Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction

Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction

by Susan S. Phillips

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819223913
Publisher: Church Publishing Inc.
Publication date: 03/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 587,149
File size: 692 KB

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Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2008 Susan S. Phillips
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2391-3



Shall We Dance?

The beginning of a spiritual direction relationship may be initiated by a phone call, correspondence, recommendations, or even some personal familiarity. Occasionally a former student of mine will come to me for direction. Some inquirers have read something I've written and seek me out. Sometimes someone I don't know who is part of my church community will be interested. Others simply get my name from a minister, psychotherapist, physician, or an organization that maintains a referral list of spiritual directors. Each new contact is a surprise, introducing me to a person who wants to grow in faith, seriously examine spiritual experience and belief, and, ultimately, become more alive. Even when there is no follow-up to an initial brief phone call, I am left with the delight of having encountered a person who is reaching beyond weariness, busyness, indifference, and trepidation in order to seek holy mystery. Several people I have listened to for only one hour, yet something in their story or perspective persists in my memory, shedding light on my own path in life.

Many years ago when I was training to be a spiritual director at Mercy Center, a Roman Catholic convent and retreat center south of San Francisco, there were practice requirements throughout the three years. At some point my classmates and I were told we needed to meet with directees. We were encouraged to let people know we were available free of charge while we were interns. I mentioned this to a few people. The deadline for having a directee approached, and I had no one asking to meet with me. My life was full with family and work, and I hadn't strategically worked toward this goal. No doubt cold feet were as much the problem as were full hands.

I had no idea if I had much to offer. Even if I could identify what I had to offer, the relationship felt too sacred to subject to marketing analysis and promotion. My spiritual direction professors had said that although spiritual direction is an art that can be learned, taught, and cultivated, it is also a charism, a gift from God. I sincerely hoped I had received the gift and that, God willing, the gift would be recognized by people who could benefit from meeting with me. My teacher Mary Ann Scofield asked, "Have you prayed about it?" Not much. But starting then I did, tentatively imagining that people might be ushered into my office by the hand of God.

First Encounters

To my surprise, that was what appeared to happen and has continued to happen. My first spiritual direction relationship, however, was short-lived and disappointing. The potential directee came from outside my religious tradition and with expectations I couldn't meet. She had been reading a series of captivating novels by Susan Howatch in which spiritual directors play significant roles. The focus of those novels is an Anglican cathedral town in England. The characters are, on the whole, complicated, educated, articulate people of faith. A number of them seek counsel from spiritual directors, who seem nearly omniscient. Like Yoda in Star Wars, they reveal deep knowledge of directees' innermost souls and exude complete confidence in their own powers to discern and proclaim. They confront, cleanse, and heal, often in short order, though they are also depicted as wholly human, engaging in their own faith struggles. In one of these novels, a spiritual director, Father Darrow, says to a directee he has met the previous day, "[God] has come to your rescue at last, and here in this village, here in this house, here in this room where you've hit rock-bottom, here's where your new life finally begins." This fictional spiritual director with such brief acquaintance with his directee has more precise knowledge of God's action in a directee's life than I ordinarily possess, which has been frustrating at times, not only to me.

This first, Howatch-loving directee told me some things about her life and then asked me to tell her what really was going on in her life spiritually. I told her I would be happy to keep listening and tell her what I noticed, but that I did not have access to any knowledge about her other than what she chose to disclose. She was disappointed. It was clear I was no Yoda privileged with secret knowledge. I did not have a soothsayer's insight. Worse, I was not even a good host, being acutely self-conscious and ill at ease throughout the entire hour we spent together. The candle flamed as I sputtered.

