I created this blog as a way to process and record my experience as a seminary student. I also hope it will provide a platform for my friends and family to participate in the journey. Some of the entries are kind of long, but what can I say--I was in graduate school, they made us do that...


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Spiritual Direction: Integration, Self-Reflection and Future Goals

This was my final paper for Individual Spiritual Direction, my first training steps toward becoming a Spiritual Director (that title freaks me out!). There are five sections and they are each answering specific questions. I think the paper will make sense on its own, but if you would like to know the questions, please let me know.

Section 1:

I came to this class with assumptions, hopes and wonderings. I knew I was interested in the ministry of spiritual direction, but my exposure to it had been minimal. Before beginning this class I had met with one director for five months. I have now met with and discussed direction with two other directors, entered into a relationship with a new director, offered direction to someone and participated in several direction practicum experiences. Because of these encounters, my imagination for the ministry of spiritual direction has been greatly enlarged. I have a renewed vision for the possibilities and gifts of this ministry as well as my place within it.

I live in a world filled with people trying to cope with the mysterious realities of existence and death. While I don’t believe that spirituality can answer these questions or automatically take away pain, I do believe it can respond through the work of grappling with questions and paying attention to pain (and all other emotions). I believe that it is the wrestling with mystery that matters. We may never find answers, but our lives will be fuller for the search. I believe the task of spiritual direction is to offer space and an invitation.

I continue to be enamored by Margaret Guenther’s concept of the Spiritual Director as amateur. This definition gives so much clarity to a sometimes hard to define vocation. The Spiritual Director is not a doctor or a psychotherapist. They are not professionally trained to diagnose or treat sickness in the body or mind. What the Spiritual Director offers is presence. They offer safe space and support to the people who come to them in search of something. Sometimes people come searching for a particular thing, a decision that needs to be made or pain that needs to be healed. Other times they come for no other reason than they couldn’t not come. They don’t know what they’re searching for, but they know that something is missing and they want help. The amateur is available to sit alongside, to listen, to help discern the shape and sound of inarticulate longings. The amateur is not answer-giver, pain remover or boss. The amateur provides an openness and helps give the vision of possibility and hope. It is crucial, however, for the amateur to remember their role. The work done in spiritual direction can open up wounds that may be beyond the scope of an amateur. As I think of the possibility of entering into this kind of work, I continue to grow in awareness of the need to foster relationships with a network of professionals. People I can call on for support and advice when I need it and that I can refer directee’s to when they are in need of different types of care.

After participating in spiritual direction work in the role of the director, I now have a greater appreciation for Guenther’s metaphor of the Spiritual Director as midwife. The section What the Midwife Does (87) provides a practical, earthy description of helping someone bring new life into the world. Of course, new life can be understood broadly. And as Guenther points out, the stages of new life are remarkably similar, no matter what “life” is newly coming into the world. The amateur midwife is available to participate in the entire birthing process right alongside the person who is pregnant. While each stage is important, they are all different. The first—that of waiting—can sometimes be the most difficult for certain personality types. It is important that the Spiritual Director model patient waiting and provide space for the directee to be comfortable in what might seem like a process of doing nothing. Time must be given to figuring out what is being birthed, what it means, where it’s coming from, what the process of bringing it to life might look like. This process of waiting and discerning is critically important and should always be given proper attention. Helping to fight the desire to rush ahead towards something that feels more “productive” is a gift that the director can offer to the directee. Of course, once it (whatever it is) is discovered, the director doesn’t walk away from the process. The focus changes toward dealing with transition, which can be scary and painful. It can bring up past, unresolved issues, it can cause tension in personal and work relationships. It can mean a time of grieving. It can also be a happy time of shedding painful memories that no longer need to be grasped so tightly. It is important for the amateur midwife to create a safe space in which the directee can raise and face any of the multiple issues that arise during this stage without shame or guilt. It is also important that the Spiritual Director slow her words down and avoid rushing in with ideas as the directee begins to brainstorm her next steps. She might point out observations of patterns or previously expressed feelings, but it is not her job to provide a solution. However, as the next steps are decided and acted upon, and new life is born, it is entirely appropriate for the director to celebrate right along with the directee.

Spiritual direction relationships can provide a respite from the expectations of everyday life. They can provide a quiet place to ponder together issues of mystery and heart, to pay attention to pain, but also beauty, to dream and to heal. Spiritual direction is an intentional gift shared between seekers.

Section 2:

My vision for the spiritual life remains a mystery. I am coming through a dark night experience in which I tried to renounce religion and am finally at the point of building rather than deconstructing. In order to do the work of building, I have entered into my second spiritual direction relationship. While I know this work will help me to find practices and contentedness in my spiritual life, I know that I will not find answers. I have come to the conclusion that spiritual matters are by their very nature mysterious and must remain that way. While human beings have to come up with concrete words, images and practices in order to better communicate and understand their spiritual journeys, I believe it is vitally important that concrete answers be avoided. I understand that each person will find comfort in different levels of understanding and I’m therefore not suggesting a dogmatic belief that no one is allowed to find an answer that I can’t find. I am simply stating my belief that we must respect the ever-mysterious quality of divinity and need to err on the side of love and openness as we reach conclusions in our belief systems. I believe one of the fruits of spiritual direction can be working towards a balance in the tension between the human need for answers and the mysterious quality of divinity. A director can challenge their directee to loosen the grip on some of their most tightly held beliefs (if they are proving to be unhealthy), and they can also help people swirling around in confusion ground themselves in something verbal and tangible.

