By Lucretia B. Yaghjian
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
What threads do we follow to give life wholeness, significance, and continuity? For William Stafford the thread was poetry. For me it has been the desire to companion people on their spiritual journeys. The practice of spiritual companionship (or direction) is well established in the Roman Catholic tradition, with roots reaching back to the Desert Mothers and Fathers and Christian monasticism.
As we took a walk around Walden Pond, a childhood friend asked me what I’ve been doing since I retired. I found myself replying, “I’ve just completed a Spiritual Direction Training Program and I’m offering spiritual direction part-time at my parish.” She said, “I’m not sure what that is, but you might be interested in looking at an online magazine called WINN that publishes articles exploring different spiritual perspectives.”
I began following WINN, and after Celia invited me to write about my understanding of what “spirituality” is, I decided that I wanted to describe the practice of spiritual direction. I began by asking myself,
(1) What is “spirituality” in the context of our diverse and pluralistic culture?
(2) What is “spiritual direction” and how does it flow from an understanding of spirituality?
(3) What drew me to this vocation after thirty-five years as a writing professor and theological educator?
Because I believe that spirituality and the practices flowing from it are personal and experiential at their source, I’ll begin with the third question. For me the thread of spiritual companionship is grounded in the mystery of God found in ordinary life, and the desire to be present to that mystery as we each experience it. One way it unfolds is in relationships with other people who are also following their own thread that grounds them and provides a sense of direction and continuity amidst the vicissitudes of life.
For me the word for this openness to the mystery of God inherent in ordinary life is “spirituality.” It points to the element in which, to paraphrase St. Paul, all of us live and move and have our being (Acts 17:25). Tilden Edwards – of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington D.C. – defines spirituality as,
“…the most subtle dimension of our awareness, where we sense ourselves belonging beyond our ego image to a larger, more valuable horizon of reality that impinges on all we are and do. We cannot “grasp” this horizon. It is always beyond any scientific instrument or description. Yet many people throughout history claim to “know” this reality more assuredly than any other.” *
Edwards sees spirituality as a universal phenomenon in every religious tradition and as an individual, personal reality with concrete expressions within and outside those traditions that invite each of us into our own way of understanding.
For me, that understanding is the Christian tradition that identifies “spirituality” with the Hebrew ruach (breath) and the Greek pneuma (spirit). Theologian Jack Levison explains,
“The original Hebrew and Greek words for ‘spirit’ were used to convey concepts as diverse as a breath, a breeze, a powerful gale, an angel, a demon, the heart and soul of a human being, and the divine presence itself.” **
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit is the divine indwelling in creation and in each of us. As God promises Ezekiel, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” (Ezekiel 37:9-14) In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit broods over the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 1: 31-35); empowers Jesus’ ministry (Luke 4:14); enables him to endure the crucifixion (Hebrews 9:14); is promised to the disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24: 44-49); gives birth to the Christian church with an outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2: 1-42); and chooses finite but God-formed human beings to be “temples of the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 6:19).
If human beings are bearers of the divine Spirit, it follows that human relationships are charged with a spiritual dimension. We are all spiritual companions at times to friends, family, and sometimes to total strangers. Spiritual directors are trained spiritual companions, helping the directee to discern the movement of God—the Divine Transcendent Mystery—in their life. Theologian Catherine LaCugna writes,
“The very nature of God is to seek out the deepest possible communion and friendship with every last creature on this earth.” ***
This prototype of God befriending humankind provides the blueprint for the spiritual direction relationship that is grounded in contemplative practice and includes deep and attentive listening, respect for the spiritual autonomy of and ethical accountability to those companioned, deference to the Holy Spirit as the ultimate director that inspires, ministers quietly between the words and silences, and invites participants to trust the process, however revelatory or mundane it might seem.
While historically spiritual directors were either vowed men and women in monasteries and convents or ordained clergy in religious orders like the Jesuits and the Franciscans, now lay people like me are included. Among the directees I see each month are two young mothers seeking spiritual lives of their own between the demands of family, work, and community life; a widowed retiree seeking to continue her faith journey while being present to children and grandchildren and responding to the challenges of aging; a church choral director discerning the next step in her professional career; a retired business consultant exploring spiritual direction from a Jewish perspective; and a woman who combines a traditional faith with the psychic gifts of her spirituality. While their reasons for entering into spiritual direction are particular to their own situations, they share being open to the Mystery that they name God, and a desire to follow the thread of that Mystery.
My directees and I trust in what Teilhard de Chardin has called,
“the slow work of God … believing that God’s hand is leading [us], and [accepting] the anxiety of feeling [ourselves] in suspense and incomplete” **** as we continue to pick up the thread of our conversation wherever we left it when we last met, and we wait for God to complete the circle.
How can spiritual direction meet our needs in these times? For me the answers include that,
(1) it invites us to acknowledge and affirm the spiritual element in which we “live, move, and have our being,” and to tap into a transcendent reality beyond ourselves and our narrow, ego- driven preoccupations.
(2) it calls us to engage with our own lives and experiences of that more all-encompassing reality out of the conviction that wisdom and discernment about the world and our place in it will arise.
(3) it proceeds from the holy ground of God’s friendship with humankind and the interpersonal relationships rooted in that befriending.
(4) it cultivates mindfulness and contemplation in the midst of a world characterized by fear, hatred of the other, violence arising from that fear and hatred, self-aggrandizement rather than altruism, cold-heartedness rather than compassion, and a breakdown of a shared sense of our common humanity on all fronts.
(5) it invites its practitioners not to evade these realities but to see them through a lens that enables us to watch, pray, and act in response as the Spirit moves us, with our gifts and abilities to empower us, and as our consciences compel us.
Spiritual direction is a practice of following the thread of our spirituality as it unfolds in ordinary life. As William Stafford wrote and I recapitulate, we “… don’t ever let go of the thread.”
* * * * *
THE WAY IT IS: New and Selected Poems by William Stafford, Greywolf Press, 1998
* SPIRITUAL FRIEND: Reclaiming The Gift of Spiritual Direction by Tilden H. Edwards, Paulist Press, 1980
** FRESH AIR by Jack Levison, Paraclete Press, 2012
*** GOD FOR US: The Trinity and Christian Life by Catherine Mowry LaCugna, Harper/SanFrancisco, 1993
**** “Prayer of Teilhard de Chardin” accessed from http://www.Ignatianspirituality.com/8078/prayer-of-teilhard-de-chardin.
Lucretia B. Yaghjian, PH.D.,is a graduate of the Franciscan Spiritual Direction Program of St. Anthony Shrine, Boston, MA, and joined the FSDP Leadership Team in 2018. She trained in spiritual direction at Weston Jesuit School of Theology and earned a Master of Divinity degree. She taught theological writing for 25 years at Weston Jesuit, Boston College, and Episcopal Divinity School, and serves presently on the adjunct faculty of Bexley-Seabury Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL. She is the author of WRITING THEOLOGY WELL: A Rhetoric for Theological and Biblical Writers, 2nd edition, Bloomsbury/T.T.Clark, 2015).
The image that accompanies this post is of Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Fatima, a church in Lima, Peru and the photographer is David S. Lewis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org