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Personal Spiritual Directors Help Point the Way

Trends: More laypeople, looking for a deeper meaning, are turning to trained practitioners of 'holy listening.'


RALEIGH, N.C. — In the last two years, Scott Bass and Roberta Mothershead moved from a spacious four-bedroom home in an affluent neighborhood to a modest two-bedroom house near a new public housing project. They've gone to Haiti twice a year to deliver school supplies and clothes to poor children. And they work fewer hours so they can devote more time to prayer and meditation.

Bass and Mothershead talked and prayed about these changes. They also went to see a spiritual director--an increasingly popular move among people seeking to better understand their faith.

"It was becoming increasingly clear that there was something we were missing," said Bass, 40, of Raleigh, a lifelong Baptist who works as a marriage and family therapist. "We were both looking to pursue things spiritual. We needed to get clear on that."

Across the country, the practice of searching for God through the guidance of a trained director is seeing a renaissance.

Once limited to monks, nuns and priests, the practice is spreading among Protestants, both clergy and laypeople, who find it a useful tool for delving deeper into their faith.

In the United States, thousands of spiritual directors are being trained each year in more than 200 spiritual formation centers, according to Spiritual Directors International.

At divinity schools across the country, including those at Duke and Wake Forest universities, it's now recommended that students seek out a director.

Likewise, many Protestant clergy members say having a personal spiritual director is so helpful to their own ministry that they consider it a job requirement.

More significant, perhaps, the practice is spreading among laypeople, both Christian and to a smaller extent Jewish, eager to locate God in their lives and willing to pay $85 to $100 once a month for an hourlong session. (Most directors will not refuse people unable to pay and have a sliding scale for those of modest income.)

"As churches grow in membership, people realize they can't look to the church for everything," said Rose Mary Dougherty, a Roman Catholic nun and program director at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Md.

"There are times in their lives when they need a personal companion to help them pay attention to the deep inner direction of the Holy Spirit."

For Bass and Mothershead, the work of spiritual direction was dramatic.

Guided by images of Abraham being called by God to go "to the land I will show you," the couple said they set aside their expectations that life is a quest for more money, more status, more possessions.

"We more and more see Christianity as being countercultural," Bass said. "The most important thing isn't the income, but serving people."

Their growing spiritual awareness came about through the work of their director, whose main job was to listen and occasionally ask a question.

The couple insist the changes they made were their own.

To many Christians, Jesus was the first spiritual director. Shortly after his resurrection, Jesus walked alongside two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

As they approached their destination, the disciples pleaded with Jesus:

"'Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.' So he went in to stay with them," according to Luke 24:29.

Spiritual directors say that is what they do: Stay with people.

The practice of "holy listening" was honed by such great spiritual masters as St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and, in the 16th century, St. Ignatius of Loyola, who developed a series of spiritual exercises to help people open up to the mystery of God.

Catholics have practiced spiritual direction for years as a way of helping people in religious orders clarify their vows.

Now non-Catholics and church members are seeing it as a tool to sharpen their personal vows.

In contrast to psychotherapy or pastoral counseling, which is aimed at solving a problem or correcting behavior, spiritual direction assumes a person is already whole but may need help paying attention to what is most meaningful or godlike in his or her life.

Many say the word "director" is misleading; it harks back to the days when the church could tell people how to live. Many directors prefer to describe themselves as companions or friends. Some women find the image of the midwife useful.

Dougherty, the Catholic nun who teaches spiritual direction, likes to use an African proverb to explain the relationship: "The reason two antelopes walk together is so one can blow the dust from the other's eyes."

Directors say people come to them for a variety of reasons. Some come to shore up their faith. Others are stuck with a child's understanding of faith and want a more mature perspective.

And increasingly, some people need help letting go of distractions and finding time for silence and deep contemplation.

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