The Gift of Presence: The Elusive Core of the Spiritual Direction Relationship (Part II)

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2001 »2001 1 »The Gift Of Presence The Elusive Core Of The Spiritual Direction Relationship Part Ii

Patricia Byrne, SSC

Part II

A Discerning Heart

In this article I will focus on discernment as it evolves in the "first week" of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, noting how it can be part of the ongoing dialogue between director and directee. This discerning conversion is succinctly stated in the goal of the Spiritual Exercises, which have "as their purpose the conquest of self and the regulation of one's life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment" [21] (11). The kernel of this teaching is on choosing the way of the Lord and on freeing oneself from what holds one back from this choice. According to William Broderick:

The first Week meditations are the outer or objective word of God as contained in scripture and Christian tradition, in particular as that word reveals to us our broken relationship with God [. . .], with our deepest selves [. . .], with the whole of creation. The First Week Rules indicate how that outer objective word of God will be experienced by us as we expose ourselves to its truth, the chiaroscuro of feelings that will be ours. These rules will also indicate how to deal with such experience, how to discriminate (28).

This is the time of purification when one, if open, grows in more realistic self-knowledge. Some of the "tools" in this discovery are presented by Ignatius as "consolation" and "desolation." These are affective states, feelings within the persons which, in the context of the discernment of spirits, indicate movements towards or away from God. To explain this Ignatius refers to two groups of people. I will paraphrase David Lonsdale's description. Those in the first group, which he sketches in its most extreme form, are basically self-centered, ambitious, caught up in their own desire for wealth, status, etc. These are little concerned with the reign of God or the living of the commandment of love. In order to understand these people's affective responses it is necessary to take into account the whole orientation of their life. For them, inner peace, which may reflect a complacent, self-satisfied attitude, would be signs of turning away from God and therefore indicative of desolation. Whereas in the same people feelings of inner turmoil, emptiness, etc. could be indicative of God's direction and hence could be termed consolation.

The second group are those who are effectively trying to live as children of God and set out to fulfil God's desire for them.

In this case, the terms consolation, and desolation have their more usual meanings. Experiences of inner joy and peace, moods of confidence and encouragement in faith, a sense of being in harmony with oneself and with God, time of true creativity and so on are true consolation.[. . .] And, conversely, times of darkness and confusion, moods of discouragement, emptiness, anxiety, meaninglessness, destructiveness, and so on are truly experiences of desolation. (78-79)

Consolations here are signs of God's presence, God's reign; desolations on the other hand, are blocks to God's reign. These moods are experienced in varying levels of complexity by all who are seriously trying to live a life of prayer. It is necessary, therefore, that the director be competent to perceive these movements, and alert directees to their thrust in their experiences. The director must be able to help the directee savour those moments of consolation, so that he or she may enter into the depth of the experience and allow it to influence his or her life. This is true also of desolation. Broderick says:

Desolation tells us something about ourselves. It points out the unredeemed areas of our lives. It indicates the next growth point. Hence the importance of staying with the desolation and not seeking to escape from it.

Hence too the director must be experienced. He must not try to get the [directee] out of the desolation prematurely, though he may be tempted to do so because of his own inability to cope with pain, or out of false compassion. He must know and allow for the redemptive power of pain. (34)

In these moments of truth, especially where the seeker experiences the darkness and evil within, the director's acceptance and Christ-like attitude is an encouragement to face the truth, accept forgiveness, and continue on the journey. Conversion is not a once-for-all happening, but a process which occurs over and over again.

In the light of the first Week, the director comes to know the person's orientation toward or away from God. Then it becomes clear whether the discernment is that between good and evil, or between the good and what would be the greater good for this particular person. Ernest Larkin sums this up when he says:

The divine guidance of discernment does not give, at least ordinarily, any absolute or infallible answers. It merely helps us "keep our eyes fixed on Jesus" (Heb. 12:2) in the conflictual situations of life.[. . .] Discernment does bespeak the Silent presence of God. Its whole point is to put or keep us in touch with God in the concreteness of life-in-the-world. (59)


As one enters into the purifying process of conversion over time, one comes closer to the truth of who one is before God. Humbly acknowledging, and endeavouring to live this reality, one moves toward illumination and union with God. Drawing closer to God and putting on the mind of Christ, one becomes more real, more and more transparent. Barry and Connolly note: "Transparency grows, then, as we become more aware that, in our experience, God is trustworthy and as we become better able to express our own deeper attitudes to him" (40).

