I eagerly awaited my first instruction from my spiritual director. I was a recently re-minted church member after 25 years of being away from any kind of religious practice, a lay person eager to "make up for lost time," to go deeper into the understanding and practice of spirituality. My minister had recommended I try spiritual direction, an age-old Christian discipline in which seekers meet with a religious counselor to discuss ways of deepening prayer, discerning God's will, and seeing how God is working in their lives.
Now here I was at my first meeting with my newly assigned spiritual director, who I was thrilled to learn was a Roman Catholic nun. As a mainstream Protestant, I felt a nun would be able to fill me in on mysterious practices with beads and incense that would provide secret shortcuts and greater access to the divine. My pen was poised and notebook ready for the nun's assignment that would surely introduce me to exciting, arcane practices.
"I want you to look at a tree," she said.
Is that all?
She must have supposed that since I was a Protestant, I wasn't capable of more than the simplest challenge. As it turned out, that assignment became one of the most rewarding spiritual exercises I have ever done. The tree in fact looked too complicated, and I settled on a blade of grass, which I meditated on, as per instruction, for 20 minutes a day for two weeks, keeping a journal of the ways that God seemed manifested in the grass he created. Among the words I wrote were "resilient, tenacious, dancing, dependent, alive, reaching, responding."
That was the first of many lessons and experiences in which spiritual direction enriched my life, so I'm glad to see that the practice is becoming more widely known and available to more people in Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, as well as to seekers who may not have any church affiliation but are trying to find their way to God.
Last spring, I gave a workshop at the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church's Middleton Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling
in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, a new facility that's offering spiritual direction among its programs. The Center's brochure explains that in our present high-speed, high-tech life, many people want to explore the spiritual dimension and satisfy the desire described in the 42nd Psalm: "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God."
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While I was giving my workshop, I met and talked with Gayle Kerr, one of the two spiritual directors on the Center's staff. She is a bright, personable, 53-year-old woman with two grown sons, who studied five years to earn an M.A. in holistic spirituality with a certificate in spiritual direction from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. Kerr sees 25 people a week individually in spiritual direction, as well as leading sessions in "group spiritual direction" and retreats and courses on "experiencing prayer." This work, she says, is "the joy of my life."
Kerr is one of those people who seems to genuinely radiate a serenity that gives you confidence and trust. I could see at once why people would enjoy and benefit from meeting with her to explore questions of spirituality. The people who come to her seeking spiritual direction, she said, "want a deeper relationship in their prayer life; [they] need to connect with God. Helping and guiding people with such purposes is wonderfully fulfilling."
"A woman I saw last night said, 'I have a hunger for God; I feel an emptiness I need to fill.' Some people come who aren't members of any church but are trying to find a way back to faith. Some feel their prayer life is 'dry or parched.' I see prayer as a relationship with God, and in any relationship, it's not all dramatic peaks and valleys; sometimes it's just plodding along--but that doesn't mean God isn't there."
Sometimes she suggests scriptural readings, psalms like 139, which eloquently shows God is always with us wherever we go ("Thou knowest my downsitting and my uprising"). Sometimes she recommends gospel stories of Jesus "showing compassion." She asks people in this process to read scripture not for "information" but rather to help with the "formation of our own souls."
"Some people come to spiritual direction hoping it's a kind of cheap therapy," Kerr says, or "they think it's easier than the hard work of building relationships. They think they can solve their problems just by praying harder."
When people come with personal problems that seem more in need of psychotherapy, Kerr refers them to one of the counselors on the Middleton Center's staff--they have eight providers, including marriage and family counselors and addiction counselors, in addition to the two spiritual directors.
Kerr sees her directees twice a month at the beginning of their work, and then once a month after the basic relationship has been established. There is a sliding scale for payment, from $30 to $50, though the Center offers grants for those who can't afford those costs, charging only a $10 administrative fee per visit.
Perhaps the most difficult part of spiritual direction is "discernment," helping people know God's will in making decisions, hearing "the still small voice" within. Kerr said one of her directees was torn between going on her church's trip to the Holy Land, which she felt an obligation to do but felt a knot in her stomach thinking about, and taking a sabbatical in New Mexico, which gave her a great sense of peace. "Go with the peace," Kerr counseled. "Where the peace is, that's where God is."