A version of this article first appeared in Common House in August 2017.
Understanding Spiritual Direction
The term spiritual direction is actually a misnomer. It is not really directive and often is not even overtly spiritual. I like to understand the role of spiritual director as one of creating and holding of safe, intentional space for the real spiritual director––the Holy––to do the work of encountering, guiding, and transforming in our lives. Whether in a formal or informal arrangement, the director acts as a fellow companion who is present to witness and help facilitate a direct encounter with the Holy by helping the directee (I know, awkward word!) begin to notice and lean into the spiritual growth that is already in progress in their life.
Loving presence and simple silence are the cornerstones of spiritual direction. Sometimes all that is needed is for the director to just be there, holding the space. Whether practiced individually or in a group, a spiritual director gently helps us learn to notice where the Holy is active in our lives, lovingly witnesses as we engage with that activity in the moment, and supports the next step we choose to take.
Spiritual direction has some similarities with counseling or life-coaching in the sense that it is regularly scheduled, but it differs in that it is completely nonjudgmental and non-directive. Participating in spiritual direction––like all spiritual disciplines––just gives us space to explore the movement of the Holy in our lives in the attentive presence of a loving witness as we move toward transformation.
My Journey with Spiritual Direction
I first learned about the metaphor of the three chairs while I was in spiritual direction training. One chair represented the director, one chair represented the “directee,” and the third chair represented the true spiritual director: the Holy. I like the simplicity of that image. Because that’s really all that’s needed, after all, for spiritual direction to take place. All that is needed to turn a mere conversation into spiritual direction is a gentle awareness of and attentiveness toward the third chair in the room.
What being in spiritual direction is like can differ widely based on who the director is and who the person seeking direction is. Everyone has their own style, their own bent. Every director brings their unique personality and skill set to the table, and every person seeking brings their own unique personality and needs. So I can’t really tell you what spiritual direction is. I can only tell you what my experience of spiritual direction has been, and it has been different in different seasons.
I had nearly graduated from seminary before I ever heard of spiritual direction. Although I am a child of a pastor and a grandchild of long-term missionaries and also have treasured a personal life of faith since childhood, the practice of spiritual direction was not a common part of my family or church community life. I was at a difficult point in my life and in my spiritual journey at the end of my degree, and I suddenly found myself very, very much in need of something, someone to help me navigate a season I did not understand and could not articulate. That is how I stumbled upon spiritual direction.
My experience is not an uncommon one. Often a major life event or shocking faith shift is the impetus for beginning spiritual direction. I will be forever grateful to the wise women in my life who gently nudged me at such a painful moment onto a path that has since changed the whole trajectory of my life.
My first experience of spiritual direction was actually with my therapist who also happened to be a trained spiritual director. It was in those sessions that I learned to encounter God in the present moment through guided prayer exercises. I would bring an issue to our session, and she would ask, “Would you like to pray about it or talk about it?” If I chose to pray about it, then she would very quietly lead me through various exercises that she termed visio divina but that others might call imaginative prayer or inner healing prayer. She helped me to interpret what arose from those exercises, and some of those images have remained very powerfully present in my spiritual life.
Around the same time, I began meeting with another spiritual director. We always met outdoors at a public place. She was older, louder than my therapist, and she often shared personal stories with me of her own experience. Sometimes they resonated with my experience, and sometimes not. When I brought an issue to our session, she always asked me, “Well, what did God say about it?” She identified my temperament, my leadership style, and my Myers-Briggs personality type. She gave me reading assignments. The most valuable gift she gave me in that season was naming my experience for me. While her style and approach were much more directive than I was trained, she was exactly the right person for that moment in my life. She was so discerning and so gifted at cutting through the fog of my life and anchoring me with a clear-cut explanation. She gave me a language and a framework to talk about my experience when I couldn’t reach it on my own.
These days, I meet with my current spiritual director by Zoom or Skype. I think I am her only online directee, but she perseveres through technical difficulties and unstable internet connections! She is on the young side, and she––like me––is still building her practice while she wears other hats. If she weren’t my director, then I think we might be friends. She is very quiet and contemplative. She never rushes me. I bring tears with almost every issue, and she always smiles and listens without any judgment. When I was interviewing spiritual directors, I chose her because I felt the most connected to her. I just knew it as soon as I met her. I felt that she was open and that she would not shut me down no matter what I brought to our sessions. I felt that she was willing to walk along with me wherever I felt the Holy was leading, even if that place was hard or scary or shocking. In our sessions, she brings a natural balance to my perspective and energy. I don’t feel the need to explain myself in every little thing. I leave our sessions feeling heard, understood, accepted.
When I’m asked about what it’s like to be in spiritual direction with me, I offer a variety of definitions and invite them to consider which one might most deeply resonate with them in their current season. I explain that spiritual direction is the practice of being quietly present with another person, listening deeply to their sacred story, and reflecting back to them where the Holy may be present and active in their life. I tell them it provides the opportunity to experience an encounter with the God while in the loving, attentive presence of a companion on the spiritual journey. It gives us space to begin to recognize where we are experiencing the most life and freedom. It creates safe space to explore our joys, burdens, frustrations, questions, longings, and callings without judgment or expectation. It makes the lonely journey shareable, the difficult journey bearable, and the obscured journey visible. It allows us to discover and take the next step on our spiritual journey.
So what is spiritual direction? It is what you bring to it. It is what you make it. It is what you allow it to be.
And it can be as simple as a conversation––with a third chair in the room.
Questions to Ponder
Is this descriptive glimpse into spiritual direction similar to your experience and expectations or different?
Does it pique your curiosity to explore further?
If you are already familiar with the practice of spiritual direction, how would you answer the question, “What is spiritual direction?”