated as the course progresses.





THIS course will study the early Christian theory and practice of spiritual direction from the first through the twelfth centuries. Texts by eastern and western Christian authors will provide examples of bishops, martyrs, ascetics, and laypersons who served as spiritual guides from the age of the apostles through the early middle ages.  Their writings will afford an opportunity to study the practice of spiritual direction from a variety of perspectives, including the following models:

(1) leader; (2) intercessor; (3) reconciler; (4) spiritual physician (5) teacher; (6) ascetical guide; (7) friend.






THE student will be able to identify important persons, events, and schools of thought that contributed to the formation of early Christian models and methods of spiritual direction. The student will learn to make use of  primary and secondary sources available in both printed and electronic formats, and will become familiar with appropriate reference tools in early church history, spirituality and pastoral theology. 





1)  This course will combine lectures, directed readings, and “Discussion Board Threaded Discussions” based on assigned readings. Active participation in threaded discussions is essential, and will figure into the final evaluation.

2)  Students must choose one of the two options for final course assessment: (1) a written research project 10-15 pages in length, footnoted, with appropriate bibliography; (2) a power-point or webpage-based presentation of approximately 15-20 minutes duration intended for use in teaching, including a recorded narration and clear references to all consulted works.  The instructor will contact each student towards the end of the third and fifth weeks of the course to monitor progress on the research. 

3)   The final course grade will be computed as follows:

Class participation


Research paper






1) Demacopoulos, George E., Five Models of Spiritual Direction in the Early Church, (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2007), ISBN: 0268025908.

2) Byrne, Lavinia, ed. Traditions of Spiritual Guidance, Collected from ‘The Way’…, (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1991), ISBN: 0814620051 [This text is currently out of print: required sections will be provided on the course website].

3. Louf, Andre, Grace Can do More: Spiritual Accompaniment and Spiritual Growth (Cistercian, 2002), ISBN: 087907695-X.

4. Nemeck, K.N, & Coombs, M.T., The Way of Spiritual Direction (Michael Glazier, 1987), ISBN: 0894534475.

5. Karl Rahner, “Reflections on the Problem of the Gradual Ascent to Christian Perfection”, Theological Investigations, vol. 3, pp. 3-23.





Aumann, Jordan, Spiritual Theology, (Sheed and Ward, 1980).

Behr, John, ed., Abba, The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West, Festschrift for Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, (St Vladimir’s Sem., 2003).

Brown, Peter, The Body and Society, (Columbia University Pr., 1988) ISBN: 0231061013

Carmichael, Liz, Friendship, Interpreting Christian Love, by (T & T Clark England, 2004).

Chryssavgis, John, Soul Mending, The Art of Spiritual Direction, (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2000).

Funk, Mary Margaret, [1Tools Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life, (Continuum 2004) ISBN: 0826416551. [2Thoughts Matter, The Practice of the Spiritual Life,  (Continuum 1998) ISBN: 0826411649.  [3Humility Matters: The Practice of the Spiritual Life, (Continuum, 2005) ISBN 0826417280.

Hadot, Pierre, [1Plotinus, or, The Simplicity of Vision, (University of Chicago Press, 1993).  [2Philosophy as a Way of Life, (Blackwell, Oxford, 1995) ISBN 9780631180333.

Hausherr, Irénée, Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel, (Cistercian Publ., 1990).

Inwood, Brad, Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism, (Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1985)

Louth, Andrew,  The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition from Plato to Pseudo-Dionysius, (Clarendon, Oxford Univ. Pr., 1981), ISBN: 0198266685.

McGinn, Bernard, The Foundations of Mysticism, Origins to the Fifth Century (The Presence of God, A History of Western Christian Mysticism, vol. 1) (Crossroad, 1991).

McGuire, Brian Patrick. Friendship and Community: the Monastic Experience 350–1250 (Cistercian Publ., 1988).

Rich, Antony, Discernment in the Desert Fathers (Bletchley, Milton Keynes, 2007).

Sorabji, Richard , Emotion and Peace of Mind From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation (Oxford, 2002) ISBN: 978-0-19-925660-0

Spidlik Tomas, The Spirituality of the Christian East, a Systematic Handbook,  CS 79, (Cistercian, 1986).

Sommerfeldt, J., ed,  Abba, Guides to Wholeness and Holiness, East and West, CS 36 (Cistercian, 1982).

Tanquerey, Adolphe, The Spiritual Life, A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology, (Desclee, New York, 1930). Although out-of-print for many years, the first 427 pp. of this text may be downloaded form the Course Documents section of this course.

Ware, Kallistos, The Inner Kingdom: The Collected Works, vol. 1 (St Vladimir’s Sem. Pr., 2001), ISBN: 0881412090.

White, Caroline, Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century, (Cambridge U. Pr, 1992).






1) [WEEK 1] INTRODUCTION: Models of Spiritual Direction, Ancient and Modern.

COURSE DOCUMENTS: Bishop Kallistos Ware, “Spiritual Direction in the Christian East;” Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O., Spiritual Direction;” Abbot Francis Benedict, O.S.B., “Implications of Spiritual Direction.”

TEXTBOOKS: Demacopoulos, 1-20 (“Introduction”).


