Friends come to their meetings out of some kind of spiritual hunger—a desire for belonging and encouragement in making the world a better place, a search for Truth we are not finding elsewhere, an awareness of something missing. There are many Quaker venues in which these needs are addressed; and yet for many of us, at some time, our spiritual hunger is not satisfied. There is no adequate place to see through the fog, get out of stuck places, ask the deepest questions, and be sufficiently supported in an intentional, spiritual seeking. Spiritual direction is a resource for a person in such a condition. It is a complement, not a substitute, for meeting for worship and the meeting community.
Spiritual direction is an opportunity to explore your relationship with the Divine, to be more aware of God’s presence and action in your life, to look for the More that you sense is there in the midst of your life, to listen for the guidance of the Spirit, to be open to the Holy. It happens with the help of a “spiritual director,” a person who listens to your story, concerns, or desires, and seeks to be a companion, nurturer, and guide as you explore that relationship.
I am using the term spiritual direction because it is the current, ecumenically recognized, technical term to describe a certain kind of spiritual attending.
Seeking spiritual direction is not about submitting one’s life and faith to some other person’s shaping, or accepting someone else as the authority on spiritual matters. Spiritual directors know that the real “director” is the Divine (God, Christ, the Light, the Spirit, the Inward Teacher). The “direction” happens in the attentive listening of the director to God and to the directee. It also happens in sharing and listening during the direction session, and it happens in the heart, mind, and soul of the directee long afterward. The directee sets the agenda and owns the discernment. The director and directee come together, radically trusting in the One whose presence teaches, guides, and transforms; the One who is directly available and speaks to one’s condition. The director is not more likely than the directee to hear or say the words that most illuminate the condition that needs to be addressed. For a directee, it is like being in meeting for worship, but having someone else to help listen. That can be true whether the director is Quaker or not.
In worship, we gather corporately in expectant silence, listening for the leading of the Spirit or opening to the Divine. One really can’t explain just how the spiritual knowing or the “being moved” happens. The directee listens in the same way and for the same kinds of things in the direction session as in meeting for worship, but the context includes more words. The director is likely to have had more experience in listening for and recognizing the voice of the Divine, or at least is outside the story told by the directee, and thus may be able to help the directee see the Light or hear the Voice.
It seems as if what I do as a directee is to bring in a bag of blocks, dump them on the table helter‐skelter, and then watch as they are moved into some kind of order, or until I see them differently, or as additional things are added that make them a satisfying sight. Sometimes it happens as I hear my own words, sometimes it comes from the words of the director, and always the rearranging has a luminous quality from something within and beyond me. Of course, the rearranging may not happen in the session but rather much later, or even not at all. Still, my experience is that something happens more often than not. I am challenged, taught, changed, invited, encouraged, supported, opened, redirected. Isaac Penington writes, “There is that near you which will guide you. O wait for it and be sure that ye keep to it.” The experience of spiritual direction is to have someone stand with you in a way that makes it more possible for you to do just that.
Many Friends have tried another form of spiritual caring called “spiritual friendship,” an intentional relationship between two persons who take turns listening to each other’s stories and being present to and for the other. Spiritual friendship has a rich history. It is accepted among Friends, and it is especially wonderful and fruitful when the two persons are well‐matched and mutually able to support and challenge the other, at levels appropriate to their needs and openness.
Spiritual friendship does, however, have some shortcomings, especially with the kind of mutuality it calls for, the level of informality and passivity it sometimes allows, and the more complicated character of the relationship. It can also cause a burden for someone who is especially gifted in this kind of caring and listening, because many people will want to be with that person, and spiritual friendship takes double time (your hour and my hour). I have been in and seen spiritual friendships where one person, a natural caregiver, ends up giving a lot and getting little; where both choose to avoid the hard work and opt for friendly conversation at a discussion level; where one or both want most to preserve the friendship and so avoid the risk of challenging the other or telling the raw truth; or where the intimacy of deep worship is too uncomfortable for two people who see each other on a regular basis.
I don’t want to disparage spiritual friendship, but I do want to lift up and encourage Friends to be open to spiritual direction. For the person longing for a closer relationship with God, the serious social activist who knows that a deep spiritual grounding is required for the long haul, or the Friend feeling a call or carrying a concern, spiritual direction offers unique possibilities. In fact, spiritual direction is for anyone willing to give it the time, do the listening, and risk being open. It is particularly doable, because it usually takes place nearby, for roughly an hour about once a month, and can go on for months or years. I believe it is especially useful for Friends because it fits so well with our contemplative ways, our experience of corporate discernment, and the fact that we are friends (equal but not the same).
Not wanting to be too vulnerable is a reason some choose spiritual friendship rather than direction. It seems to require less vulnerability because each party is vulnerable with the other. In fact, though, spiritual direction calls for the same kind of mutual vulnerability even if the focus is on the directee. What happens in the direction session very often has an impact not only on the directee but also on the director. Sometimes what is said leads to some new insight into the director’s own condition, which the director will explore later. Maybe there is an opportunity to share a story that has just begun to take on meaning for the director. Maybe a story that is heard will inspire or speak deeply to the director. And it is true that to exercise one’s spiritual gifts is what most challenges the spiritual life of a director and makes that person vulnerable. The two persons in the relationship are equal, yet different. Ultimately, both are trying to listen and respond to God’s call in their lives.
