What is Spiritual Direction?

Although this may be your first formal introduction, you may have already received or given spiritual direction. Perhaps you’ve consulted a pastor or spiritual leader for advice. Maybe you made time and space to listen to a friend. “Spiritual direction”, in my opinion, is a fancy term for something we do or look for all the time: companionship.

Spiritual direction is spiritual companionship, not clinical counseling.

Spiritual direction is holy listening, not a bible study.

Spiritual direction is meant to be nourishment for your soul, not a one-size-fits-all formula.

This chart is a very helpful comparison between spiritual direction, discipleship, counseling, and other similar relationships. There is no universal solution to life’s questions and therefore no superior approach.

“The environment of spiritual direction, then, is affirming and encouraging, but it is also a place of authenticity. In spiritual direction we look at the truth of our present situation and experience. The question asked is not “What should be happening in my life?” but “What is happening in my life?” We look for God here, now, because the place where we are in our lives is the place where we find God.”

Alice Fryling

Who are spiritual directors?

Some spiritual directors are trained through specialty programs or master degrees and others appear in the form of untrained, but sage friends or leaders. Some receive payment for their time and have warm, inviting offices. Others generously offer to listen for no formal compensation in settings like living rooms or coffee shops. Spiritual direction can happen in groups or among individuals. There are all types of combinations.

One common thread in each combination is the dedication of time and space to listen. Spiritual directors listen to seekers. Seekers learn to hear and listen to God, the ultimate “spiritual director.” (Yes, this may sound corny, but it’s true!)

Meetings may begin with an open ended question like, “What is the state of your soul?” or “What has caused life to pour into you, recently?” Some meetings are filled with silence. That’s ok, too. Sometimes (most of the time?) we don’t have all the answers.

“The opportunity to tell our story opens us to hear God’s story more deeply – God’s presence and participation in our lives and in the life of the world. In God all human stories connect and when we participate in spiritual direction, we seem to notice more of the connections.”

Jeannette A. Bakke

Is spiritual direction a new practice?

Spiritual direction is far from new. There are examples in Christian scripture and throughout church history.

It’s also not exclusively Christian and there’s no particular denominational affiliation. Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and other eastern religions can practice spiritual direction.

“Spiritual direction is a way of companioning people as they seek to look closely, through the eyes of their hearts, at the guidance and transforming work of God in their lives. It’s a practice that began in the early years of Christianity when people followed the desert mothers and fathers out to the wilderness to ask them how to know God. Over the years, spiritual direction has appeared in many faith traditions. It was kept alive in the Christian faith mainly through the Roman Catholic Church, but today the Protestant church is rediscovering it. People throughout the Christian church, including those of an evangelical orientation, are experiencing again the gifts that God gives to his people through the loving listening and the gentle guidance of spiritual directors.”

Alice Fryling

What does this mean for me?

Have you wondered where God is leading or inviting you? Do you have questions regarding faith or spirituality? Do you feel confident in your faith life, but might be curious for a new approach or perspective? Are you interested in new approaches to prayer or spiritual disciplines? Do you have a desire to nurture your soul?

If you felt drawn to one or any number of these questions, spiritual direction is for you!

Looking for other spiritual formation resources?

This was a brief introduction, so just in case you’re still curious:

Our First Year in the Episcopal Church

For someone like me who grew up in a non-denominational, charismatic church, the Episcopal church*, along with other denominations, were synonymous with secular culture. I wasn’t totally sure what they believed. Do they believe in grace? Are they spirit-filled? What do they really think of Jesus?

In 2015 I moved from a moderately sized, non-denominational community to a Sunday morning gathering with meditative music, scripture readings, prayers from a book, and a guy who wore a white collar. Drawn to this style of worship, I began appreciating the value of ancient liturgy, the church calendar, and the Book of Common Prayer. Although not an official Episcopal community, it offered a gentle introduction. 

Even though I loved the liturgy and studied some social justice in college, it took some time before I was ready to consider the Episcopal tradition home. At times it felt “too out there.”

In 2018, I came home one evening from a seminary class. The entire course discussed intersectionality and theology, and this particular session had presented a fork in the road, so to say. After plopping my backpack on the floor and taking a seat across from Aaron at the dining table I said something like “we need to make a few changes.” Luckily he was interested and we started talking. 