COURSE DOCUMENTS: Ilsetraut Hadot, “The Spiritual Guide”; Three pre-Christian models of the “Soul-Guide” or psychopomp: (1) (Plato) Philosopher;  (2) (The Book of Enoch) Angel;  (3) (Cicero) Ancestor. Galen, On the Traditions of Plato and Hippocrates and On the Passions and Errors of the Soul; Porphyry, The Life of Plotinus; Plotinus, Enneads.


COURSE DOCUMENTS: Kittel on five groups of related terms: (1) TEACHER / διδάσκαλος; DISCIPLE / μαθητής ; INSTRUCTOR / παιδευτή .  (2) CONSOLER / παράκλητος; ADVISOR / σύμβουλος ; HELPER / βοηθός.  (3) SHEPHERD / ποιμήν ; GUIDE / ὁδηγός ; ANGEL / ἄγγελος.  (4) HEALER / ἰατρός; TRANSFORMATION. / μεταμορφωσις; RENEWAL / ἀνακαίνωαις; RESTORATION / ἀποκατάστασις.

4) [WEEK 4] MARTYRS and VISIONARIES as SPIRITUAL GUIDES: Ministers of Reconciliation and Intercession

COURSE DOCUMENTS: Christ’s Descent into Hell;  Polycarp of Smyrna; The Shepherd of Hermas; The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity; Cyprian of Carthage.


COURSE DOCUMENTS: The Apostle Peter; Clement of Rome; Ignatius of Antioch; Irenaeus of Lyons; Athanasius.

TEXTBOOKS: Demacopoulos, 21-50 (“Athanasius of Alexandria and Ambivalence Regarding Spiritual Direction”).


COURSE DOCUMENTS: Philo of Alexandria; Cyprian (Lectio Divina as a window into the soul.); Origen; Cassian; Guigo II (the Carthusian).

7a) [WEEK 7] CHRISTIAN ASCETICS as SPIRITUAL GUIDES, (Part 1): Early Abbas and Ammas

COURSE DOCUMENTS: An Introduction to Christian Monasticism; The Life of St. Pelagia; the Apophthegmata (Sayings) of the Desert Fathers [and Mothers]; Antony's “Great Discourse” on discernment.

TEXTBOOKS: Demacopoulos, 51-82 (“Gregory Nazianzen’s Sturggle for Synthesis” ).

7b) [WEEK 8] CHRISTIAN ASCETICS as SPIRITUAL GUIDES, (Part 2): Evagrius Ponticus

COURSE DOCUMENTS: “Introduction to the Life and Thought of Evagrius Ponticus”; Praktikos and the spiritual journey; Antirrhesis; Discernment in On Tempting Thoughts; Psalmody and Prayer.

TEXTBOOKS: Byrne, pp. 3-15, (Benedicta Ward, S.L.G., “Spiritual Direction in the Desert Fathers”).

7c) [WEEK 9] CHRISTIAN ASCETICS as SPIRITUAL GUIDES, (Part 3): Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian

COURSE DOCUMENTS: The Gnostikos, exegete and spiritual guide; Evagrius On Prayer; John Cassian on discernment (Conference 2) and on [keeping/breaking] promises (Conference 17).

TEXTBOOKS: Demacopoulos, 107-126 (“John Cassian and The Spiritual Direction of the Ascetic Community” ).

8) [WEEK 10] SPIRITUAL DIRECTION as MUTUAL SERVICE: Models of Spiritual Guidance in Ascetical Communities

COURSE DOCUMENTS: Basil the Great on lay ascetical communities; Augustine of Hippo; Barsanuphius and John.

TEXTBOOKS: Demacopoulos, 83-106. (“Augustine of Hippo and Resistance to the Ascetic Model of Spiritual Direction”).


COURSE DOCUMENTS:  Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of Benedict 1-7, 58-72; John Climacus, The Ladder; Dhuoda, Manual for William.


COURSE DOCUMENTS: Basil of Caesarea on Spiritual Guidance; Gregory Nazianzen on Qualities of the Spiritual Guide; John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood; Ambrose of Milan, Ecclesiastical Offices and Letter to the Emperor Theodosius; Gregory the Great, Letters, Regula Pastoralis.

TEXTBOOKS: Demacopoulos, 51-82. (“Gregory Nazianzen’s Sturggle for Synthesis”).

11) [WEEK 13] FROM SECRET-KEEPER TO SOUL-FRIEND: Classical, Patristic, and Medieval Models of Friendship and Spiritual Guidance

COURSE DOCUMENTS:  Plato, Lysis; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 8; Cicero, Laelius de Amicitia; Ambrose, de Officiis, on Friendship; Cassian, Conference 16; Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Aelred of Rievaulx, The Mirror of Charity and On Spiritual Friendship.

TEXTBOOKS: Demacopoulos, 127-164 (“Pope Gregory and the Asceticizing of Spiritual Direction”).

OPTIONAL READING: Byrne, pp. 30-42, (Diarmuid O’Laoghaire, S.J., “Soul-Friendship”); Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, Thomas Aquinas on Friendship.

12) [WEEK 14] CHARISMATIC GUIDES and UNCREATED LIGHT, Prayer and Liturgy as Bases of Spiritual Direction

COURSE DOCUMENTS:  Symeon the New Theologian; Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, Germanus of Constantinople on divinizing liturgy; Gregory Pallamas and hesychasm.

TEXTBOOKS: Byrne, pp. 16-29 (Jean Leclercq, O.S.B.., “Spiritual Direction in the Benedictine Tradition”)

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