An essay by Rev. John Mabry, Ph.D., Interfaith Spiritual Direction – Program Director
A lot of people who want spiritual direction do not know that such a ministry even exists. And when they find it, they often find that it does not provide easy answers as they had hoped. Instead, it focuses us on the difficult questions our lives present to us and helps us to make careful and soulful discernments, supported by a sympathetic companion.
“Spiritual direction” is a misleading description of this ministry, and yet, due to history, that is the name that most people recognize. In actuality, spiritual guides typically do not do much “directing”— particularly those using a non-directive interfaith approach. We don’t tell people what to think, or what to believe, or how they are supposed to feel, or what to do in any specific circumstance.
This is good practice. What most people need is not another person—who is allegedly an “expert”—to tell them what to think or do or how to behave. A true spiritual director is good at helping people uncover that “deep down” wisdom.
If you have never been to spiritual direction, upon first glance it resembles psychotherapy. Two people sit in a room in chairs that face each other, and talk for about an hour. But this is where the similarities to therapy end. In therapy you might discuss your emotional life, or perhaps why you hate your mother. In contrast, the content of the spiritual direction session is usually quite specifically focused on the seeker’s spiritual life.
In spiritual direction, you might still talk about why you hate your mother, but your spiritual guide will most likely patiently wait for you to finish, and then ask you how holding on to those feelings affect your feelings of connection to the divine. If you picture divinity as Mother Earth, you can see how this could be very significant, indeed.
Interfaith spiritual direction is non-dogmatic and non-coercive. This doesn’t mean that interfaith spiritual directors are pushovers, though. People often have a difficult time with things their spiritual director has to say. This is because we in the West have typically been told that if you do A, B, and C, in the right order and without asking any inconvenient questions, your spiritual life will be dandy.
This is, of course, not the case. The spiritual journey is the most difficult thing many of us will ever endeavor to do. It means that the person we thought we were may have to die so that the person we really are can show up. It means that we may have to let go of cherished notions that no longer serve us, and that can be as difficult as prying Linus’ blanket out of his fingers. And we usually don’t have to do these things once, but over and over. It’s excruciating, it’s exhausting, and there is no road map to show us exactly how to get from here to there, and no instruction manual to tell us the “right” way to do it. Fortunately, we don’t have to do it alone. That’s where spiritual direction comes in. A spiritual director will walk with you on your spiritual journey, listen as you uncover your true purpose, and support you as you discover your true path. He or she will point out things that you may not be able to see because they are too close to your field of vision. But you don’t have to take their word for anything. You are always the expert on your spiritual life.
You can also trust your spiritual director to be truthful. A good spiritual director will not tell you only those things you want to hear. When he or she hears something that feels “off,” he or she is going to bring attention to this and invite further discernment. This is good direction, and a wise person will value the director’s opinion, even if he or she does not share it.
For many of us, spiritual direction is an essential part of our journeys. Just as you wouldn’t set off across the desert alone, it helps to have a soul friend along for the journey—because when your canteen is empty, it’s a good bet that your director’s is not.
That is why The Chaplaincy Institute requires our students to have a spiritual director. CHI is a deep spiritual program, and lots of “stuff” emerges while people are going through it. Having a spiritual director to talk to while you are sorting through all this “stuff” is very helpful indeed.
A lot of students have discovered that, having been helped by their own spiritual director, they feel a tug to companion others on their journeys in the same way. For those who would like to learn to be spiritual directors, CHI is offering a year-long spiritual direction training program (meeting 4 times for a 5-day intensive) that provides the coursework necessary to begin one’s own private practice in spiritual direction. Like the rest of CHI ’s programs, it is interfaith in its orientation. Students learn to companion people of every religious tradition, as well as those who have no tradition.
Spiritual directors do not have the answers, and the good ones don’t pretend to. But we do have a warm, hospitable space to offer, a cup of tea to share, and our full attention to give. It is not certainty we offer, but presence. No one needs to walk the spiritual path alone.