DALLAS — Cell phones, pagers, e-mail, television and other distractions sometimes make it hard to pray or hear God’s answer.
Worship leaders are often too busy with administrative duties to help people deepen their personal connections to the holy.
So, some people are turning to spiritual directors to help them strengthen their relationships with God.
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“For a person on an intense spiritual pilgrimage, that generally requires developing a relationship with a spiritual companion,” said Shelly Vescovo, dean of the Anglican School of Theology, a division of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.
Spiritual direction is not a profession. Directors hold other jobs and see only a few clients who usually pay a fee on a sliding scale. For instance, Sam Magill paid his director $90 an hour; others pay half that, less or nothing.
Unlike therapists, spiritual directors are not licensed, nor is their training standardized.
In selecting a director, Liz Budd Ellman, the head of Spiritual Directors International, recommends interviewing at least three candidates and asking some key questions:
What is the person’s training?
To what spiritual tradition/faith do they belong?
To what ethical guidelines do they adhere?
Are they in spiritual direction themselves, and what kind of personal prayer life do they have?
Spiritual direction has existed in various forms throughout the Christian tradition. There were 4th century desert mystics who counseled seekers, and monks or nuns who guided medieval convent dwellers. In the 16th century, St. Ignatius wrote his “Spiritual Exercises,” which became the basis of direction as offered within the Jesuit community. With Vatican II, the Catholic Church opened more involvement to lay people, including spiritual direction.
For 20 years, the school has offered spiritual direction training to students, both lay and clergy. “It is a much more intense, focused endeavor … and the function of a church/synagogue is different than what one goes to a spiritual director for,” Vescovo said.
A growing number of people are embarking on such spiritual pilgrimages with a companion. In 1989, 400 spiritual directors meeting in Burlingame, Calif., formed Spiritual Directors International. Based in Bellevue, Wash., the group has about 4,000 American members, almost 700 more worldwide, and lists about 200 training or retreat centers in 41 states, including seven centers in Texas.
“There is some kind of transformation in our culture, a larger rubric of the democratization of religious authority,” said Wade Clark Roof, chairman of religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “There’s a tendency of people to assume that out of their lived experience, and that of a spiritual director, that they can grow and expand their spiritual insights, and that they don’t have to go to traditional religious authority, the clergy.”
The surge of interest in spiritual direction may seem dramatic, until seen in historical context, said the Rev. Frederick Schmidt, director of spiritual life and formation at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.
“One could rightly argue that the high tide of religious affiliation of the 1950s and ’60s was in some respects an anomaly in American history,” he said.
So, what is spiritual direction?
“It isn’t about having visions or unusual phenomenon,” said Sister Thomas Bernard of Los Angeles, hoping to assuage those wondering if the practice is “woo-woo.”
In 1983, Thomas started the archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Spirituality Center — now the Spiritual Growth Center at Mount St. Mary’s College. In the center’s three- year program, about 25 students meet monthly for lectures on prayer, listening skills, spirituality and sexuality, multiculturalism and other topics. They may also play the role of spiritual director in case studies. In their third year, students see clients under supervision.
Sam Magill, a Seattle executive coach, sought spiritual direction after feeling something lacking in his life. At 50, he’d already dealt with career issues in therapy but felt a gnawing dissatisfaction.
“There’s only so much of our meaning in life that can be directly satisfied by a job,” Magill, 54, said. “The whole ‘meaning’ question loomed larger and larger. I wanted to dive deeper into my soul.”
So, Magill began meeting for an hour each month with a spiritual director, a fellow Episcopalian.
Thomas says it isn’t enough to be aware of God’s presence — noticed when standing in line at the market, buying gasoline or interacting with family and co-workers. She says we must also reflect on such moments, and a spiritual companion can provide an extra ear, and soul, with which to discern these moments’ import.
“I use the example of radio waves,” Thomas said. “They are all around us, but we have to tune in to get their message. So, God is always there for us, but we need to tune in.”
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