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SUPERVISION of Spiritual Directors
Engaging in Holy Mystery
By Mary Rose Bumpus, Rebecca Bradburn Langer
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2005Mary Rose Bumpus and Rebecca Bradburn Langer
All rights reserved.
Supervision: The Assistance of an Absent Other
Mary Rose Bumpus
I began doing spiritual direction when I was thirty years of age. At that age, I was too young and too foolish to be a director. But someone asked me to be his spiritual director (a "sure" sign I was called to this ministry), so I said yes. My first directee was a young man who was a student at a nearby university divinity school and a bright seeker. His first words to me were "I don't believe Jesus is the Son of God." I was stunned by the boldness of his statement, didn't have a clue about how to respond, and was silent in the face of it I was grateful to have a good supervisor, who said to me, "So ask the young man how he does see Jesus in relation to God, what it is like for him to see Jesus in this way, and what his images of God are." I was grateful for the direct invitation and insight about what might be helpful. As a result, the young man and I began to develop more meaningful conversations about his life in God.
My second directee was an eighty-year-old woman. She rarely spoke of her "experience of God" or said anything about her inner life. I regularly invited her into this kind of conversation, but she just did not respond much. I was puzzled about how we could be engaged in the art of spiritual direction. One thing was dear to me: The woman was lonely. One day we discovered we had something in common—a love for music and joy when playing the piano and singing. We then embarked upon a very different mode of spiritual direction: Playing, singing, laughing, and rejoicing together became the rhythm of our sessions. We did not speak much of the inner life or of God. For a while, I wondered if what we were doing together could properly be called spiritual direction. Yet I believe we grew in our capacity to be present to one another, and to life as a result of our encounter. My supervisor strongly encouraged my way of being with this woman. She said that both of us had our Godward gaze expanded, even if we weren't speaking directly about it.
While I was seeing this woman and young man for spiritual direction, I was also studying the art of spiritual direction. There were ten of us—priests and sisters of a southern Catholic diocese. As part of our study, each member of the group served as spiritual director for another while the instructor and the rest of the group members observed and learned. When it was my turn, I was invited to act as a spiritual director for Sister John Mary, a Roman Catholic sister who was twenty years my senior. I was new, nervous about doing spiritual direction in front of the whole group, and I felt privileged to be the recipient of part of John Mary's story. Our time began in an ordinary conversational way, and we spoke together of things that were meaningful to John Mary. About twenty minutes into the conversation, John Mary said, "You know, I just don't trust God." It was a sacred and poignant moment—a moment of profound revelation. I was silent. We were all silent for a time.
John Mary did not speak further, and I found myself surprised, confused, and with no sense of how to respond. Finally I spoke to John Mary and the group as a whole, acknowledging my inability to respond and my need for assistance. The group' facilitator asked if anyone in the group had a suggestion. The only suggestion forthcoming was that I try to pray with John Mary. Intuitively I knew there was something "not right" about this. But for lack of anything better to do or say, I did pray aloud for and with John Mary. As gracious and appreciative as she was at the end of this time of prayer, it was very clear to both of us that we were stuck.
Looking back on this twenty-five-year-old experience, a memory that has saddened me and aided in my reflection on spiritual direction and supervision, I know there are several kinds of responses I might have made and would make today. I might ask John Mary if there is some person in her life she trusts. If so, what does this trust look like? I might speak with her about the humanness of our moments of lack of trust in God. I might ask John Mary about how she would like to be in relationship with God. I might note her courage and ability to speak the truth in the group setting. A number of things come to mind. In the moment, the person of John Mary, our common humanity, and the presence of the Holy Spirit would guide my particular response.
In essence, I brought this experience to supervision by turning to the group for assistance, to no avail. I also could have taken this experience to an individual supervisor. The prevailing wisdom about supervision, then and now, suggests that the supervision conversation would be centered around my interior responses to the directee. Why was I surprised and confused by John Mary's assertion of her lack of trust in God? This conversation might have been a fruitful and beneficial one for me. But I suspect it would not have answered the fundamental question: How can I best be of service to Join Mary in her journey with God?
Supervision: The Assistance of an Absent Other
Supervision is a conversation between peers that ultimately fosters the well- being of an absent other. This notion of supervision puts the emphasis on the well-being of the directee, the one who is absent from the supervision conversation. It focuses most specifically on his or her spiritual well- being, though not to the exclusion of the physical or psychological realms of human reality; these cannot be completely separated from the spiritual. It also focuses on the relationship between tie director and tie directee, as this relationship directly affects the goals and well-being of the directee and is the place of encounter with the Holy Spirit in the direction session itself. By asserting that the primary function of supervision is to foster the spiritual well-being of an absent other—the directee—I am not suggesting that this is the only way for us to think about supervision. But I am suggesting that we need to question and to enter into further conversation about models that are primarily focused on the inner life of the director as the substance of the supervision conversation.
I am putting forward another way of thinking about supervision, a way that does not focus so much on the inner life of the director. A director may speak with her own spiritual director or a therapist about this. Focusing on the inner world of the director leads one to think that stuck places between director and directee can usually be resolved by the inner work of one party or the other. This is often not the case and underemphasizes the highly social context of much of our spiritual journey. Models used to focus on the inner life of directors in supervision have been drawn largely from psychoanalytically based and self-help literature. In the hands of highly trained and competent psychoanalysts, psychoanalysis can be a significant source of human growth and transformation. Those of us not so highly trained in this arena tend to understand and employ psychoanalytically based concepts in their current cultural usage. This means they are employed in ways that are generally negative, and in ways that can be harmful to the representation of the director or the directee. I have done this myself. The following fictitious account of a discussion between two supervisor's is a blatant, though not far-fetched, example.
Supervisor 1: "One of the men I supervise came in today because he is having a very difficult time with someone he sees for direction. Sue [the directee] comes into her session with Tom [the director] and bolts out of the gate with lots of talk, moving rapidly from one topic to the next, Tom feels overwhelmed and c
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