I spent a life-giving two weeks in the desert outside of Tucson studying to become a certified spiritual director at the Hesychia School For Spiritual Direction at the Redemptorist Renewal Center. Spiritual Direction is an ancient practice of companioning another person in their spiritual search and practice. One of the questions we ask a lot in spiritual direction is, “Where is God in all of this?”
Spiritual Direction is a different modality from therapy, which presumes a problem, issue, pathology or struggle to work through. SD is also different from pastoral counseling, which often involves advice-giving and religious guidance. Spiritual Direction is a practice of active listening where the director essentially holds a space for the directee to explore how the spirit is moving in their lives (or maybe not moving — and the directee wants to dedicate time to wonder about that, to question it, or to investigate their beliefs with a supportive person). A spiritual director will not think you are having a nervous breakdown or psychotic break if you have a mystical experience. They might wind up referring you to a psychiatrist, but they will not react negatively or suspiciously at the outset of a report of hearing voices or seeing a vision or having a prophetic dream or other such phenomena that can trouble the modern soul and society.
For me, the beauty in Spiritual Direction is its foundational claim that God/Spirit/Higher Consciousness is real, that it can be trusted, and that dedicating a portion of our lives to pursuing time with it is a worthy and important endeavor. God is real. There is another dimension to our reality than what we can see and touch, and there’s a lot of meaning to be found there.
There were about twenty-five of us in the program, from all over the country and a wide selection of religious traditions, and we became a tight team. It was the most joyous imaginable thing to spend all day with a group of people who speak fluent Spirit! We were Catholic priests, Protestant pastors and ministers, Jewish chant musicians, lay people, Southern Baptist consultants, Unitarian Universalists, nuns, etc. — and what we shared in common was a belief that creation is holy, that people’s stories are sacred, that those in religious leadership must protect the community’s spiritual mission from the the capitalist cult of production and busy-ness, and a passionate desire to connect to the divine on a regular basis.
Got a little rainbow for you.
There are lots of different methods of spiritual direction (many directors use the Ignatian Exercises, for example), but I am being trained in the non-directive, or evocative method. We started doing practicums in the second week of our intensive, and I found that I loved sitting in silence with my practice directee. I loved the silence so much that I was gently critiqued for leaving the directee feeling a bit vulnerable or emotionally abandoned after they had shared something deep. It’s a hard practice! Where I am tempted to jump in and actively enter into conversation, I know that is not my role. When I settle comfortably into the more contemplative listening mode, I can settle in there too deeply! Earth to Vicki.
But I loved it. The desert filled my well. I hate to be corny with the desert metaphors but having read a lot of the desert mothers and fathers, I was excited about studying spiritual direction in the environment they lived in all those centuries ago when they withdrew from Christian life in the city. I think it’s hilarious that as far back as the 4th century people were already like, “Ech, the Church is so corrupt.”
I mostly expressed my sense of reverence and awe in response to the desert landscape by walking around and saying things like, “Oh my God, what ARE you?” and “Holy s*%$, what even IS this?”
ouch! but yet …flowers
These darlings will literally attack you if you brush up against them. I saw hikers in Joshua Tree National Park yanking the spikes out of their arms and heels with pliers. Blood everywhere. The desert does not mess around!
We stayed in little rooms on a beautiful campus and ate breakfast at 8AM, started sessions at 9:30, worked until noon when we broke for lunch, went back for afternoon session at 1:30, worked until 4:30, and had dinner at 6PM.
We walked to breakfast in this kind of situation…
And did things on our breaks like hike, read or walk the labyrinth:
It’s like something out of Dr. Seuss
Loretta is a wonderful pastor from Wisconsin.
I am not really a group person. I’m a strong extrovert in some ways, but more than one day of structured programs with the same group of people usually chafes at me. The only time I remember loving a residential learning and retreat experience was when I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1993 and spent three weeks studying Emerson, Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists at Oregon State University with Professor David Robinson.
Usually though, I skip a lot of retreat programming and flee into solitude for my mental health. I find group process to be laborious and over-earnest and then I beat up on myself for being cranky and critical. My own UUMA (the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association — a professional, dues-paying clergy organization and yes, UUs are the only denomination that has such an organization) has been in a horrific meltdown for a couple of years, culminating in a past 12 months of divisive, vicious, grace-denying, Spirit-ignoring, accusatory, vengeful, schismatic actions and reactions. We are ostensibly a covenantal organization but the covenant has been blown to smithereens and I doubt that there will be genuine collegial trust in my lifetime. I feel exceedingly grateful to have well-established friendships and decades of close working relationships and fellowship with many colleagues, so that I retain affection and loyalty even to those with whom I am in disagreement over the latest contretemps. I also serve a congregation that is stable, has strong and healthy lay and professional leadership, and is located in a beautiful location within a vibrant wider multifaith community of mutual care, concern and social justice commitments. I have a very good and fulfilling life in ministry.
There is a lot of lip service paid to the notion of covenant in my collegial circles, but since there is no recognition of a greater reality, wisdom and grace beyond strong convictions held by various arguing groups, “covenant” has been utterly degraded. In its current usage among the UUMA it is used in a punitive way; official documents speak of “being brought back into covenant,” as though covenants are strictly between groups of people and not initiated by a God who invites us to be in relationship with God and with each other, to become a people of God. Covenant is always a vertical proposition, an Us-and-Thou; it is never “us versus them.” The conversation among UU clergy has flat-lined.
And there is also a thing that New England religious progressives do that stymies deep spiritual conversation: we are really committed to seeming smart, educated and sophisticated. My being GenX adds a layer of sardonic detachment to the rational smart reasonable people thing. We don’t go around talking about God. Even with my best friends, even with my parishioners, even with my closest colleagues, we keep our mystical experiences and promptings of the Spirit pretty private. We touch on the subject carefully, most often (I find) out of respect for other people’s time and tolerance for such religiosity. We are careful not to assume that our ways of expressing how God/Spirit/Deeper Reality/Soul presents itself in our experience will be comprehended or accepted by others, and even those with whom we are in spiritual community.
That’s our way. I remember in Div School people would walk around asking each other about their prayer practice and say things in the hall to each other like “How is your walk with Jesus?” and I would flinch. It felt so forced, and also invasive, and also like bragging. I wanted to yell out, “Be careful you don’t step on Jesus’ robe and trip him on your walk!” just to let the air out of the piety.
But at Hesychia, we sat in a lot of silence and heard from one another about how confusing, demanding, inspiring, frightening, exciting, upsetting, healing and disruptive the movement of the Spirit is in our lives today, right now, and in our pasts. We told stories about how, when we really attended to our souls, we felt guided, loved, led and supported through the most harrowing of times. We shared tears over recollections of suffering, times where we felt empty or abandoned, when our spiritual practices bore no fruit at all.
We listened to each other without interruption and without judgment. We brought insensitivities or mistakes to each other’s attention with care and respect. We trained and disciplined ourselves not to fix, not to project, not to say “I know just how you feel” or “You know, that reminds me of something…” or “there’s a book you should read.” We waited in silence for more truth to emerge. We protected each other’s privacy and honored each other’s feelings. We showed non-verbally that we cared, that we were paying close attention to every word in our practicum sessions, that we were intensely committed to being a companion in the work of going deeper.
I get to go back for the last two weeks at the end of April. I will write more later about some life insights I recorded while in the desert. They’re not radical or new, but they led me to make some interior shifts that have brought me more peace and equilibrium, and who doesn’t need that?
This was the February full moon. I was walking to the dining hall for dinner when I saw a group of my sister Hesychasts looking out to the mountains and I gasped. Almost missed it.