As I consciously begin moving toward the ministry of spiritual direction I am finding that many of the difficult experiences I’ve had in my life—or more specifically, the work I have done to process and begin healing from these experiences—will be important assets in my role as a spiritual director. I understand what it is to be optimistic in spite of seemingly hopeless situations. I know the feeling of loving a family member even though they hurt you. I know how to set healthy boundaries in unhealthy relationships. But I have also been blessed with many incredible experiences and wondrously healthy and communicative relationships. Beyond my experience with individual people are my experiences with larger faith communities. While I often joke about my roller coaster ride with religion, I wouldn’t trade any of the steps in my journey (maybe some of the behaviors associated with them!). I understand what it is to be without religion, to be fundamentalist, liberal, confused and agnostic. All of these words represent more to me than clich├ęd labels. They are times of my life, they are people I still call friends, they are points of the spectrum in which many of my directee’s will find themselves. I am thankful for the many experiences in my life that will help me better understand the perspectives my directee’s will be speaking from.

I was gifted with an amazing first experience of spiritual direction with a Dominican sister that gave me a respect for the importance and sacredness of this ministry. I now have a male director and am learning that gender distinctions are less important than I once thought in this type of relationship. I realize that I hold my own sessions of spiritual direction as a place I can let my guard down (not an easy thing to do for an Enneagram 8), a place that I can be completely honest about my spiritual life without fear of embarrassment or judgment. As a highly extroverted person I need to verbally process my thoughts in order to understand my thinking. Intimate spiritual thoughts aren’t always easy to share, however, and I’m grateful to have a place to process them. As I begin to offer direction to others, it is my sincerest hope that I will be able to offer the safe and open presence I have been given. Offering direction to someone has been a gifted experience. It is a sacred privilege to be let into someone’s inner life and spiritual awareness. One of the most important aspects of being offered the chance to “practice” spiritual direction has been the calming of a few of my biggest fears. I have always been concerned that the largeness of my personality could take over and that I would bring too much of myself into the conversation. I am also a pragmatic, systems person who likes to work toward resolution. I worried that I would need to jump in with solutions to every problem or at least the problems I felt to be easily fixable. I have done neither of these things in my brief experience as a director and this gives me the confidence to continue in the work. And there is much work to be done. Beyond more training and practice, I need to continue down my own spiritual path. I have come a long way in the past few years and am relieved to have reached the present moment. Many of the practices I am currently working on in my own spiritual life match the qualities I think of as important for any Spiritual Director. Most importantly among them I have to keep working out my prayer life, a goal that reminds me of Paul’s call to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

Section 3:

Spiritual direction is something I’ve thought about for a long time and as I have studied it intentionally over the past few months I’ve been opened up to several new possibilities. Some of the most important for me personally have included Janet Ruffing’s discussion of the Communion of Saints and Gerald May’s book on the dark night. As I mentioned above, I have just been released from a dark night experience. It was May’s book that gave words to some of my unnamable emotions and helped me to move into the next phase of my spiritual journey. This is a book I will return to and one I will always be grateful for. Ruffing’s discussion on the Communion of Saints, along with my study of Theresa of Avila for history class and May’s discussion of Theresa and John, have provided me with a breakthrough. It’s hard to explain my excitement about it at this point. I feel something very important growing within me in relation to the Communion of Saints but I haven’t had enough time to sit, study and reflect on it yet. Even in my early contemplations of it though, it has opened an entirely new way of relating to spirituality and prayer in my life.

In addition to personal breakthroughs I have also gained insight into practical aspects of spiritual direction. Vocationally, the idea of colleagueship both for support and referral has become important. This is something that makes practical sense and is absolutely necessary, but that I hadn’t ever really thought through before. In terms of the actual direction session I have appreciated learning more about resistance, focusing, and patterns in life’s many stages. The most important aspect about learning some of these things has been the fact that they take me out of my own experience and broaden my perspective on why people come to direction and the various needs of people in direction. Getting to do my “practice” direction with a father in his forties has been incredibly rewarding for me because of the sheer differences between us.

Section 4:

I am a compassionate person with common sense. While this is a simple description, it’s one I think is valuable in any ministry of accompaniment. I think a certain level of compassion is necessary in order to open space within oneself and truly hear the stories of others. But a certain level of common sense is necessary in order not to get lost in the stories of others. It is important to be able to find the balance between truly hearing and getting lost. I have been lucky in my life to have a few great mentors that have modeled healthy behaviors that strike this balance in accompaniment work. I think I have a gift for quickly understanding the heart of what someone is trying to communicate and being able to mirror it back to them in helpful ways. This is a gift that needs more testing before I can boldly claim it, but I feel its early fruits in my life and relationships.

