I need to talk to someone, God.
Someone who can listen
when I’m struggling
when I’m grieving
when I’m longing for more…
Someone who can help me
notice, hear, and
grow closer to God
in freedom, with integrity
Someone who understands my journey
just enough to walk with me
but not get in the way of
the Mystery of God…
When the leaves fell.
As summer gave way to fall last year, I somehow knew that mom, fading in her 96th year, would linger only until the leaves on her beloved Alder trees fell. When the last of them let go in a November breeze, so did she. I am, in a way, just raking up, gathering together what remains of that season, pressing a few leaves between the pages of my heart. All the rest, like my mother’s bones, are returned to the earth one’d with the humus from which they came.
By January, I was aiming to retreat in a sunny destination. But Southern California was rained-out, my flight south cancelled. So much was pre-empted in those weeks by weather and whether. I was struggling with turning the page into a new year. Wanting long days of solitude, I elected to retreat for a week at home to read through my journals—partly to bear witness to my mother’s prolonged departure, but more to thumb through the still green memories where those days are indelibly inscribed. And, with the Eternal Listener, I wanted to listen within as I might listen to another in spiritual direction.
The Practice of Spiritual Direction
How do I experience spiritual direction? And, how do I experience being the director? To sit with another person, to hold the hour as Appointed; to maintain a prayerful interior posture and with conscious intention mark the space as sacred, receiving the person before me as God’s beloved.
As the Director.
Practicing contemplative spiritual direction is one of the ways that I respond to God’s Presence and invitations to me. I keep a regular rhythm of reflection with my own director as a requisite for offering spiritual direction to others. What enamors me with spiritual direction is how mutually shared the gift of it is. That is, in the reciprocity of the Spirit, where Holy Love is loving the soul before me to life and freedom, my own soul is also experiencing Love’s overflowing graciousness.
My friend, Lynn, talks about spiritual direction as hosting conversations of consequence and encounter, as reaching toward the really Real. While she is also an adjunct instructor of spiritual formation at the seminary, a trainer and supervisor for other spiritual directors, Lynn’s first love and faithfulness is to be attentive to the soul before her—the whole person, their true self and its wounded counterpart and shadow.
For my friend, Lacy, it’s the only work she really wants to do. She is an author, teacher, trainer, and supervisor as well, but what Lacy most wants to do is companion children and adults into the depths of the spiritual life. Her love for God is lived as participation with the Way of Love in the world and to be with another with her whole self.
For the Directee.
I have found for some directees that being welcomed and wanted and offered a seat, being invited to just breathe and to rest in Presence, brings tearful relief. They wonder where the tears are coming from since they so rarely cry. And on subsequent visits those tears spontaneously arise on arrival.
James Finley describes the wonder and relief of it this way: Where do I find someone, when I stammer for words for my experience, who will be able to tell or know something of what I’m talking about; who can meet me there where I am and help me find my way? In the presence of one who will not invade or abandon us, we can come upon our belovedness, our being the pearl of great price, that we will not invade or abandon ourselves.
While I rely on the Holy Spirit doing the heavy lifting—the tender holding, directing, and guiding—I also hold the space and guard the time, continuously renewing my intention and inner stance for the sake of the soul before me.
The Path of Spiritual Direction
It is that intention and inner stance that makes contemplative spiritual direction itself a spiritual path. Empowered by grace, it aims for a life of humility, authenticity, vulnerability, and joy. While the director finds her way to bearing witness to God’s Presence in the depths of a soul, the real work of spiritual direction is fidelity to the contemplative life.
Spiritual direction as a contemplative path is at times a form of resistance against the whelming tides of our generation that oppose the supporting rhythms for such a life. But it is both the source and reservoir of grace for the director who faithfully guards the hour for another with energy, focus, and attention, while holding the intention to host the meeting as contemplative space and to welcome Presence by being present.
The holy wonder is that, through a director’s own presence and the open heart of her directee, Living Presence does participate, does direct thought by thought, word by word, silence into silent pause. It gently beckons the soul into a dialogue that could not have happened if it had not been listened into being. Presence invites us into a place where we are also more present to ourselves. The fruit of such divine encounter offers whatever in the moment is needed, whether healing or insight, understanding or hope, courage or conviction, language to say the unsayable or bear the unbearable.
In an interview with Spiritual Directors International, James Finley comments on the pause of spontaneous contemplation and the path of contemplative practice:
When you pause to ponder a sunset, that state is a hiatus in conceptual thinking, and a silence that silences you, a clarity that is welling up in you, a touch of oneness. A fleeting case of thunderous silence, like you are a momentary mystic.
Though it passes (a cell phone rings; there’s a meeting), something was given to you there that matters very much. It’s just skimming over the surface of the depths of your own life, and you are suffering from depth deprivation. Regrettable: The Infinite Mystery’s Oneness with us is hidden in the depths that you are just skimming over, and in the momentum of the day it just carries us forward.
