Monday, September 23, 2013

Becoming a "Human Being Fully Alive": Spiritual Direction from a Quaker Perspective

I've just begun a spiritual direction program through Stillpoint ( It feels good and right to be starting this new ministry at this point in my life, when I am retired and "jubilado" (the Spanish word for "retired," recalling the year of Jubilee).

I've had a spiritual director for over a year, and it's a wonderful experience. Thanks to my spiritual director, I have been able to grapple with some tough issues and find glimmers of the Divine in the midst of my daily struggles.

I've also been involved in intensive pyscho-therapy that has taught me important listening skills and helped heal some of the deep traumas of my past. I now know from experience what my mentor Gene Hoffman taught in her Compassionate Listening work: many of us carry with us unhealed wounds, and these wounds are often the source of conflict. Even "peace people" are not exempt. Indeed, we may be the most wounded of all. As she put it so well,

"During my lifetime I've worked with many peace people and peace people. Rarely were the people I worked with peaceful. Perhaps I was the least. In the peace movement I found wondrous people, people, people who sacrificed themselves, who often turned the other cheek, who could write eloquently of compassion, forgiveness, love of the enemy.... I found, too, that the seeds of all society's ills were also in us, often hidden or disguised. Few of us recognized or admitted it to ourselves. We felt exempt. But the anger, the anxieties, the jealousies were still in place, camouflaged. Peace people, I found, weren't all that different from non-peace people except that we had found a humane goal to work toward" (Compassionate Listening, p. 177).

Gene's words ring more true the older I get, and the more  I become aware of my own inner turmoil. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to study and practice Compassionate Listening, both here in the US and in Israel/Palestine.

The main reason I am drawn to spiritual direction is that I am eager to deepen my relationship with God and Christ, and also help others to find a deeper connection with the source of Life and Light. I know that it helps me to spend time with others who share my yearning.

Part of my preparation for spiritual direction was my marriage to Kathleen Ross, a Methodist pastor with whom I engaged in contemplative prayer for over twenty years. Kathleen was a humble and insightful teacher, from whom I learned much, especially about the art of listening. She had the gift of listening from the heart, mentored a number of pastors, and led many workshops on prayer and meditation. One of her unfinished goals in life was to become a spiritual director. I feel as if I am honoring her memory by taking up this new ministry.

Prior to meeting Kathleen, I spent nearly a year living at a Providence (Rhode Island) Zen Buddhist Center, practicing meditation as a way of life. We would rise at 4:30 am to do prostrations, chant, and meditate, and ended every evening with meditation. I once remained silent for an entire week--which many friend of mine would regard as a miracle!

I also had the privilege of editing a magazine called Fellowship in Prayer (now called Sacred Journey), which gave me the opportunity of meeting and interviewing spiritual teachers of various traditions (Jewish, Native American, Sufi, Orthodox Christian, New Age, etc.) throughout the United States.

Spending a year at Pendle Hill, the Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation near Philadelphia, also helped me to "center down" in the Quaker practice of silent, expectant worship. Each morning we would spend half an hour in silent worship, and there were also opportunities for worship in the evening. I had the opportunity to study with some of deeply spiritual Friends like Bill Taber (author of The Prophetic Stream) and Sandra Cronk.

Last year I spent one Saturday a week on a Stillpoint "Spiritual Journey" in a small group led by an outstanding teacher named Wendy Edwards,  a Stillpoint spiritual director.  This year I am not only meeting once a month for spiritual direction training, I am taking part in a monthly "spiritual practice" group, led by my dear friend Jeff Utter, a UCC pastor. I came to know Jeff through the So Cal Committee for a Parliament of the World's Religions, on whose board we both served.

All of this has led to feel that God is calling me to this new direction in my life, but there have been additional "signs."

A week before beginning my first spiritual direction class at Holy Spirit Retreat Center, I received a call from a friend who wanted to have lunch and talk about documentary films. I like him a lot (though we are not close friends), and I was pleased to reconnect with him after having not seen him in two years.

As we settled down to lunch at a Salvadorean restaurant, he totally surprised me with his first words.

