Seeking God Together

A first look at spiritual direction
Seeking God Together

I was very nervous the first time I went for spiritual direction. I had never done anything like this before. I wasn't even sure I knew what spiritual direction was. And I'd never met Ed, the spiritual director I found through a brochure someone gave me. We arranged to meet at a historic church near the campus of the University of Wisconsin. As I walked up the steps, I wondered how I had gotten myself into this.

Ed met me in the hallway of the church. We went into a large, Tudor-style parlor and sat in two wingback chairs. I thought, This is like a scene from a novel. Ed looked more like a college professor than the retired minister that he was. He even had a briefcase; he opened it and took out a doily and a small candle. This seems very Roman Catholic. What if I don't know what to do? As Ed lit the candle, he said "This is to remind us that we aren't alone." Good thing. I guess he means that God is here with us.

Then Ed introduced himself to me and asked me a few questions about myself. He read from the book of Isaiah: "Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you." Maybe this won't be so bad after all. Ed said he liked that passage. I said I did too. Then he asked me a question about my relationship with God. I don't remember the question or my answer. What I do remember is that when I had finished what I wanted to say, Ed just sat there, waiting and listening for more. This is different, I thought. People don't usually wait for me like that. They usually just talk more. But Ed waited and looked at me. What I am supposed to do now?

We sat in the quiet for several minutes. I wonder if Jesus looked at people the way Ed is looking at me. I don't remember who broke the silence, or what we said, but I do know that after every question Ed asked me, he waited. And waited. When I left that first spiritual direction session, I felt a deeper peace than I had experienced for a long, long time. Perhaps, I thought, we really weren't alone in that room. God was indeed with us.

I went home to the more familiar experiences of my life, to my own stresses and anxieties, and I realized that God was still with me. Before my meeting with Ed (and the Spirit of God), I certainly knew that God was with me. I knew that God had made me and sustained me. I knew that God promised peace. I knew all of that. But I had forgotten. I was like Jacob in the Old Testament. His life was full of very stressful circumstances. One night he had a dream where he met with God. When he woke up, he said, "Surely the lord is in this place—and I did not know it" (Genesis 28:16). That's what my first spiritual direction session did for me. It reminded me that God was in my life. I had not been aware.

Awareness of God is one of the gifts of spiritual direction. The apostle Paul said in the New Testament that God is not far from each one of us. In fact, "in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:27-28). But on my own I cannot always perceive God in my life. My spiritual eyes are clouded by the stresses, the fears, and the unsolvable problems that are in the forefront of my awareness. Since that first meeting with Ed, I have been in dozens of spiritual direction sessions, with Ed and with others. As God listens to me, through my spiritual director and through silence, I begin again to listen to God.

The experience of spiritual direction has filled a longing in my soul. It has helped me be attentive to the whispers of the Holy Spirit in my life. Jesus promised that when he left this world, he would send the Holy Spirit. This Counselor and Spirit of truth lives in us (John 16:7-12). We no longer see Jesus physically, but with the eyes of our hearts we can see God's Spirit within. Spiritual direction helps us do that.

The Beginnings of Spiritual Direction

Spiritual direction is a way of companioning people as they seek to look closely, through the eyes of their hearts, at the guidance and transforming work of God in their lives. It's a practice that began in the early years of Christianity when people followed the desert mothers and fathers out to the wilderness to ask them how to know God. Over the years, spiritual direction has appeared in many faith traditions. It was kept alive in the Christian faith mainly through the Roman Catholic Church, but today the Protestant church is rediscovering it. People throughout the Christian church, including those of an evangelical orientation, are experiencing again the gifts that God gives to his people through the loving listening and the gentle guidance of spiritual directors. This gift is usually offered in the context of individual spiritual direction, but the potential for spiritual direction in small groups is a growing and promising expression of the ministry of spiritual companionship.

After my first meeting with Ed, I could not wait to tell my friends about it. My enthusiasm for spiritual direction led me to complete a certification program to become a spiritual director myself and meet regularly with individuals, to meet with my own spiritual director, and most recently to pursue spiritual direction in small groups. I continue to be amazed at the richness of this gift to the church, whether it is experienced individually or in groups.