As trust in God grows we become freer to trust God's people, especially in the person of the spiritual director. When we trust we are willing to entrust ourself to the other, we are open to share more of who we really are. Recognizing what is false within us, we are able to face the pain of letting the masks behind which we hide slip away to reveal who we are - vulnerable, yet loved; poor, yet rich in blessings.

Transparency shows itself in a greater sense of freedom, a lightness of touch, a growing self-acceptance and openness. Gratton says: "One of the signs that a person is beginning to shift - to move in a transcendent direction - is a kind of flexibility.[. . .] When new life enters our soul, we sense something energizing and desirable about our future. It is as if we had glimpsed a summit and were freely letting ourselves be drawn by its appeal" (Art 105). The focus becomes clearer. Struggle remains, but we are gradually able to let superficial considerations and false motives come to the surface and then let them go.

The relationship becomes transparent to the extent that the director is in communion with God, on his or her own spiritual journey, and attentive to his or her own need for conversion. Edwards comments: "it is not a matter of accumulated skills that is central, but rather facing into the call toward self-stripping of illusion and sin that frees us to be ever more transparent and truly present with someone" (129).

To live like this, to lose one's life in order to find it (Matt. 16:25), is a response to God's grace. While all the human capabilities and learned skills are important if we wish to be effective directors, they are empty if they are not rooted and grounded in an awareness of our total reliance on God, and on God's loving mercy towards us.

Perhaps one of the greatest helps to becoming more transparent is that sense of immediacy which comes from living in the present moment. To live in this way is to live truly surrendered to God, and to God's unfolding in our life. It means a readiness to let go of cherished thoughts and blind ambitions, and of the need to control. This type of immediacy makes us vulnerable. Givenness to the present moment is the givenness that can bear so much fruit in the moment of encounter between director and directee. It can lead to a spontaneous level of communication where truth is central because defenses have melted away in the warm and empowering attraction of God's love. Intimacy blossoms in this graced moment, and one is present to a Presence unfolding in the here and now.

Thus transparency, leading to maturity in the Spirit can be equated with self-transcendence, a self-transcendence, according to Baum which "is due to a gratuitous and ever surprising mystery present in [the human person], over which he has no authority, a mystery which is God's gift to him" (241).

This is why gratitude, a sense that all is gift, is the response of the Christian to that joy and delight which springs from knowing oneself loved unconditionally. Much of this has become possible because, in the person of the one who guides him or her, the directee has met a soul friend. The soul friend, too, has been changed by the encounter. Therefore, both together can echo the words of Aelred in praise of the nurturing qualities of spiritual friendship:

What happiness, what confidence, what joy to have a person to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self. You need have no fear to confess your failings to this person. You can also without shame make known whatever advances you have made in the spiritual life. You can entrust all the secrets of your heart to him and before him you can lay out all your plans. What, therefore, is more pleasant than to unite your spirit to that of another person and of two to form one. No bragging is to be feared after this and no suspicion need be feared. No correction of one by the other will cause pain; no praise on the part of one will bring a charge of excessive flattery from the other [. . .].

Friendship is a moment quite near to that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge of God, so that a person goes from being a friend of his fellow man and becomes the friend of God, according to the words of the Savior in the Gospel, "I will not now call you servants, but my friends." (Aelred of Rievaulx, Cistercian abbot, 1109 - 67, qtd. in Neufelder and Coelho 33 -34)

The Elusive Presence

May you know that absence is full of tender presence
and that nothing is ever lost or forgotten.
May the absences in your life be full of eternal echo
May you sense around you the secret Elsewhere which holds
the presences that have left your life.
May you be generous in your embrace of loss.
May the sore of your grief turn into a well of seamless presence.
May your compassion reach out to the ones we never hear
from and may you have the courage to speak out for the
excluded ones.
May you become the gracious and passionate subject of your own life.
May you not disrespect your mystery through brittle words or false belonging.
May you be embraced by God in whom dawn and twilight
are one and may your longing inhabit its deepest dreams
within the shelter of the Great Belonging. (Eternal Echoes 275)
In this poem, "A Blessing for Absence," John O'Donohue gathers together a number of themes I wish to speak of here. In his words presence and absence become united in that belonging where grief is healed in God's embrace. The elusive presence points to a "secret Elsewhere," where life's absences and presences are harvested. Healed through the searing purification of grief, O'Donohue prays that we may become hope for the excluded ones. I wish now to reflect more in depth on the elusiveness of presence, how this elusiveness is experienced in life, in our relationships, and especially in the one who desires communion with God. Speaking of our awareness of mystery as "fleeting and unbidden", John Shea says: "It is sudden and intermittent and engenders in us a sense of response. In this matter we are not the pursuers. Mystery comes upon us unsolicited. We are invited to awareness. [. . .] Mystery alternately seems to encourage us to greatness and then convict us of meanness" (38).

