By Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI
“To receive spiritual direction is to recognize that God does not solve our problems or answer all our questions, but leads us closer to the mystery of our existence where all questions cease.”
– Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Direction
Spiritual direction is a unique way to grow in faith. The need for spiritual guidance is on the rise in many Christian denominations. In Eastern meditation and contemplative traditions, having a mentor or teacher is considered a necessity. In the early Christian church, spiritual direction had its origins in the desert fathers and mothers who would receive pilgrims seeking truth and wisdom.
Many people feel a deep hunger for wise spiritual guidance. It is a natural extension of longing and desire in the spiritual life. As Janet K. Ruffing states in her book, “We long for The Holy Mystery itself to possess us” (Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings). This inner quest spills into a yearning for a person who can act as a mediator for holy possession to fully take root. Spiritual direction intensifies, redirects, motivates, purifies desires and opens new and surprising avenues. It deepens the contemplatives’ relationship with God.
The image of pearl divers illustrates well the goal and nature of spiritual direction. Pearl divers dive in pairs, often unencumbered by clothing, and hold their breath to dive deep and seek for the right oysters. The muck transformed in their shell yields the precious jewel. Spiritual direction is diving with another into conscious and unconscious forces (water), inhaling the Spirit of God
through mutual vulnerability (lack of clothing) to find the precious wisdom (pearls). It means rummaging through the day-to-day messiness (muck) of existence transformed from the inside by contemplative prayer (oyster shell).
Choosing A Good Companion for the Journey
Using the word direction can be misleading. It can conjure images of an austere guru who tells their disciples what to do. Spiritual guidance refers to companionship with a person involving dialogue and non-judgmental, non-directive and non-violent listening. It also means that the director is committed to their own practice of contemplative prayer, which does not need to be the
same type of contemplative practice as their directees and is hopefully aware of different ways of effectively engaging in contemplative practices.
Good directors have acquired and honed the proper skills and developed their natural ability to journey with others, ideally through certified programs. Spiritual direction programs request that
candidates be older than mid-thirties and display maturity, good judgment, and creativity. However, we must not overvalue method, skills and knowledge. Spiritual directors are people who are passionate about God. They enjoy and are excited about the human journey. They commit wholeheartedly to contemplative living. They live out their ministry and practice from a deep sense of vocation; a call discerned through time with humility, self-knowledge and confidence that confer the proper attitudes and aptitudes for direction. Spiritual directors are channels of God’s grace; they facilitate its emergence from deep within. They are not a spiritual elite possessing a rare kind of wisdom communicated in cryptic language or unusual prophecies.
With that in mind, I tell people that even the best spiritual director might not be a good fit. Seeking a director is a discernment, which may involve visiting with two or three people before making a longer commitment for direction with anyone. When looking for a director, it is important to trust one’s intuition guided by the Spirit of God, who is the only real director. Many people have shared with me that there was an unidentified yet palpable spiritual and human quality to the women and men they were meeting as directors for the first time. Somehow, they knew they would be excellent companions for their journey.
Two Fundamentals of Spiritual Direction
Contemplative living in response to God’s call is a radical choice. It focuses on silence, solitude and stillness in a world that overvalues activity, productivity, ideological posturing, mindless distractions, aggressive dualisms and unbridled consumerism. For this reason, I propose two basic orientations for the spiritual direction of contemplatives: developing resilience and living non-violently.
DEVELOPING RESILIENCE: Resiliency is an umbrella term used in a multitude of domains with an emphasis on how systems and people operate at optimum capacity in a state of fluidity, change and even chaos. It is about how individuals and collectivities have the innate ability to bounce back from adversity, challenges and tragedies. It is a complex capacity for synthesizing day-to-day experiences on the sociological, psychological, anthropological, spiritual, and ecological levels with a positive stance. Contemplative living helps us tap into conscious and unconscious forces that open our hearts, minds, and souls. It frees us from our acquired patterns of security, affirmation and control as we reconnect to the Divine Indwelling, our true source of life and equanimity.
For this reason, the spiritual direction of contemplatives becomes a space of empowerment for and essential exploring of the forces and energies that enhance resilience. Developing a rich tapestry of social interactions, positive self-regard, cognitive and emotional flexibility, and framing trials within a larger spiritual and religious story are all factors that mobilize resilience. It means knowing one can live rooted and grounded in the reality of God’s presence and action, while living life as it is without resorting to placating, evading or numbing pain and suffering. Directors do not attempt to save others from their pain because surmounting challenges and facing our deepest fears offers a wisdom that is unavailable through any other means. Developing resilience generates hope; it sustains the belief that good is stronger than evil for both the director and directee.
LIVING NON-VIOLENTLY: Many years ago, Diarmuid O’Murchu in his book on consecrated life Poverty, Celibacy and Obedience (1999) called for a radical option for life. He explains how the Eastern divine attribute of non-violence, ahimsa in Sanskrit (literally noninjury) help us envisage a new way of relating beyond different types of violence. He speaks of the violence of patriarchy, consumerism, and sexual subversion, i.e., sexual repression or aggression. It is a call to see ourselves through the prism of relatedness as we interact with both human and non-human life forms, living the values of dignity, respect, asceticism, humility and cooperation. It consists of reviewing all interactions with compassion and kindness, including one’s self. It is also done by not splitting
reality into dualistic categories and perceptions that result in injustice, deprivation, and injury to the planet. Participating in spiritual direction with contemplatives is holistic: it fosters the interconnectedness of all things–body, mind, spirit and creation. Non-violent living is a fruit of dedicated contemplative practice, which fosters gratitude for the gift of all things coming from God.
This gratitude includes celebrating the beauty and mystery of spiritual direction as a trinitarian relationship positively affecting and transforming both the director and directee.
Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI is a priest, religious and itinerant preacher with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate of the US province. Mentored by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, Fr. Renaud ministers from
the campus of the Oblate School of Theology (OST) in San Antonio, Texas. Fr. Daniel has degrees and training in drama education, theology, pastoral ministry, and psychodrama.
He is a Certified Spiritual Director from Creighton University and a member of Spiritual Directors International. Fr. Renaud has preached retreats to priests, religious and lay people on desire and spiritual intimacy, Ignatian spirituality, ecological conversion, and spiritual recovery.
Fr. Renaud is adjunct faculty at OST, and is its chief blog writer. His areas of interest are resilience, fulfilling our vocation, spiritual healing of traumatic relationships, contemplative practices and mysticism