I distinctly remember waking up one morning desperate to find a deeper understanding of faith and reason for a relationship with God. Life had become dull and spiritually dry, with very little excitement or motivation for connecting with God or others. My faith felt shallow, and I was bored by what I was reading in Scripture. Somehow I knew in my gut that I had to experience God on a deeper, richer level in order to continue on my faith journey and to give me hope that following Jesus had a real purpose.
I decided to seek spiritual direction to help me with what I was feeling, and a friend recommended Sister Pauline. I met with her, felt comfortable with her style and continued meeting her for the next two years. Talking with a spiritual director allowed me to begin encountering God in the caverns of my soul, where past pain resided and held me hostage. The Holy Spirit began to invade the recesses of my heart and slowly brought healing and restoration to unresolved life experiences.
My spiritual director continually pointed me to my faith experiences—good and bad—and helped me connect experiences with my feelings of God’s presence and absence along the way. She simply listened or invited me to specific times of silence and reflection while I pondered my present and past and poured out what I could not say in other settings. And in doing so, she allowed my soul to be heard in ways I had not even been aware needed to be voiced.
Soul searching often leads us to an encounter with God that cannot be second-guessed, that reaches into the depth of our being and creates a sense of connection and being known by our Creator. Sometimes when we have questions about life, it is appropriate and necessary to have a counselor or mentor give us guidance or answers. But there are times when we need to allow God to be the one who leads us to a new and deeper understanding of ourselves and faith. This is what spiritual direction did for me.
The inner being is where transformation begins, and hurts or doubts can be explored within the context of allowing God to reveal what is going on inside of us in order for further transformation to occur. The attributes of peace, joy and goodness cannot be fabricated. These emanate from the very essence of our soul, from what is happening within us. As God meets us, these characteristics become more authentic. Spiritual direction simply taps into what is going on in our soul that is helping or hindering us to live in the most healthy way possible, in living life to the fullest with God and in community.
Who are spiritual directors and how are they trained? Spiritual directors are trained in cohorts, usually for a minimum of two years, through various programs led by more experienced directors. However, each director is unique in how they approach direction because it stems from the director’s unique personality and experience.
Each program is also unique in that it may focus on different aspects of direction. Some may focus more on healing, some on listening, some on traditions of Catholicism and some with a Protestant approach. When searching for a director, one needs to be aware that there are directors who are not Christ-centered; this is a caution to note and to be cognizant of when talking with a potential director.
What does a spiritual director do? I see my role as a spiritual director as simply creating space for people to encounter God by providing a quiet, calm environment where questions, doubts, pain and joy can be explored.
Susan Phillips, author of Candlelight, Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction, says, “The presence of a spiritual director helps another person articulate what is usually experienced in silence.”
In other words, spiritual direction is the practice of attentively and compassionately listening to the soul and heart in relationship to God, relying on God to be the ultimate director.
Hence, one ear is open to the directee, the other ear is open to God.
Spiritual direction is an ancient practice within the Christian tradition, going back centuries. Direction is an art, a practice of listening. It is not counseling or advice-giving. It is not goal-oriented. The sole purpose is to help the directee encounter God in the deepest places for the sake of moving forward on the faith journey, to help someone get “unstuck.”
How often does one meet? There is not usually a set expectation. Sometimes people commit to meeting only once in a while, while others are keen to meet more often. Some people make monthly appointments and others make appointments as needed. The directee initiates meetings, and the director is available upon request. There is often a fee associated with the sessions, and this varies with each director. Although face to face is preferable, Facetime, Skype and phone calls are options for long-distance sessions.
As a director, how have I observed spiritual direction help others? After a time of silence and reflection, a directee said she had felt Jesus sitting next to her, leaning in to hear what she was saying and providing a sense of comfort and peace despite an unsettling situation.
Another person stated she felt God’s unconditional love in a way she had never felt before while praying through a particular Scripture passage, and this gave her courage to make a difficult decision. Another person’s face was transformed from troubled and confused to a brighter countenance and a wide grin.
Not every session ends with clarity or life-changing decisions, but these are just a few examples of what happens during spiritual direction. God meets people where they are in surprising ways. I could never fabricate what happens authentically between directee and God through Christ-centered conversation and focus. I am often equally amazed at what happens during a session, but I can say without hesitation that every session provides hope and concrete evidence that God is ready to engage with us anytime, anywhere if we just stop and listen.
Spiritual direction has changed my life. I feel more connected to God through Christ than ever before because of the exercises and disciplines I have learned with my director and through training. Direction may not be for everyone, but it helped me discover the “more” to faith that I was searching for and has brought me into a vibrant and life-giving understanding and hope for my future.
Karen Bartlett (LMSW) lives with her husband, Rick, in Wichita, Kansas, where she is a school social worker for K-12 students with social/emotional needs. She attended MB Biblical Seminary (now Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary) in Fresno, California, earning a certificate in theology and became a spiritual director after attending two years of training through the School of Sustainable Faith. Bartlett is also adjunct faculty for Tabor College in Wichita. Her passion is the holistic development of individuals through awareness of God and self, for the purpose of living life to the full.