"I am looking for a spiritual practice," he told me with great earnestness.

"Why are you looking for a spiritual practice?" I asked.

"I want to connect with God," was his reply.

What followed was a rich and meaningful conversation about God, life, and what truly matters. It is a conversation I will always remember and cherish. And I am pleased he wants to see me again for another such conversation.

It was hard not to see this encounter as a sign that God wants me to become a spiritual director!

There was a second sign this weekend. A young Fuller seminary student heard I was studying to be a spiritual director, and asked to be my "directee." He is a young man I like a lot and deeply respect, and I am eager to get to know him better in "that which is Eternal" (to use the Quaker phrase).

One of the requirements of the Stillpoint program is that we find at least one directee to "practice on" during our first year. When I heard of this requirement, I wondered how on earth I was going to find a directee. But now I realize I don't need to go out looking for one. I just need to let God send those who share my yearning to draw closer to the source of Life.

For those who want to find out more about spiritual direction, I highly recommend Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction by Susan Phillips. It is beautifully written and gives concrete examples of how spiritual direction works in the lives of actual people. At times this book brought me to tears, and opened up my heart to glimpses of the Divine in ways I had never before imagined.

I also recommend this insightful article by Patty Levering, a Quaker with deep experience of spiritual direction and Divine guidance.

To those of you reading this entry, I wish you all the best in your efforts to become "a human being fully alive," (to use the words of Irenaeus). If you have read this far, you probably share my yearning to connect more deeply with God.  I hope you find (or have found) a spiritual friend or director or spirituality group or a spiritual practice that will help you to connect at the deepest level with the Divine that is already present in your life and in the inmost depths of your being.

Spiritual Direction as a Resource for Friends

Friends come to their meetings out of some kind of spiritual hunger—a desire for belonging and encouragement in making the world a better place, a search for Truth we are not finding elsewhere, an awareness of something missing. There are many Quaker venues in which these needs are addressed; and yet for many of us, at some time, our spiritual hunger is not satisfied. There is no adequate place to see through the fog, get out of stuck places, ask the deepest questions, and be sufficiently supported in an intentional, spiritual seeking. Spiritual direction is a resource for a person in such a condition. It is a complement, not a substitute, for meeting for worship and the meeting community.

Spiritual direction is an opportunity to explore your relationship with the Divine, to be more aware of God’s presence and action in your life, to look for the More that you sense is there in the midst of your life, to listen for the guidance of the Spirit, to be open to the Holy. It happens with the help of a "spiritual director," a person who listens to your story, concerns, or desires, and seeks to be a companion, nurturer, and guide as you explore that relationship.

I am using the term spiritual direction because it is the current, ecumenically recognized, technical term to describe a certain kind of spiritual attending.

Seeking spiritual direction is not about submitting one’s life and faith to some other person’s shaping, or accepting someone else as the authority on spiritual matters. Spiritual directors know that the real "director" is the Divine (God, Christ, the Light, the Spirit, the Inward Teacher). The "direction" happens in the attentive listening of the director to God and to the directee. It also happens in sharing and listening during the direction session, and it happens in the heart, mind, and soul of the directee long afterward. The directee sets the agenda and owns the discernment. The director and directee come together, radically trusting in the One whose presence teaches, guides, and transforms; the One who is directly available and speaks to one’s condition. The director is not more likely than the directee to hear or say the words that most illuminate the condition that needs to be addressed. For a directee, it is like being in meeting for worship, but having someone else to help listen. That can be true whether the director is Quaker or not.

In worship, we gather corporately in expectant silence, listening for the leading of the Spirit or opening to the Divine. One really can’t explain just how the spiritual knowing or the "being moved" happens. The directee listens in the same way and for the same kinds of things in the direction session as in meeting for worship, but the context includes more words. The director is likely to have had more experience in listening for and recognizing the voice of the Divine, or at least is outside the story told by the directee, and thus may be able to help the directee see the Light or hear the Voice.
It seems as if what I do as a directee is to bring in a bag of blocks, dump them on the table helter-skelter, and then watch as they are moved into some kind of order, or until I see them differently, or as additional things are added that make them a satisfying sight. Sometimes it happens as I hear my own words, sometimes it comes from the words of the director, and always the rearranging has a luminous quality from something within and beyond me. Of course, the rearranging may not happen in the session but rather much later, or even not at all. Still, my experience is that something happens more often than not. I am challenged, taught, changed, invited, encouraged, supported, opened, redirected. Isaac Penington writes, "There is that near you which will guide you. O wait for it and be sure that ye keep to it." The experience of spiritual direction is to have someone stand with you in a way that makes it more possible for you to do just that.