The very next Sunday we walked right through the front doors of our current parish, unsure of what we would find. We were completely surprised by how many faces we recognized as we sat down. It was a bit of a (calculated) risk but one we’d take again. We’ve settled in this past year, taking it all in, and getting to know new friends and old hymns. 

Flowers we brought home from our Easter service.

If you’re curious what we like about it, here’s a few things that have stood out to me this past year, in no specific order. (Obviously these elements are not exclusive to the Episcopal tradition, many other communities share similar practices or thoughts.)

Embracing Ancient Mystery & Modern Questions

This was what initially drew us to the Episcopal tradition. The more I studied theology and considered all the “answers” I had stored away, the more I realized I had harder and bigger questions. I craved a space that appreciated the ambiguity of scripture and allowed room for discussion and contemplation. My questions are welcomed and given no easy answers. Neither my intellectual instincts or my past mystical experiences are shamed. The Episcopal church is often called a “big tent” which means a variety of theological beliefs and convictions (progressive and conservative, republican and democrat, army and navy, etc.) are hosted in one tradition. 

We begin each service with a prayer to love God and love others. We hear scripture read aloud and taught by both women and men. Corporately, we confess sin and pray for others. We say the Nicene creed. We “pass the peace” to those around us and take communion. Simple, meaningful, holy.

“Anglicanism has long been known as the via media, the “middle way” between two traditions. The Episcopal Church has also helped me navigate the middle way between unbelief and dogmatism. Ours is a faith handed down from the apostles, but not one so fragile that it cannot cope with science, with new findings about the origins of the universe, ourselves, or whatever else we might discover.” 

— Ben Irwin, 11 Things I Love About the Episcopal Church

Worship as a Lifestyle

There is so much to say on this topic. I’ll keep it brief.

I had wrongly assumed the worship and community would be stale and outdated, not realizing how much I craved the depth and reverence of the liturgy. And how much I needed the weekly wisdom of those who have lived a little longer and differently than me! We sing songs or scripture throughout the entire service, sometimes standing up and other times sitting down. I really love this approach, even though I can appreciate the contemporary concert-style every once in a grand while, too. The hymns are rich and beautiful. (Aaron sings them way better than me.) There is a whole art form to sacred music that I’m beginning to learn about.

Yet, we know worship isn’t just singing. The Episcopal tradition especially, believes worship happens each day through acts of faith and love. The Gospel isn’t limited to evangelism or a sermon, it’s a lifestyle of generosity and hospitality. Often this results in efforts to pursue justice for those with their “backs against the wall” as Howard Thurman wrote. The “prophetic” is approached from a different angle. I appreciate how our community, locally and globally, advocate for social initiatives such as food pantries, homelessness, climate change, interfaith issues, racial justice, art and music, LGBTQ+ equality, international partnerships, academia, military chaplaincy (a ministry close to our hearts!) and so much more.

Eucharist Every Week

Communion is a double edged sword for me. I think it’s one of the most mysterious and generous practices given to universal church. We devote almost half of our weekly service to the eucharist. It’s a beautiful sacrament we share together. (This video is a good one.)

Whether or not the bread and wine are a symbol or whether you believe that they are the literal body and the blood are up to you. I believe they have enormous power to change hearts, attitudes, lives, tear down prejudices, bridge gaps, and bring peace. I believe that in most cases, the elements speak louder than any sermon or hymn or prayer. Something mysterious and unfathomably beautiful happens at the table. It’s a place where any person, no matter what belief system or background they come from can come and receive the God of peace.

— Lindsey Hart (Link to original post no longer exists, sorry!)

On the other hand, it can stir up a few hard feelings for me. At one point in my life I could not kneel at the altar to take the bread and wine. My body would not let my knees touch the altar; I preferred communion served standing up. The power dynamic between the male clergy and myself, in a position of vulnerability, was too much for me. I felt anger and fear bubble up inside me. (Read some research on this.) These feelings have faded (healed?) for me as women have served at the altar and as I’ve grown in self-understanding, among other things. Still, I cannot take communion from Aaron when he assists in serving the eucharist. I’m not sure if I can fully articulate why. I make sure to place myself on the opposite end of the altar or simply attend an adult formation hour instead.

At this point in our lives we love our church community. By no means is it perfect but it does offer us ample space to be nourished and challenged to grow. We’re about to step into a hefty discernment process in 2020 as Aaron discerns the priesthood. It’s about a year’s worth of meetings and prayer to confirm his desire to be ordained in the Episcopal tradition. And so the adventure continues.

