Spiritual direction enhances relationships with God
By Connie Berry
Striving for Christian perfection is a lifelong mission. Much relevant reading material on St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross or even St. Francis de Sales’ own The Devout Life depicts the constant struggle to live one’s life as the ultimate model — Jesus Christ — lived his. A little encouragement along the way can be found in the guidance of a spiritual director.
Spiritual direction is not a fad or a new age concept. The relationship between Christians collaborating along a spiritual journey has been around as long as Christianity. The letters St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Romans, Thessalonians, Ephesians, Philippians, Galatians and Colossians were certainly letters of Christian encouragement. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila corresponded in the 1500s along their journeys to perfection — which they both would say they never achieved. St. John helped St. Teresa with the formation of the Discalced Carmelites.
The Syracuse Diocese offers spiritual direction through the Spiritual Renewal Center. There, spiritual directors from all over the diocese receive training and ongoing opportunities to grow in their own spirituality. In fact, every spiritual director needs a spiritual director.
Jim Krisher is the director of the Spiritual Renewal Center on Court Street next to the Sisters of St. Francis’ St. Anthony Motherhouse. He has received spiritual direction for most of his life.
“It helps people with their relationship with God,” Krisher said. “Most of the time the person feels called to a deeper relationship with God. Sometimes it can be motivated by a crisis but most people seeking spiritual direction have an eagerness or a desire for that deeper relationship. I’ve been getting spiritual direction since I was 19 years old. If I had to relocate for a job, I’d find a new spiritual director before I’d search for a physician. It’s that much a part of my life.”
What exactly is spiritual direction?
Father Joseph Neville, SJ, has been a spiritual director for many years. He said the Jesuits are tremendously fortunate to have a founder, St. Ignatius, who authored spiritual exercises. Jesuits begin receiving spiritual direction when they are novices, he explained.
“My experience has been that you may have some things on your mind that you just can‘t clarify,” Father Neville said. “Questions like, ‘I wonder what God is like? Am I praying right? Why can’t I pray more? Why can’t I be more pleasant?’ Sometimes people may think that if they could only talk to somebody else and get everything out in the open they might have a better understanding of their relationship with God.”
According to those who offer spiritual direction, much of their time is spent listening. They listen to the directee and then they repeat what they heard back to them, and oftentimes this alone can bring a clearer understanding.
Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction by Margaret Guenther suggests that even the physical environment where the direction takes place is very important.
“I find that I cannot see people for spiritual direction in my home: there is too much confusion of roles and personae. Even if family members and pets can be banished to other parts of the house, the impedimenta of daily living intrude and make the space so personal that our appointment threatens to turn into a friendly chat,” Guenther wrote.
It is important that the time be distinct — a time beginning with some prayerful silence shared between the two people in the Christian relationship, Guenther recommends. During the session, a spiritual director can help the directee find God in their everyday life.
Sister Mary Ellen Schopfer, CSJ, is a spiritual director who ministers in the Utica area. She says it is important for the director to provide a place where the one seeking direction can “verbalize without judgment.” There should be nothing that is off-limits for conversation with one’s spiritual director.
“The director does a lot of listening and asks some key questions that the directees might not think of themselves,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “A spiritual director needs to be able to ask insightful questions to help the directee be able to uncover, unpack, unfold the many stories of their life.”
Sometimes the stories that unfold are painful, sometimes they are joyful. Whatever the story may be, the directee is looking to find where God is in that story. There are, according to Sister Mary Ellen, a lot of “Aha!” moments in spiritual direction.
“Spiritual directors do not have a bag of tricks,” she said. “You try to be as free and flexible as you can with each person and you take them where they are.”
Those who seek direction may have an “Aha!” moment when they listen to the Gospel at Mass. The passage they just heard may tug at them, make them want to learn more or think longer and harder about what they heard. They may have heard a presentation someplace that resonated with them, or maybe a phrase or sentence gets “stuck” in their head or heart and calls out to them. Whatever the case may be, that person could be a candidate for spiritual direction.
The first step on the unfolding journey would be to make a good confession. Part of seeking spiritual perfection is to recognize sin and to make a conscious effort to avoid it in the future. Why one commits the same sin over and over is something that could come up in spiritual direction.
“In my own experience,” said Father Neville, “Somebody pointed out to me what was really going on. We look at our experiences and we allow them to bring us closer to God and we surrender to Him. We are drawn to Him and we feel it.”
Finding a spiritual director is as easy as making a telephone call or talking to a friend or pastor about it. Spiritual directors are often recommended between friends. If one is ready to pursue what Father Neville describes as a “friendship with Jesus,” finding a spiritual director is essential. The relationship is typically structured so that within the first few sessions one can tell whether or not the spiritual relationship is a good fit.
Spiritual direction is ongoing as is one’s relationship with God. The Spiritual Renewal Center’s Web site, www.spiritualrenewalcenter.com, describes the experience: “Spiritual direction is an ancient ministry in the church. From the earliest days of Christianity, believers have found it to be a benefit and a joy to discuss their spiritual life with another Christian on the journey. Just being able to articulate to another believer our experience of life in the Lord is of immense value in itself, as it is not everyone with whom we can share such an intimate part of who we are, and know that it will be respected and received.”
For more information call the Spiritual Renewal Center (315) 472-6546, Sister Mary Ellen Schopfer, (315) 797-7316 or in the Southern Tier, Sister Lois Barton, CSJ, (607) 655-2264.