(written as part of my application to the Perkins’ Certification in Spiritual Direction Program)
Scripture is filled with stories of people who serve as guides. Moses guides the people from Egypt to Canaan. John the Baptist directs the gaze of his followers saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Jesus says, “Follow me…” Paul says, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” The spiritual life is about moving in a direction – toward deeper experience of our life embraced by God. As the stories in the Old and New Testaments suggest, this journey is one of twists and turns, peaks and valleys, dead ends and glorious vistas.
The journey toward oneness with God is simple, but not easy. Our lives are filled with competing claims from within and without. As Paul writes of his own experience (Romans 7) we hear the struggle of one who is sorting out the right path from the various options, seeking to make sense of powerful compulsions to choose this or that path – and he admits that he fails regularly, though not every time.
During his own ministry we do not see Paul humbly seeking the guidance of any human. He admits to having been brought up at the feet of the Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and to having traveled to Arabia and returned to Damascus, where he had previously literally been led by Ananias while Paul’s eyes were still covered with scales (Galatians 1:17). In this we see some evidence that Paul had those whom he considered wise guides in his spiritual journey, first in Judaism, and later in his early formation as a Christian. He even admits to surreptitiously meeting with Peter (and briefly with James) in Jerusalem without coming before the whole Jerusalem council of Christian elders (Galatians 1:18).
These examples illustrate some of what I understand spiritual direction to be. Spiritual direction begins with the premise that we are on a transformative spiritual journey, one made easier when we are helped by others who bring insights and knowledge to which we lack access otherwise. As the biblical journey stories demonstrate, this process is not a quick one, but is marked by seasons of days or years of exile, of fasting, paring down, chosen or forced deprivation, so that the participants might come to rely less on temporal supports and more on the eternal Spirit. It is noteworthy that in these stories some choose their guide while for others the guide seems actively chosen by God. Perhaps this apparent distinction is simply one of awareness and perception – in reality we are choosing, and God is choosing, simultaneously. Either way, or both, spiritual direction involves one being led, and one leading. Even when practiced in community, this one-on-one relationship is still primary in the direction experience. A group of peers may come together for spiritual support on the journey, but it is difficult for me to envision how several people gathered together could effectively direct one another. This would represent too many voices muddling things rather than moving us toward the clarity we seek in the midst of an already existent cacophony.
The nature of this directive relationship and the resources brought to bear will vary based upon the background of the participants. Christian spiritual direction will necessarily be in conversation with the Christian Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Along with this will come the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) found through the Jewish and Christian theological and spiritual traditions. I personally am drawn to the Ignatian tradition and have worked with spiritual directors from that perspective. Among contemporary writers, Merton and Nouwen and Foster are primary for me. Spiritual direction will often present new authors or traditions to the directee, but this needs to be done with sensitivity and respect for where that person stands now and from whence she has come and how. The role of these authors is often to point us toward God with new language, articulating insights we may approach but cannot put in words. They are perhaps, like the “Road to Emmaus” story illustrates (Luke 24), walking companions who open the scripture to us so that our hearts burn within us.
Spiritual direction also must honor the diversity within the Christian community. Directors will each have personal spiritual practices that resonate deeply – these may or may not connect for a particular directee. Part of the early relationship is coming to understand these differences and determining whether a productive relationship can be established that supports the person seeking direction. If I as a mainline protestant lack knowledge of or appreciation for Pentecostal traditions, for instance, it may be very difficult for me to offer direction to someone who comes from and still feels deeply rooted to such a way of understanding God and self in the world. If the directee and I are both are open, this could be a wonderful learning experience for us.
For some, openness to other religious and spiritual traditions provides additional resources and companions for the journey. Much wisdom is to be found beyond Christianity and Judaism in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, African and American spiritualities, to name a few. It may be that these are brought into the direction process by the directee who has a casual interest or a deep sympathy for the history and culture from which those beliefs and practices arise. The director will want to help the directee listen for what is life-giving and redemptive in those traditions and seek connections with the broad and diverse river of Christian faith and spirituality.
As an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a natural part of my vocation is offering spiritual direction to parishioners and others in the community. As I preach and teach and interact with people around town, they often have occasion to seek further conversation in support of their spiritual journey. It may begin with a conversation in person or by email regarding something that was stirred by the sermon. Or they may simply reach a point in their life when it is time to begin another part of the climb up the “seven story mountain”. As people pass through transition times – adolescence to young adult hood, beginning a family, having a family disrupted by divorce or death or other crisis, career change, “midlife crisis”, “empty nest syndrome”, retirement, declines from old age – they often want to reinterpret the place of God and self in the world through a spiritual lens. This work is supported by spiritual direction.
