Howard Avrahm Addison is immersed in Judaism, from the yarmulke on his head to the Talmudic texts on his bookshelf, from the Hebrew phrases that lace his speech to the narratives that illustrate his points. As senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Dresher, Penn., he and his Conservative congregation occupy a roomy, modern complex well-outfitted for the full schedule of religious activities that takes place there.
But once a month, the 49-year-old rabbi leaves all this to go looking for God in a convent.
He heads up the New Jersey Turnpike, religious music on the stereo, to Highland Park, N.J., wondering what ground he and Sister Barbara Whittemore will cover that day. The two talk for an hour about where God has been in the rabbi's life over the last weeks, and then he heads home, radio off, processing his latest round of spiritual direction.
Interest in spiritual direction, which dates to early Christianity, has mushroomed in recent years and traversed traditional boundaries of creed. In the practice, the seeker, with the help of a guide, attempts to recognize God's workings in his life, often drawing on examples from Scripture, and undertaking prayer exercises or spiritual practices such as journal writing or meditation.
Rabbi Addison has received spiritual direction for about six years. He described it as "a very grace-filled time" and said the practice has become a pillar of his spiritual life. He recently wrote about it in "Show Me Your Way: The Complete Guide to Exploring Interfaith Spiritual Direction" (Skylight Paths Publishing 2000).
Guidance from a Catholic nun, and familiarity with classic Christian contemplatives such as John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, enhances his own faith. Moreover, he said, the use of Scripture and of parables as models of how God might be working in one's life "absolutely exists in Judaism."
How can spiritual direction bring transformation?
Sister Barbara, his director, said she has no magic formula. And according to Rabbi Addison, one of the nun's chief qualities-shared by other good spiritual directors, he said-is that she often "gets out of the way." The two share what Sister Barbara called a "holistic" view of God's work in the world: They seek signs of God's movement not just in religious matters but in work, relationships, children and life's events, past and present.
"Often, I say very little," said Sister Barbara, who has spent 44 of her 72 years as a member of the Religious of the Cenacle, an Ignatian-inspired community that specializes in spiritual direction and retreat work. "I sometimes ask, 'Where has God been in your life?' And then I listen.for the movement of God in the person, for a sense of the movement of the divine."
Sister Barbara said hallmarks of the divine presence are strong feelings: of awe, for instance, or of confusion or consolation. Those feelings, often referred to as "movements of the spirit," may be "brought to prayer" along with more obvious events and issues.
Spiritual directors sometimes assign "homework" in the form of prayer exercises or readings, but Rabbi Addison said that although his director encourages him to keep a journal, she prescribes little else. The rabbi's daily routine surrounds him with the holy, and he meditates privately most days as well, he said.
Rabbi Addison sought out spiritual direction as part of his "middle-aged stock-taking." In his need, he turned to the Christian interdenominational Alban Institute near Washington, where he attended several workshops on "the inner life" geared to clergy. He was pointed to the Cenacle sisters by the Rev. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest he had heard speak there and admired.
Although other options for spiritual direction now exist for Rabbi Addison, he has come to appreciate the experience and temperament of the Cenacle sisters. He also believes that digging into the riches of another faith can root a believer more firmly in his own. He said it is not unusual for concepts, exercises and practices of one faith to have counterparts, or functional equivalents, in others. Chanting the familiar "Ribono she olam (Master of the Universe)," for instance, reminds him of Christianity's popular "Jesus Prayer." Exodus from Egypt serves in Judaism as a kind of death-and-rebirth experience, he said, so a personal trial might be referred to in shorthand as his "Egypt," the nun's "cross."
He said he neither promotes nor hides his work at the Cenacle house from his congregants, guessing that while some probably look askance at it, others may be attracted by it, and most probably are oblivious. He is known at Temple Sinai for his interest in things mystical, and often offers workshops there on meditation and spirituality. One such event even featured Sister Barbara as speaker.
The Religious of the Cenacle, an international community, has developed a reputation for offering spiritual direction to seekers of all persuasions since its founding in 1826. Sister Barbara said she directs Rabbi Addison no differently than others.. The "fruits" of an experience of God, she said, are the same in all faiths, and include feelings of peace, integrity, charity, deeper faith, patience, and so forth. The rabbi described how he has tasted some of these.
He said the transformation was a "matter of, one, inviting God into your heart, and two, trying to be worthy of how God is acting through you. Not that you're impersonating God but that you're being a conduit, a vehicle" for God's work to take place.