Spiritual direction guides Catholics in finding space for God

| Bridget Ryder | March 31, 2017 | 0 Comments


For once, Mary Noble Garcias sat still long enough to notice what was going on in her soul after her body and mind had stopped moving through the motions of everyday life. In her meeting with a spiritual director, she figured out what was happening.

“It was about being silent enough to hear what was going on and having someone help me listen and make meaning of it,” Garcia said of her first experience of spiritual direction some 30 years ago during a student retreat at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. “That was the hook.”

With more than three decades of life changes, Garcia, 54, who attends Mass in the chapel at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, spiritual direction has remained an integral part of her life. In 2013, one year after earning a master’s degree in theology, she completed a certificate in spiritual direction at St. Catherine University.

Rooted in tradition and flourishing anew

Garcia represents the increasing number of lay people who have both sought and offered spiritual direction in recent decades. The practice of seeking a guide for one-on-one spiritual assistance with deepening one’s relationship with God goes back to the New Testament. Father Jon Kelly, spiritual director at St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, points to the example of St. Paul. After being blinded on the road to Damascus, Jesus told him to go into the city where he would “be told what to do.” Spiritual direction continued to take shape from the time of the desert fathers during the Church’s first centuries through the life and writings of saints such as St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis de Sales a millennium later. Today, spiritual direction is receiving increased interest, especially among laity.

“In the last 50 to 60 years, it’s really exploded for lay people,” said Christine Luna Munger, coordinator of the Spiritual Direction Certificate and professional professor of theology at St. Catherine University.

The program that Munger leads marks its 20th anniversary this year and began as a response to the “rumbling” for more spiritual direction. According to Munger, there are about 200 different spiritual direction training programs in the United States, some more formal and some less. The certificate at St. Catherine is a 28-credit program that combines academic theological studies, the study of the discernment of spirits and a practicum.

Sacred Ground Center for Spirituality is also celebrating its 20th anniversary of training spiritual directors. It’s located adjacent to St. Kate’s campus in the Carondelet Center, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Though not an academic program, it is still a three-year formation process of personal spiritual growth, education and practice.

Joy Hayes, 54, a parishioner of St. Thomas Becket in Eagan, is in the last semester of the program. Over the last three years, she has learned the art of “sitting with people and holding the space for them,” meaning the sacred space where God is working in their lives. Listening without judgment is one of the most important skills for a spiritual director. Unlike therapy or pastoral counseling, spiritual direction is not about getting or giving advice, nor finding a solution to problems. It’s about finding the presence of God in the movements of the heart during both prayer and daily activities. To know what to listen for, spiritual directors also study how the Catholic tradition has come to understand the stirrings of the heart — the ebb and flow of excitement, joy, peace and sadness — in relation to God. Many programs focus on Ignatian spirituality.

“Ignatius reclaimed a lot of the language of discernment from earlier centuries,” Munger said.

Almost a millennium before St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, the desert fathers and mothers were noticing the movements of the spirit in their intense lives of prayer and solitude. In the 1500s, through his conversion and his own prayer, St. Ignatius also started noticing what caused him joy or sadness and how that related to following Christ.

“What it means is that God might be communicating to us in these movements,” Munger explained.

Ignatius distilled and summarized what he had learned into a manual for giving retreats, his famous “Spiritual Exercises.” The last chapter is a list of rules including “Rules for Perceiving the Movements Caused in the Soul.”

“[They] are so effective we are still using them 500 years later,” Munger said.

As part of her training, Hayes also went through Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, a series of meditations originally designed to be completed as a 30-day silent retreat, but now often done over a period of several months. The retreatant also meets weekly with a spiritual director. Deepening their relationship with God and receiving spiritual direction is a prerequisite to giving spiritual direction.

It is also a calling.

When Mary Boespflug, a teacher and the director of family ministry at St. Edward in Bloomington for 20 years, started spiritual director training through the Center for Spiritual Guidance in St. Paul, she wasn’t sure if she would ever give spiritual direction.

“I wanted to go through it to grow spiritually and professionally. As I went through it, I found it was a call,” she said.

