Spiritual Direction: An Interview with Barbara Troxell

The Christian Century, April 22, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Spiritual Direction: An Interview with Barbara Troxell


Barbara Troxell wears several hats at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. She is a United Methodist clergywoman who is director of field education and coordinator of spiritual formation at the United Methodist seminary and teaches classes in prayer, spiritual direction and United Methodist studies. We spoke with her about the growing interest in spiritual direction and about the practice Of spiritual directors.

How would you define spiritual direction and the role of a spiritual director?

It's a one-to-one relationship with someone who will be attentive to our journey with God. In Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction Margaret Guenther talks about just listening attentively to others' stories. She and other writers on spiritual direction stress the image of the midwife. Spiritual direction is a process of bringing souls to continuing birth. A good director challenges or questions one at times. The director is a kind of facilitator, but always with the understanding that the primary guide is the Spirit of God. The director is not trying to direct the other person or make decisions for her or give advice and solve her problems.

A spiritual director tries to interact with the person from a deep, intuitive level. It's a contemplative mode of relating. The director takes time for silence, if that is needed, and avoids getting caught up in busyness or the impulse to try to fix things. She tries to attend to the Spirit, to discern what needs to be said at a certain time and what need not be said. It's a sort of inner dialogue with the Spirit of God at the same time that one is in dialogue with another human being.

How does a spiritual director differ from a therapist?

In therapy people deal a lot more with issues from the past. Certainly some of that comes up in spiritual direction, but the focus is much more on one's present life with God than on analyzing issues in one's past. When a person discusses a problem with her spiritual director, the director will often ask, "How have you prayed about this?" or "How does this link with your relationship with God?" or "Is there any biblical text that strikes you as having something to do with what you're experiencing?"

Also, the kind of transference that often occurs between a therapist and client--people using the therapist as a stand--in for those with whom they have serious issues-doesn't happen in spiritual direction. In spiritual direction God is the primary director. The human director is attentive to God and tries to act as a vehicle for God for the other person.

And whereas a therapist might meet with a person once a week or even more often, a spiritual director usually meets with a person only once a month.

How did you first become involved with spiritual direction?

Though I had read a number of things about spiritual direction, I didn't become involved in it until 1980, when I was a United Methodist district superintendent in the California-Nevada Conference. Superintendents don't really have pastors, and I began to feel the need for one. I knew of people who were doing spiritual direction and called one of them. The woman I contacted was younger than I but had had significant training. After our first meeting and some individual prayer, we decided that we were a good fit, and we began to meet regularly.

It was important for me that she was in a different denomination. Because I was only the third woman district superintendent in the United Methodist Church, I was the focus of a lot of attention. That, and the overlapping of roles, would have made it difficult to establish a spiritual-direction relationship with a fellow United Methodist. We met about once a month during the years I lived in California.

Now my spiritual director is a sister of the Cenacle. The sisters run a Catholic retreat center in Chicago, where we meet once a month.

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