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Exploring Spiritual Direction

by Linda Milholen

I am the product of the most anxious culture on the face of the earth and, arguably, the most anxious culture to have ever inhabited our planet. During the last sixty years or so, we as a world culture have made great strides in the creation of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deploy them, without any correspondingly great progress in our relationship with each otherlet alone with THE Other, with God. As individuals and as a people, we have come to realize that there is no security in ‘things’ and that “you can run but you cannot hide.” Having no place else to turn, many of us have come to seek security through our spirituality.

In centuries past, when so much of life was devoted to sheer survival, some external means of support, such as personal wealth or membership in a religious community, were necessary in order to have the luxury of time to focus on developing a deeper relationship with God. Along with its anxieties, life today has given us the increased leisure time to explore and grow spiritually. Some have gone to their local churches seeking tranquility of spirit and have not found it. Often they do not encounter anyone there who understands the concept, let alone a mentor to guide them toward the inner peace which they seek. So they seek it elsewhereeastern religions, the New Age movement, the occult.

I was fortunate. I found my center within the context of a group that meets every Sunday evening in the undercroft of a local Episcopal church. Started several years ago by a married couple, both of whom are spiritual directors, this group is devoted to practicing different forms of contemplative prayer. Each week the leader, chosen on a rotating basis from within the group, leads the group in an exercise of his/her own choosing. We may chant, go for a long slow walk, have an exercise in guided imagery.

During the sharing afterwards, a lot of mutual spiritual direction goes on. For some, the ‘meditation group’ provides the only spiritual direction they want or need. While I also meet regularly with an individual spiritual director, this group has remained an important anchor, a ‘jumping off place’ for my active life.

Not everyone has a meditation group readily available or wants one. For many, meeting with an individual spiritual director may be their single most important place for finding that peace from within. I think when spiritual direction is at its best, the director serves as an icon, being ‘God with skin on’ for the directee. Yet just as the image painted on the wood of the icon is not God but a window to God, so the director must seek not to impose his/her will upon the directee. A director will not be able to allow this kind of freedom unless she or he has the supernatural gift of faith that God will be present with the two as they come together. Then the director is free not to ‘be in charge’ or ‘make something happen.’

As I pursued my own spiritual journey, I really longed to go sit and just be and explore the passages of my ‘interior castle’ at my leisure. Yet I knew circumstances would not permit such a way of life for me. I had the real sense that I was not being asked to give up my ministry as a physician. Instead I was asked to somehow do both. It seemed that my spirituality needed to more closely resemble that of Mother Teresa than Teresa of Avila.

Out of my process of discernment, I was led to enroll in a training program to receive certification as a spiritual director. There I was seeking two things. First, I wanted ‘credentials’ so that I couId work as a spiritual director without me or anyone else confusing this ministry with the work I do as a practicing physician. And second, I wanted to be trained to ‘do it right’ as a director and to learn how to keep myself centered so that I would have something to give my directees. The gift of centeredness or inner tranquility is necessary, I believe, if the director is to serve as a mirror reflecting the directee’s gifts, thoughts, and needs, rather than as a screen upon which the director’s needs and desires continually play.

In my readings, I received valuable insights from many authors. But I was looking especially for someone who was living a life like mine, who was as busy and stressed as I and yet was able to be a person of prayer. I found such a person in Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. The circumstances of his life in occupied France during World War II are incredible. He worked by day as a surgeon and by night as a Resistance leader, and somewhere in between he managed to attend an underground seminary.

The message of Bloom’s writings is simple: to be present to the moment, to “take no thought for the morrow” {Mt. 6:34). He even uses the example most likely to speak to meone of having too many patients to see in the office while several other important things wait to be done. He counsels concentrating upon the person and situation before one, forgetting how many are waiting out front, saying in effect: ‘You will actually work more rapidly and effectively this way, because you will be concentrating fully upon the task at hand’ {Beginning to Pray, 1982). Now this was what I was looking for!

I still do not quite know what one does to get to that place of quiet centeredness. I do know it is possible to get therewith prayer and just being quiet with God. And it is possible anywherein the operating room, while driving down the road, in the silence of a chapel. While we will not stay perfectly centered, we can always return when we get distracted.

I have spoken of my perceptions of an effective spiritual director. I would also like to say a word about the directee. First, he or she should look for that center of tranquility in the chosen director. Having found this, the directee must be willing to trust that the director will not manipulate or try to tell him what to do in his walk with God. Challenge, yes; tell, no. Likewise, the directee must realize that spiritual direction is a verb. It is not possible to sit around and ‘receive’ direction. One must act with the director to discern God’s will in one’s life. Finally, the directee must understand that spiritual direction is not stumbling around trying to play a cosmic Ouija board to find what God would have him/her do. Instead, director and directee seek to determine who the directee is in relationship with God and, based upon that experience, to filter events through that knowledge.

Let me illustrate how this has played out with two of my own directees. One of my ‘growing edges’ {and one which has gotten quite a workout this year) concerns financial security and issues around unemployment. A man with whom I have a longstanding direction relationship came to me with an issue not of discernmen, but of the consequences of doing what he knew he should do. He told an all too familiar story of a company sold to and merged with another. The new company wanted him to be a part of their organization, for he was a good employee. But he knew the reputation of the new company and felt that its management style was, by his standards, immoraljust plain wrong. If he left, he would lose his retirement benefits. And, being over fifty, it might be hard for him to get another job. If he stayed, he thought he would lose his sense of integrity as well as any long-term job security. {In this case, he would exit with his retirement benefits intact.}

This man’s dilemma was pushing all my hot buttons. So I had to keep very quiet about my feelings and ask him simply to concentrate upon what ‘felt’ right for him. Where I did push him was in looking at the consequences. I challenged him to go ahead and assume the worstthat the courts would not restore his pension and that he would not be able to find another job in his field. What I did not do was impose my will upon him. He did quit, and he could not find a job in his same field. So he did what he had always wanted to do and started a business of his own. We do not know how successful that is going to be yet, but we do know that he feels wholeheartedly that he made the right decision. By both of us trusting the process, the Holy Spirit led to the right decision in spite of the personal wishes of his director {me}.

In a second instance, my directee’s employer was {probably inadvertently} doing something illegal. My directee, again well along in her fifties, pointed this out, properly, through channels. As a result, one person was fired, and she was rewardedwith demotion. Maybe I had learned something from my other directee, for while I worried about this woman, I was able to much more wholeheartedly support her in her position. The final outcome is still in doubt, but we both feel that she has done what she had to in terms of who she is.

These two examples also illustrate the mutuality that should exist in spiritual direction relationships. While I as director and these persons as directees were very intentional about our concentrating upon them in our times to- gether, my work with these two people clearly informed my thinking about a toxic work relationship in which I myself was involved. It gave me the courage to trust my intuitive assessment of that situation and remove myself from it, in spite of the financial risk that this meant. In so doing, I have been true to who I ama child of the living God who deserves better than an abusive work environment.

I believe that a direction relationship is a good one if, thinking back on their time together, both director and directee can honestly pray this prayer of thanksgiving:

I came alone,                            I came in fear,
You befriended me.              You gave me peace.
I came weary,                           I came empty,
You gave me rest.                  You filled me.
I came in grief,                         I came with doubt,
You comforted me.               You gave me faith.
I came with words,                 I go in peace,
You gave me feelings.           For you have refreshed me. Amen.

Dr. Linda Milholen lives in Stanford, Kentucky, where she practices as a general surgeon. She is an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Chuch and a member of the Board of Ark Ministries.

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