My own calling draws me toward people who are asking questions, who understand themselves on a journey which will not find its final destination in this life. I believe that mystery, paradox and ambiguity are inherent in the spiritual life, and exist within the Christian scriptures. “Systematic Theology” has always seemed something of an oxymoron to me – how can we presume to systematize time-bound human words about a God whose ways are not our ways and thoughts are not our thoughts, existing both within and outside of time? How can we summarize the theology of the bible in pithy phrases when the bible itself represents a long and difficult development of theological understanding from a pantheistic “our God is the strongest among the many gods and everyone goes to sheol when they die” to a variety of New Testament understandings of “eternal life and bodily resurrection through the grace of the one and only God, beside whom there is no other, who by the way is not just one but three-in-one”? God’s name as given to Moses is like a Zen Koan – “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be” and the very notion of the trinity is shrouded in incomprehensible mystery. These instances seems to be to suggest a God who actively resists our efforts at systematizing, categorizing, codifying, and cataloguing for all time what is true and what is false, what is good and what is evil, who is redeemed and who is damned.
My own spiritual journey has very much been “working out [my] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) – well, perhaps not fear and trembling, but certainly awe and humility. I understand my call to ministry in general, and spiritual direction in particular, to be about supporting others who are on the journey. It is difficult to offer direction to people who don’t know they are lost, or who are not searching for a better path, or to walk the path they are on with peace and grace and hope. I’m reminded of the scene where Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) I hear a note of irony in his tone – all of us are sick and sinners, it’s just that some (Pharisees) are oblivious to their own state and thus not receptive to what Jesus seeks to offer them. Similarly, spiritual direction can be offered, but not forced or coerced.
My ministry is marked by several characteristics which those around me recognize. Perhaps the first is the aforementioned openness to ambiguity. My anxiety is not raised by it, and so I am able to create a safe space for others to wrestle or rest, as they choose, until they find a place of equilibrium. This capacity of mine causes frustration for some in the midst of administrative processes in the church where people want to be told what to do and how, or just want to “make a decision already” without taking time for prayerful reflection and God’s unfolding revelation in the midst of the community. There certainly are times to direct by telling people what to do and how – generally spiritual direction is not one of them except at the very early periods, when new skills are called for. When asked to teach them to pray, Jesus offered his disciples a concrete and specific and simple response. Other times when speaking of the kingdom of God and life of the spirit he spoke in parable and metaphor filled with ambiguity and open to a diversity of interpretation.
Another practice of my ministry is what now is called coaching, a way of asking powerful questions and doing “appreciative inquiry” to help another person explore place and path. In my ministry I have always sought to accompany others and help them build their own capacities for life, faith and ministry – including ways of seeing and experiencing the spiritual in life. I think all life is spiritual, whether or not we recognize or embrace this reality. Part of spiritual direction is helping people to see with the eyes of the heart (Ephesians 1:18) to recognize God in the whirlwind and in the silence (1 Kings 19); to learn to ask, “Where is God and what is God doing?” This work of learning to think theologically is, I believe, an important strength that I bring to my work of spiritual direction.
Lastly, I would emphasize my work as a writer, and my ability to put into words what others are thinking but have trouble articulating. Whether in conversation or through poetry and essays, this skill offers, like other spiritual writers of present and past, new ways to view past and present experiences, along with a window into possible futures. Working toward the Certificate in Spiritual Direction will give me an opportunity to continue this work of reading, reflecting and writing within a community of likeminded sojourners.
In June I will begin the Doctor of Ministry Program at Perkins. My project direction is toward a “center for suburban spirituality” where people come together to practice spiritual formation, theological reflection, personal emotional and relational growth, and ministry discernment and development. This is a “beyond the church walls” kind of ministry that includes but is not limited to folks in a particular congregation – many of whom would currently classify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. I’m interested also in what spiritual direction might mean among these folks. The work toward a Certificate in Spiritual Direction will complement and help strengthen my DMin experience, providing a different way of approaching these topics. Along the way I would hope also to be able to support my peers in the certificate program as we form a community during our time together, developing relationship as colleagues and as sisters and brothers in Christ.