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What Is Spiritual Direction?

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The ancient practice of examen is one tool a spiritual director can use. The role of a spiritual director is to be a companion, a listener, a witness.

Twenty years ago I was a young mother, drunk in love with the tiny creature who was my son but deeply discombobulated. So many things I’d understood about myself—from my work life to my marriage to my spiritual practice—were suddenly up for renegotiation.

I had known myself as a person of faith since my mid-teens, with an understanding of God that had a lot to do with getting stuff done (prayer, church, acts of service) in exchange for divine blessing. But with the advent of this demanding little person, I could barely feed myself, much less volunteer at the food bank. I needed a way to relate to Spirit that reflected my new reality.

I also needed a witness: someone who could listen to me with care. A friend suggested I try spiritual direction, meeting regularly with a companion who could help me notice the movement of the Spirit in this new iteration of my life. I found one through my local networks, a woman in her 50s with years of experience. We began to meet every three weeks or so.

She taught me an ancient practice developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola called examen and encouraged me to use it to take stock at the end of my day, asking questions like, “Where had I felt drawn to Spirit?” and “What were the moments where I had experienced consolation, joy, satisfaction?” She also encouraged me to track the moments when I felt disconnected from God—when my experience had been one of desolation, absence, or confusion.

The examen exercise helped me notice moments of pleasure, rightness, confirmation: You are here, now, with this baby, and that is where you are meant to be. It’s not that becoming a mother was all unicorns and roses, or that I didn’t have times during my days when I felt overwhelmed or even angry about how much my life had changed. But by inviting me to listen to my own experience—and listening to me as I recounted it—my director helped me see more clearly how the Spirit was at work in this new phase of my life.

What Is Spiritual Direction?

Spiritual direction is also known as spiritual companionship. That's because it is a companion relationship: the director accompanies diretcees as they follow the movement of the divine in their lives.

Spiritual directors aren’t typically therapists or pastors, but rather witnesses to an individual’s life of faith. They also are not governed by any certifying body, although they may have undergone training at one of numerous certificate programs throughout the country. There are many ways to find a director: some are listed on the nonprofit organization Spiritual Directors International website, while others may be associated with a particular faith community.

The practice has roots in Christian history, harking back to the desert fathers and mothers, early hermits who withdrew into the wilderness to pray but also offered a listening ear to pilgrims who sought them out for counsel. But listening deeply to another for the whispers of the divine crosses cultures and faiths, and directors come from a variety of traditions.

As spiritual director, social activist, and Loyola University Chicago professor Consuella Brown writes in Kaleidoscope: Broadening the Palette in the Art of Spiritual Direction, “A spiritual director is a person who has been granted a sacred trust by God and by those we companion, to tend the holy and the sacred as revealed, discovered, or uncovered in the earthen vessels of human lives.”

What Is Spiritual Direction Training?

As I’ve entered midlife and my sons are now young adults, I’ve experienced a longing to offer the hospitality of deep listening that my director gave to me all those years ago. So in January I began a two-year program that will train me to be a spiritual director. It’s thorough: I am in spiritual direction myself; I meet with a program supervisor who supports and oversees my spiritual direction of others; and I offer spiritual companionship to directees.

It turns out that really listening to another person is more difficult than it seems. To invite Spirit into the room (and now it’s a Zoom room) and trust that this divine presence is in charge and that I don’t have to make anything happen for the person to whom I’m listening challenges me every time I practice.

What’s clear is that growing my listening skills not only benefits the person I’m companioning but also expands my connection to Higher Power. Contemplative listening offers a kind of spiritual map that helps me ground myself in my own growth. It draws on a number of sensibilities that we can practice in our daily lives, whether we’re a spiritual director or not.

  • Attending. We tune in to the divine moving in ourselves and watch for this movement in the person to whom we are listening.
  • Silence. We release any anxiety about moments of silence in the conversation, trusting that it can be rich with insight and doesn’t necessarily need to be filled.
  • Compassion. We seek our own wholeness and that of the person to which we listen.
  • Nonjudgment. We hold an unconditional positive regard for ourselves and for the other person.

Contemplative listening offers a powerful framework for experiencing ourselves and others, says Scott Quinn, an ordained minister and interfaith spiritual director who practices in San Rafael, CA. Quinn is also a member of the faculty at the University of Redlands’ Graduate School of Theology.

Contemplative listening releases us from our preconceived notions of what should be so that we can be present with what is,” Quinn says. “We listen to another person with the intention of being liberated from our habitual filters and agendas so that we can be fully present with another and understand their perspective and experience, which will make our interactions more honest, constructive, healing, and beneficial for all involved.”

As I learn about spiritual direction, I’m finding Quinn’s insight to be true: Contemplative listening invites me to let go of my agenda—for myself, my directees, my friends, my family—and this release is a crucial part of spiritual growth. The Sufi poet Rumi says it well: "The quieter we become, the more we can hear."

Keep reading about spiritual direction: “A Guide to Spiritual Companionship