On one level, the visually stunning film “The King’s Speech” is an award-winning biopic of King George VI of England that focuses on his friendship with Lionel Logue, an eccentric speech therapist.
The movie’s story line unfolds with the way Lionel helps the monarch deal with his stuttering. However, viewing the film through the lens of faith, one discovers the royal friendship is a metaphor for something we all need but so few succeed in finding — the bond found in spiritual direction.
I was privileged to see the movie during the early part of my training as a spiritual director, and it continues to have a profound impact on my ministry. Granted, the ethical boundaries of spiritual direction do not include friendship in the ordinary sense of the term, yet the qualities of being friends shared between Bertie (King George) and Lionel, such as mutual respect, trust and concern, remain paramount.
Lionel would have made a great spiritual director because he was totally present to Bertie, as well as empathetic in his approach. Such empathy had been learned through his earlier and, I am sure, difficult experiences of drawing Australian World War I soldiers out of their shell shock.
Thus Lionel’s efforts to help both the soldiers and Bertie are very similar to spiritual direction as all of us are either “voiceless” or “stutter” in our attempts to share our experiences of the holy.
What exactly is spiritual direction? First, a bit of history is important. Often called spiritual companionship or spiritual friendship, it dates back almost two millennia and since then has held a special place in the Church’s prayer traditions. During the early years of Christianity, many people sought out guidance from those we now call the Desert Mothers and Fathers. That guidance continued through the lives of great saints who were known for their spiritual wisdom. One shining light in this area was St. Ignatius of Loyola who wrote “The Spiritual Exercises,” which includes Rules for Discernment that have helped to shape the spirituality of untold numbers of people.
Today, there is a resurgence of interest from both those seeking spiritual direction and those seeking to become directors.
Another way to answer this question is for me to share how I perceive my role as a spiritual director.
My first priority is to listen in a way that both my directee (the person I direct) and I can stay focused on that person’s relationship with God.
At this point, I must mention that the Holy Spirit is the primary director and it is my job to stay prayerfully out of the way. I may ask questions from time to time for clarity or I may suggest an idea or two for prayer during the next month. If the person is struggling with discernment concerning a religious vocation, I remain neutral so that both of us can be open to the whispers of God. Like Lionel, I provide a safe, nonjudgmental place for someone to grow in his or her relationship with the Lord. Also, like Lionel, I have made my own share of mistakes. Yet, I have consistently found that God has used those mistakes not only to help my directee grow but myself as well. The longer I am a director the more I have come to depend on God to do what I cannot.
Making the Connection
When someone calls me to ask about the possibility of spiritual direction, I tell the individual there are several steps to the process. In order to know what each of us expects, we need to have an introductory session. This can take place immediately or we can make an appointment to meet in person. One of the typical questions I get during this stage is do I charge a fee. While some directors do charge, I leave that up to the discretion of the individual. I also tell the individual that a good sign I may not be the right person for what he or she is seeking is a sense of inner uneasiness at some point during our relationship.
Finally, I mention a hallmark of direction is confidentiality; as a result, I cannot acknowledge any individual as my directee in public. However, I can be introduced as someone’s director should the directee decide to do so.
When we have finished our conversation, I ask the caller to pray about our mutual expectations for seven to ten days. If the person calls back, we set a time for our first appointment, and then we will meet on a monthly basis thereafter. (While the details may differ, this account is fairly typical of most directors.)
Now, it’s your turn. Does this sound like something you would be interested in? If it does, then pray about how the ancient practice of spiritual direction might help you draw closer to God.
Sister Lou Ella Hickman attended St. Peter Upon the Water: A Center for Spiritual Direction and Formation program and was certified as a spiritual director in 2012.
How do I find a director?
Begin your search for a director close to home. Ask your pastor or his assistant if he would be willing. If both decline, then ask if anyone on the staff or in the parish is a spiritual director. Check the menus of your archdiocesan/diocesan websites for the names and phone numbers of directors in your area. These websites will also list the names of religious communities. Many religious sisters are re-ministering into spiritual direction. Also check the websites for spiritual-direction-training programs. Usually, the staff can supply you with some names and phone numbers. The website for Spiritual Directors International (sdiworld.org) might be helpful.
Pope Francis on Spiritual Accompaniment
Although it sounds obvious, spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom. Some people think they are free if they can avoid God; they fail to see that they remain existentially orphaned, helpless, homeless. They cease being pilgrims and become drifters, flitting around themselves and never getting anywhere. To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father.
Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock. We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives. But this always demands the patience of one who knows full well what St. Thomas Aquinas tells us: that anyone can have grace and charity, and yet falter in the exercise of the virtues because of persistent “contrary inclinations.” In other words, the organic unity of the virtues always and necessarily exists in habitu, even though forms of conditioning can hinder the operations of those virtuous habits. Hence the need for “a pedagogy which will introduce people step by step to the full appropriation of the mystery” (St. John Paul II, Ecclesia in Asia, No. 20). Reaching a level of maturity where individuals can make truly free and responsible decisions calls for much time and patience. As Blessed Peter Faber used to say: “Time is God’s messenger.”
One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without. The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37). Someone good at such accompaniment does not give in to frustrations or fears. He or she invites others to let themselves be healed, to take up their mat, embrace the cross, leave all behind and go forth ever anew to proclaim the Gospel. Our personal experience of being accompanied and assisted, and of openness to those who accompany us, will teach us to be patient and compassionate with others, and to find the right way to gain their trust, their openness and their readiness to grow.
— Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Nos. 170-172