These are just a few brief thoughts as we continue to explore the body of Christ via the Episcopal church. I’d love to hear what you love about your place of worship!

Curious? Confused? Here’s a few other experiences: 

*Christianity is very diverse and includes hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations (or flavors) of the Christian faith all over the world. The Episcopal tradition is one flavor in the larger Anglican Communion, which is another tradition. 

An Invitation to Doubt What You Believe

The peak of my conservative, evangelical education included several weeks at a Christian apologetics summer camp while in high school and later as a freshman in college. Those weeks included hiking in Colorado, eating my weight in delicious frozen custard, and learning the conservative evangelical script for hot-button political issues. As the years went on and I lived a little more life, I ran into what some call a “crisis of faith” and was forced to again reconsider what I’d been taught, directly and implicitly, not only in summer camp but in Sunday school and my private Christian education thus far. The script wasn’t helping.

Admitting “I don’t know” can put you in hot water, especially in some evangelical circles. Knowing this, I quietly practiced those 3.5 words as I explored the rest of my college experience, got married, and worked a “real” job. Even as I entered my first few seminary classes I was desperate to cling onto some of that script I’d learned. I assumed that to admit uncertainty was to be either uneducated or too progressive, I might as well become an atheist!

“Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow.”

Flannery O’Connor

Turns out, I wasn’t alone. I found others who expressed concern or confusion over what was commonly accepted in the church. I was relieved and hopeful, but also sad. A faith crisis (or the act of doubting or deconstructing spiritual beliefs) is not usually linear. My faith has both peacefully and horrifically evolved over my brief lifetime with new questions, different experiences, and new perspectives. It’s been a cycle of death, lament, and new life.

Death and resurrection shape the Christian faith, literally and metaphorically. Doubt is a piece of this cycle. Are we not called to resist the urge to conform, be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” and die to ourselves? Isn’t doubt necessary for death and transformation to occur? Perhaps like me, you had/have some idols that need to die, that you need to doubt.

Maybe white Jesus isn’t real.

Maybe Christian nationalism isn’t patriotic.

Maybe God isn’t male.

Maybe Christianity isn’t monolithic.

Maybe science and faith can work together.

Maybe the Bible isn’t clear.

I’m learning to hold the answers loosely and ask a few more questions with holy curiosity, as some might call it. “Always write your theology in pencil!” a beloved professor used to say. Even the most elaborate pencil marks can be edited or erased to make room for better theology and better practices. And because of my doubt, and the willingness to erase some “certainties,” my faith continues to grow deeper.

In my experience, faith isn’t certainty and doubt isn’t apostasy. Faith is the risk of finding joy, beauty and contentment while living in the midst of unanswered questions. Faith is vulnerable and messy, colorful and dynamic, not always chiseled in stone or black and white.

“…because sometimes we are closer to the truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties.”

Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

A note to the church.

I’ve let go of plenty of unhealthy beliefs (with more to go, I’m sure) and held on to some important ones. Perhaps these things are different than what you’ve held on to. That’s ok. And while I don’t feel like we should romanticize doubt or prolong it unnecessarily, I do think the evangelical church can do better by avoiding the all-or-nothing, black or white, in or out, us and them approach to Christian spirituality.

The church is not for those who are certain or sinless. The church is (or should be) a gathering of sin-sick people, even those with questions and disbelief, searching for wholeness and hope. Is there room in your pews for those experiencing seasons of wilderness? or lament? or silence?

“To a healthy faith doubt is a healthy challenge.”

Os Guinness, In Two Minds

We need to stop being so surprised by doubt. Jesus did not come for those who “have it all together” but instead came to offer healing and rest to those with heavy weights on their hearts, minds, and bodies. If we’re honest, these weights find us again and again in life in different ways. Suffering, pain, doubt, and grief are a reality in this world. Do our congregations, sermons, worship and outreach practices, and theology reflect this?

To those who are unsure.

If you are challenged by what you read in the Bible or what you’ve been taught in your faith community allow me to invite you to ask your hardest questions. You are not alone.

I recognize your church or family may not be a safe place to express your dissatisfaction or pain but please search for supportive spaces that are. (There are many, many online communities!) If we can learn anything from the Psalms, Job, or even Jesus’ disciples in the Bible, God is not afraid of our questions.

Read a bit more:

Living an Unhurried Life

What would it look like to live life unhurried?

