With the 2004 U.S. election results, the continuing threats to civil liberties, and the ongoing war in Iraq, many people are struggling daily with despair. At the same time, these feelings of hopelessness and grief are matched by an equally powerful desire for meaning and belonging, a hunger for spiritual guidance and connection to the Sacred, and a renewed commitment to tikkun olam, the healing and repair of the world.
Organized religion recognizes these desires for meaning and connection, but often we need a more direct, personal contact alongside or instead of an organized, communal setting. To explore such personal, spiritual, and political challenges, we now have a new resource in the Jewish community: the spiritual director.
Once a month I drive down to Palo Alto for a meeting with my spiritual director. We sit together, a lit candle on a small table between us, and I share with her some of the challenges, questions, and joys that have been present in my life over the past month. My director has a spiritual practice that is Quaker and Buddhist, and her comfort with silence has been a salve for my bereft Jewish, feminist heart. Each time we meet, together we find graced common ground in the presence of God.
Spiritual direction is an ongoing contemplative relationship in which a spiritual guide or director serves as witness and support for people exploring the Divine presence in their lives, discerning their spiritual path, and grappling with other related questions. Spiritual direction, also referred to as spiritual guidance or companioning, is a practice that originated in the Christian traditions. There have also been aspects of spiritual companioning in the Jewish tradition of chevruta (one-on-one) partnership.
Within the last ten to fifteen years, the practice of spiritual direction has attracted a number of Jews to its ranks. Programs like Mercy Center in Northern California and the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in the Washington, DC area, have expanded their ecumenical approach to invite and welcome more Jews. In 1997 the groundbreaking book Jewish Spiritual Guidance, by Carol Ochs and Kerry Olitsky, was published, and since then two new distance-learning Jewish spiritual direction training programs have emergedLev Shomea and Morei Derekh-and a national network of over one hundred Jewish spiritual directors is in formation.
Several years ago, I felt pulled toward becoming a spiritual director myself. I had thought about entering the rabbinate at various times in my life, but had been turned away first because I am a woman, then because I am in an intertaith relationship. I had turned to the secular practice of psychotherapy instead, but my work, while fulfilling, did not answer my call to spiritual healing. When I finally answered that call, I admit that I was angry with the tradition of my birth, which had exiled women, gays, lesbians, and the intermarried from its rabbinical ranks. I chose instead to study spiritual direction from within the Catholic tradition that had birthed it, and in a community of learners from a variety of faith traditions.
My first day of class at Mercy Center was September 13, 2001, two days after the tragic events of 9/11 in New York and Washington, D.C. During the weeks and months that followed, many of my psychotherapy clients and directees came to our sessions grieving and struggling with questions of faith and about the conservative political situation in this country. We prayed silently together and joined our kavannot (intentions) for healing the country and healing the planet. The Sisters of Mercy have a long tradition of liberation theology and progressive social change work; their devotion to peace and justice is unwavering (Mother Teresa, for example, was a Sister of Mercy). This ongoing attention to the work of peacemaking was a consistent thread throughout my entire three-year training.
In addition to my training at Mercy Center, I also wanted a place to learn and study spiritual direction with other Jews. …