Katie Evans reflects on spiritual direction and spiritual friendship.
I’ve just finished a two-year course on spiritual direction with Sarum College, an ecumenical centre in Salisbury. I’d like to share three things I’ve learnt:
- My images* of God shape my intention in spiritual direction conversations
- I’m still me (and that’s fine)
- I’m watering roots, not tugging branches
These are all very personal and subjective, I’ll try to explain what they mean to me.
I experience a sense of spaciousness in which I am gently held. The nature of that spaciousness is tender, loving. I believe this is there for everyone. If I call this ‘God’ I would say that God is a God who listens as well as speaks, and that listening in itself is communicative – not passive. So my hope in a spiritual direction conversation is that my conversation partner and I listen ourselves into awareness of that loving spaciousness.
Watering my roots.
When I signed up for the course I was worried about two things: I don’t find it easy to make conversation and get to know people. In particular, I rarely talk about my faith and when I do I tend to blush furiously, wave my hands a lot, get tongue tied, or defensively make a joke of it. Put together, this sounds like a recipe for disaster in a spiritual director! Two years on I’m still me, still an introvert and tongue tied about spirituality. But surprisingly I’ve found this isn’t necessarily a barrier to having spiritual direction conversations. This feels liberating.
I would love for spiritual direction, in the sense of making space and listening to conversation partners speak about what is meaningful to them, to be part of my life. I’m tentatively exploring what form this will take for me. There are two ‘textbook’ models: the first is of a spiritual direction relationship in which a director listens to a directee and the two probably don’t know each other outside of those conversations.
The second model is of spiritual friendship – this is more familiar to Quakers. Two friends meet in a mutual relationship to listen to and support each other in their spiritual life. I find I’m drawing on elements of both models. There is real value in the traditional ‘one-way’ spiritual direction model because it clearly sends the message to the directee that there is space for them. This can be particularly important for people who are usually helpers and carers and might not otherwise take space for themselves. But I want to run a mile from the stereotype of a clinically distant director coolly diagnosing a directee’s spiritual state and prescribing advice!
This is just a stereotype: generally spiritual directors avoid this hierarchical dynamic. But I’m not sure I have it in me to start a healthy spiritual direction relationship from scratch with someone I’ve never met before. So that puts me closer to the spiritual friendship model, where two friends agree that prayerful listening and conversation about their spiritual lives will be part of their friendship. Is it possible to maintain this sort of relational equality but with one person primarily the ‘talker’ and one person the ‘listener’? I hope so.
My sense is that whatever part spiritual direction/friendship conversations have to play in my life, it will come as gift – not something I can timetable. For now, my part is to water roots, not anxiously tug at leaves and branches. For me that means trying to practice hospitable presence: being with people in a way that doesn’t shy away defensively or grasp manipulatively, a way that creates a little space in which we might get a glimpse of that underlying loving spaciousness.
Katie Evans, July 2017
* Perhaps I shouldn’t call these ‘my’ images! The concept of spaciousness comes from Martin Laird’s book Into the Silent Land, and the conviction that God is a God who listens comes from Rachel Muers’ book Keeping God’s Silence.