When I thought of 2019 I had this question come to my mind, especially the last word. I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions in a hot minute but I was willing to consider this.

I wanted my second year of seminary to be different. I wanted to avoid burnout at all costs. Now a couple weeks into January and half way through this second year I’ve already been tempted to jump 3 steps ahead of myself. My graduation date is set and my mind can only think of all the factors involved for a post-grad move, the next apartment, the next job, the next set of bills, and so on. I ended up writing down all the things I wasn’t allowed to worry about on a post-it note and stuck it on the fridge.

If I rush through my classes, or dinner, or my conversation with a friend, then I’m really not allowing myself to enjoy that person or meal in front of me, no matter how simple the interaction seems. I want to be present with those I’m with and in the work I do, otherwise it’s all meaningless. Living unhurried is trusting God’s timing and faithfulness over my own.

morgan-sessions-6264-unsplash
Photo: Morgan Sessions

This isn’t to say you won’t find me late and rushing to a meeting or procrastinating from day to day. (My entire life!) My point in this is to say that life is quick. We’re finite creatures. I don’t want to get so busy or overwhelmed that I miss what God put right in front of me.

It takes serious discipline to tame all the worries and focus on the task at hand. And it certainly doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a muscle you have to continue to strengthen over the course of your life since there will always be new things to do and people to see.

I working on using some of these habits to slow down and savor where I’m at. I’m not perfect at any of them, but I invite you to try them with me.

  • Going on a walk outside. (Or a few minutes of stretching. Because New England winters.) Fresh air is underrated, especially on cooler days.
  • Setting aside social media for a period of time. I deleted the Instagram app off my phone at the beginning of January. Before that I combed through my followers/following and deleted over 400 accounts that did not “spark joy” as Marie Kondo would say. It felt good. I kept Facebook, which is the next app I’ll work on separating myself from. Maybe for Lent.
  • Practicing a consistent Sabbath. Everything is finished on Saturday or I won’t look at it until Monday. Sundays are now a favorite of mine. I look forward to spending a full day unhurried with Aaron and engaging with our church community.
  • Call a friend on the phone. Yes, the actual telephone! Aaron is much better at this than I am, but I’ll get there. A perfectly good substitution for a phone call is a handwritten note.
  • Carefully crafting my week. My explanation is oversimplified and it takes some tweaking, but I started to visually organize my weeks in a way that allows me to focus on a task at a time and balances the priorities in my life. My mind and body are way more focused and I feel more “productive,” which really means I’m more satisfied with the quality of work I produce, not the amount.
  • Grocery shopping with a purpose. Since the new year our kitchen has been primary Paleo and meal planning has become even more important. It’s been a kick in the pants to plan ahead. (Have you heard the phrase, fail to plan or plan to fail?)
  • Reading book in the evening. Screens are awful. News is not a bedtime story. Get off the phone, Elizabeth. Read a damn book.

…and a (responsible) glass of wine at the end of a long day might not hurt either.

What helps you slow down?

 

Grateful

Thanksgiving can be a complicated holiday to celebrate. I’ll keep it simple. Here are 10 things I’m grateful for.

  1. My faith, which has more questions than answers these days.
  2. Aaron’s presence at home. Last year we weren’t as lucky.
  3. A family who embraces our polished & raw sides and still says, “I’m proud of you.”
  4. Books, books, books! Reading has been transformational for me this year. (Again.)
  5. Morning light.
  6. Meals shared with friends or family.
  7. A New England fall and the associated cozy, wool socks.
  8. Photo albums at Grandma’s house.
  9. Free laundry machines.
  10. My application to graduate has been submitted. The end is almost in sight!

What are you thankful for?

We spent our Thanksgiving holiday in California and Arizona. It was smokey from the fires, but we still explored Sacramento, Sequoia National Park and (somewhat) enjoyed the 10 hour drive to Phoenix. I’m happy Aaron was able to meet several of my cousins and almost all my aunts and uncles during this trip. For a fairly last minute decision, it worked out well.

As a wrap up this fall semester in the next couple weeks, I’m amazed at how fast these classes flew by. I’m working through one of my final projects, research on Dorothy Day’s spirituality, so please keep me in your prayers as I complete all the things on my metaphorical desk! I recently applied to graduate, which means spring graduation is right around the corner. I’m so grateful I’ve been able to work through these subjects and study in such a beautiful place.

Grace and peace,

Elizabeth