As time has passed, I have come to know better what I do have to offer and am able to offer it confidently. People come with various expectations, and I do my best to welcome them, even if I cannot fulfill their stated expectations. Fears have ebbed while my trust in God's grace has increased. I myself am less and less on my mind when I meet with someone for spiritual direction. My job is to be host to a time of reflection focused on the other person's experience of the holy. I do not create the experience, nor do I have to understand it. I help the other person move more deeply into it, noticing what I can as we go, and trying to keep us on course toward the sense of God. From time to time I do sense the Spirit's movement when the other doesn't seem aware of it. If the awareness persists, I mention it to the directee as my experience and of possible value to him or her.

In early sessions, I want to learn that person's spiritual make-up: What is his language of spiritual experience? What kind of religious culture is she part of or coming from? How have they experienced the holy? I listen for that. Often people who come to see me are ready to talk about their experiences with organized religions, positive and negative, or about their tenets of faith. That interests me. But I am most interested in what has opened a heart, stirred the sense of hope and joy, immersed the other in a broad stream of peace, and inspired care in such a way that joy, grief, and action are possibilities.

God created us as human beings. I listen for the depths of humanity, believing that in those storied, embodied, sensate, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual depths lies the presence of God. An encounter with God is not achieved by stripping us of our human nature, but rather by entering into it honestly, as Jesus did. As a new relationship begins, I listen for the ways God encounters the real person and how the person prays from the depths of his or her heart.

Hearts' Desires

Seeking spiritual direction is an act of courage and hope. The people who climb the three flights of stairs to my office for the first time have felt sufficient desire to know God better that they have come. Like the word "heart," "desire" is a word that most academic education has not addressed, yet it is core to the work of spiritual direction. Desire is a state of being in which we encounter the other. It is an opening out of oneself, a posture of reception and vulnerability.

In the soul work of spiritual direction, we strive to discern the desires of hearts and the conforming of those desires to God's desire. Desire includes both orientation and leaning toward. We may desire success or wealth or integrity. Desire itself is the opening outward, like the baby's mouth straining toward the mother's breast. There is an infinite range of objects of desire, and Scripture enumerates many of our hearts' unhealthy desires. The first mention in Scripture of the heart's inclinations describes a dissonance between human hearts and the heart of God: God sees that "every inclination of the thoughts of their [our] hearts was only evil continually ... and it grieved him to his heart." The General Confession of the Book of Common Prayer reads, "We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts." We often fail to attune our hearts to God's heart.

Much of Scripture and Christian theology is aimed at encouraging us to train our desires toward God. Theologian Belden Lane in writing about John Calvin notes that "spirituality, in Calvin's thinking, is a performance of desire shared by the whole universe, a deliberate practice of delight that echoes through every part of the created world.... All created reality, extending each moment from the hand of God, is shot through with longing." In a first session with a person, I listen for that desire, that longing.

Many who write about our relationship with God—the focus of spiritual direction—mention hearts and desires. There we find images taken from music: attunement, harmony, resonance, amplification, reverberation, and more. The image that comes to my mind in spiritual direction is often that of dancing to music.

Many years ago I danced with my husband's uncle at an anniversary celebration. He was such a fine dancer that with him I became a good dancer. He led firmly and minimally, and I did all kinds of things I didn't know I was capable of. For the first time I experienced the music flowing through me as I danced. My attention wasn't anxiously fixed on my own movements, nor was I particularly attending to the man. The memory lives in me as a revelation of how my body can dance music. Now I know that such a capacity is in me, though I seldom experience it. At the end of that time of dancing, I was hungry for more. It evoked a desire in me to experience music with my whole self.

Fragility and impermanence lend intensity to the pleasure of pursuing desire. The dance came to an end. Jesus' parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son illustrate the pleasure that comes from desire fulfilled, a pleasure far greater than continual possession would have brought. The fragility and impermanence of mortality lend force to its preciousness.

Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas writes that "the relation to the Infinite is not a knowledge, but a Desire.... Desire itself cannot be satisfied.... Desire in some way nourishes itself in its own hungers and is augmented by its satisfaction." Desire feeds desire. In dancing with that man my desire to dance was magnified rather than satisfied. As Levinas claims, that is true of relating to God, a situation of reciprocal desire. Stated in another way, Ann and Barry Ulanov write that "the answer to prayer is prayer—more prayer, fuller conversation, more listening, more straining to hear, more reflection on what is actually heard, on what has really happened."

