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Exploring spiritual direction

Directors guide believers in their spiritual journeys

Life sometimes comes in shock waves. A marriage teetering between life and death. A child born to an unmarried teenage daughter. A job loss. A notice of house foreclosure. A middle-of-the-night chaplain’s visit bearing the news of a son’s death.

Sometimes life can be too much. Within two years Karen had endured each of these shock waves. When it seemed the hurt could not go any deeper, it managed to seep through whatever remaining façade of togetherness Karen could fake. And then her 23-year-old son — her only son — died.

Out in the familiar Michigan countryside near the property of a dear friend, Karen walked. Soon family and friends would be coming to bury the ashes of her son under a sapling that would be planted at the service. Alone in the place that had nurtured her through the years, Karen cried out to God, “You’re still here, aren’t you?”

A butterfly fluttered near her chest. Then it flew away, circling back and coming close several times in the next few minutes. God, through creation, reminded Karen that yes, he was still very present.

This butterfly experience may seem coincidental and perhaps strange. Theologically, can we affirm that God answers a mother’s cry with a butterfly? There is at least one realm in which this experience will be taken seriously, even welcomed — a spiritual direction session. In this context, I have found there is freedom to examine life — the best of it and the worst of it — and look for evidence of God.

Clearly for Karen, meeting the butterfly that day was significant. To her it felt as if God had come personally and intimately to answer a question from her soul. God was still with her. Her faith was not in vain.

Developing spiritual sensitivity

James Krisher, author of The Ongoing Work of Jesus, writes, “Relating to Jesus requires the cultivation of our spiritual senses — we must learn how to listen for him with our heart, and how to see him with the inner eye of love. Often this requires practice, even a lifetime of developing spiritual sensitivity, as not many are instantly adept at it. But Jesus himself works with us, helping to open those channels of communion that create the possibility for a deepened intimacy.” Spiritual direction is a creative process of “cultivating the spiritual senses.”

In scripture we read that before Samuel knew the Lord, the Lord called out to him. After several confusing wake-up calls, Eli the priest “discerned that the Lord was calling the boy” (1 Samuel 3:8). Sometimes we need another person to help us discern what is not clear in our own minds.

During a transitional season of my life, I sought to understand God’s next steps for me. Through watchful prayer and attention to the events of life, a course seemed to be emerging. But I still didn’t feel completely sure. My spiritual director lovingly said, “I think the only thing left for God to do is send you an e-mail.” Even better, that same day the lectionary reading was from Deuteronomy 1:6-7: “You have stayed long enough ... resume your journey.” The answer was clear. It was time to act.

Commonly used metaphors to describe spiritual directors are companion, soul friend or midwife. A midwife, for example, assists in the preparations for birth and is present at the time of delivery. It is always the mother,  however, who labors, pushing the baby out from her body. It is the same in the spiritual direction relationship. A director can coach, support, listen and pray, but it is the directee who must birth his or her own life.

Finding a starting point

A helpful starting point for beginners in spiritual direction is to reflect upon key memories and life markers. Frederick Buechner suggests that we “take time to remember on purpose.” God instructed Joshua to remove 12 stones from the Jordan River and place them at Gilgal as a permanent marker to the fact that “Israel crossed over the Jordan on dry ground” (Joshua 4:22). The stones formed a monument to remind the travelers (and future generations) of God’s direct intervention in making a dry, passable road to their new home.

This type of remembering varies from the therapeutic model. We do not remember in order to fix. We remember in order to see God in our unique life story, sometimes noticing God in past events for the first time.

The Awareness Examen is a form of prayer central to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius that encourages us “to find God in all things.” During daily times of remembrance guided by the Spirit, we review actions, words, thoughts, moods, urgings and feelings in order to discern how God is drawing us to him that day.

While in prayer we recall the times we responded to God by coming close and sometimes by moving away. After noticing these interior movements, we can celebrate with God the times of faithful response, and repent for the times we did not recognize God’s voice, or willfully ignored it. Finally, we resolve to be open to God’s grace tomorrow in light of his directions today. 

These interior movements, brought to conscious awareness through prayerful remembering, become fodder for meetings with spiritual directors. For the praying Christian, we are wise to join with King Solomon in asking God for a discerning heart. William Barry asserts, “Every human experience can have a religious dimension for a believer who expects to encounter God.” We are then beginning to learn what it is to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). 

Therapy and spiritual direction

It’s common for spiritual directors to connect with people in spiritual direction after they have come through a season of therapy. Having uncovered life themes, memories and patterns, and developed personal growth strategies, they now desire to go even deeper to find God’s threads woven into their histories. With a significant measure of psychological healing, they are free to embrace their own stories and enthusiastic about working with God in the world.

Karla had done much good work with a therapist regarding her history of sexual abuse by an uncle. Karla is a spiritually sensitive woman, one who had developed a strong listening ear for the words of God.

With two children, an extremely tight household budget and a rewarding ministry to teens in her parish, Karla felt a movement within her to have a third child. Was this movement from God? Because of her early childhood experiences and current life circumstances, this prompting was a surprise. Karla’s discernment process was quite peaceful because she was approaching God in freedom and openness.

