NEW YORK CITY – It’s a time of high anxiety, and peace can seem so elusive. It’s also a time when there’s a skepticism about “thoughts and prayers.” How can we make our Christianity more real, more practical, more seeable, more transformative? Spiritual direction has an accountability factor that allows for this like few other things. Spiritual Direction: A Guide for Sharing the Father’s Love is a book by Father Thomas Acklin and Father Boniface Hicks, two Benedictine monks at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. They spoke to Kathryn Jean Lopez about what spiritual direction can provide in these troubled times.
Lopez: “When we go through intense things, such as feeling angry or hurting intensely, we often go through them apart from God. It is a significant sign of progress when a person can go through those things in the presence of God and let the Lord show him how He sees what the person is going through.” However, do we do that? And how do we know it’s for real?
Hicks: God often seems hidden from us or distant, especially when we experience intense emotions like hurt or anger. God does this for several reasons. One is to give us space and freedom to work through things. He gives us the space to ignore Him or even reject Him or yell at Him. He does this to protect our freedom, which protects our love. There is no love without freedom. He also does this because He is not interested in individual heroes so much as He is interested in forming a communion of persons. He empowers us to mediate His love to others and to receive His love through the mediation of others.
This is the foundation of our whole Christian faith and especially as Catholics, we believe in the importance of Sacraments. Jesus remains with us in His Body and Blood, but under the appearance of bread. Likewise, He remains with us under the appearance of human faces and behind human voices. This means we can learn how to go through intense things with God by bringing them to Him in prayer, especially in the Presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
Likewise, we can learn to bring them to Him by bringing them into loving, one-on-one relationships such as spiritual direction. Then we get an experience of how God receives us and loves us through how the spiritual director embodies God’s loving response and explicitly communicates that response to us or directs us back to God with certain expectations in prayer.
How can we learn to listen well? And how can that help not only spiritual directors but just about everyone living in the world today?
Acklin: Listening is an art, and is one of the main ways in which spiritual direction is an art. Nothing deepens listening more than prayer, which quiets us and gives us peace. Prayer also opens up vulnerability in us, as well as an attentiveness to God. This attentiveness leads to a respect and love for every person which deepens as prayer deepens. Thus, the spiritual director begins to listen not primarily to words and content but listens with the heart to the heart of the other person.
By listening this way, the spiritual director actually remembers more of what was said, but more importantly receives the deeper communication from the directee, what is heard between the words spoken. At the same time, the director begins to make connections and to understand in a deeper way the meaning of what has been said. The spiritual director who is vulnerable receives the gift to be able to be attentive to the directee as well as to the Holy Spirit who is the true spiritual director.
Then the director knows when to be silent and when to speak, as well as what and when to suggest a response that will be more likely to be heard and not become an obstacle to understanding, integration and action. Spiritual direction can form the director and directee in such a way that their attentive listening transforms their relationships with others in their lives and can influence a more listening attitude to others around them.
“We know many truths about God in a general way…that God loves everyone, that God forgives every sin, that God has infinite mercy, and that God has died for us on the Cross to bring new and eternal life in the Resurrection.” What if that sounds all very foreign and even untrue to someone reading?
Acklin: Spiritual direction always takes each person where that person is. Presumably, if the directee is being honest to some degree and if the director gives the directee a chance to lead the first and every subsequent meeting, the director will quickly realize that all this is foreign or even seems untrue to the directee.
The director has to find what the directee does believe and why, as well as what the directee does not believe and why. By understanding the actual relationship the directee has with God and what obstacles or causes there may be for unbelief, the director suggests whatever is possible now for deepening the relationship with God. The relationship with a person of faith can lead another into exploring and trying on for size other possibilities. For example, if the directee has no idea of the love of God, this could be discussed and examined to see why.
Grace is at work and does amazing things in the one on one relationship which spiritual direction is. Spiritual directors are often surprised at how quickly persons change as they are prayerfully received and listened to in spiritual direction.
What does prayer and spiritual direction have to do with healing?
Hicks: As Christians we often talk about Christ in terms of “salvation.” Evangelical Christians often think of their relationship with God in terms of being “saved.” In Latin, the word salvus means both “salvation” and “health.” We can think of salvation as eternal health, and so it is the ultimate value. At the same time, God wants us to enjoy the benefits of salvation already in this life, at least a little bit. We experience this through healing. Original sin introduces a dis-integration into us. That dis-integration is described by Saint Paul as, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” (Rom 7:15) Sometimes an emotional wound is struck, and that internal dissonance erupts as an angry outburst and we find ourselves entrenched in a defensive posture that can cause serious damage to relationships.
Sometimes we self-medicate our internal pain with alcohol, pornography, binging on Netflix or taking shopping sprees. Ultimately these wounds can be healed, and we are saved through an encounter with divine love. Spiritual direction can be very effective at uncovering wounds and exposing them to God’s love. That can happen right in the context of spiritual direction, such that the directee walks away from a meeting transformed. It can also start in spiritual direction by exposing the wounds and then culminate in prayer by letting God shine His love on those wounds. That’s one of the exciting parts of spiritual direction, both for the director and the directee. As we learn to open up the wounded places in us and let those places be filled with God’s love, it can make a huge difference in our lives.
“Peace is a very strong indicator of God’s will.” What if I’m feeling very little of it right about now?
Hicks: That is a very good way to start a spiritual direction meeting! That kind of honest self-assessment opens the door for a deeper self-understanding. We can experience a lack of peace for many reasons. In some cases, when that lack of peace is troubling our prayer and clouding our relationship with God, it can be the kind of spiritual desolation that Saint Ignatius speaks of in his rules for discernment of spirits. He offers several remedies.
Persevering in prayer, making some internal changes of attitude to cultivate hope, remembering past times of consolation and understanding that God allows this for our growth are some of the ways that we can confront that spiritual desolation. Sometimes our lack of peace has more natural origins in difficult relationships or the way we are handling failure. It could come from a distorted self-perception that causes self-hatred and that also includes a spiritual component of fearing that God hates me as well.
All these things are very good to talk through in spiritual direction. A spiritual director can help us to see the big picture, receive the pain, soothe the conscience and remind us that God’s love is unconditional.
Lopez: Who was Passionist Father Silvan Rouse and why did you dedicate the book to him?
Acklin: Both of us knew and were directed by Father Silvan Rouse, a Passionist religious and priest. He founded and lived for about sixty years at Saint Mary’s House of Greater Solitude where he was spiritual director for hundreds of people from all walks of life and where he offered the forty-day silent retreat in the spirit of Saint Paul of the Cross.
His practice of spiritual direction inspires much of the discussion of this process in our book, and he personally encouraged the authors to write such a book someday. Most importantly, the personal witness of Father Silvan, who though well-educated and experienced, reflected a profound sense of poverty and humility, as well as joy. His personal holiness and union with God never kept him from receiving whoever came to him, no matter how simple or how troubled.
He continued this witness until he died at the age of 94.