Boespflug and Hayes continue to receive their own spiritual direction as well as supervision — regular meetings with other directors to ensure they’re being true to the ethics and principles of spiritual direction.

Besides giving individual direction in her home, Hayes has also used her training in other ministries. When she was facilitating a support group for parents of children with disabilities, she used her skills as a spiritual director to move the group away from sharing only their difficulties to see God’s grace.

“It wasn’t a support of sharing suffering, it was a support group of shared blessings,” she said.

Knowing how to ask the right questions made it possible to help the parents not lose sight of God’s blessings amid their difficulties. That’s what spiritual directors help people do.

“Our job is to keep them ever focused on God’s presence and call in their life. It’s meant for a close relationship with God,” Boespflug said.

In 2014, Boespflug and fellow spiritual director Jean Buell, who also attends St. Edward, started offering their ministry directly to their parish. They are not staff members, nor do they receive stipends from the parish, but they use the parish facilities to meet with directees. Buell also writes a short piece about spiritual direction for the parish’s Sunday bulletin. Offering the ministry through the parish makes the practice familiar and more easily accessible to Catholics whose main or sole spiritual home is the parish. Besides the convenience, parishioners also feel comfortable seeking spiritual direction in their own community, Boespflug said .

Finding a spiritual director

Despite the increase in awareness and training, finding a good spiritual director can be difficult. “Certified” spiritual directors don’t exist.

“It’s inappropriate to say that you are a certified spiritual director,” Munger said. “In spiritual direction, there’s always been this resistance to certification because you don’t want to box in the spirit. But there’s also a need for credentials so that you don’t hang a shingle out there and mess someone up.”

Completing a training program is one good credential, but generally, directees need to find someone they feel comfortable with, trust and who is knowledgeable about the spiritual life, preferably both personally and through study of the Church’s tradition. The search can start at one’s parish, as several parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have members who offer the ministry. There are also several spirituality centers that offer spiritual direction.

In St. Paul alone, the Loyola Center for Spirituality, Sacred Ground Center for Spirituality and the Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality all have spiritual directors. Word of mouth, though, is often the best way to find a spiritual director, as there are priests, religious members and lay people throughout the archdiocese who give spiritual direction. Many lay directors ask for a fee for spiritual direction, though no one is refused for financial reasons.

Receiving spiritual direction

Spiritual direction is usually an ongoing relationship with a monthly meeting between the director and directee. Each session lasts about an hour, and directees can discuss anything they want.

“If you’re able to bring a prayer experience, that’s great. But you can bring anything, and then the conversation becomes prayer,” Father Kelly said.

Often, he finds that directees might have six issues in their lives that they want to talk about, but as they start to see where God’s grace is working, “the other things just seem so on the surface.” At the same time, by talking about experiences of grace, “the grace opens up in them,” he said. Through the process, the directee also becomes better attuned to what is the spirit of God working in them and what is working against it.

Potential directees also need to determine if spiritual direction is actually what they need.

“We are directed primarily through the life of the Church,” said Father Marc Paveglio, parochial vicar at Pax Christi Catholic Community in Eden Prairie and spiritual director at St. John Vianney College Seminary.

For most Catholics, regular personal prayer and participation in the prayer life of their parish, the sacraments, prayer groups and other faith formation opportunities are enough to keep them deepening their relationship with God. There are also other specific ways that Catholics can find more personal direction for their souls. Confession, especially going regularly to the same priest, can be an opportunity for personal direction. Father Kelly also emphasizes the importance of spiritual friendship — having a friend or a group of friends with whom you can share on a deeply spiritual level in a charitable environment. At times, the need might also be for short-term pastoral counseling rather than ongoing spiritual direction.

But whether or not one receives spiritual direction, the increasing interest in the Catholic tradition of spiritual direction, even among people of other Christian denominations and non-Christian faiths, points to the richness of Catholic spirituality.

Father Paveglio said: “It reveals that right in the heart of the Catholic Church are all the graces and channels for people to experience the love of God.”

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