Together in the hospital room after David’s birth, Karla and I shared a profound spiritual mystery; this 9-pound baby was one woman’s tangible response of faith. Karla was finding fuller healing from her past by moving boldly into the future, a future as a youth minister and mother of three.

Discerning the movements of God leads people to respond to life in unique ways. For Karla it was a third child. For someone else it may be the decision to have no children.

Tom left a pastorate in a revitalized rural church to move closer to home and family. Debi completed what had been left undone, receiving her ordination papers from her denomination. Eileen changed denominations to worship and serve in another that allows women freedom to respond to God’s call, whatever it may be. Terry remains in her church for now, even though it only has men in leadership. Sonja continued to preach Jesus Christ and the Bible even when many in her church wanted her to stop.

In Spiritual Director, Spiritual Companion, author Tilden Edwards writes: “Though the ordering of church and society will involve different roles of authority and knowledge in order to function well, spiritual direction assumes an egalitarianism at the soul level, and by implication an equal valuing of everyone’s human well-being, with all that this implies for the just structuring of human community. Everyone is born of God; God loves everyone equally; God is dynamically present for everyone equally, though in different forms and with different degrees of recognition and embracing at different periods of our lives.”

God is the ultimate director

Since it is God who is “The Director,” no spiritual director knows in advance where God will move a directee. As a result, a director can never be so bold or foolish as to suggest a path based on gender, education, age or societal norms because we simply don’t know the all- encompassing will of God. Directors help people with humility and sensitivity to the reality of the blowing wind of the Holy Spirit; no one knows where it comes from or where it is going. 

Together the director and directee wait for God to reveal the mystery. To one the wind will blow in the direction of ordination. Another will hear a call to lay ministry. For many, the wind will blow to an egalitarian church home, to others the wind says “stay.” Each issue is open to discernment in anticipation of a surprise from God.

A good spiritual director will be one who welcomes the opportunity to hear again and again the stories of Christians whose intent is to allow God to form within them a discerning heart. The director and directee watch as God actively pursues his friends through the sacraments, scriptures, dreams, prayers, life events, people, moods, feelings — and perhaps a butterfly. Together they notice where the directee was able to respond to the love of God, and where he or she pulled away from that love.

Hiding from God and running from God are as old as Adam and Eve and Jonah. Resistance is a term used to describe this withdrawal. Even with a secure relationship with the savior, Christians sometimes try to avoid the holy. As people cultivate their spiritual senses, their image of God will expand and mature. This expansion can lead to an increased desire to  experience God in fresh ways, thus moving the individual to where God is and welcoming his attempts to create something new. 

We all pick and choose aspects of God’s character to for a compsite to which we relate. A self-created image of God needs to be acknowledged for its limitations; it is only a partial glimpse of God. One image Jesus used for himself was the mother hen that gathers her brood under her wings (Luke 13:34). Adding a tender image like this made all the difference for Olivia.

In the past, Olivia’s limited image of God was based on metaphors that were authoritarian and punitive. It is true that God is described as king and judge. But the Bible also uses the metaphors of a comforting mother (Isaiah 66:13), healer (Hosea 11:3) and intimate friend who knows his own by name (Isaiah 43:1). Expanding her vocabulary for God opened Olivia’s soul. It has changed the way she prays. She is less resistant and more confident about trusting the goodness of the Lord.

Finding a spiritual director

Spiritual direction has been practiced for hundreds of years within the Christian church. For a growing number of people, there is the realization that seeing a spiritual director is a vital part of their ongoing formation as Christians. Still others seek a soul friend because, although faithfully praying, their faith feels dry — God feels distant. Some Christians have given up on prayer altogether, disappointed in the practice and perhaps in God. The need to make a major life decision brings others to direction.

Like finding a new dentist, accountant or other professional, locating a spiritual director may require a creative and intentional search. A word-of-mouth recommendation is always good, but you may not want to see the same director as a friend.

Spiritual Directors International is the only membership organization for this profession. You can call 415-566-1560 or e-mail office@sdiworld.org to get a regional coordinator for your area. The coordinator will suggest a few names of directors for your consideration. SDI has members from a wide spectrum of theological perspectives, and its listings do not indicate an endorsement. Retreat centers, seminaries, church-related organizations, denominational offices and the CBE listing may also help point the way.

Before calling a director, it would be wise to reflect on your own place in life. Seek clarity as to the type of director that would best work with who you are at this stage of your journey. Are there theological perspectives that you would like to hold in common with the director? Are gender, age, marital status, or level of training important factors to you? Practical concerns like travel distance or ease of scheduling often come into play. Most spiritual directors are employed outside this field; finding a mutually agreeable meeting time can be a challenge.

Once you have located a “candidate,” feel free to interview him/her. Ask your theological questions. Find out whether the director receives both direction and supervision. What is the fee? If both of you feel comfortable to begin, it is common practice to meet together three times and then evaluate how it is going. This hour each month can become a surprisingly rich spiritual discipline used by God to form you into what God has created you to be. It is the gift of his presence that we humbly beg for each time we get together. In his presence, both director and directee are inspired to become more like Jesus and live as true friends of God.

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