The Gift of Spiritual Direction
by Brian Gallagher msc
People often ask me ‘what do you do all day?’ For some reason, ‘mowing the lawn, pruning the roses, and walking the dog’ never seem good enough answers. ‘But what’s your work?’ they say. ‘Well, okay, I’m a spiritual director.’ Sometimes the next response is ‘A what!?’ but, often it’s something like ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Who do you talk to? Like, who comes to see you?’ Now that’s a story in itself…
As you know, there’s lots of interest these days in prayer and meditation – you even see advertisements in the weekend newspapers. People seem to want to know something about God, or maybe want to pray. We can teach people ‘how to pray’, but many of us have discovered that, instead of teaching people how to pray, it’s more helpful to invite people to talk about what actually happens for them when they try to pray. In other words, we focus on people’s actual experience of prayer – and actual experience of God in their lives.
Which is what the Church calls spiritual direction. And has, for centuries.
Who comes? Well, people who take God seriously… people who want help with the ‘God-dimension’ of their lives… people who say they’re searching for ‘something more’ in their lives… people who have some difficulty they’re experiencing in life, maybe some loss or illness that causes them to wonder ‘what’s God asking of me?’ or ‘where is God now when the going is tough?’
In spiritual direction, we grow in awareness of God’s presence and action in our lives, we grow in relationship with God, and then we try to translate this into our everyday living. Our best discovery has been that relationship with God develops when people are encouraged to focus, not on themselves, but on God, the God who loves us first. In the sharing and listening to God, and God’s Word, both the spiritual director and the one seeking guidance grow in sensitivity to the myriad ways that God works in our lives and invites us to deeper faith and love.
Relationship with God, indeed with anyone, deepens only when we can be ‘real’ and honest before God. In spiritual direction, the director (sometimes called the companion) will often encourage the other to come to God just as they are. Someone said ‘pray as you are’ – the kind of person you are, the mood you’re in, with whatever’s on your mind and in your heart – bring it all to God. Even the embarrassing bits and the feelings you don’t like to admit. Relationships thrive on reality and openness. God loves real people. I’ve heard people say ‘but why do I need to tell God what I’m thinking and feeling? – God knows, surely.’ And, of course, it’s true that God knows, but we need to do it for our own sake, not God’s. In any relationship that we’re serious about, we choose to spend time to be together, to share experiences, to listen, to ask, to laugh and to cry, to say thankyou. I think we need to — to be true to ourselves.
Spiritual direction helps people to build this kind of relationship with God. I can hear someone asking now ‘but what’s the point of it? what’s the value of spiritual direction?’ As we’re helped to become more and more real before God, the first thing that seems to happen is that God becomes more real to us, almost more tangible. We discover a God whose desire for us far outweighs all of our desire for God. We discover a God who knows us and loves us just as we are, even when we consider ourselves quite unworthy of such love. And then we notice that something changes inside us: we become freer within ourselves, more accepting of ourselves. And we’ve noticed that, when this happens in spiritual direction, people also become more tolerant and forgiving, more compassionate towards others and towards our fragile world.
It seems that being real before God necessarily leads to enhanced relationships with other people, as well – often expressed in very practical, caring ways. Heart of Life Centre for Spiritual & Pastoral Formation is one of several places in Melbourne and around Australia where qualified people work as spiritual directors. I mention it because it’s the Centre I know best – and the one I worked in myself for many years. Anyone who would like to seek out a spiritual director would be wise to ask around, or initially to come and talk to someone who has had the experience.
Check out what’s best for yourself – why not give it a try? There are three MSC centres for spiritual direction and retreats: Heart of Life Centre for Spiritual & Pastoral Formation, Malvern VIC; St Mary’s Towers, Douglas Park NSW; and The Cliffs, Shoreham VIC.