A Spiritual Companion, Not Obi-Wan Kinobe
I was first introduced to the concept of spiritual direction as an essential element of “self-care,” at a Regent pastoral care course I took about ten years ago. As student-pastors, we were instructed that we could not take good care of others if we did not take good care of ourselves, and spiritual direction was a part of this. Up to that time, having a spiritual director was not a concept I was familiar with. It seemed like something akin to having a Christian version of Obi-Wan Kinobe, a kind of spiritual master! At the same time, while reading the novel, Glittering Images by Susan Howatch, I identified deeply with the story’s main protagonist who, during a personal crisis, discovered his need to shed layers of “false selves,” and I was struck by the role of a spiritual director in helping him to do so. I, then, determined to acquire a spiritual director for myself and with the help of the course professor, I was happily able to do so. I found someone who was not in my immediate sphere of ministry or denomination. He had no “organizational agenda” so he could simply be a spiritual companion for my journey. Since that time, this relationship has given me so many wonderful gifts. Here are some of them.
The Gift of Slowing Down
When it has been time for my regular spiritual direction session, about once every month or two, I have often felt inner resistance to attending. It has felt like an interruption to “far more important” tasks that were demanding my attention. Yet, after ten years of practicing this, I look back and realize that my sessions in spiritual direction have been essential in helping me slow down. They have invited me to become more attentive to the presence of God in the midst of intense seasons, both spiritually and emotionally. I am convinced that they have provided me with vital protection from spiritual, emotional, and even moral derailment. Amidst all the demands, expectations, and deadlines that I have faced, I have always been reminded in the sessions that my true self is simply being a beloved child of God and a recipient of his delight. My spiritual director has constantly communicated this to me, by his warm welcome, by his caring and listening posture, and by his words of encouragement. In spiritual direction, I have consistently felt listened to, not only by my director, but by God. In all of this, my false selves born out of insecurity and fear, have been exposed and shed.
Encountering God in My Current Reality
At the beginning of every spiritual direction session, the lighting of the candle by my spiritual director has always helped me to become centred and focused on the presence of Jesus. Sometimes, a classic prayer has been offered that has helped me gather my scattered thoughts. My spiritual director and I have then waited and listened together so that I could become attentive to what was emerging in me. In this regard, I have been allowed to “set the agenda,” or rather, as I have been attentive to my current reality, I then have shared out of that place. I have learned not to be ashamed of this, but rather, to more and more actually welcome and embrace my current reality as the only place God could meet me. Without spiritual direction in the past, those kinds of realities often seemed to obstruct my capacity to connect with God. Now, through spiritual direction, my current realities, whatever they are – fear, anger, frustration, temptation, confusion, elation - have become doorways to meet the God who then embraces me in them all. Indeed, I have been instructed to welcome the presence of Jesus into the midst of my reality. My spiritual director has often asked me as to what I am hearing Jesus say, or, how I am seeing Jesus’s heart towards me. Over and over again, my mind has been renewed afresh to see Jesus as my advocate and not as my judge, helping me overcome negative emotional images of God that can still bite me after all these years. The caring presence of a spiritual director has had a significant role in helping me do this.
The Gift of Discernment
Another significant contribution of spiritual direction has been to help me with discerning the leading of God at various decision-making points in my life. For example, a number of years ago, I was faced with a significant crossroads about whether I would stay here in Vancouver or pursue a pastoral opportunity in Luzern, Switzerland. It was huge. In addition to living and working in Switzerland, I was attracted by an opportunity to be near my daughter and family who were living near Luzern at the time. My spiritual director wisely sensed that this was not an issue of a “right or wrong decision.” Rather, God would bless either decision! He encouraged me to take two weeks for a discernment process. The first week, I was to live and orient my life as if I had planned on moving to Switzerland. For the second week, I was to do the same, but, do so as if I had planned on staying in Vancouver. For the first week, while contemplating the possibility of moving to Luzern, I felt a good degree of peace and joy. Surprisingly, I felt a similar peace and joy about staying in Vancouver as I started the second week. But, in the middle of the second week, during prayer, I felt an overwhelming sorrow for the city of Vancouver. I literally was on the floor, wailing in a puddle of tears for the city. I was reminded of the costly investment I had made for the past 15 years. I knew that both decisions of either living in Vancouver or living in Luzern were open to me, but I sensed that I wanted to be in a place for which I felt fire and passion. As a result, I chose to stay in Vancouver, and did so in much peace. I cannot say enough about how such spiritual direction has helped me keep in touch with “the fire within.” Thankfully, my daughter and family are living much closer now, too!
