Miranda Heathcote is a trained spiritual director and part of the team offering the Deepen program to train others; she lives in Spain. Esther Parpatt lives in South Africa and has recently begun meeting with a spiritual director. In this article, they team up to share their experience of spiritual direction and offer insights into this ministry.
(M) When you hear the words ‘spiritual direction’ what do you think? Is this something you are familiar with, or is it completely new to you? Whether you are in need of an introduction to spiritual direction, or you are still figuring out how spiritual direction is different from other kinds of support for your life as a believer, then you’ll be glad to meet Esther who’s very much in the same boat. We will hear from Esther as she meets with a spiritual director for the first time. I’m hoping that as we unpack her experience together, we will discover more about spiritual direction that you may find helpful too.
This is how Esther introduced herself before meeting with her spiritual director for the first time:
(E) Honestly, I am a hot mess who is in much need of some direction (on an hourly basis please!) and I can’t wait to have someone on speed dial to direct my every step so I can shut off my overthinking brain.
(M) Well, you don’t have to be a ‘hot mess’ to seek out a spiritual director, although if you do feel that way – if you have doubts, or wonderings about your faith that you find hard to share with others – then that’s fine too. Really, you can talk with a spiritual director about anything that seems important to you in the moment.
Esther puts her finger on a common and understandable misconception about spiritual direction, which is that it’s in some way authoritarian and that a spiritual director will tell a person how to live, and in detail. The word ‘direction’ in this case, which has been traditionally used in relation to this ministry, is less about management and more about helping a person direct his or her attention towards a particular focus. Let’s hear from Esther as she prepares for that first meeting:
(E) Like the true type A, Enneagram 1, INFP that I am, I have a mental laundry list of all the things I want her to direct me in. I am ready to be directed! Ready to be fixed! Ready for someone to finally discern God’s will for me so that I don’t have to ever again.
(M) Perhaps you have felt this way too? Discerning the way ahead isn’t easy and how much easier it would be if someone would simply tell us what to do! Similarly, when we become aware of the ways in which we still need to grow in our walk with God, there are times when we long for someone to ‘fix us’ so that we can just move on from where we are.
At times in our lives it can be helpful to meet with a coach – someone who is trained to help us to consider the future and chart the way ahead – or to meet with a therapist or counsellor – someone who is trained to help us address areas of wounding or brokenness due to things that have happened in the past. Meeting with a spiritual director is different, however. A spiritual director is there to help you be present to the truth of your present state and to pay attention to how God might be meeting you in this moment. That is, while you may talk about the future and you may talk about the past, the focus will be on encountering God in the present. Let’s find out how Esther experienced this difference at her first meeting with a spiritual director:
(E) I took the plunge, and reached out to a lovely lady that was recommended to me by my much more spiritually grounded friend. The first time we met was via Zoom. “I am trying to figure out what my calling is, where I should live and what God is saying in X, Y and Z” I proceeded to rattle off my ‘needs’ in relation to spiritual direction while this patient woman smiled at me. Still not fully understanding her role, I slipped into therapy mode and proceeded to also tell her about the rollercoaster of life I have been navigating the last few years (don’t ask). When I paused for breath she gently asked me how I sensed God was feeling towards me.
(M) Esther identified a spiritual director by asking a friend to recommend someone. This is a good place to start if you happen to know people who have personal connections. You might also find a reputable directory, like the one offered by the Evangelical Spiritual Directors’ Association. In either case, you will want to look for a spiritual director who is properly trained and possibly affiliated to an association or group that shares your values. These days there is a wide range of practitioners calling themselves ‘spiritual directors.’ You will want to find someone who can accompany you in your walk with Jesus, and a personal recommendation or a reliable association can help you do just that.
Ordinarily you would have an initial meeting with a spiritual director to get to know one another a little. This meeting will give each of you a sense of whether you are a good ‘fit’ for one another. Every spiritual director has his or her unique personality and way of offering direction, based on training and experience. Some are less ‘directive,’ offering more space for silent reflection, and others are more ‘directive,’ suggesting more avenues for exploration in your personal times with God. Your first meeting is an opportunity for you to get a feel for the particular approach of a person, and also for him or her to discern whether they are the best person to support you on your journey.
It sounds like, in these early stages, Esther is still figuring out the nature of her conversations with her spiritual director. This is completely normal. The beautiful thing is that Esther has a sense of desire to be met by God in the place of her real need. That is a great place to begin any relationship with a spiritual director! Notice the way her spiritual director allows Esther space to talk about her sense of need in relation to all that had been happening in her life. And then she asks a question that directs Esther’s attention to how God might be with her in this part of the journey: how does God feel towards her?
