By Jill Kruse-Domeyer
Witness Editorial Assistant
CALMAR — Spiritual direction is a practice with a long history in the Christian church, which is still utilized today by men and women of faith from all different vocations and walks of life. In spiritual direction, individuals meet with a trained spiritual director who acts as a companion on the journey of faith.
Truly a wide variety of people use spiritual direction. The layperson who’s had a religious experience on a retreat or service trip and wishes to go deeper with prayer, the individual in the midst of a spiritual crisis who needs to work through a problem, the priest or religious looking for spiritual support in their ministry, a young person discerning their life’s vocation — all are examples of people who might seek a spiritual director.
“The purpose of spiritual direction is for a person to grow in deeper awareness and understanding of the movements of the Holy Spirit in their relationship with God,” said Father Robert Gross, pastor of the Catholic parishes in Calmar, Spillville, Festina and Ossian, who has been a spiritual director for nine years.
“We have religious experiences every day, but spiritual direction is a privileged way for people to come to a deeper awareness of what is actually happening in their lives of faith and prayer,” he added. “The fruit of clarity in the spiritual life leads to deeper relationship, generosity and openness to the movements of the Holy Spirit.”
Sister Marci Blum, OSF, who is a spiritual director at Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, said spiritual direction is sometimes confused with counseling, but the two are different.
“In spiritual direction, a person might have an issue, a concern, they might be dealing with a relationship or trying to decide how to react to a situation,” Sister Marci said, “but the question in spiritual direction is always, ‘Where is God in all of this?’ That’s always the underlying question.”
Sister Marci said she often encounters individuals seeking spiritual direction during times of transition or grief or restlessness. “They’ll say something like, ‘I’m looking for something in life, but I don’t know what. I’m searching for meaning in life.’ They may not use our programmed theological words, but they are looking for the spiritual,” she said.
Both Sister Marci and Father Gross have received special training to be spiritual directors, the former through an ecumenical training program in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the latter at Creighton University and through the Institute of Priestly Formation’s Spiritual Direction training program hosted by Mundelein Seminary.
“My role is to help people go back to God with greater clarity than when they first came in for the session,” Father Gross said of the part he plays as a spiritual director. “It is to always help them to go back to God in their prayer. I am not the expert or the guru. I am merely a fellow Christian who listens to the movements of the Spirit … .”
Sister Marci emphasizes her need as a director to be a good listener. “In spiritual direction, people share their story with you, a story of their journey, a story of a situation. And so a spiritual director needs to be a listener — listening attentively to what they’re really saying and responding with questions that help them come to an insight or understanding or awareness.”
A session of spiritual direction usually lasts about an hour. How often those sessions take place depends on the individual circumstances — the average length between meetings is one month, but they can be as frequent as every two weeks or as infrequent as a couple times per year.
The practice of spiritual direction is not limited to Catholics, and other faith traditions utilize spiritual direction as well. Cheri Loveless, who is active in lay ministry in the Methodist tradition, is a trained spiritual director who also receives direction from Sister Marci.
As both a director and a directee, Loveless recognizes the significance of spiritual direction and its applicability to a wide variety of situations.
“Since God shows up in all places of our lives … whatever experiences we are having are relevant to God,” she said.
In order to grow in relationship to God, prayer is needed, which is why it is such an essential component of spiritual direction.
Sister Marci begins each of her sessions with prayer – calling on the Holy Spirit to guide the conversation — and closes with it as well. She often gives those she directs a Scripture passage to read and reflect on before their next meeting. She also introduces different spiritual practices, such as lectio divina or the examen, to help take prayer to a deeper level.
Father Gross also stresses the necessity of prayer. “Sunday Mass, daily Mass, regular devotion to the Bible or other devotions, regular confession are elements that prepare a person to go deeper into spiritual direction,” he said. “When a person enters spiritual direction there is the assumption that they have a regular and solid prayer life.”
Anyone interested in pursuing spiritual direction should consider whether they would be most comfortable meeting with a woman or man; a layperson, religious or priest, Sister Marci said.
If seeking a priest for spiritual direction, Father Gross recommends asking one with whom a person has felt a connection with through their preaching or a confessor who may have been particularly helpful to them.
“When it comes to lay people and religious brothers and sisters,” Father Gross said, “it is finding someone who prays and knows the spiritual tradition of the church. Preferably someone who has been trained is a good candidate, but ultimately it is a spiritual companion who helps you walk your journey with the Lord.”
Sister Marci said she feels privileged to have been that spiritual companion for the individuals she has directed over the last 13 years. “It’s an awesome feeling in the sense that someone’s life has been touched by God,” she said. “You get to see faith at work in their life.”
“Spiritual direction is where I have seen many miracles of God’s grace,” Father Gross added. “When I am in spiritual direction I am always reminded that God is invisibly in the hearts of his people, and I have a front row seat to seeing how God heals, loves and sustains his people!”
Spiritual direction resources in the archdiocese
DUBUQUE — For those interested in spiritual direction, the Archdiocesan Office of Adult Faith Formation recommends that someone begin by asking their pastor or pastoral minister for names of men or women in their area who may be willing to serve as a spiritual director or spiritual mentor but that one should not expect their pastor or pastoral minister to serve in that role as he or she may be too busy or may not feel adequately trained.
Spiritual direction is included as part of the IMPACT program, a two-year lay formation program offered by the Office of Adult Faith Formation that has been designed to lead participants further down the path of discipleship. Several retreat centers and religious communities in the archdiocese also offer spiritual direction.
- American Martyrs Retreat House (contact: Deacon Al Weber), Cedar Falls: http://americanmartyrsretreathouse.com/
- New Melleray Abbey, New Melleray: http://www.newmelleray.org/
- Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, Dubuque: http://www.mississippiabbey.org/
- Shalom Retreat Center, Dubuque: http://www.shalomretreats.org/spiritualdir.html
- Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dubuque: http://dubuquepresentations.org/prayer_spiritual.cfm
For more on spiritual direction, visit: www.dbqarch.org/offices/adult-faith/spiritual-direction-2/.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.