‘We are cradled in God's embrace’ - from the keyboard of Rev Wendy Prior, Staff Chaplain, Synod of SA
Exploring the Ministry of Spiritual Direction
By Rev Christine Gilbert
Posted in Faith
One Sunday worship service several years ago now, I was using simple dramatic movements to tell from memory the story from Mark 9 of Jesus’ healing of a boy possessed with an unclean spirit. The spirit would throw the boy in fire and water in an attempt to kill him. When the disciples asked Jesus why they were unable to heal the boy themselves, he answered, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
As I told the story, the Word came to life for me through my embodied movements. In those moments, I became aware of some of my own self-destructive attitudes––ways I throw myself in the fire, so to speak––as well as my desire for greater healing. Along with the tools and efforts I had engaged up to that point, I heard the Spirit of Jesus inviting me to seek healing through prayer.
This is how my relationship with Annette began. Annette is a Spiritual Director with whom I meet for about an hour once a month. Before the pandemic relegated our sessions to Zoom, we would meet in Annette’s office. Two chairs and a table holding a candle and cut flower or greenery form the hospitable space. Though Annette is called the Director, the conversation is a mutual listening for the movements of Spirit deep within and all around.
With Annette as my companion, I began learning how to pray. This may seem unusual for a Minister of twenty-plus years to say, especially someone who has been part of Christian community since my birth fifty-two years ago. But, as I’m discovering, the landscape of prayer––and the Christian life in general, for that matter––is wide and vast. As Thomas Merton and others would say, we’re always beginners when it comes to prayer! So, in the same way that I benefitted from having my Australian husband teach me how to drive on the left side of the road when I arrived from the United States, Annette is helping me navigate the inner journey.
Spiritual Direction is an ancient yet somewhat unknown and quiet ministry. Its primary purpose is to attend to the Spirit’s presence and initiative in our lives. The sessions themselves help me pause and take stock of what’s happening, what I’m experiencing. Often the content is not particularly “religious.” But always the intention is to uncover within the ordinary stuff of life what God seems to be on about and to ask what it might mean to enjoin ourselves to this activity more fully.
Through my years in Spiritual Direction and now as a Spiritual Director myself, I find I am becoming more attuned to God’s presence. Beyond the one-hour sessions, I am better able to sense movements of heart––those gentle promptings from the Spirit––and am learning to trust them. I can more easily recognise the opportunities to love that are unprogrammed and uncontrived when they present themselves in countless ways, every day. In this way, little by little, Spiritual Direction is shaping my life and how I minister.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the crisis caused by the pandemic has brought a flood of changes to our world, including the ways we are church together, or alone together as the case may be. The conversations I hear floating around the place in the wider church, including those serving in leadership, seem to focus mostly on strategies and structures, that is, what we’re doing and how things may look and operate in the future.
As important as these conversations may be––and certainly I have had to give attention to these matters myself over these weeks––I have found the most fertile space is found in exploring what this crisis is doing in and among us. For instance, I’ve heard loud and clear from many what a gift the simpler, less busy life has been. The joy of time in the garden and riding bikes and walking closer to home is something to note, I think, as it may point towards lasting treasures amidst the transient and material things––like structures and programmes that will pass away. Some are asking questions about where God is in all this or they are wishing to begin or strengthen a spiritual practice. Others have rediscovered parts of themselves which have been lost in the flood of expectations and demands that too often put our lives on auto pilot.
It occurs to me that without attending to the inner journey––to taking a long, loving look at "how it goes with our soul"––we might easily construct a new normal around what is essentially our same-old-selves. Much like buying a new outfit causes us to feel good about ourselves for a time but does nothing to change the reality of the body it covers, so a lack of reflection on how God is at work in us through Spiritual Direction and other contemplative practices is a missed opportunity to bear fruit that lasts.
Christine Gilbert is the Minister in Placement at St. Andrews by the Sea Uniting Church and a Spiritual Director trained and formed through the Living Well Centre in Melbourne.
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