Many Friends have tried another form of spiritual caring called "spiritual friendship," an intentional relationship between two persons who take turns listening to each other’s stories and being present to and for the other. Spiritual friendship has a rich history. It is accepted among Friends, and it is especially wonderful and fruitful when the two persons are well-matched and mutually able to support and challenge the other, at levels appropriate to their needs and openness.

Spiritual friendship does, however, have some shortcomings, especially with the kind of mutuality it calls for, the level of informality and passivity it sometimes allows, and the more complicated character of the relationship. It can also cause a burden for someone who is especially gifted in this kind of caring and listening, because many people will want to be with that person, and spiritual friendship takes double time (your hour and my hour). I have been in and seen spiritual friendships where one person, a natural caregiver, ends up giving a lot and getting little; where both choose to avoid the hard work and opt for friendly conversation at a discussion level; where one or both want most to preserve the friendship and so avoid the risk of challenging the other or telling the raw truth; or where the intimacy of deep worship is too uncomfortable for two people who see each other on a regular basis.

I don’t want to disparage spiritual friendship, but I do want to lift up and encourage Friends to be open to spiritual direction. For the person longing for a closer relationship with God, the serious social activist who knows that a deep spiritual grounding is required for the long haul, or the Friend feeling a call or carrying a concern, spiritual direction offers unique possibilities. In fact, spiritual direction is for anyone willing to give it the time, do the listening, and risk being open. It is particularly doable, because it usually takes place nearby, for roughly an hour about once a month, and can go on for months or years. I believe it is especially useful for Friends because it fits so well with our contemplative ways, our experience of corporate discernment, and the fact that we are friends (equal but not the same).

Not wanting to be too vulnerable is a reason some choose spiritual friendship rather than direction. It seems to require less vulnerability because each party is vulnerable with the other. In fact, though, spiritual direction calls for the same kind of mutual vulnerability even if the focus is on the directee. What happens in the direction session very often has an impact not only on the directee but also on the director. Sometimes what is said leads to some new insight into the director’s own condition, which the director will explore later. Maybe there is an opportunity to share a story that has just begun to take on meaning for the director. Maybe a story that is heard will inspire or speak deeply to the director. And it is true that to exercise one’s spiritual gifts is what most challenges the spiritual life of a director and makes that person vulnerable. The two persons in the relationship are equal, yet different. Ultimately, both are trying to listen and respond to God’s call in their lives.
Spiritual direction does have scary aspects. It asks for our time. It expects us to be real, to know and face feelings, to risk being vulnerable and intimate with God. We may fear sharing our spiritual life, because for that to be received poorly can even feel life-threatening. We may want to avoid wrestling with God. We may refrain from asking for help because we really don’t want to deal with the things that block us. We do not want to change, or be asked to change.

Perhaps even more daunting is a fear of intimacy with God, a distrust of any notion of a God who relates to human beings, or a sense of personal unworthiness. One can have such a feeling without knowing it, even though it impacts how one lives. Or one may have the feeling, know it, be clear about its truth, and choose not to examine it or give oneself a chance to go beyond it. Sometimes that is the best one can do. But sometimes that means choosing to live lukewarmly instead of with the abundance Jesus said was to be ours. Spiritual direction is a good place to see if there is a way to stretch oneself and experience more.

