What is spiritual direction and how does it help people? Debra Vermeer explores what it means with a few people who’ve experienced it first-hand.
BY Debra Vermeer*
As a young woman with the world at her feet and a longing to experience life deeply, Charlene Sim had no idea what to expect when she first sought out a spiritual director. Today, Charlene says that spiritual direction has proven to be “a very beautiful” experience which helps her to discern the movement of God in her life.
“I think in life a lot of us tend to ‘go with the flow’, but sometimes it’s your flow and not God’s flow,” she says.
“Spiritual direction helps me with the whole idea of discernment. It is having this great companion on an exploration and I have a sense that this exploration will never end.”
Charlene, who works in the Parish Support Unit at the Diocese of Broken Bay, Sydney, first reached out for spiritual direction in her home country of Singapore and did so again when she moved to Australia in 2011.
After discovering Benedictine spirituality through visits to The Abbey at Jamberoo, Charlene sought a Benedictine spiritual director in Sydney and found Good Samaritan Sister, Carol Tomlinson, at the Mount St Benedict Centre, Pennant Hills.
“It’s been a year now and I feel like a beautiful friendship has bloomed, but it’s a friendship that has always been centred on God,” she says.
“The way I see it, I’m a little boat and Carol has been the anchor, but an anchor with a very long rope. She allows me to drift, to explore, but she will keep me grounded if I go too far, so there’s a sense of safety there. I feel like she’s on a beautiful walk beside me, encouraging me and always bringing me back to that discernment.”
Good Samaritan Oblate, Michael Slinn discovered spiritual direction later in life, during his retirement, and says it’s a shame that it’s not more widely known about and practised.
Michael, who is a Christian in the Protestant tradition, was first introduced to spiritual direction through people he met when he and his wife went to live in a L’Arche community for 12 months. L’Arche is a network of communities that build and celebrate relationships between people with and without intellectual disabilities.
“I think, in a slightly difficult time, someone in L’Arche suggested I talk to somebody. So I was put in touch with somebody who was my spiritual director for a period, and that was very helpful,” he says.
“I moved away then, but in more recent times, I have felt I would like a bit of direction in my spiritual walk and I have been to see a number of different people, one of whom has been a Good Sam Sister. I’ve always found it helpful.
“For a start, I think they are safe places to be if you want to talk about issues that you have or ask questions or raise perhaps doubts that you have, questions about the faith or scriptures. I’ve really found an openness with these people and a willingness to just accept you as you really are. Most of the people I have spoken to in spiritual direction have been really wise people and I just am immensely grateful that they have become part of my life.”
Sister Carol Tomlinson, who is an experienced spiritual director and supervisor of spiritual directors over many years, says that the relational aspect of spiritual direction expressed by both Charlene and Michael is at the heart of the experience.
“A lot of people don’t quite know what to expect from spiritual direction,” she says. “But I think that really, it’s a mutual journey. It’s both of us, the director and the person, both experiencing growth. I think it’s a mutually graced, life-changing experience, this process of direction.”
“There are two prongs to it really. It leads to a depthing of the person’s relationship with God, however the person sees God. It also invites, encourages and sometimes even disciplines in ordinary, everyday ways. And I think the other part of it is that it’s a discovery of how to respond in loving, growthful ways in the world, in a person’s here and now, concrete situation.”
Sister Kathleen Spokes SGS, also an experienced spiritual director who works in the formation of spiritual directors at the Heart of Life Spirituality Centre in Box Hill, Melbourne, says sometimes the term ‘spiritual direction’ can be off-putting for people.
“The word direction is a bit of problem really,” she says. “For people who haven’t come across it before, I would tend to use the word ‘spiritual companioning’ or ‘spiritual journeying’ with people or simply ‘accompaniment’.
“I see it as an opportunity for people to come, usually, but not always, on a regular basis, to have a chat. It’s about helping people make sense of their life, searching for God. Some people would use that language, recognising God. Others would talk in terms of ‘I just know there’s something more but I don’t know what the more is’.
“So it’s really just helping people to reflect on their life and see where there are movements towards life and movements that are sort of taking them away. It’s a coming together of life and faith, really.”
Both sisters say that spiritual direction attracts people from every walk of life.
“Oh yes,” says Carol. “Absolutely every walk of life – men, women, straight, gay, married, single, religious, you name it. And they needn’t be Catholic either.”
And what might lead a person to seek spiritual direction?
“I think usually it’s some kind of very human thing that leads people to spiritual direction,” Carol says.
“Often it might be a relationship. For example, it could be with their family; that they’re not happy with how things are going. It could be a friendship. It could be a delight, confusion, grief, pain, a blockage. Or it could be some other kind of human experience, a strong human emotion, like they’re aware of a yearning for something. There’s a hunger there. Sometimes people specifically want to discern some important life choice or decision.
“Or it might be a relationship with God, which is somehow stuck, or they’re a bit over-awed with some experience of mystery or beauty and they want to explore it. It could be a very positive thing.”
Carol and Kathleen are keen to point out that spiritual direction is not counselling.
“I don’t give advice,” Carol says. “Because whatever the person is seeking, it’s actually within them. It’s not teaching and it’s not advice-giving, it’s just companioning, by doing a lot of listening, but also prompting questions and getting them to explore – whether it’s images they come up with or dreams, feelings.”
Kathleen says one of the things that people love about spiritual direction is the sense of safety it inspires.
“It’s very easy and very natural,” she says. “If somebody comes for the first time I’d want to put them at ease and listen and encourage and I might invite them to talk about what’s brought them to direction, and we just go from there. It really is a relationship that grows. It’s not techniques or skills or anything like that. It’s just helping people to talk about things that are real, substantial and personal.
“They are the kinds of conversations that are about the inner world as well as what is happening around you. But they’re not the kind of conversations you’d have over dinner, even with your best friend, maybe. And it’s nice to have an outlet of safety where you can have those conversations.”
Listening to both Kathleen and Carol, it’s clear that spiritual direction is a ministry they love.
“It is very important to me and I do love it,” Kathleen says. “However, it’s also very challenging. It’s a real privilege being with people who, as they grow in trust, open up and talk about areas of their life that are deeply personal and sacred to them. It’s quite humbling really.”
Carol says that looking back, she realises that in joining religious life she was “somehow seeking God”.
“And I think in this area of spiritual direction, you’re in the company of other people who are doing the same. And in that process, as the person is drawn forward, you’re so privy to their journey that you’re moving too. It’s such a nourishing, life-enriching experience. It’s awe-filling.”
For those curious to explore spiritual direction, or for those who have already experienced it, Kathleen and Carol, along with Good Samaritan Sisters, Colleen Leonard and Moya Weissenfeld, will be welcoming people to a Good Samaritan Directed Retreat at the Mount St Benedict Centre, Pennant Hills from April 5 to 11.
“It’s a retreat that’s tailor-made for each individual,” Carol says. “The starting point is where each person is at and so each person has time, over a number of days, with a particular director.
“People come with a willingness to be open to the transformation that God is wanting to give them. It’s a chance to get in touch with their deep desires, and the silence and the space and the natural beauty give them a new energy and desire to live authentically. Towards the end of the retreat, it starts to emerge how this is going to be lived in ordinary, everyday life. It’s a time of renewal.”
* Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.
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