From Marjorie Thompson, Companions in Christ Spiritual Director
The idea of spiritual guidance or direction is relatively new in the Protestant world. Some of our Companions in Christ groups have told us that they were particularly challenged by this final part of the 28-week resource. We would like to offer some additional perspectives on this dimension of Christian life in the next several email newsletters, along with further resources for exploration. Spiritual friendship and guidance are foundational to Christian life in community, and to our personal maturation in Christ. We want to do all we can to encourage greater understanding of this practice. Here is part of a chapter I wrote on the subject of individual spiritual direction (one-on-one) — in Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (published by Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995).
Excerpt from Soul Feast:
What Do You Talk About in Spiritual Direction?
Many of us have never known a relationship in which we felt comfortable talking about God. Perhaps we grew up in a family where faith was as private as sex, an internal matter one never put public words to. Perhaps religion was a sore topic for our parents, or no topic at all because it was considered fantasy. Maybe we grew up in a church that rigidly forced certain doctrines upon us, and we never felt free to ask our real questions for fear of being ridiculed, harangued, or rejected. Perhaps God simply seemed so awesome that we had trouble saying anything particularly about the mystery.
A spiritual companion is someone with whom we can find the freedom and trust to begin exploring who God is in our lives. What do I actually believe about God? Who is God for me? How does God seem to work in my life? How does God relate to my family, my work, my life in the world? How can I be more aware of God’s presence and activity in my daily life? How am I called to respond? These are some of the questions and issues you can expect to explore in a spiritual guidance relationship.
Sometimes we have clear ideas about God and how God acts in our lives. Maybe a transition or impending crisis motivates us to seek spiritual direction. In cases like these, we are likely to talk more about events and relationships, and how God is or is not felt to be present in them. Spiritual guidance is not the same as psychological counseling. Psychological therapies tend to focus on self-image, relationships, or work issues in a problem-solving way. Most do so without reference to God, and that is sometimes the case even in pastoral counseling! Spiritual direction always keeps God in the picture. Your relationship with God is really the heart of spiritual guidance, whatever else you may be dealing with in life.
Here is a sample dialogue of the kind of conversation that might occur when Pat starts coming to Eleanor for spiritual guidance:
Pat: I feel like I don’t know how to pray anymore. I used to pray a lot, and it was very easy. You know, it just came naturally. But for some reason I’m having trouble now…. It bothers me. I want to feel close to God.
Eleanor: Tell me more about your prayer when it came naturally.
Pat: Well, I just talked to God about anything that was on my mind. I talked things out with him as if he were in the room with me, like any other person. That made it easy.
Eleanor: (nodding) So God seemed to be like any other person. Has that changed in some way?
Pat: I think maybe…I’m not sure. Sometimes I get really confused about how to think about God. Last month our preacher was saying the ancient Jews wouldn’t even name God because he was beyond all our thoughts or concepts or images. And then I started thinking about that catechism I learned in Junior High School: "God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchanging…" I’m beginning to think that I’ve had a really childish picture of God all these years…like some wise old half-ghost who could float through solid objects. I bet this sounds really dumb!
Eleanor: It doesn’t sound dumb. It sounds as if your image of God is changing.
Pat: I guess it is. But I’m not sure I want it to change! Thinking of God as a person made it easy to pray. Now God feels somehow more…removed from my life. A God that’s like some disembodied spirit just seems so distant. I don’t know how to pray to this kind of God.
Eleanor: What happens when you try?
Pat: Well, I just have this feeling of trying to get my thoughts way out there somewhere, wherever God is…and then I think, well, God knows everything already, so why should I e praying anyway?
Eleanor: What do you associate with the word "spirit"?
Pat: (long pause) I guess it makes me think of something insubstantial, gauzy, not quite real…Oh!…Maybe that’s it. I feel like God isn’t real anymore!
You can see that by attentive listening and a few probing questions, Eleanor has enabled Pat to come to a moment of self-discovery in her prayer life. Pat had not realized that her image of a "spirit" translated into "unreality" in her mind. This is the immediate source of difficulty in her prayer life. Eleanor might point Pat toward some other ways of understanding "spirit," perhaps by reflecting on pertinent scripture passages. They can also explore how Pat experienced the reality of God in her life before her image started changing, and where the reality of God is revealing itself to her even now, through the change.
The next few issues of the Companions in Christ E-mail Newsletter will include further exploration of spiritual guidance and direction. However for those who want to explore the practice on their own I offer the following resources:
A helpful book to begin with in the area of individual spiritual guidance is Finding a Spiritual Friend, by Timothy Jones (Upper Room Books, 1998). Jones writes in an easy, accessible style yet offers depth of content including rich quotes from the Christian tradition. Helpful reflection questions guide the reader into a process of relating the idea and practice of spiritual friendship to his or her own life.
To grasp the real importance of spiritual guidance, the most helpful thing to do is to allow yourself to experience it. One of the best ways to do this is to arrange for a personally directed retreat, a private retreat of a few days in which you may meet with an experienced spiritual guide once or twice a day. Since there are relatively few Protestants trained to offer spiritual direction, most go to Roman Catholic retreat centers where spiritual direction is available. There are Catholic retreat houses all over the country which means there will likely be one within a reasonable drive of where you live. The following website offers a section on retreat house locations around the United States and other countries. The website belongs to Spiritual Directors International, an ecumenical agency that specializes in the ongoing training of spiritual directors.
There are now several programs springing up in various parts of the country that offer training in spiritual formation and/or spiritual direction. For those who live in or close to Tennessee, we have a regional school called Stillpoint which offers programs in spiritual direction and contemplative prayer. For more information, call 615-329-2555, or write to:
Kathleen Flood, OP
P.O. Box 150803
Nashville, TN 37215