Let me give an example, from outside Quakerism, of how spiritual direction can be a safe place to explore faith questions. Rabbi Jacob Staub is a Reconstructionist Jew who wanted to help rabbinical students know and pass on the spiritual treasures of their ancestors. To do so he had to deal with many obstacles, including that many liberal Jews do not believe in a God who intervenes supernaturally in human affairs, hears prayers, or responds to them. He chose a spiritual direction program as a way to see what could be done, and began with Rev. Sue Cole, a United Methodist minister and spiritual director. In his first session, she was able to hear his story and use his experience to help him reframe what it means to see God at work in the world and in his life. He reports in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction:
She listened to my narrative, pointed to a moment that I had described as "breathtaking," and had me revisit and re-experience that moment for ten to fifteen minutes, after which I knew I would never thoughtlessly run by a breathtaking moment again. After three months, I could feel God’s palpable presence when I entered her office and at many other times as well.
Over time she used his experience, his Truth, and his terms to make it possible for him to reconnect in a living way with the deep treasures of his Jewish heritage. He did have to be vulnerable and open, but the rewards for him and, later, his students, were great.

What I think I like best about spiritual direction is that, as a directee, it is my time. It has been set aside for me alone. I don’t have to worry about taking care of the director or anyone else. Primarily the relationship we have is not about friendship, but about the relationship each of us has with the Divine and, through that, with each other. I can use each session in whatever way I choose. The matters discussed are private and confidential. I can pursue whatever issue I desire, counting on the director to hear me where I am and to work at understanding my particular context and faith language (or lack of faith or language). The director’s response will be tailored to me, my needs, my situation. The director will not attempt to impose a particular faith on me. I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not in order to be in the relationship or to learn. It is an opportunity to grow in ways particular to me, but also in ways that others have traveled before me. And I don’t have to be sick or broken or in pain in order to be in spiritual direction. It is about the whole of life, the ups and the downs. Things get fixed, but it is about the relationship with God, not about fixing things.
There is something awesome about spiritual direction. Somehow it is ultimately about love. Somehow, from time to time in sessions and in the overall experience, one gets a real taste of God’s unconditional love, in the listening, accepting love of another (the director) through whom God’s presence and love become clearly and truthfully communicated.

I have experienced that love in both mundane and profound ways. One director, after we had met over a long period of time, heard my distress about a particular situation and offered me an insight: the rhythms of my life are very much affected by the seasons, and in the winter I simply need more sleep. Those very mundane words took a huge weight of frustration and unmet self-expectation off my back. It was as if suddenly my blind eyes had been given sight. There have been other times when what transpired left me touched to the depths of my being, rearranged and empowered, aware that I have been on sacred ground. Very often I go into a session confused, troubled, lost—or with very positive emotions. I tell my story, I am heard, I am met, and I leave enriched, touched, challenged, loved. Even between sessions, that love lingers. A memory of my director comes to my mind, and I know that I am being remembered, prayed for, held, carried, and strengthened—by God, made manifest through the director.

If you decide to try spiritual direction, finding a suitable director is important. You want to find a director who can help you see things you otherwise miss, someone who is deeply centered in God and in love for others. The director should be someone who has been there before you, someone who has been on an intentional spiritual path long enough to be humble, and to know some of the traps and keys. Your spiritual director needs to be a person whose light draws you, whose depth invites you, whose presence is attentive to you while at the same time attentive to God, whose insights are opening for you. At times it is especially helpful to have a director who is not part of your faith tradition (i.e. not Quaker), which can give you more freedom to ask questions, make mistakes, try out different language, and be stretched. Sometimes it is especially helpful to be with someone who is from the denomination in which you grew up and knows things about spiritual formation in that tradition that you may not be aware of, even though you have been impacted by it.

The person may not appear ideal. That may not matter. Because you approach the relationship the way you would an open, expectant, waiting meeting for worship, you may still receive the gifts you need. It is the fruits of the interaction that count.

My hope is that the day will come soon when spiritual direction will be such a recognized resource for Friends that yearly meetings and regional associations of Friends will have lists of Friends who do this kind of spiritual nurture. When that day comes, I believe the spiritual lives of Friends will be enriched, and the work we do in the world will be even more transformative.

1 comment:

  1. A brochure, "Opening to the Light", a Phila.Y.M. Directory of spiritual nurturers/directors, available via their Spiritual Formation Working Group, is a possible start/resource. Thanks for the impetus.