Spiritual direction: is it right for you?

By Kathy Berken

When I decided to move on from The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton in 2008, I was on sabbatical at a small retreat farm in northeast Wisconsin, living in a remodeled silo, with llamas and chickens hanging out in the barn across the yard. “The Bridge-Between Retreat Center” is now closed, but then was run by a spiritual director unlike any I had ever met. Dominican Sister Caroline Sullivan wore overalls, got her hands dirty in the organic garden, loved and cared for the animals and spent hours in the kitchen creating healthy and tasty meals.

My vocation to this ministry came the moment Sr. Caroline told the woman who had come for lunch and spiritual direction, “I’m just cleaning up here. I’ll meet you in the barn in 10 minutes.” When I realized that spiritual direction did not have to involve incense, choirs of angels or church-like spaces, I thought, “I could do that!” They were going to sit on bales of hay and talk about life. The lamas and chickens were within earshot, but they likely also promised to maintain strict confidentiality for this sacred hour.

Sr. Caroline and I later had meaningful conversations about spiritual direction in the living room of the farmhouse, after which I applied to St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., where I also had the great fortune to live with the retired Sisters of St. Joseph across campus while I attended classes.

After three years of theology and spiritual direction courses and two more years of practicum, I knew that this was the right move for me. I discovered that not all spiritual directors flaunt their halos. Some wear overalls, plant and harvest vegetables, and shovel manure.

Spiritual direction is a sacred time for both director and “directee.” We believe that the Holy Spirit is really the one directing both of us; we are not doing any of this by ourselves.

The process is simple, but not always easy. A typical one-hour session might start with lighting a candle, or a written or spontaneous prayer or as much quiet time as the person needs, and then time to share their stories.

I have yet to meet anyone who has it all figured out. I tell people to just tell me what is most pressing in their lives. They may describe their image of God; relationships with family, friends and co-workers; or raw feelings about church, religion, prayer and the hurdles to finding and experiencing God’s presence.

I listen as best as I can with my heart and mind to their stories, body language and feelings. I honor honesty and authenticity. I ask what they most want out of life, who God is to them, how they feel about any of this and what images or metaphors they might have around those feelings. Nothing is off the table as I welcome their truth and thank them for their trust. I usually end with a spontaneous prayer or something they may have brought. My hope is to have them know that they are being heard, their feelings are validated and that they are not on the journey alone.

If you have ever considered having a spiritual director to help you through your spiritual life, I encourage you to check out the possibilities in your area. Contact a local retreat center for referrals or a school that has a spiritual direction program. Or check out the Spiritual Directors International website: https://www.sdiworld.org/ (“Seek and Find Guide” tab).

Most sessions are monthly and last one hour. Sometimes a spiritual director will charge less for the introductory session and most have a sliding scale for their fee. And do not be afraid to ask the director about their training or style. It’s important to be compatible and totally trust the person who will be your spiritual companion on your life’s journey.

(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minn. She previously lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark.”)

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