Spiritual direction does have scary aspects. It asks for our time. It expects us to be real, to know and face feelings, to risk being vulnerable and intimate with God. We may fear sharing our spiritual life, because for that to be received poorly can even feel life‐threatening. We may want to avoid wrestling with God. We may refrain from asking for help because we really don’t want to deal with the things that block us. We do not want to change, or be asked to change.
Perhaps even more daunting is a fear of intimacy with God, a distrust of any notion of a God who relates to human beings, or a sense of personal unworthiness. One can have such a feeling without knowing it, even though it impacts how one lives. Or one may have the feeling, know it, be clear about its truth, and choose not to examine it or give oneself a chance to go beyond it. Sometimes that is the best one can do. But sometimes that means choosing to live lukewarmly instead of with the abundance Jesus said was to be ours. Spiritual direction is a good place to see if there is a way to stretch oneself and experience more.
Let me give an example, from outside Quakerism, of how spiritual direction can be a safe place to explore faith questions. Rabbi Jacob Staub is a Reconstructionist Jew who wanted to help rabbinical students know and pass on the spiritual treasures of their ancestors. To do so he had to deal with many obstacles, including that many liberal Jews do not believe in a God who intervenes supernaturally in human affairs, hears prayers, or responds to them. He chose a spiritual direction program as a way to see what could be done, and began with Rev. Sue Cole, a United Methodist minister and spiritual director. In his first session, she was able to hear his story and use his experience to help him reframe what it means to see God at work in the world and in his life. He reports in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction:
She listened to my narrative, pointed to a moment that I had described as “breathtaking,” and had me revisit and re‐experience that moment for ten to fifteen minutes, after which I knew I would never thoughtlessly run by a breathtaking moment again. After three months, I could feel God’s palpable presence when I entered her office and at many other times as well.
Over time she used his experience, his Truth, and his terms to make it possible for him to reconnect in a living way with the deep treasures of his Jewish heritage. He did have to be vulnerable and open, but the rewards for him and, later, his students, were great.
What I think I like best about spiritual direction is that, as a directee, it is my time. It has been set aside for me alone. I don’t have to worry about taking care of the director or anyone else. Primarily the relationship we have is not about friendship, but about the relationship each of us has with the Divine and, through that, with each other. I can use each session in whatever way I choose. The matters discussed are private and confidential. I can pursue whatever issue I desire, counting on the director to hear me where I am and to work at understanding my particular context and faith language (or lack of faith or language). The director’s response will be tailored to me, my needs, my situation. The director will not attempt to impose a particular faith on me. I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not in order to be in the relationship or to learn. It is an opportunity to grow in ways particular to me, but also in ways that others have traveled before me. And I don’t have to be sick or broken or in pain in order to be in spiritual direction. It is about the whole of life, the ups and the downs. Things get fixed, but it is about the relationship with God, not about fixing things.
There is something awesome about spiritual direction. Somehow it is ultimately about love. Somehow, from time to time in sessions and in the overall experience, one gets a real taste of God’s unconditional love, in the listening, accepting love of another (the director) through whom God’s presence and love become clearly and truthfully communicated.
I have experienced that love in both mundane and profound ways. One director, after we had met over a long period of time, heard my distress about a particular situation and offered me an insight: the rhythms of my life are very much affected by the seasons, and in the winter I simply need more sleep. Those very mundane words took a huge weight of frustration and unmet self‐expectation off my back. It was as if suddenly my blind eyes had been given sight. There have been other times when what transpired left me touched to the depths of my being, rearranged and empowered, aware that I have been on sacred ground. Very often I go into a session confused, troubled, lost—or with very positive emotions. I tell my story, I am heard, I am met, and I leave enriched, touched, challenged, loved. Even between sessions, that love lingers. A memory of my director comes to my mind, and I know that I am being remembered, prayed for, held, carried, and strengthened—by God, made manifest through the director.
If you decide to try spiritual direction, finding a suitable director is important. You want to find a director who can help you see things you otherwise miss, someone who is deeply centered in God and in love for others. The director should be someone who has been there before you, someone who has been on an intentional spiritual path long enough to be humble, and to know some of the traps and keys. Your spiritual director needs to be a person whose light draws you, whose depth invites you, whose presence is attentive to you while at the same time attentive to God, whose insights are opening for you. At times it is especially helpful to have a director who is not part of your faith tradition (i.e. not Quaker), which can give you more freedom to ask questions, make mistakes, try out different language, and be stretched. Sometimes it is especially helpful to be with someone who is from the denomination in which you grew up and knows things about spiritual formation in that tradition that you may not be aware of, even though you have been impacted by it.
The person may not appear ideal. That may not matter. Because you approach the relationship the way you would an open, expectant, waiting meeting for worship, you may still receive the gifts you need. It is the fruits of the interaction that count.
My hope is that the day will come soon when spiritual direction will be such a recognized resource for Friends that yearly meetings and regional associations of Friends will have lists of Friends who do this kind of spiritual nurture. When that day comes, I believe the spiritual lives of Friends will be enriched, and the work we do in the world will be even more transformative.