“Pure joy is found in a life of growth, not in a life of ease,” writes Douglas D. Webster in Finding Spiritual Direction. Tough words to live by in a world that values comfort above else.
Webster uses a study of the book of James to provide a basis for the essential practices of anyone wanting to provide spiritual direction to others who seek to grow in maturity. He sees spiritual directors as “physicians of the soul” (14), as “parents” (16) and as “farmers who love the land and understand their work.” 171
Webster also talks about prayer, “Prayer sustains the resistance of the soul against an undertow of evil . . . Prayer does not tidy up life and arrange it in labeled folders. It focuses and intensifies life. Prayer orients our thinking, directs our actions and prepares us for God’s work.” 40
So, here is the question: When given an option, do you choose a life of growth or a life of ease? If you choose a life of growth, you should also understand that growth usually requires that we move through resistance as we encounter suffering and hardship. At the end of growth lies joy as Webster says above.
According to Susan Muto, spiritual directors should be wise, learned and experienced:
“They are wise in the sense that they are prudent, saying the right thing at the right time. They can discern what is important and eternal and what is temporary and does not matter. A good spiritual director has learned the art of reading the soul They are considered to be learned not because of their academic achievements but because learned from the school of life and they have absorbed the truth of the Scriptures. They have experienced what it means to seek direction for one’s soul and themselves have been directed.” (Muto class lecture)
The qualifications needed to be a good director are qualities that cannot be gained by taking a course on SD or by reading books on the subject. These qualities are formed out of an experience in life over time and under submission to the Spirit of God. It is the “depth of intimacy with God that is more important than knowledge of the subject” (Dynamics 364)
Directees must be able to trust the Director with their soul and know that confidences will be kept. Muto advises that a Director not be a person with authority over the directee (class lecture). The directee should feel the acceptance of the Director, even if all of his or her views are not shared. Directors should be good listeners, not only to the words of the directee but also to the promptings of the Spirit as they prayerfully consider a response to the directee. There should be a genuine respect for how God is at work in life of the directee. A gentleness is required when matters of the spirit are shared and yet there must also be a willingness to be firm in offering up the needed direction (see 1 Cor. 4:21). Directors must be able to speak the truth but in love (Eph 4:32). Paul describes his gentleness among the Thessalonians “like a mother caring for her children” (1 Thes. 2:6). Even though there may be an element of spiritual parenting in SD, directees should be reassured that it is God alone as their heavenly Father who has all the resources that they need.
To be a spiritual director, a person should have some affirmation from their church leaders that they are gifted in this way.
From Letters on Spiritual Direction by Susan Muto, a book of “imaginative” letters that St. John wrote to his directee Dona Ana Penalosa.
John writes about the danger of placing ourselves under the spiritual care of the wrong person and writes sobering comments about who should NOT be a spiritual director:
One is perhaps highly educated but inexperienced, or one full of clever answers but indiscreet, not a listener but a controller, not a humble person but one proud of being so accomplished, not an experienced guide in spiritual matters but a counselor mainly trained in psychological techniques and personality analysis. 90
I want to continue my progress in dealing with the “veil of temporal detachments” (which Ana says, “hinder longing for transcendence 23) and natural affections that block the soul from union with God. (21, 65) Yet, I realize how easily I fall back into old habits and especially the big three: appetites for power, pleasure and possessions. A sad and sobering reminder to me was the statement made by John about many people, “Called for much more, they settle for much less.” 72
I must remember as John says, “Your delight in him is the delight he feels in you.” 51
We need to be available to people as they feel an empty life apart from God, “a thirst that is unquenchable, a hunger that is never satisfied.” 67
God is always the initiator, “It is humbling to realize that we could neither raise our eyes to the divine light nor desire it if God were not turning our eyes in the right direction.” 72
Following are some of my reflections after I read Epiphany Manual by Muto and van Kaam
As I seek to provide spiritual direction to others, I need to respect and honor the way God is already at work in the other person and should “never get in the way of the process already in motion in the heart of a person-in-formation.” (14) Rather than seeking to control the process, I was reminded that “Good facilitators let common formation happen.” (22) It is not necessary that I “click” with all the participants; only that I respect and value each participant’s contribution to how the Spirit is at work in the group. My role is to try to discern the spiritual needs of the group.