One aspect of spiritual direction that I am currently wrestling with is money. I have never been to a director that charges a fee. My first director asked that I make donations to her community, but never monitored whether I did or how much I gave. My current director doesn’t charge at all. I have never met anyone that makes a living doing spiritual direction and I’m struggling with how this ministry will fit into my life, especially in an occupational way. The conversation we had in our last class around this subject was helpful. I feel the most comfortable with the concept of being released and supported by a congregation or organization to provide spiritual direction. But that of course demands a willing group to support me in this work, which is something I might not always be able to depend on. I suppose this is an issue that needs to be given over to the beautiful concept of trust. The only thing I can control at this point is working to prepare myself for this ministry. I have to trust that I will be supported in the work if I’m supposed to do it.

Feedback is an important aspect of all skill building work and I appreciated the chance to have supervision sessions. While writing a verbatim for supervision is difficult, it’s an important exercise that forces me to think deeply about my direction sessions. It helped me to get beyond superficial reflections and into the deeper, multi-layered aspects of any direction session. Having a space to discuss the verbatim was helpful, especially for a verbal processor like me. Having another set of eyes and ears walk with me through a session opened up the practice of spiritual direction in new ways. Another important aspect of participating in supervision was simply the experience of it. I now have a vision for what supervision is and why it’s important. I can’t imagine having multiple directee’s without a system in place for support and feedback.

In many ways, the feedback I received this semester has been affirming. When I was the director during practicum, my biggest fears were thrown on me. I was told that I became the directee and that I made the session about myself. However, after participating in the other practicum experiences, multiple direction sessions with my directee and our supervision sessions (I count the debrief after my painful practicum as one of my supervision sessions) my fears have been calmed and I feel able to move forward confidently in this work. Confidence is important, but overconfidence is dangerous and I am well aware that continuing to hone my skills, ask for feedback and remain aware of the presence I give to directee’s will always remain a crucial aspect of offering this ministry. I am looking forward to continuing with my current directee next semester and hope to offer direction as part of my supervised ministry next year. It is my hope that through continued exposure to various directee’s I will be able to identify the specific areas of growth that I need to focus on. At this point, I feel that the most pressing issue I need to focus on is my own spirituality. As I stated above, I am finally at a place of rebuilding my own understanding and relationship with the Holy. This next year will be a time of discernment for me as I decide whether or not to remain a committed Quaker or to seek membership within the Unitarian Universalist Association. It will also be a time of growth as I commit to my own spiritual disciplines. I continue to realize how much tradition and ritual matter to me. As I explore these aspects and intentionally meditate on the liturgical year I’m hopeful that my ministry of direction will be affected in positive ways. I came to seminary knowing that spiritual direction was a ministry I wanted to explore. After investigating other areas of emphasis and working through some of my own difficulties in regards to spirituality, I am even more confident that I am heading towards a ministry of spiritual direction in some form or another. As I stated above, I am looking forward to continued exposure and “practice” over the next year in order to continue discerning what role this ministry will play in my life.

Section 5:

Five years from now will be an interesting time in my life. Jeremy will be finishing his PhD and we will therefore have lived in the same city for five years, which will be different for us. We will hopefully be moving to a teaching job for him at that point, which will entail choosing a city and settling. Something we’ve been unsure we would ever do. As I ponder my life and ministry, however, I’m realizing more and more the importance of building relationships and remaining active in a particular community. I hope that Jeremy and I will be able to participate in the community we move to next year because of the longevity we will have there. I hope to work towards ordination or recording if I continue to feel called in that direction and I hope to gain more experience with multiple directee’s. I hope to gain experience in both congregational settings and retreat centers. I also hope to work toward certification as a Pilates instructor. I would like to incorporate bodywork into my ministry as well as aspects of the creative life. I am constantly dreaming up workshop, retreat and Sunday school hour ideas. I’ve decided to finally start writing them down so that I will be able to utilize them when I have the opportunities.

I’m looking forward to my two independent studies next year—art and spirituality as well as working with married couples. Both of these classes will help me begin to explore specific aspects of my ministry goals. I have also been feeling called back into some sort of social work. I hope to find an organization to volunteer with regularly over the next five years. It is my hope to be able to offer spiritual direction and workshops with the underserved and often ignored populations in our country. Before coming to seminary I worked for an amazing organization for three years serving women trapped in mental illness, poverty and homelessness in Spokane. I can imagine several ways of bringing my ministerial goals to the women of that center and hope I can find a similar place wherever I move to next.

I was taught from a young age that dreams can come true. This belief has carried into my entire outlook on life. If my future self and present self could have coffee, I’m sure we would laugh and share stories and memories. I hope my future self would tell me to keep going and not to be scared of settling down somewhere and that my work in ministry had turned out to be more fruitful than I ever could have imagined and to keep working hard. My present self would ask my future self about some of the spiritual practices that had become meaningful to me so that I could get started on them right away!

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