Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The What and Why of Spiritual Direction

A while back, I mentioned that I'll be entering a program through the Ignatian Spirituality Institute at John Carroll University to be certified as a spiritual director. After going through the application process which included an interview with the program director and two alumni (one of whom is now on my blogroll), it was suggested to me that I wait a year to begin the formal classwork in order to experience the Spiritual Exercises first, which I would have had to do anyway. This made sense to me, so I agreed to their suggestion.

This week I was given the name and contact information for a spiritual director with whom I may go through this process. As I anticipate beginning this step, I thought that I might take another crack at explaining why I'm doing this at all and what in my understanding a spiritual director is and does. I've found it surprisingly difficult to try explaining spiritual direction to others, so maybe if I take another stab at writing an explanation it'll become more clear.

Have you ever taken piano lessons, or some other lesson of that sort? There's a certain format that such lessons follow. You meet weekly with an instructor where you go over the latest lesson that you'd practiced, the instructor provides insight by telling you to work on some things, giving encouragement, and working in some new things, right? Then, you're giving instructions for what to practice between now and the next lesson, building on what you've already learned.

Spiritual direction works the same way, in my understanding, though the emphasis obviously is on your spiritual life. You meet, the spiritual director guides you in identifying where the divine may have showed up over the past week (or however often) in your life, you're instructed to try some new things related to spiritual disciplines and practices between now and the next meeting. Instead of being coached in developing knowledge and technique related to a musical instrument (or pick anything else: physical fitness, creative writing, cooking, etc.), the focus is on your personal spirituality.

On top of that, the spiritual director is usually trained in a particular tradition. Let's go back to the music lessons for a second. I took bass guitar lessons for over a year (I had to stop for a while, though I'd like to get back into it). My instructor's clear preference was for jazz and blues: it's what he was chiefly trained in and listened to. He was, of course, able to teach other styles as well, but these styles were his main points of reference when we met. This works the same way with spiritual direction. Those who study at the Ignatian Spirituality Institute are primarily trained in Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, so those serve as the main point of reference, although there is nothing keeping them from learning and teaching other disciplines over time as well.

Why do this at all? I am discovering more and more that I personally need regular guidance when it comes to certain aspects of my life, and I'm in a season where I've been the most honest with myself about that that I ever have (delving into that is its own blog post). I always had good intentions about keeping up with music, but regular instruction helped keep me accountable. I haven't picked up my bass very often since I had to quit lessons. Many people have good intentions about keeping a regular devotional life of some sort and try various techniques and times of day to do it, and I'm guessing that more often than not they start out strong and then piddle out after a few weeks at the most (again, this can be applied to a lot of things: going on a diet, learning some other hobby, etc.). This is probably a big reason why worship on Sunday is seen as an essential activity by many: it may be the only regular spiritual discipline that they're able to keep (again, probably it's own blog post). Having a spiritual director to provide that regular time of checking in can do a lot for people who are willing to go beyond that and delve into something else.

In addition, I've been exploring a call for several years now to coach and encourage other pastors. I already do this work in my Association, and I've found great passion in it, particularly given my background and my sabbatical work. It may sound silly or misguided coming from a younger pastor, but I think that I have a lot to offer and it energizes me. I think that training in spiritual direction would be a great asset to pursuing this calling. This also is probably its own blog post.

I mentioned this in the other post, but there's one other reason why spiritual direction interests me. I have been very fortunate to have experienced a wide variety of spiritual activities over the years, most Christian but also a few that are not. As such, I've been able to gain great appreciation for the multitude of ways available to us through which we may tap in to the divine presence around us. I want to share that appreciation with others, most of whom are only aware of one single piece of a single strand of a single tradition that in many cases either produces spiritual tunnel vision or has caused many to give up because they aren't aware that there's anything else out there or don't know where to look to try something different.

I want to help people realize that there are so many more possibilities out there for prayer, study, and worship than the one church they've always known or left a long time ago. Maybe this is easier to do in our present age of pluralism and diversity, but I think there are still many who nevertheless wouldn't know where to begin. I want to help provide a window into other ways to experience God in our midst when the One Way you've always known doesn't seem to be working, or when it needs some sort of complement to breathe new life into your experience of it.

These are my main reasons for wanting to become a spiritual director. Like I said, I wanted another crack at articulating what it is and why I'm doing it.