What is Spiritual Direction
Direction was a term I first heard in 1990.
I was going through a major life crisis at the time, and was
anxiously looking for some spiritual support. I needed more time and
more depth than my usual spiritual support persons could give me, a
Methodist at the time.
some desperation, I wrote the well-known Catholic author on
spirituality, Henri Nouwen. I
explained how a major illness, Chronic Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, had
shattered my plans for a career in church consulting.
My seminary work had to be delayed, and there was little hope of
recovery from this illness. I
felt devastated and confused. God
seemed so far away.
Nouwen's suggestion to me at that time was to find and work with a
Spiritual Director. He sent
along a small pamphlet describing what a Director did, and suggested
praying that God would bring me in contact with the right person.
You might say that my first spiritual directors were Thomas
Merton and Therese of Liseaux because I read their writings and was tremendously
helped and encouraged. Father
Nouwen, Merton and The Little Flower were significant in my decision to
convert to Catholicism.
When the Sister and I met once a month for about an hour, I shared with her my very human fears, anxieties, hopes, dreams and experiences of God. Due to my illness, I should say that it was my "lack of experience of God" that we talked about most. She suggested some spiritual reading material, gave me her thoughts and experiences from her spiritual journey, showed me new ways to pray and prayed for me. I became aware of how we can experience great dryness in prayer. She helped me avoid the trap of despair or anger at the lack of God's felt presence. She shared with me how others had gotten through this part of the spiritual journey through a quiet, passive kind of opening and waiting on God. Having experienced much physical pain in her life, she was able to help me find God in my own experience of chronic, painful illness. She listened non-judgmentally to my anger and frustration at God.
When circumstances prevented our continuing together as spiritual companions, I found a male Spiritual Director who worked extensively with me in the area of meditation. I remember praying monthly on each of the "seven deadly sins"--greed, anger, sloth, envy, gluttony, lust and pride. I was humbled to discover how I was subject to them and challenged to discover how they were warning signs pointing to legitimate needs in my life that needed my attention. Another exercise he suggested involved looking at all areas of my life to see where I had left God out. Like most of us, I had left God out of my negative emotions such as envy and anger. My director guided me over several months to open myself to God in all of life's areas, such as my work life, family life, and emotional life. Each month when we met for an hour, I shared with him what had happened as I had prayed.
From my sharing, he would suggest other exercises and ways of prayer. My favorite exercise was meditating on the gifts of God, such as Love, Joy and Peace. God became so personally real to me through the many exercises he suggested. My Spiritual Director's "holy listening" increased the effectiveness of our sessions as we both listened for God's guidance. Through our prayerful sharing during our once a month sessions my faith deepened and I was strengthened to face life's difficulties.
As I reached another crisis in my life, marital difficulties, I found it necessary to look for my next spiritual director. I met him when I went on a three-day retreat. He is my most recent Spiritual Director. (Sometimes we need female directors and other times male directors, depending on the needs of our soul.) I connected with him at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, California. During that retreat, I experienced a miracle of physical healing. His style of spiritual direction was different than I had experienced before. He suggested certain spiritual reading, which is common facet of spiritual direction, but he also asked me to record and share my dreams. When we met daily for our one-hour sessions, I shared my insights during my spiritual reading plus my dreams which revealed my current reasons for grief and anger. He affirmed my reasons for my emotional pain and asked key questions to help me discern what I needed to do to help myself and to experience God's help. One of the dreams during that retreat was so dramatic in nature, that I woke up the next day free of the symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction. The dream, together with the dream work my director and I did together, opened long repressed and suppressed areas of my soul to the light of God. The physical healing along with healing of my soul were the results. This director's style which helped me discover my false self, my shadow side, and helped me invite God into these areas, so improved the quality of my entire life, that I began studying spiritual direction myself. I now offer this style of spiritual direction for others.
Through my own experiences of having a spiritual director and through my study and internships in spiritual direction, I can summarize how I see spiritual direction and its benefits. There are times of transition, change or crisis in our lives from time to time. It is during these times people most often seek spiritual direction. There are other times, when a person is simply seeking deeper meaning in life and richer experience of God. This is a time to enter spiritual direction also.
Here are some of the benefits. First, the spiritual director helps by prayerfully listening to the directee share his or her thoughts and feelings which make up their current life experience.
director listens for how God is drawing the directee and can suggest
ways of praying, specific reading, or other spiritual disciplines to
help the directee find God in their specific circumstances.
Second, the director can comfort, encourage and challenge the
directee by companioning the directee in finding God's invitation or
direction within the directee's particular experience.
Catholics have been prolific in their writing, and the spiritual journeys of many are recorded for our benefit today. A director can discern which writers may be of more benefit than others to a particular directee. Fourth, the director can help with the discernment process as the directee seeks to make crucial life decisions. Fifth, the director can be the channel through whom God's healing can come. Sixth, the director can assist the directee in finding additional support in therapy or through medical assistance.
Some spiritual directors charge a fee, some ask for a stipend, and some who are salaried do not receive income from direction. One only need ask the director what they prefer. Once a month for about fifty minutes is the usual amount of time spent in direction. Some persons receive direction only once, others continue for several years. It is up to the directee to decide what they need, although the director can give input if asked.
most significant benefits from receiving spiritual direction is a
deepened and enlivened awareness of God in all aspects of one's
life. Assistance in the discernment process while making key
discisions is a treasured gift from the direction relationship.
Making sense of certain religious experiences also takes place
during spiritual direction.
you're wondering whether you might benefit from Spiritual Direction, you
might ask yourself:
Do I want to know God more intimately?
Do I feel the need to better live out my Christian vocation of
marriage, singleness or religious life?
want to learn how to find God's will?
If you know something is happening to you that you can't understand, or are attracted to a deeper relationship with God, Spiritual Direction can be of help to you. You may simply need a nonjudgmental place to talk about spiritual matters. Spiritual direction can provide that place. A Spiritual Director is a reverent listener who creates an atmosphere where you can look honestly at your relationship with God and reflect on how God communicates with you. The Director can validate your unique experience of God, help you know God in new ways and help you know yourself more deeply and honestly.
The key things to look for in a spiritual director are: Is he or she a person of prayer? Have they had training from a respected training program? Do they have a spiritual director and a supervisor of spiritual direction--someone they report to for accountability? Are they active in their local parish?
The process of spiritual direction begins when you call a director for a personal interview. During that interview you can assess whether the director is one you would like to work with, discuss how often you want to come and the director's stipend policy if any. If you feel a drawing to Spiritual Direction, do not put it off. Pray and ask God to provide the right Director for you. When you hear of a Director you might be able to work with, give him or her a call.
Nancy Pfaff, MA, is a spiritual director in the Northern Nevada area. She also gives retreats, workshops and teaching on prayer. Call her at: (775) 560-3030.