Groups Who Listen

A spiritual direction group is not your typical small group. It is not a study group or a place to simply find fellowship, although that happens. It is not a mission group, a committee, or an accountability group. It is, first and foremost, a listening group. Just as Ed listened to me in personal spiritual direction, so members of the group listen, carefully and deeply, to one another. Just as Ed waited for me to say more, so members of the group wait for one another to share whatever they want to share at that time. And just as there was a lot of silence in the times I met with Ed, so there is a lot of silence in group spiritual direction.

Group spiritual direction provides a unique opportunity in the life of the church or community of believers. It is different from more typical conversations such as the superficial (but necessary) hi-how-are-you encounters or those that go a bit deeper but still require our best-dressed presentations. It's also different from our conversations and groups that revolve around meeting needs (casseroles for those who are sick, babysitting for those who are tired, mission work for those who are needy). It is different from teaching Bible studies, adult education classes, seminars and workshops. All of these things are very good things to do. But they do not provide the unique opportunity given in spiritual direction: the opportunity to be heard, to have someone listen to us as we describe the milestones, detours and questions of our own spiritual journeys.

Just as personal spiritual direction met a need deep within my soul, group spiritual direction provides a place where members of a small group can listen carefully to their own soul needs and to the needs of others. As each person is given an opportunity to talk about whatever they want to share, the group listens attentively, seeking together to hear the direction of God.

Participating in listening groups like this was a natural outgrowth of the wonder and peace I felt when Ed listened to me. I had read about group spiritual direction but never experienced it. When I tried it, I found that other people shared many of my own longings. The first meeting I had with friends was almost as scary as my first meeting for personal direction. I think all of us in the group were wondering what the experience would be like. Could we share personally and openly with each other? Would God really meet us there? Would this work? We could, God did, and yes, it worked.

Now, years later, I have learned that group spiritual direction was what many of these first friends were looking for. Julie said, "It was transformational because it was a place where I could talk about God and my relationship with Jesus. I discovered people like me— with yearnings and desires to grow spiritually. Those first meetings were especially exciting and fun for me." Other people have told me that it "fit where I was" and that "it met my need to move into a deeper relationship with God."

Coming Home

Continuing to watch people participate in group spiritual direction over the years has been an amazing experience. Some people are quite shy about it. Others say that it is like a balm to the soul. Some people with a tenuous relationship with God seem to fall in love. Some know nothing about spiritual direction while others are looking for it. But for almost everyone, there is a sense of surrender to God's love, of "coming home" to God. This certainly describes my experience of both personal and group spiritual direction. I continue to be surprised by how familiar my "new" experiences of God's love are. The journey continues, but I always seem to be heading home.

This experience of returning to God's love has very practical ramifications. For example, early in my Christian life, before I had discovered spiritual direction, I tried to do everything anyone suggested should be done for growth or for service. My life was "directed," but it was directed by my perception of other people's expectations. As I began to let go of my need to please others at all times, I became more selective in what I did, but more driven. I was driven to prove to myself, to God and to others that I was worthy to be loved.

About the time I discovered spiritual direction, I was beginning to learn that trying to prove my worthiness to myself did not work any better than trying to prove my worthiness to other people. In my meetings with a spiritual director and in group direction, I began to experience what it means to have the Spirit of God direct my life. Over and over again, my experiences in spiritual direction remind me that I am already beloved by God. I do not need to prove that truth. The effect of spiritual direction in my own life is that I have become less active but more effective, and more passionate but less driven. The Holy Spirit directs my life with a gentle, caring touch. Over the years, my conversations in spiritual direction have continually reminded me that God is always waiting to extend grace and love to me in order for me to extend grace and love to others. This journey into personal and group spiritual direction is ongoing, fruitful and full of joy. I'm very glad I made that appointment with Ed.

Taken from Seeking God Together by Alice Fryling. © 2009 by Alice Fryling. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.

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