By Schlumpf, Heidi
U.S. Catholic , Vol. 64, No. 7
Trying to find God in all the wrong places? Using the stuff of your everyday life, spiritual directors can set you on the right path.
While strolling along the beach in Santa Cruz, California, Mary Francis Giammona stops to enjoy the cool breeze coming off the Pacific Ocean. For this 38-year-old administrator, the wind wafting through her hair is an experience of divine presence. "It reminds me that God can be very gentle or strong, depending on what you need in your life;" she says.
This insight did not occur to Giammona on her own. She came to it with the help of her spiritual director, who continually challenges her to see God in all aspects of her life--even walks on the beach. "In spiritual direction I share my experiences of God and I try to see patterns and threads of God's plan for my life--my entire life," she says.
Meeting monthly with a spiritual director creates a sacred space where she can articulate and listen for God's movement in her relationships, work, and prayer life. "A lot of people think God stopped talking with the Old Testament. I think God is speaking to us just as clearly today, but we don't always take the time to read the signs of the times," she says. "We just need to step back and look at it. Spiritual direction has helped me with that."
Giammona's experience is not unique. More and more Catholic laypeople are choosing to explore the deeper dimensions of their lives with the help of a trained spiritual director. The trend took off after the Second Vatican Council and has been further fueled by the explosion of interest in all things spiritual in the past decade or two.
While more Americans seem to tune into Oprah for spiritual guidance than grace the doors of their local parish, this age-old practice gives Catholics a place to explore their spiritual longings, pump up their prayer lives, and even deal with their frustrations with the institutional church. Most important, they learn to draw connections between the God they hear about on Sundays and their experiences in the boardroom or the family room during the week. If nothing else, it gives them an excuse to spend an hour a month in intense introspection.
The trend is tough to track, but many agree it is burgeoning. Spiritual Directors International, a 9-year-old ecumenical network of spiritual directors, lists more than 3,340 members worldwide. In the United States, some 300 training programs--the majority of them with Catholic connections--are preparing an increasing number of laypeople to serve as companions on the spiritual journey.
In fact, many spiritual directors prefer the term companion, insisting that they merely facilitate the process of direction through "holy listening."
"I'm not the director. God is," says Dominican Sister Rita Petrusa, who has been a spiritual companion for 10 years and directs the Institute of Spiritual Companionship, an ecumenical training program for spiritual directors in Chicago. "I'm here to help people find the direction from within."
Most spiritual companions see their role as assisting seekers to uncover and discover the direction of God in their lives. "The director's purpose is to walk with the person, illuminating the directee's journey of faith," says Deborah Keenan, a spiritual director in Hamburg, New York.
Other descriptions of spiritual direction frequently use metaphors such as "midwife," "coach," "mentor," or "spiritual friend."
"I see my role as a kind of fellow wanderer," says Dick Poole, a Lutheran minister and co-director of the spiritual direction training program at the Claret Center in Chicago. "As a spiritual companion, I'm a privileged listener who invites the person to listen and look more deeply."
Karen Williams, who sees a spiritual director at the Wellstreams Center of Feminine Spirituality in Chicago, describes the process as an opportunity to tell her own story. …