Five years ago, I moved to Texas from California. In that time, my spiritual practice and my feminist and womanist worldview has grown through contemplative practices. It’s ironic. “Everything’s bigger in Texas!” the saying goes, but in the presence of big, sweeping landscapes and open skies, big storms, and big egos, I’ve found the sacred in the small things. I have deepened my connection to God through a small group of women who practice group spiritual direction.
This past Sunday evening, I gathered with these women at my church for our spiritual direction group. We sat comfortably in a circle, relaxing on a couch and chairs around a coffee table, as the evening sun streamed in from a large picture window and lit the room. As we read a passage from the Bible (Mark 3:34-35) in which Jesus looks at the people sitting around him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” I saw my companions more clearly. Although my eyes were closed, I had a vision of these women sitting around me, halos made of sunbeams shimmering over their heads. I thought, “Here are my sisters!”
I’ve been meeting regularly with these soul sisters since the fall, but we usually meet on Sunday mornings before our church’s worship service, at an hour when many Christians do more traditional forms of Bible study. Our schedule has shifted for the summer and now we meet on Sunday evenings. There are only a few of us, usually 5 or 6. Sometimes guests join us. The group wasn’t created for women alone; in previous years, men and women have participated, but this year, it shaped up as a women’s group. It suits me.
We usually begin our time together with light conversation as everyone gathers. When we are ready to begin spiritual direction, we practice lectio divina, an iterative, reflective reading on a short passage of scripture. We share insights from the lectio divina and then turn our attention to listen to one person in the group share what is on her heart and soul. In The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun explains that spiritual direction is about listening to God with the help of others. As she writes, the practice includes:
Entering into an intentional and regular relationship that fosters union with God
Opening your prayer life and experience of God to another for the sake of shared listening
Listening to your life and the desires God has placed on your heart
Letting the Spirit set the direction of the discussion
Living by what God is saying to you
Allowing another set of eyes and ears to help you interpret your experiences and the voice of God.
– Calhoun, The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, p.133
What I appreciate most about spiritual direction is that it is a relational spiritual practice, not a hierarchal or solitary one. I was invited to join this group soon after I wrote in this blog about the need for “communal pondering.” I had a yearning to listen for divine guidance and ask important questions with people I trust, and the invitation to spiritual direction came as a divine response to my need.
Although I have so many wonderful friends, family members, and mentors who are versed in spiritual matters, the unique blessing of my spiritual direction group is that our work is more about listening than offering advice. When I met with my group on Sunday night, I was cranky and out of sorts. I’d been frustrated in my work for most of the week. I’d had some wonderful times with my friends at social events over the week, but in between events, I was tense, anxious, and short tempered.
I didn’t need advice on how to change my perspective or mood. But I did need to examine what was really going on, where my frustration was coming from. I was embarrassed when I shared my feelings. I felt vulnerable talking about my internal struggles, but through the discussion, I realized they were triggered by some recent events and conversations. My sisters listened and responded with sensitivity and compassion. They offered generous moments of silence. They reframed my words to make sense of my ramblings. They asked, “What is God saying to you?” and allowed me to find the answers. They suggested ways I could remain open to God’s guidance during the week and they prayed for me. They blessed me.
I practice spiritual direction with a group, but I’ve also worked with a spiritual director at a retreat center. Even when working with an experienced, professional spiritual director, the practice is relational. Both the director and the directee are there to listen to God; the ultimate Director is the Spirit. As I grow into more of a womanist worldview in my life and work, listening to the Spirit has become more central in my spiritual practices, and spiritual direction has become so integral to my ability to seek and hear the divine. And so, I share it with you.
Spiritual direction is a practice found in many Catholic communities, but has spread to Protestant and nondenominational groups, as well. If you are interested in learning more about it, I recommend visiting www.shalem.org and reading Alice Fryling’s book The Art of Spiritual Listening. Do you have any experiences with spiritual direction or resources to offer? If you have tried it, have you found spiritual direction to be an affirming, relational practice?
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.