The Gift of Good Questions
Another gift that my spiritual director has given me has been the gift of asking good questions. The questions have sometimes been so insightful that I’ve almost gasped in surprise. Recently, while wrestling with a very divisive ethical issue in the church at large, I was feeling accused of “undermining and questioning the word of God.” The serpent’s phrase, “Has God said…?” in the Genesis 3 account of the temptation of Eve seemed to hold me under a paralyzing spell of condemnation, as if it applied to me. Was I compromising God’s word on this ethical issue? In my best moments, I felt that I was simply seeking to interact with “various interpretations of God’s Word,” all held by people I loved who were equally committed to the authority of Christ through Scripture. In my worst moments, I felt that I had defaulted to shades of ambiguity. My director asked me, “What if ‘Has God said…?’ has to do with the enemy undermining and questioning all the hard work of prayerful, loving process and deliberation you’ve been doing on this issue?” This question so turned the tables on the accusation I was struggling with that I gasped in relief. My director affirmed the heart of Christ that he saw in me – a heart that was willing to engage in the messiness of our world as a friend of sinners who came to seek and save the lost, willing to be misunderstood as a heretic in order to welcome the prodigal home. The question and ensuing insights brought me back into the light of God’s mercy, shining through the gifts God had given me to serve the body of Christ regarding this divisive ethical issue, among others. I left that session feeling that a mountain had been lifted from me.
The Gift of Vulnerability
One last example of how spiritual direction has been so valuable for me is when I have been facing moments of strong temptation and/or sin. Just being able to share everything with my spiritual director has been an indescribably wonderful gift. I believe in being open and vulnerable in general, because it is the way of Christ, but, one must always discern the best context to share struggles. Trying to decide “who can handle what?” can be excruciating. The setting of spiritual direction has greatly reduced the anxiety about what I “should or should not share.” This freedom to be vulnerable has been such a precious gift.
With regards to my own struggles with temptation and sin, my spiritual director has been remarkable. Based on the premise that all desire is good and is only corrupted by sin and brokenness, I have never felt shame, but complete acceptance and grace from my spiritual director. He has gently walked me through severe times of temptation. I have been helped many times, not only to refrain from sinful actions in thought, word, and deed, but also, to refrain from perhaps a worse sin, that of, artificial and pharisaical righteousness where desires were suppressed. As a result, I have been able to tap into and find a deeper passion for life. When there has been sin, I’ve been gently forgiven and restored. Only wise, discerning, patient spiritual direction has been able to navigate me through these minefields of overwhelming temptation and sin, and for that I am forever grateful.
A Post-Sabbatical Decision
In conclusion, a spiritual director has been a companion for my journey who has helped me to see the movements of the Holy Spirit in my life, through prayerful listening, paying attention, and asking good questions. This has been an important investment for our church congregation, who, for the most part, have funded my monthly spiritual direction sessions, for which I am supremely grateful. Last year, I took my pastoral sabbatical under the care of my spiritual director, which made the sabbatical a much more enriching experience than it would have been otherwise. It was on this same sabbatical that both Kathleen and I sensed that acquiring training in spiritual direction was to be an important step for me in this next season of ministry. This past fall of 2015, soon after I had returned from sabbatical, I embarked on a path towards developing skills for becoming a spiritual director myself. A new journey has begun that will take a number of years to complete, but I believe it can bring much enrichment to to our local church and beyond. By God's grace, having so freely received, I want to give this gift to others in God's timing and plan.