God comes to you disguised as your life – Paula D’Arcy
Spiritual Formation is a process of being transformed into the image of Christ for the sake of others – Robert Mulholland
In the movie A Beautiful Mind, there is a scene toward the end where a man approaches John Nash after class, and Professor Nash, instead of immediately engaging him, pulls a student aside and asks her, “Can you see him?” She laughs and affirms with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Nash then turns to his visitor – who has come to inform him of his nomination for the Nobel Prize – and says, “So now that I know you are real; who are you, and what can I do for you?”
Looking for the Real
Spiritual Direction is the process of encounter with the Real. John Nash’s very real mental illness aside, the longing we may have to know God is very much a journey of uncovering and surrendering those things – ways of thinking and feeling – that get in the way of seeing God clearly, and of seeing ourselves clearly through the eyes of God; that is, of being loved and of loving. We do not have to be sick or in distress to embark on this journey; we only have to be human. And this process of encounter necessitates relationship with others. We need other knowledgeable, experienced and trusted fellow pilgrims to check in with about the veracity of what we are seeing, and hearing and feeling. There is the Celtic concept of Anam Cara--from the Gaelic anamchara meaning “soul friend” — so a spiritual director could be anyone, really, but is usually a clergy person or trained director who is more formally experienced in assisting others to listen to how God is speaking into their lives and is able to meet for regular, dedicated spiritual conversation.
Conversation is at the heart of spiritual direction. Our God is a relational God, this being exemplified in the persons of the Holy Trinity and mirrored in our relationships with one another. We learn who we are through being in relationship with others. That being said, spiritual direction can look a lot like therapy on the surface: two people sitting in a small room, one talking about life, the other listening and maybe giving a suggestion here or there about prayer, or meditation; perhaps a good book to read. But the relationship of the director and directee is not a therapeutic one, per say. When I first stumbled into spiritual direction, I just wanted God to tell me what to do, and seeing as I was not getting any clear answers – no burning bush, no voices calling out in the middle of the night—I figured one of his official employees would be able to run interference for me, interpret my dreams, prescribe readings and rituals. But spiritual direction is not career counselling or life coaching; it is not financial planning or a match-making service. It is not about self-improvement or spiritual perfection.The conversation is not about solving life’s problems but about becoming more truly and authentically alive. It is not about securing answers, but about discovering our true self and vocation in God through Jesus. It is about becoming more fully human, more fully real.
There’s the tendency, I suppose, to think of the spiritual life as superior to or above the concerns of ordinary human life but in reality there is no such distinction. Wherever we are in our lives is where God meets us. What I have learned is that God does not exist and operate outside of my life. God is embedded in my life, its events and my choices. God is knit into who I am. Our lives, looked at through the lens of faith, reveal this. Terrible things happen and terrible people exist, to be sure; evil is real. But I have come to know for myself, and seen unfold in the lives of others, that God is our constant companion. “Bidden or unbidden, God is present” is the famous quote by Erasmus that Carl Jung had written over his front door, and it is a loving God who invites us to read our lives this way.
However, it takes time to learn how to do this, probably a lifetime. It takes patience and prayer. Often, we experience what is called the “dark night of the soul” where we are not sensible to God’s presence at all. Again, often it is only through others that we are made aware of how God is changing us, how we are being made into the likeness of Christ. Our query of others if they can see him, too, is more and more often responded to with a resounding “Yes!” We realize more and more that God, Jesus, is alive in all the people who surround us.
Who Are You and What Can I Do For You?
Relationships are hard. Other people don’t listen; they follow their own foolish hearts; they don’t think things through. They are maddeningly intractable and incorrigible. But I have to take into account that I, too, am ‘other people’ to other people! One of the greatest joys that come out of the deep work of spiritual direction is the breaking through of the illusion that I am in isolation from “other people”, the disspelling of what 12-step recovery calls our “terminal uniqueness.” In conversation with a spiritual director, we are invited to explore who we are and who God is to us and so we are freed to be curious about who others are and how we might serve them. Spiritual direction is deely incarnational: as I learn to experience Jesus within myself, I experience Jesus in others, and they in turn experience Jesus through me. What is on offer is an invitation to community and connection.
Ultimately, I don’t know what the Nobel Prize of this analogy might be, but I suppose God is like the person who comes with news of the prize. God comes to us -- is always coming to us – with great news. Ask someone to confirm that this is real. Start a conversation.
This blog is the first part in a two part series on Spiritual direction. The second blog will look at some of the questions and practical steps to consider in finding a spiritual director.
Leah Postman is a parishioner of St. James’ in our diocese and a spiritual director.
This blogpost and the subsequent post will also be published in Topic, the monthly publication of the Diocese of New Westminster delivered to homes and parishes as a section of the national publication, The Anglican Journal.