It is necessary to debunk the notion that spiritual formation-in-common will lead to some special or ecstatic religious experience. Formation should include a commitment to “expose the self-deception that covers up our total dependence on God.” (62) A key point for me is a reminder that “Transformation is a grace only the Spirit can give.” (63)
for full review see side bar under book reviews
Why is it that some people seem to be “safe” or “approachable” and others are not? This question is important to me since I tend to be in the latter category more often than not. Surprisingly, some of the writings of the desert fathers (who wrote between 300 and 400) help. I found this in Heaven begins within you by Anselm Gruen. He says, “Gentle persons are attractive to so many people.” (118) I am motivated to continue my growth in Christ and to see what God will do within me since Gruen wrote, “Gentleness and compassion are the criteria of genuine spirituality.” (118) I guess I have a long way to go.
I also tend to agree with Gruen’s comments that young people have not often “come to terms with their own reality” or they have not yet encountered their “shadow side”. However, I don’t think that means that we should not provide spiritual direction to those on the younger side of life. It seems that the type of spiritual formation and direction we offer may need to be different than with those who have a more realistic picture of their own humanity.
In what was probably the most helpful part of the book (chapters 6 and 7), Gruen explains how the desert fathers help us to understand what lies behind the passions of the body, mind and emotions and offered corresponding spiritual practices in battling each of these passions. I need to understand where my own “compassion deficits” lie so that I can better understand my own and other’s struggles as well as offer tools to help in the battles against the flesh.
Following are my own reflection about Pathways of Spiritual Living by Susan Muto.
This small book provides an excellent summary of some of the basics needed by anyone seeking to pursue holiness through spiritual self-direction. “The call to holiness beckons us to return to the basics, that is, to those conditions for fostering single-hearted, awe-filled, grateful abandonment to God’s will, revealed in the midst of our life in the everyday world.” 31 In particular, she addresses silence, listening, reflection, prayer and contemplation.
Since I am at the point of transition and moving from a ministry which involved public recognition to one that seems to be more hidden, her words on page 47 spoke to me. “Perhaps it is God’s will for us to remain in a service that is hidden, but it may also happen that we have to bear, as Christ did, the burden of public recognition and the consequent envy and jealousy it might arouse in others, to say nothing of the pride it could breed in us.” I have only of late discovered that the more the public ministry the more the need to withdraw into silence and solitude.
Silence has been a significant part of my own healing from burnout and so Muto’s encouragement to silence encourages me. Rather than seeing silence as an escape, I can see it as an opportunity for God to be at work, it becomes a place in which I can develop an intimacy with God. Indeed God has used silence to rebuild my fragmented soul. Muto says that everyone needs silence. “To neglect this need is to risk living a tense, fragmented, spiritless life. . . .If we do not nourish our souls, they atrophy as do bodies without food.” 58 However, since many people with which I work find it difficult to get away for longer periods of silence, I need to work with them to see how they can creatively build silence into the structure of their existing lives.
I saw my spiritual director on Thursday in conjunction with a personal retreat. I talked with my Director about what should be happening when I am listening to God, for example, in centering prayer. She warned me about the ego problem–not that I didn’t know anything about the problem of the ego and pride!!! But she said it is an ego problem if we are meeting with God and we think that nothing is happening–I don’t feel anything, I don’t sense anything, no consolations, no messages. She encouraged me to listen but don’t expect to hear anything–sounds kind of weird but I understand a little bit more now. My senses do not have to dominate!! The question, will I still seek God even if nothing seems to be happening. She often what God is doing is imperceptible. Some of this came up when I began explaining that one “false self” that I sometimes communicate to people is that of being “laid back”. Now, I am anything but laid back–just ask my wife but this false self is one that acts as a protective measure. The problem–if I use it with other people, do I also use it with God? Another thought that I came away with from meeting with my director is that I needed to consent to God’s presence. That is what I tried to do for most of my retreat. Later I want to write about the three cacti and the four dogwood trees!