Building Faith is devoted to faith formation for all ages. For adults, a key opportunity is spiritual direction. It is available to both lay persons and clergy, and it’s done in a variety of ways. Some directors are clergy or belong to a religious order, but not all. Some are professional counselors, but not all. A spiritual director may or may not be a member of your denomination.
Today we hear from Amy Sander Montanez, who has been involved in spiritual direction for many years – both as a participant, and as a spiritual director herself. This is an abridged version of a longer article which you can request through the author’s website www.amysandermontanez.com.
Do you remember the “magic eye” fad in the 1990s? There were posters with intricate patterns, which would magically transform into pictures if you stared in just the right way. I was one of those who could never see it. Some people, like my eight year daughter, could see all of them, almost instantly. She would say to me, “Just relax and it will happen,” or “Maybe if you move up…or back…you’ll get it. Don’t give up.”
This may seem like a bizarre analogy for spiritual direction. Maybe not, though. I was searching; trying hard to see something. Others saw it. I saw their excitement. I wanted it. I had a guide who listened to me compassionately, accepted me right where I was. When I wanted to quit, she encouraged me. This is the heart of spiritual direction.
Not a New Fad
Spiritual direction has deep historic roots, and indeed, deep Biblical roots. In the Old Testament, the story of Samuel is but one example of discernment. Samuel is called by the Lord but he doesn’t recognize God’s voice, assuming instead that it was his master, Eli. Three times this happens, and Eli finally realizes that the Lord is calling Samuel and tells Samuel to listen to God. In the end, Samuel goes on to prophecy to Saul himself.
In the New Testament, Mark 10:17-22 offers a beautiful model of how Jesus responds to someone seeking direction. The rich young man asks Jesus a question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds with no coercion or manipulation; he respects the man’s freedom of choice. Jesus then offers a very direct challenge. He seems to touch the true yearning of this man’s heart. He responds to the context of his life and to the specific issues he faces. All of this is what we aspire to as spiritual directors.
Finding your sacred guide
I have had many informal and unofficial spiritual directors in my life. My first formal experience came at the urging of my then rector and friend. I was in a huge transition in my life, personally and professionally. I knew God was leading me, but I couldn’t slow down enough or clear my vision enough to see it. I chose a director a few hours away with the idea that after our meeting, I would have plenty of time to think and pray on my way home. For others, a director closer to home may be the best option. Spiritual Directors International has a map feature to help people decide.
What happens in spiritual direction?
I didn’t know what to expect and I was scared. What happened was that I was very carefully listened to, there was silence, there was prayer, more listening, maybe a psalm or poem, and more sharing. It was a special time for me. I could stop and look more carefully at God’s hand on my life. I was challenged, sometimes in difficult ways. I was encouraged and cared for. I went for about a year. Since then I have had three other directors. Each one is different and uses a different model. But each one has given me the gift of sacred space and time, listening ears, a discerning heart, acceptance, and encouragement for my journey. I have most often thought of my directors as midwives of my soul.
The director’s perspective
Now as a spiritual director myself, I have the honor and privilege of accompanying people on their journeys. Almost always I am in a heightened state of awareness, eager to see how God’s presence is being manifest in another’s life. I always pray to be a channel for God’s words and a container for the expression of the person’s soul. It can be joyful. It can be truly painful. Sitting with another during periods of great sorrow and grief is a much an honor as hearing joys. Holding the container when there are dark nights of the soul, or deserts in the relationship with God, is difficult. It is also amazing.
My journey continues
God works in mysterious ways. Returning home after a week-long contemplative retreat, my daughter ran out to the car, waving a book. The book was Magic Eye. I groaned, but couldn’t resist staring with her and wondering what would happen. Almost immediately I could see the first picture appear. Page after page I could discern the hidden pictures. It almost felt like a miracle.
What had changed in me? I only know that on the retreat I had spent a lot of time in meditation and had been graced with moments of contemplation. Perhaps I had become more like a child, able to be with God without all of my own obstacles and detractors. When Jesus said we are to become like children, perhaps this was a piece of what he meant. And perhaps, spiritual direction can help us all find a way to discern and act upon the mystery we call God.
If you are interested in finding out more about spiritual direction:
Edwards, Tilden. Spiritual Friend: Reclaiming the Gift of Spiritual Direction. New York: Paulist Press. 1980.
Fisher, Kathleen. Women at the Well: Feminist Perspectives on Spiritual Direction. New York: Paulist Press. 1988.
Guenther, Margaret. Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Cambridge: Cowley Publications. 1992.
Hart, Thomas. The Art of Christian Listening. New York: Paulist Press. 1980.
May, Gerald. Care of Mind, Care of Spirit: A Psychiatrist Explores Spiritual Direction. San Francisco: Harper. 1992.
Thompson, Marjorie. Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 1995.