In contemplation, in the daily Rendezvous, I cannot make these moments of oneness happen, but I can assume the inner stance that offers the least resistance to be overtaken by what I cannot attain. I cannot attain it, but it attains me in my deep acceptance of my inability to attain it. And that’s contemplative practice. All contemplative practice is fidelity to that inner stance. Like an inner calling to emptyhanded openhearted waiting. I start to discover the waiting is itself the fullness of the very thing you’re waiting for, you just didn’t expect it to be that close.
A sacred, necessary, and weighty responsibility rests on spiritual directors to be the sentries of such an hour and guardians of the disclosures, human and Divine. It is their path and their practice. And since there is no recipe, no formula, no one size fits all, it requires some spiritual agility.
The Art and Science of Spiritual Direction
The meeting of a soul with the One Who Loves her is always dynamic and moving, continuously responding in correspondence with her. There is an aesthetic that is poetic, akin to dance or music, it flows. Its imagery is evocative and inspires while the imagination is playful and free.
As with any truly creative endeavor, in the art of spiritual direction, the artist/director serves the work by becoming its instrument, it’s avatar. Like the artist, she must learn to trust what arises, to midwife the process. The poet cannot make the poetry happen, nor the composer her symphony, but they can hold that contemplative posture by which it might come. In spiritual direction, the director is a participant in the art of welcoming a living conversation.
With holy curiosity and wonder, the director peers into the depths of the soul. Experimenting with tools and knowledge that can enrich the work, using prayerful practices and observations. It is an honest science that takes into consideration the infinite number of variables that may be in play, how catalysts work to different effects. So, it is helpful for the director to have some awareness of complementary disciplines as resources, knowledge in the arts and sciences, that help to provide landmarks on the human journey. With careful discretion and discernment, she can companion the directee through the turns and intersections of the inner country. Selected art and science both offer their light during disorientating seasons, helping to ground the pilgrim, and assure them: you are here.
My friend Tracy, a trauma informed spiritual director with training in Polyvagal Theory and Ignatian Spirituality, offers experiential workshops which incorporate visual art, poetry, scripture, and science. Through contemplative practices in concert with the body, she provides a safe space to encounter God’s loving gaze.
The Call and Charism of Spiritual Direction
What seems most important in this age of questionable ambition and self-assertion is to remember that, whether as a practice or path, the posture and inner impulse of a spiritual director is a charism of the Holy Spirit for the sake of others. I am told that charism in Greek shares its root with charis, meaning grace or gift. Recognition of the charism begins with a process of discernment with others who can affirm the gift and call, then training or apprenticing in theoretical orientation or a theological framework, and it should include robust praxis under caring supervision.
In Christian contemplative spiritual direction, James Finley insists: there is a Master, so you’re not adlibbing; you’re in fidelity to the Master but in a way it’s really you. But there’s an internalized construct that taps into a flow of deep awareness of how to sit with people or walk with them and see where it takes you.
Again, that flow and deep awareness, the contemplative connection and conversation in whom the gift is given and rising, is a gift of the Spirit.
That gift can manifest in so many ways: in the homely, earthly, ordinary way in which director and directee greet one another, in the slight lift of heart and energy in the body, in the relief of the directee to be in a space where they can let down and disclose what they are really experiencing—be it fear or anxiety, anger or bewilderment, gratitude and joy, or God’s presence or absence. Sometimes they just can’t believe their lucky stars when they recount a series of coincident/s that brought them deeper wisdom, greater freedom, and closer intimacy with God and others.
Sometimes getting to that flow takes most of the hour. Sometimes it will be months of appointments for the habitual armor to be gentled into a deeper degree of transparency and self-disclosure. Sometimes the gift of that Holy energy is immediate.
And sometimes, when the heart is raw, as in the terrible beauty and fragility of a sorrowful season, we just need to be alone with the Alone. Which is what my soul wanted in the winter of my sorrow.
Take the time you need
Reading through the journal pages that record the week of mom’s death, the hours of her graveside and memorial services and the days of my returning home, I was reluctant to tag any of the pages with post-it flags—still too recent, too raw, I think, since the grief was marked by disorientation and the subterranean sadness that the reading evoked.
The pining and painful need in the immediate aftermath wanted solitude and quiet. The at-home retreat answered that to some degree. Even more it helped me to prepare as a directee for reflecting aloud and in person with my own spiritual director.
Yet, in that moment, while I sat with myself in these pages as a spiritual director, I knew to hold the space, to bear loving witness to the sadness and ache, and to attune to the Eternal Listener’s whisper:
Take the time you need
as long as you need it
to navigate the bewildering season.
There are seeds being sown
in this harrowing
in the dark and hidden depths.
the tear dampened winter
of your sorrow;
let these seeds
sleep through the night,
this long night
safe with Me.