Margaret Guenther describes the art of spiritual direction poignantly as “holy listening.” Kenneth Leech defines the spiritual director as “soul friend.” Spiritual direction then, is one spiritual friend joining another spiritual friend in prayer. It is a coming together to listen for the Spirit and the cultivating of a life inclined to listen to the Spirit. The spiritual director is a person practiced in the contemplative life, a life of intention and discernment, who commits to journeying alongside another person as a companion amidst their spiritual journey.
A personal relationship with God can offer us comfort and joy, but understanding who God desires to be for us, and what God desires to do for us can be a confusing or frustrating process. Outside of gathering for church, the spiritual life can often be a solitary journey. The role of a director is that of a companionship, one who gently guides another to look for the Spirit, for the movement of God in every day life, and towards integration of one’s true self, through contemplative disciplines.
The focus of the practice of spiritual direction is on experience, not ideas, and in particular, experiences of God as revealed in the prayer life of the individual. The director helps a person “to pay attention to God’s personal communication with him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God and to live out the consequences of the relationship.” It’s aim is to offer an individual tools to help him/her make room for God in a busy and noisy world, how to rest in the presence of God so you can hear God and cultivate a deep abiding relationship with God who speaks uniquely and individually to each of our hearts.
WHAT IS CONTEMPLATION & CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER?
We are most familiar with forms of prayer that involve talking to God and accustomed to hearing God speak through scripture or a word given in a sermon. Prayer as we commonly understand it has much to do with asking God for something, or thinking something through, working something out, or as getting insights. Contemplative prayer, however, cultivates a deeper awareness of God’s communication to us, (we can understand this also as discerning the heart of God), but contemplative prayer also involves a willingness to respond to this communication. God desires to be a friend to us, and as such, wants to know the true feelings often buried in our hearts. Because listening to God requires a cultivated attention towards God, contemplation begins “when a person stops being totally preoccupied with his own concerns and lets another person, event, or object take his attention.” Contemplation then means a movement away from self-absorption towards becoming absorbed in the person of Jesus as revealed in scripture, creation/nature, one’s own life, one’s own heart, and the life of world.
WHAT HAPPENS IN A SPIRITUAL DIRECTION MEETING?
What does the director do?
A typical spiritual direction session first begins with an acknowledgement that the director and the “directee” are sharing a sacred space and are joined by the presence of God. They may begin in sharing a few moments of silent prayer until the directee feels ready to break the silence and share what’s on their heart. The director may also begin the session with a simple question such as, “How do you come?” Or “How have thing been since we last met?” Both the prayer and question are invitations to the directee to share what he/she has been noticing in their prayer life and quiet time with God. The director’s role is to help the directee pay closer attention to how God has been at work in their lives, and to help the directee form responses to how God is moving, speaking and inviting himself into their lives. The director does not attempt to fix or correct the person/or situation, or to advise and in that way spiritual direction as a practice can often be frustrating to some. But the director listens with love, asks poignant questions intended to encourage the directee to identify their own feelings and responses that emerge in relation to God’s movement. Based on the directees’ sharing, the director may make suggestions about spiritual practices or experiences that the directee may want to explore in the coming month to deepen their relationship with God.
What does the directee do?
The directee shares about his or her relationship with God (as much or as little as he/she feels safe to share), what the directee has noticed in their prayer life, how God seems to appear in their quiet time, feelings that are aroused in prayer – negative or positive. Anything that is in the realm of one’s spiritual life is appropriate to share in the meeting with the director.
Suggestions a spiritual director may make:
Sometimes a director will suggest specific kinds of contemplative prayer (such as centering prayer, lectio divina, the prayer of examen, etc.), or perhaps highlight a question that the directee may want to keep before God during the coming month. Suggestions about ways to practice the presence of God, to grow in discernment, and to explore issues of call and vocation may also be made. A director may encourage the directee to practice a specific spiritual practice or discipline (such as journaling, solitude, service, scripture readings, spending time in nature, or fasting) for a season.
HOW OFTEN DOES SOMEONE MEET WITH A DIRECTOR?
Typically, one meets with a spiritual director once or twice a month. The time is used to reflect on the directee’s experience in relationship with God during the past month. The director and directee may explore together what the directee’s prayer experience has been, or to talk about other matters that have influenced his or her experience of God.
HOW CAN I BE HELPED BY THE PRACTICE OF SPIRITUAL DIRECTION?
Spiritual direction is an utterly confidential setting, giving a directee an opportunity to explore with someone who is safe and non-judgmental the real issues of their spiritual life. The director is not there to “fix” the directee, or to make the directee “holier,” or to tell him or her what he or she should do or be. Rather, the director is there to help to create a sacred space which will facilitate an ongoing conversation between the directee and God, and to provide another set of listening ears for the words and the work of God in the directee’s life. Spiritual direction helps to identify feelings one has towards God, reveals the heart of God towards us, and ultimately encourages a deep intimacy with God as a friend who has an undying, abiding love for us.
HOW IS THIS DIFFERENT FROM COUNSELING?
Spiritual direction is not a discipline that is oriented towards solving problems, but about growing in our inner life with God. It is not counseling or therapy; though a director may of course be present in times of crisis. But its aim is not the self – to see you out of it (conflict, crisis, pain). Rather, the aim of direction is focusing the self on the Other. Usually, counseling is concerned with the relationship dynamics in one’s life – how we cope with our relationships to work, family, self, etc. Spiritual direction, is primarily concerned with relationship with God – who one is in relationship with God; how God is in relationship with you; how one communicates with God (both “sends” and “receives”); what God’s call or purpose is for one’s life, etc.