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  • Writer's pictureBethany Lynn Alvey

Spiritual what?

I've been having conversations with people here in Southern Maryland, telling them about spiritual direction. Most have never heard of it. I'm not surprised by that; I am from this county and I had never heard of it either! But it's a tough thing to describe.

I can say what usually happens. Once a month, the directee sits down with the director in a confidential space - either in person or online. They start with a brief check-in, then a short time of centering prayer or meditation. The directee begins to share about their life, particularly their spiritual life. The director listens, invites the directee to pause from time to time and sit with what they just shared, welcomes moments of silence to let things settle and flow, reflects what the directee shares back toward them, notices strong points of resonance for the directee, and summarizes what the directee brought up in the session. After about 50 minutes, they take a few more minutes of centering prayer or meditation to close out their time.

Metaphors help to describe the relationship between director and directee - my favorite is that I'm like a trail guide. It's your hike, but I have some experience with the terrain, and can point out different trailheads that you can take or not take as you feel your way forward in this strange experience of connecting with God. I can point out the flora and fauna we pass and how the ecosystem works together, but the journey is yours, and the meaning is yours.

Another is the midwife - your spiritual journey is your labor, it's your baby, but as the director I'm there to support you. Our spiritual lives can go through many different iterations - even while staying in the same faith context, and some transitions can be difficult and complicated. It's like you are birthing new life.

Today I was thinking about the process itself. As a contemplative practice, it hosts silence and quietude. As a nurturing practice, it employs acceptance and positive regard. As a mystical practice, it assumes the presence of the Divine. But like watching plants grow, it can seem like nothing is happening, until all of a sudden you notice the rose opened, the tree is taller than it was, the grass needs to be cut again.

The question I keep hearing from others and turning over in my mind is "What is the goal?" This is a tough question to answer. In some ways, the goal is whatever the directee sets for themselves - a regular spiritual practice, a place to work through a spiritually tough season, a place to explore questions they don't feel safe asking in more traditional spaces. The directee may not have a goal for themselves though, may not know what they want, just a gut feeling this practice is a door they want to walk through.

For myself, I have found the most reward in letting go of my goals when I walk into the direction space. I am surprised by what comes out of me, by what the Spirit draws my attention to. But this is the hardest thing to communicate when talking about spiritual direction. It can sound avoidant, intellectually unserious, or even a little woo-woo. It hasn't been for me, but it is different. One of my mentors in this process said, "It's easier caught than taught."

I had a conversation with a new friend the other day - someone who does not profess to have any faith life. They are a self-proclaimed atheist. I have no agenda to change how this person sees themselves on that regard. And yet in our conversation, they alluded to having some experiences they couldn't explain, connections to places and cultures they couldn't explain. Their curiosity around those inexplicable points of resonance are trailheads in spiritual direction. This person, who has no experience of small groups or accountability groups, liturgical practices or catechisms, might feel free to enter into spiritual direction with curiosity where someone with a longer religious resume might hesitate.

So what is spiritual direction? It is a lost art. It is a doorway. It is a conversation. It is space.

What is the goal? Attention to what already is. Noticing. Deepening. Growing. Integrating.

But in spiritual direction, you would come to know the answers to those questions better for yourself.

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