Updated: Sep 19, 2020
"..the guide and the traveler, the director and directee, the one in labor and the midwife, the friend of the friend, the master or mistress and the disciple on the road of life. There are a number of images besides these that focus on collaboration in this process. Accompaniment in conversion cannot be defined; at best it can be described." ― Suzanne Zuercher, Enneagram Companions: Growing in Relationships and Spiritual Direction
As a spiritual director, I am often asked who or what a spiritual director is, and what a spiritual director does. These, of course, are very justified questions. First of all, the word "spiritual" can have countless meanings, and secondly, the word "director" seems more misleading than helpful in describing the work of spiritual direction.
There are many books that describe and instruct us in the art of spiritual direction. All spiritual directors who I know, including myself, have a way of defining their vocation and day to day work. (Watch an example here.) Yet, all of our definitions seem to fall short and struggle to express what it is like to experience a spiritual direction relationship. I find metaphors and images helpful in offering glimpses into what spiritual direction can feel like.
In her book, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction, Margaret Guenther describes three images of spiritual direction. She writes about the spiritual director as host that cultivates inner-hospitality in order to welcome others, as teacher that scaffolds learning through questions and attuned observations, and as midwife that assists in the birth of new spiritual life in the directee.
Spiritual directors can also be described as artists who seek beauty in the most ordinary things, and as witnesses of those whose lives in God they get to accompany.
While I identify myself in all of the above images, there are three images that have become especially meaningful and helpful to me when I describe myself as a spiritual director.
1. Spiritual Director as Travel Companion
“Your life, my life, is given graciously by God. Our lives are not problems to be solved but journeys to be taken”
― Henri J. M. Nouwen, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith
If you have browsed through my website at all, you have noticed that I often describe spiritual direction with a phrase "accompaniment on a spiritual path". Spiritual life is often likened to a journey or path. I see myself as a spiritual director as a travel companion on a long journey of life, ultimately leading home to our Father. My role is to help the fellow-traveler to stay awake to the gifts of their life, notice the road signs and discern the way ahead, have courage to keep journeying on, be mindful of the pace, help get unstuck when facing obstacles, linger with the darkness of night with hope of the breaking dawn, and find comfort in the shared journey. It is especially helpful to me to imagine this kind of slow, intentional accompaniment taking place in nature. Nature is welcoming, undemanding, generous and awe-inspiring. Nature is our home and a reminder that we, too, are part of God's good creation. Nature reminds me of the things I value in my spiritual direction practice. I value silence, un-hurriedness, wonder, creativity, generosity of the heart, authenticity, and felt-sense of God's presence.
2. Spiritual Director as Guest
"I must learn to welcome and embrace the part of me that is awkward with the growing knowledge that I am already in someone else's home. I must learn to serve them in their life-space, in their God-space. In other words, I must be the GUEST, they the host."
―Leonard Blahut, The Spiritual Director as Guest: Spiritual Direction in a Cross-Cultural Situation. (In Presence: The Journal of Spiritual Directors International 1997, vol. 3, no. 2, 57-61).
I love hosting spiritual direction conversations in my home. I enjoy making tea, setting up an inviting space, getting the candle ready and perhaps select art materials or images to reflect on. I, much like Guenther describes in her book, practice cultivating inner-hospitality that offers spaciousness to my directees souls to be welcomed in. And still, I believe that the role of guest connects perhaps even more deeply with my experience as a spiritual director.
I have lived all of my adult life as a guest in a foreign culture. I have learned to be the observer, learner, and student in the host culture where I have lived and worked. I am often reminded not to assume that I know the host's past or future, nor intentions, values, traditions or beliefs. I learn by asking questions, listening, being curious, observing, mirroring, making mistakes and asking for forgiveness.
Similar to being a guest in a new national or ethnic culture, I have also spent much of my life as a guest in the world of children. I, like all of us of course, was once a child myself, but in many ways I have grown a stranger to the child's world, and there are many things that I do not know about children's lives in today's society.
As I sit with others (both children and adults) in spiritual direction, I am keenly aware that I am not the one who is guiding, leading and instructing, but rather I am given the honor and trust to be welcomed in the other person's already on-going life with self, others, and God. It is my privilege to get to become a guest and companion on their sacred journey. This is even more evident now, in the time of pandemic where I literally am welcomed to people's homes through their digital devices.
3. Spiritual Director as Tea Ceremony Server
"Some things are quickly understood and some things take time. The ones that take time you come to understand little by little."
A couple years ago, I watched a Japanese movie called Every Day Is a Good Day. I was captured by the slow beauty of it and the grit it took for the main character to learn "the art of tea". For several decades she made it her rhythm to visit a tea room where she was accompanied in her practice of this ancient art form.
The invitation and resonance with my own life was strong. In the story, I saw a reflection of my calling and Christian vocation of learning to be fully present to God in the gift of the present moment with all my senses, and accompany others as they too, practice attending to the presence of God. I also recognized the necessities of habit, perseverance and accompaniment for the sustainability of this calling. The contemplative life is not to be lived alone.
Lastly, we know that working with hands (whether it is about ceremonially preparing tea, embroidering, painting or playing an instrument), always requires passion and dedication. Practicing our artistry invites us to fully surrender to the moment and relax into the limitations of our whole selves, including our bodies.
Spiritual direction, in many ways, feels to me like those regular visits to the tea room that offer silence and space to practice the slow craft of listening to God and our lives in him. As a spiritual director, I have made a commitment to God, myself and my directees to keep practicing this slow, listening life. I seek to stay awake to myself, God and others, so that I can in turn accompany others well, who desire to do the same.
What are some images or metaphors that connect to your life's vocation? If you are a spiritual director, how would you describe your work as a spiritual director?
Resources Movies & TV Series: In Pursuit of Silence Documentary Movie
Every Day Is a Good Day Movie
Sacred Companions: Spiritual Friendships and Direction by David Benner
Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith by Henri J. M. Nouwen
The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William Barry and William Connolly
Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction by Susan Phillips
Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction by Margaret Guenther
Listening for the Soul: Pastoral Care and Spiritual Direction by Jean Stairs
Spiritual Direction: A Practical Introduction by Sue Pickering
The Art of Listening in a Healing Way by James Miller
Spiritual Conversations with Children: Listening to God Together by Lacy Finn Borgo
Websites: Spiritual Direction International