I dislike being brought to tears. I stubbornly refuse to choke up during sad movies. I sit stoically reminding myself that I am being manipulated by the movie director. So when I first met with another kind of director--my spiritual director--I just knew she would say something that would make me cry, and so I braced myself.

Sure enough, about half an hour into the meeting, she gently suggested that perhaps God wanted to communicate with me just as much as I wanted to communicate with God, and the tears welled up. Not for long though, because I changed the subject to the safer topic of general theology.

God is a master of subtlety--no bolts of lightning, only quiet reassurances...a feeling of peace.

That was six months ago. Now when we have our monthly meeting, I reach for the tissue and keep talking through the tears as we explore the possibility that God might want me to feel comforted, encouraged, and even loved. Together, we look for ways that God might be communicating this message to me.

I've decided that God is a master of subtlety--no bolts of lightning, only quiet reassurances, words spoken through a stranger, a feeling of peace with a decision made, an inner nudging toward a life focused on the spiritual.

My spiritual director listens as I grapple with my own resistance to God's intimate presence. Sometimes, she points out a correlation between my journey and that of Christ when I ask her for help in seeing my struggles in a larger context. I want to be brought out of the isolation chamber of my own self-centered mind and into God's presence, and she companions me along the way.

Last fall, I entered the Spiritual Director's Institute at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, California, to start a three-year training program as a spiritual director. That first Saturday morning, 30 of us gathered in a room to begin, as the program director, Sister Lorita, put it, "the process of discernment."

Although the program directors are nuns, and the Mercy Center is Roman Catholic, we find as we get to know each other that we are a diverse group. Among us were three Protestant pastors, a brother, Catholic nuns, a few therapists of various denominations, and some whose spiritual practices are from Eastern traditions.

We are married, single, partnered, celibate. Our willingness, even eagerness, to explore ways of discerning the presence of Spirit in our lives, and learning how to help others do the same, is our common bond.

A good director acts as a kind of trail guide, pointing out God's presence along your path.

Spiritual direction for many people means meeting with your priest or pastor to figure out whether you have a "calling," or it might summon up an image of pastoral counseling as you reach important milestones like marriage or terminal illness. Spiritual direction can be those things, but it can also be much more. Over the last 30 years or so, spiritual direction has blossomed as a discipline by which those who encounter God in the fabric of their daily lives act as companions to others seeking a similar encounter. As they say at the Mercy Center, "We stand poised and attentive to the movement of God in our hearts."

So what does spiritual direction look like? Typically, you meet once a month, sometimes more, depending on need. Somewhat like therapy, you meet for an hour to talk about family, work, or other life issues. Unlike most traditional therapy sessions, however, the emphasis is not on solutions to problems but rather on discerning your relationship with God through these matters. The focus remains on the spiritual. A good director acts as a kind of trail guide, pointing out the signs of God's presence along your path.

You should not expect a spiritual director to make life decisions for you or replace your theology with theirs. Instead, you can expect uncritical acceptance, nonjudgmental and attentive listening, commitment to your process, and gentle guidance toward spiritual clarity.

Spiritual directors are no longer to be found only among the ranks of the clergy or other professional religious. Spiritual Directors International

(SDI), officially formed in 1990, has a membership of over 3,000 trained spiritual directors and offers a directory of referrals. You may also ask at your parish, or look for a training program at a university or religious institution in your area. The Mercy Center

, on the West Coast, and the Shalem Institute

, in Bethesda, Maryland, are two such examples.

An extensive body of literature also exists for reading about everything from the history of spiritual direction to ethical issues, interfaith practice, feminist spiritual direction, and more.

Two of the better-known writers in the field are Thomas A. Hart, from the Catholic tradition, and Margaret Guenther, from the Anglican tradition. Although an examination of the membership statistics for SDI shows a preponderance of directors from a Roman Catholic tradition, with Protestants a close second, there has recently been more emphasis in training programs and literature on interfaith awareness and practices, including Buddhism and Native American spirituality.

Ideally, spiritual direction provides a safe place to speak openly about God to someone who is closely listening. The director's job is to invite God into the room; embody God's love, compassion, and attentiveness; and act as a companion as you begin to look for God along the path of your life. As in any relationship, whether a doctor, therapist, teacher or spiritual director, you have the right to feel safe and to trust your guide, or to find another if you don't. As you get to know each other, and finally decide that this is a person you can trust, then let the journey begin.

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