This peek into Esther’s experience helps us to understand something of the role of a spiritual director. Here we see her creating a space where Esther can be heard, without judgement. There is what we might call a ‘hospitality’ to the way a spiritual director receives another person, making room for all that is true about him or her to the degree that the person chooses to share. In this conversation, we notice that based on her supportive listening, as she seeks to hear both what Esther puts into words and what might be in her heart, the director asks a very open question. A spiritual director is also listening for how the Holy Spirit might be present in the conversation, so perhaps we could imagine her directing this question to God: how do you feel about Esther, Lord?
Good questions can often open up a whole new level of awareness and reflection. Indeed, this is the hope in spiritual direction. As Barry and Connelly put it in their book about spiritual direction, ‘I am free to respond or not to respond to God only when I am aware of the reactions I experience as I begin to pay attention to God. Noticing these reactions is fundamental to growth in the spiritual life, and helping a person notice and communicate them is one of the most fundamental tasks of spiritual direction.’ (William Barry & William Connolly: The Practice of Spiritual Direction.) At the same time, open questions can knock us off balance a little, such is the different perspective to which we are being invited. Let’s return to Esther and see how she felt about the question she was asked:
(E) I was stumped. So caught up in my all consuming need for answers, it was hard for me to view God feeling anything towards me, but the same disappointment and frustration I felt towards myself. She guided me by various questions to the realisation that perhaps God felt compassion towards me and that my next step wasn’t to answer my list of questions, but to open myself up to the reality of God’s compassion towards me.
(M) It is not unusual to be stopped in our tracks by a powerful question. This stopping can be so helpful for us, creating a moment of pause in which we can listen more closely to what is deeply true beneath the clamour of our most insistent thoughts and preoccupations. A good spiritual director can then lead a person, by use of other questions that present themselves like a series of stepping stones, to what God seems to be about in this particular conversation. In this case, how might Esther open herself up to the reality of God’s compassion towards her? It can be that this ‘crucial question’ or awareness may be a good place to pause. The conversation comes to a close, not because the work is finished, but rather because this is where the person can fruitfully engage with God in her own times of reflection. How was this for Esther?
(E) Fast forward several months and I was still wrestling with the reality of the compassion that God felt towards me, so I had not arranged another session. How could I meet again if I had not mastered my last ‘task’? However, life was ramping up. My husband and I found ourselves making what felt like a weighty decision about our calling. Upon messaging to arrange another session, I sheepishly explained that I hadn’t connected with her since our last session because I hadn’t completed the ‘assignment’ of realising God’s compassion towards me. She, again with great patience, explained to me that spiritual direction isn’t ‘as the need arises’ or ‘once the task is complete’ but rather a continued ‘holding the space’ for an individual to discern what God is saying to them in the present.
(M) For some time, Esther did not feel able to return to spiritual direction. Based on her presuppositions about the need to complete a ‘task’ she understandably withdrew. It might be helpful to understand that it is most usual for people to meet regularly with a spiritual director, commonly but not always once a month for about an hour. Unlike relationships with coaches or counsellors, it is more usual to have a long-standing relationship with a spiritual director that may go on for years. In the context of what becomes a place of great trust, a person continues to share his or her experience of the unfolding journey. The goal is not to achieve some previously defined objective, but to engage in a deepening awareness of God with you through every season. Even in just a couple of encounters with her spiritual director, Esther is settling into what this relationship is about. Let’s catch up with her again:
(E) This time I come not with a list of things but just one thing – a decision that has brought me deep anxiety, for fear of making the wrong choice. My director gently nudges me with questions about how God sees me, and what my functioning view of God is (not what I think it should be). Through these questions, and what they stir in me, I begin to see where some of my views of God are distorted. I begin to sense more clearly where God is in my decisions and a sense of peace creeps over me. The focus is never on what the right or wrong choice might be, but on where God is, what he’s like and how he views me. I leave feeling lighter, more hopeful and with an invitation to slow down and just be with God.
(M) This is a beautiful example of how meeting with a spiritual director might help us. So often the image of God that informs the way we think about God, the way we make decisions, and the tone of our internal dialogue has been distorted and is not true to God’s self. Spiritual direction can help us to notice these distortions and consider how God is made known to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. These sorts of noticings and adjustments are a regular fruit of spiritual direction, and over time invite us to deeper places of encountering God. Perhaps we might say that when the truth about ourselves meets the truth about God, that’s where real transformation can take place.
William Barry & William Connolly: The Practice of Spiritual Direction. HarperOne.