A spiritual director is like the man who helped me dance: a firm, gentle professional, familiar with tempo, patterns, variations, and steps. Spiritual directors know what it is like to learn to "dance." They have lots of experience "dancing" and know that there is no end to growing in the practice. Sometimes our partners, directees, hear more in the music than we do and move into steps we had never imagined. Sometimes we, the spiritual directors, are the ones who suggest steps.

When a person arrives in my office for the first time, I recognize the desire that has brought him or her to me, the perhaps not mentioned but inevitably present fears that surround that desire. It is more difficult in our culture to speak of prayer than it is to speak of sex. The Ulanovs write that "prayer is exposure." To pray is to expose oneself to the One prayed to as well as to what is deepest within oneself. Reading the Psalms, the Bible's prayer book, shows that prayer opens the one praying to every variation of human feeling and experience. Ordinarily, we exert ourselves to contain powerful feelings, especially those that express unmet longing, as the feelings of prayer often do. How much easier it is to turn from those irresolvable feelings to a problem within our control. Yet in prayer we allow our whole selves to be held by something larger than we are, just as the music holds and flows through the dancer. That something will change us, placing our feet in unexpected places.

As I await the knock on the door, I turn to God and pray to be a trustworthy partner in the dance of prayer.


Held in the Current: Grant

His name is Grant," Pastor John informed me, standing in his church's large parking lot. "He has a lot of questions about faith, and I thought you two might work well together."

That was this pastor's first "referral" to me, and I remember thinking, "John must be warming up to spiritual direction." I expressed my gratitude and gave John the private voicemail number people use to contact me about spiritual direction.

Days later, Grant called and left a message. He sounded quiet and formal. I returned the call to his office, and we set up an appointment to talk about what spiritual direction is, what he was looking for, and what I could offer. I often offer an initial one-time, no-fee, no-commitment hour of conversation. Some people never call back after that first hour together. Some ask for names and numbers of other spiritual directors or psychotherapists, and sometimes I think a person would be better off working with someone else, and I say so. Some want to see me again. Grant did.

Grant arrived in a gray suit that complemented his steel gray hair, looking every bit the corporate executive he is. He carefully folded his jacket, turned off his cell phone, and put them and his briefcase on my worn conference table, an action he repeats every time he visits.

He told me about his spiritual life: a long journey of faithful church attendance, Bible study, and prayer. He mentioned his desire for a more heartfelt experience of faith. Like many, he was experiencing his religious life as stale and rote. He went through the motions, but felt no emotion. He had hoped that theological study would amplify his spiritual experience, but it had not. He knew a lot about who theologians think God is, but that wasn't helping him know God. In fact, it was scaring him a bit. God's holiness seemed pretty incompatible with his own flawed humanity. The sense of God's holy otherness had become an impediment to prayer.

Grant had questions. Lots of questions. Questions about the Trinity, about the way Jesus' death and resurrection affected his own redemption, about the Person of the Holy Spirit and what Scripture meant in claiming that that Spirit lives in us. He had questions about Christian community, and what it means to grow in faith together. So much of the faith journey seemed solitary and unspoken. How could he even begin to talk with others about his intractable experience of spiritual alienation despite his steady striving in the faith?

I listened to him. Then he listened to me describe spiritual direction as I practice it. Having done all his speaking with eyes lowered, in listening he turned his gaze toward me. I spoke about my willingness to listen to him with an ear toward God in his life. I told him about my belief that God is present in all aspects of our lives, and about the way that belief helps me attune to hints of God in the world.

