For all of us, sometimes it is helpful to focus on the particularities
No one knows what I do, perhaps even my own children. When I say I am a spiritual director, nearly everyone looks confused and says, “Oh….” or “What is that? Are you like a spiritual counselor or something?”
Even though you didn’t know you needed this post, here I am to clear it all up and, most importantly, answer what I know (ummmm…no…) has been the your most pressing question and concern of 2020: “Do I need a spiritual director?”
My hope is that this post will help you understand what spiritual direction is and you’ll be begin the search for your own spiritual director. I unashamedly acknowledge my personal bias that I think we all can benefit from having a spiritual director (and yes, I have my own).
If you know me at all, you know I am a big proponent of therapy. Get thee to a therapist, I say, particularly a trauma-informed one if you can. Most of us have little “t” trauma and more than a few have big “T” trauma. Science is doing an increasingly good job of showing that we carry trauma in our bodies and it has subtle and not-so-subtle impact on how we make our way in the world. I believe all of us could benefit from more self-knowledge and healing. I particularly recommend trauma-informed therapists because they have unique tools in their chests to help with our stuck and blocked places—some of these places are wordless ones (but any decent therapist can help you enormously, trauma-informed or not). A therapist helps us spend time unpacking experiences, what we’ve made up about them that has had tremendous impact on why we are the way we are, why we are where we are, and why things are/aren’t working. They can help us clear past blockages and stop the sabotaging behaviors and thoughts. So, therapy: big thumbs up.
Spiritual direction is not therapy. While spiritual direction has corollaries and connections to therapy, it is concerned with different questions and uses a different lens. You know how an optometrist, in testing your eyes says, “Which one is better—A or B, 1 or 2?” Therapists use one set of lenses, spiritual directors another.
An example of questions spiritual directors are concerned with are, “Where is the divine presence in this place, circumstance, experience, time in my life?” “What am I being invited to see, understand, practice, step into or out of?” “How are the circumstances, details of my life giving me clues about who I am, where I am to be putting my energy, etc.?” “What spiritual practices and rhythms do I need right now in this place and season that might aid and help me recognize more of the sacred and holy or help me connect more to God, others, myself?” “What is God/the divine presence trying to work in and out in my life?” “How can I deepen my experience/relationship with the transcendent and with God/the sacred?”
Spiritual directors not only work with these questions, but can help you hang in there and explore the tensions, paradoxes, contradictions and unwieldy questions that life forces upon us. Small questions like, “Where is God in the midst of this pandemic?” “Why do good people suffer?” “How long, O Lord…?”
Therapists are great at helping us understand how experiences have shaped us and are impacting us in the now. Spiritual directors focus in on the meaning and messages of our everyday lives. Spiritual directors help us look not just at the meaning and purpose of events, people and relationships of our lives but at the bigger meaning and purpose behind all of it—why are we here? What is the meaning and purpose of our individual life in the larger story of humanity? While therapists can help with this as well, again, the sacred, holy, spiritual and divine are not their primary lens or the framework that scaffolds their work. Spiritual direction is not as much concerned with the past and how it has impacted us as it is is concerned with the present and the congruence and integration of our deepest selves and beliefs with how we live and are in the world right now. The past does play into this (i.e., our experiences of love/not love can have a tremendous impact on our understanding of God and how God loves us), but again, why it comes up in spiritual direction is usually to inform what is going on in our spiritual journey.
I do not love the term “spiritual director” and am not alone in toying with other designations. I do not mean to sound presumptuous here, but I like “spiritual companion” and “friend of God.” I have spent my lifetime cultivating a friendship and a relationship with God (whose pronouns I believe are they/them). I’ve learned a few things along the way (with a whole lot more to learn). When people find out I am the niece of Eugene Peterson, they often want to know about Eugene from me—the inside scoop, if you will. As one who has sought to be faithful and intimate with God, spending a lot of time hanging out with them (the triune God) over 45+ years, I am comfortable and love exploring alongside another their own journey to intimacy and familiarity with God/the Divine Presence. I am not an expert in “God” or the spiritual or claim to have it all figured out by any means, but God and I have been through many things together, so to speak. I’ve learned and come to know some things over these years of close relationship, as well as through my schooling and vocation as a pastor. While spiritual direction is not about me (or your director) telling you what we know and have learned—it is about us helping you discover/recognize/see/hear this God for yourself in your own life—I think it helps to be with someone who has a prior, long-standing relationship with this God and some familiarity with how They work. Consider having a spiritual director as having a companion or friend on your spiritual journey.
