If you meet me at a party and ask me the great American question, you know the “what do you do with yourself” question, you could get a variety of answers, depending on my mood, the phase of the moon, the day of the week…you get the idea. Someone who has accepted that her life is a tapestry of things has a few choices when she responds to that question. However, if you find me in a particularly brave state, you might get this answer: I am busy living into a call to the ministry of spiritual direction. This is the answer that is closest to my heart, and that, as Frederick Buechner might put it, comes from the place where my deepest desire meets my understanding of the world’s greatest need.
Okay, I wouldn’t give that answer in a lot of settings. And why wouldn’t I? Well, because, if I am not in the right context, the person who asked might just stare at me in that kind of numb silence of unknowing that happens when someone answers you in a foreign language. Or, they might simply smile, say, “Well, bless your heart,” and walk away. To be honest, I do not always feel sure enough of my feet on this path to explain what I mean by spiritual direction, from my own experience, to someone who doesn’t know the meaning already. That is, until a few days ago.
Don’t get me wrong. I know some really excellent explanations to offer in response to the question, “What is that? Spiritual what?” There is the excellent (and lengthy) definition offered by Spiritual Directors International, the ethical and professional organization to which many of us belong. And there is one of my favorites that comes from Alan Jones, author of Exploring Spiritual Direction (1999) and other great books:
The ancient art of spiritual direction is a way of affirming the simple truth of God’s wild generosity. The spiritual director or friend of the soul is someone who listens to us lovingly and accurately and, by the gift of caring attention, reveals to us God’s open heart. (ix)
Or, there is my favorite metaphor, learned from Susan Phillips when I was studying at the San Francisco Theological Seminary (and I paraphrase): “The spiritual director is like a tug boat. When your ship is facing the strange waters of a new and uncharted harbor, we come alongside and sail beside you as you find your way to port.”
These are wonderful descriptions, as wonderful as we can achieve with mere human words used to describe a mystery. But for me, because they are words alone, my ability to use them does not prove that I possess true understanding. It was only in the midst of my own work, with my own spiritual director, that I came to understand just what makes this beautiful ministry different from the other listening practices we know so well.
And this is what I learned. The difference between the spiritual companioning relationship and so many others in our lives is this — we experience the fruits of our work together differently. It is, to me, impossible, to do the work of spiritual companionship with my intellect. I also cannot accomplish its work with just my body, or, if it was even possible for an incarnated being, just with my spirit. When learning and change come through this work, the knowing springs from the inside out, not the outside in– it spreads out from someplace deep inside, rooted to my sense of wholeness, to meet my mind, body, and spirit. I can only describe it as a kind of internal birthing, the result of a kind of dialogue that occurs not just among the triangle that is present (director-directee-Holy Spirit), but with what Carl Jung would call the fully-individuated Self, a Self that includes our knowledge of our individual expression of God.
Frankly, it feels like a bigger difference in the moment that you experience it than it does when I sit and write about it here, to share — because how do you use words to adequately describe what is, at its core, an experience of totality, a learning that can only happen in those moments of wholeness of being when we are the closest that we can be to the divine spirit that we seek?
I know. This is not language that will serve me well at my next meet and greet. But it is language that I will savor and snack upon, as I stand with a drink in my hand, deciding just which “Susan” to introduce. I think, for first conversations, though, I will stick with the tug boat metaphor — while inside, I call back to my sensory memory oh so much more.