I also explained how spiritual direction is different from other listening professions. Spiritual direction is not psychotherapy, though it can look like it. I am not looking for pathology, diagnosing, or treating it, nor am I attempting to assist someone in problem-solving. All those activities are worthwhile, but are not ones I am trained in or am licensed to practice. I am very much in favor of psychotherapy when needed, have benefited from it myself, and know that some psychotherapists listen to their clients with spiritual attunement. A number of the people I work with are working concurrently with psychotherapists and tell me they find the two practices complementary. Those of my directees who are psychotherapists speak often about the differences in the two practices and make the distinction increasingly clear to me.

I told Grant about my experience with my spiritual director at the time. Knowing that I was going to talk with Sister Barbara kept me alert to what was going on with me spiritually. Her engagement with my life and her care for my spiritual health generated in me a kind of accountability. When I was with her, she helped me notice things I hadn't noticed on my own. Sometimes she challenged ways I was thinking about God and my experience. Even more than the time in her presence, though, I valued the time between our conversations for her work with me radiated far beyond the time we spent together. When I would have an experience of what I think of as grace, instead of just rushing past it into my to-do list for the day, I would pause and think, "Yes. This is grace. I'll remember to tell Sister Barbara."

Grant listened to what I said, nodding from time to time. His eyes drew me. At first glance they matched his suit and hair, another gray surface communicating reserve as he glanced up from his hands to my face. As he listened to me, I began to see his intense, shy longing for God. When I spoke of my faith in God's presence, I saw a flash of hope. When I told of my experiences with my spiritual director, I saw keen interest.

Shifting from my own story to the subject of our possible work together, I said, "All stories are appropriate for spiritual direction. Let me illustrate how I would orient myself as a spiritual director, in contrast to how many psychotherapists would work. For instance, you might say the following to me: 'One night when I was about ten, my mother yelled at me and I went to bed crying. Lying there in the dark I sensed a comforting presence that held me. I didn't see or hear or feel anything concrete, but I knew I was loved. That feeling was gone the next day when I encountered my mother's anger again.'

"If you told me that story, my first movement would be toward the feeling of being loved, not toward the turbulent relationship with your mother. Both parts of the story are important, and both hold spiritual significance, but my first move would be toward the comforting presence, helping you remember that experience, and holding you in it as much as possible. The experience of that comforting presence then will be there, remembered and real, as we turn to other subjects, including, perhaps, that of your mother's anger."

What looked like pain seared his face, as he dropped his head. I hoped I would get to work with him.

Excerpted from Candlelight by SUSAN S. PHILLIPS. Copyright © 2008 by Susan S. Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents




Introduction: Understanding and Seeing Spiritual Direction          


1. Shall We Dance?          

2. Held in the Current: Grant          

3. Remembering the Pasture: Leah          

4. A Face in the Mirror: David          

5. Forgetting to Ask "Why?": Melissa          

6. Straining to Listen: Charles          

7. Fully Alive: Jim          

8. God's Embrace: Carl          

9. Crossing the Road: John          

10. "Is This a Little Strange for You, Sweetie?": Ruth          


11. Encountering Suffering and Love          

12. Commissioned: Leah          

13. Stepping Stones: Carl          

14. Bearing Witness to What Faith Allows: Ruth          

15. Rainbows—Welcome and Unwelcome: Grant          

16. Open Hands: Charles          

17. The God You Believe In: Jim          

18. Praying over Jerusalem: John          

19. The Tree That You Are: Melissa          

20. "It's Not about Me": David          


21. Planted by the Waters          

22. "To Whom Shall I Go?": Grant          

23. Deep Struggle, Deep Calling: Jim          

24. The Greatest of These Is Love: John          

25. Afloat in a Coracle: David          

26. A Broader Gift: Leah          

27. Releasing the Parking Brake: Charles          

28. The Spirit's Dwelling Place: Ruth          

29. Fruit in Lent: Carl          

30. "But I Trusted in Your Steadfast Love": Melissa          

Conclusion: God's Holy Habitation          

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