Here’s a summary of what spiritual direction offers/provides:
- It provides a safe space where you can be as and where you are, where you are received freely, and you are offered back to yourself. Henri Nouwen, one of my spiritual guides, says, “You will always need safe people to whom you can pour our your heart. You will always need people who do not need you, but who can receive you and give you back to yourself.” (The Inner Voice of Love, 73).
- It’s aim is to help you live fully in YOUR life—the life you have been given, with all of its challenges, limits, gifts and parameters. “…the aim of all spiritual paths, no matter their origin or the rigors of their practice, is to help us live more fully into the lives we are given” (Mark Nepo). Or: “The basic disposition in the spiritual journey is the capacity to accept all reality; God, ourselves, other people, and all creation as they are” (Thomas Keating).
- It provides a guide. If you were going to attempt to climb Everest, you’d hire a guide. While a spiritual director will not have journeyed the exact terrain you are on, they have done enough training, work, pilgrimages and journeys that enable them to offer wisdom, perspective, tips and training practices. A friend and I are planning on doing at least a portion of the Camino de Santiago in 2022. You can be sure I am looking for those who have done this kind of pilgrimage, who can help me as I prepare to walk that journey. What do I need to do in prepatory training? What do I need to bring or not? What might be some challenges? How can I open myself up to receive all that experience will offer? My uncle Eugene tells the story in his book of sermons, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, of when he and my aunt started to learn about birds. They had a friend who was an experienced birdwatcher help them. One day, the three of them were driving through this little barren town (if you can call it that). Trust me, there is really not much to see in Elmo, Montana (at least I have always thought that). After passing through, the friend asked them, “So how many different birds did you see?” They hadn’t seen any. He said, “I counted nine species.” This bird-watching friend taught them where to look in order to see birds, what to notice and be attentive to. That’s a role a spiritual director plays. They help us know where to look, what to pay attention to, what kinds of things to notice and pause on.
- Spiritual direction helps us see God/ the divine presence and get in touch with our true identity. As Uncle Gene said, there are those of us that are “not content to be our true selves only occasionally” but “hunt for a way to cultivate fluency” (As Kingfishers Catch Fire, 60). I love to think of a spiritual director as a sort of tutor to help us cultivate fluency in being our truest selves. Again, they do not tell us how to do this per se—they help us discover and nurture it for ourselves. Just as in learning any foreign language, I have to learn how to understand it, read it, and speak it for myself but I need people who know the language and, better yet, who have lived in the country whose language I am trying to speak.
- It helps us get below the surface of our lives—to swim in the depths. Poet Stanley Kunitz says in one of my favorite poems, “The Layers”: “Live in the layers,/ not on the litter./ Though I lack the art/ to decipher it/ no doubt the next chapter/ in my book of transformations/ is already written./ I am not done with my changes.” (Kunitz in The Wild Braid, 83). We all accumulate a lot of trash and litter along our ways. A spiritual director can help us find the good layers and material beneath the debris. I am a “thrifter”. All of my friends are amazed at the stuff I find in thrift stores. To be sure, there is a lot of junk there, but there are treasures as well. In spiritual direction, we are looking for the treasures in all of our lives, particularly, as the prophet Isaiah says, “the treasures of darkness” (see Isaiah 45).
- Spiritual directors know spiritual practices, rhythms and pathways they can suggest based on where and who we are that can help us know holy and true things for ourselves.
- Spiritual direction can help us discern next steps and provide support as we step out courageously in our own lives. I have a few close friends who I can say, “I did this” or “I’m working on this” and they get all that means for me. A spiritual director is someone who will get how big it is that you were able to let go and trust in that particular situation or how that moment where you truly felt loved by God was so pivotal and precious. They bear witness to what is occurring in and through us.
- It can help us see the threads and themes and messages of our lives sooner. God works in each of our lives in a rich variety of ways and circumstances. Sometimes, looking back, we can see and understand the threads, themes and things we missed in the moment. Often, a spiritual director can help us see these things sooner.
- Spiritual direction helps us be intentional about our spiritual lives. When we are intentional about something, when we pay attention to it, we learn and grow. Joining a yoga studio has helped me be intentional about my physical body and cultivating connection to it. As we learn to pay attention to the spiritual questions and the sacredness of our lives, we are enabled to enter into our lives more fully and meaningfully. I have always found seeing my spiritual director gets me thinking in ways and about things I probably wouldn’t otherwise, ’cause, you know, LIFE. It happens. Fast most of the time. My spiritual direction appointments for myself are pause and consider moments. Sometimes, even just thinking about what I want to talk about with my spiritual director leads to something fruitful.
No doubt you have some practical questions. Is there a charge for spiritual direction? Most spiritual directors charge, often offering a suggested range where you can pay what you feel you are able. There are a few who do not charge. I do. Part of my own journey has been acknowledging that my training, expertise and time are worth something. There is also the bit that if we pay for something, we value it more.
How often do people see a spiritual director? Generally, once a month is a great rhythm. In spiritual direction, we are learning to attend to our lives and implement practices, many of them slow in the ways they shape and change us. It is my understanding that those who walk the Camino de Santiago learn things on mile 366 that they couldn’t know at mile 12. And you have to walk all those miles, step by step, blisters or not, in all the weather. It takes a lot of steps and attending to gain all the wisdom such a journey has. We make the road by walking. This is not a one-and-done deal. Companionship on the journey, remember?
Do I have to be a “Christian” to participate in spiritual direction? No. I’d say the only requirement is that you believe there is a spiritual dimension to life and want to explore that more fully and deeply. I am entirely comfortable working with those who do not know what they believe or who may not share my faith tradition but who want a companion in this spiritual journey. However, if you are from another spiritual tradition, such as Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc., and one of the things you want is someone with deeper understanding and facility within your particular tradition, you can find spiritual direction under someone steeped in your chosen tradition. I have also known those who deliberately choose someone not in their primary tradition as a spiritual director.
Where does spiritual direction come from? The Christian tradition points to Jesus walking alongside and mentoring his disciples as the originating source of spiritual direction. Another place people point to is in the stories of the early Christian church, going back to the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, where Paul of Tarsus has an encounter that rocks his world and changes his understanding and worldview, and Ananias comes alongside of him and mentors him (see Acts 9). Others attribute the roots of spiritual direction to the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the 3rd century and their practice of mentoring those who would seek them out. Most spiritual traditions have strong practices from their origin of followers of that particular way being apprenticed to or sitting under those who have made the spiritual their main focus.
What credentials do spiritual directors have? Is there a degree or something? There are certificate programs where people can be trained as spiritual directors. Many pastors, such as myself, who have gone through seminary and other programs with theological and spiritual training serve as spiritual directors. While more formalized training is invaluable, you are looking for someone with a capacity to be lovingly present to you who also has something behind that—be it life experience, training, etc. There are those who are wise, naturally gifted spiritual companions that sometimes come across our paths and lives and can serve this role for us. As in all professions/roles—just because someone has training, degrees or certificates, does not mean they are good at what they do or that they will be the right fit for us. I can point you to resources that can help you find a good fit for you. Trust yourself and your judgment as you either meet with a potential spiritual director(s) or consider someone already in your life who already does this for you.
To conclude, in the simple, mundane and day-to-day of our lives are the seeds for the profound. Listening well to our lives is one of the most powerful things we can do. What we see and understand, or fail to see and understand, sets the tone/cadence/rhythm for our lives. Having an extra set of ears and eyes listening and looking in our lives can be profound. Spiritual direction helps us enter into the story of our lives as we are living it right now, not just its history, helping us see and understand things we might otherwise miss or take longer to get. Spiritual direction can assist us in living lives of greater purpose and meaning. Simply “knowing” something in our heads is not the same as actually living it or embodying it. That part is much harder to do. To quote Uncle Gene again,
People can think correctly and behave rightly and worship politely but still live badly: live anemically, individualistically self-enclosed lives, live bored and insipid and trivial lives.Peterson, Eugene, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, New York: Waterbrook, 2017, p. 54.
I would invite you into considering how you might enter in to your own life more richly and fully. Spiritual direction can help you do that.
There is nothing that feels more sacred, holy or joyful to me than being able to walk with someone on their spiritual journey, whatever it may be or however it may look. I believe that all of the humanity is gathered up and has meaning. Please contact me if you are interested in exploring spiritual direction with me or someone else. My first session is always free to see if it feels like a good fit. I would be honored to come alongside of you in any way I can or try and help you find someone to walk with you in this way. I leave you with this wonderful passage from Father Gregory Boyle’s wonderful book, Tattoos on the Heart:
God seems to be an unwilling participant in our efforts to pigeonhole Him. The minute we think we’ve arrived at the most expansive sense of who God is, “the Great, Wild God,” as the poet Hafiz writes, breaks through the claustrophobia of our own articulation, and things get large again. Richard Rohr writes in Everything Belongs that nothing of our humanity is to be discarded. God’s unwieldy love, which cannot be contained by our words, wants to accept all that we are and sees our humanity as the privileged place to encounter this magnanimous love. No part of our hardwiring or our messy selves is to be disparaged. Where we stand, in all our mistakes and imperfection, is holy ground. It is where God has chosen to be intimate with us and not in any way but this.Boyle, Gregory. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, New York: Free Press, 2010. p. 35.