The mystery which draws us beyond ourselves also reminds us of our human limits. Mystery, that elusive Presence, is paradoxical, just as a transcendent and imminent God is paradoxical. Speaking of this tension of opposites, Cyprian Smith says:

This swinging rhythm or oscillation between unlike poles, breathing in and breathing out, speaking and remaining silent, doing and resting, is the basic rhythm of the spiritual life, and it is only within that rhythm that we can know God, experience him, think and talk about him. If we abandon ourselves to this rhythm, let ourselves be carried by it, it will gradually kindle within us the spark of Divine Knowledge. It will open for us the Wisdom-Eye, the Eye of the Heart. (26)

Nowhere is this rhythmic swing between opposite poles more evident than in our experience of an elusive God - overwhelmingly experienced as present at times, at other times distressingly absent. I turn now to this paradox, vividly reflected in the work of St. John of the Cross. It is reflected, too, in our living of the Paschal Mystery, and is a paradox which plays itself out in the ministry of spiritual direction.

Presence and Absence

"It seems that absence is impossible without presence. Absence is a sister of presence" (O'Donohue, Eternal Echoes 228). Perhaps absence could more accurately be called the dark sister of presence. Having experienced the keenness, the delight, the wonder of presence, how hard it is for us to accept this dark sister. Moving from the one to the other it is as if the light were extinguished and with it all joy.

O'Donohue goes on to say:

The word absent has its roots in the latin "ab-esse" which means to be elsewhere. To be away from a person or a place. Whatever or whoever is absent has departed from somewhere they belong. Yet their distance is not indifferent to the place or the person they have left. Though now elsewhere, they are still missed, desired and longed for. Absence seems to hold the echo of some fractured intimacy. (228)

That is often how the absence of God appears to one who has experienced the consolation of his presence. Intimacy seems fractured, broken, lost. There can emerge a sense of grieving or longing for what was. Often, the one who suffers this loss begins to doubt his or her experience and may even stay away from further contact.

There are other ways of viewing this absence. Samuel Terrien says: "Mystical poets have often noted that human beings are unable to bear the burden of prolonged rapports with "visible" presence. Periods of spiritual wilderness in the absence of presence may be a disguised freedom from the joy and terror of revelation" (268). One is reminded of the desert, in fact and in symbol. The desert, for the early Christians who fled there, was a place of absence, and also a place of heightened struggle between good and evil: a struggle between the presence of God and the absence of that presence as exemplified in the evil spirit. Absence, then, comes with undertones of evil.

There is something in human nature that "cannot bear very much reality" (Eliot, 14). John Shea touches on the reason for this when he notes: "Our dwelling within Mystery is both menacing and promising, a relationship of exceeding darkness and undeserved light" (39). Again we are in the realm of paradox - the opposite poles which at once attract and repel us. Nowhere, as much as in our encounter with mystery, do we come so close to an understanding of who we ourselves are. There is fear of this revelation, of a depth beyond our control, and of coming too close to the abyss within.

Meister Eckhart speaks in words which are reminiscent of this abyss when he says: "Creatures are pure nothings. I so not say they are either important or unimportant but that they are pure nothings. What has no Being is nothing. Creatures have no Being of their own, for their Being is the presence of God. If God withdrew from them even for a moment, they would all perish" (185). No wonder, then that we resist the kind of knowledge that reminds us of who we are. We are experts at reassuring ourselves that we are not thus dependent. We move away from the presence which reminds us of our status as "creatures." Possessions, privilege, power re-assure us that we are in control. We invest our energies in these false gods, which we erect as a defense against our own mortality, against the invasion of mystery.

Speaking of this "shadow of nothingness" expressed by Eckhart, John O'Donohue says: "In a vast universe that often seems sinister and unaware of us, we need the presence and shelter of love to transfigure our loneliness. This cosmic loneliness is at the root of all inner loneliness. All our life, everything we do, think, and feel is surrounded by nothingness. Hence we become afraid so easily" (Anam Cara 11).

When we become aware of this loneliness, this nothingness, we yearn for its opposite - that warmth of presence which we associate with love. "Everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God [. . .] because God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). Yet, here too we balk. "Love scares us," says Ernest Larkin, "because it will not allow us to live in our private, alienated, me-for-me solitude. God's love is a searing power that burns away the layers of falsehood that cover our true selves" (44).

Love both draws us and challenges us to grow in the image of the one who laid down his life for his friends, who invites us to love our enemies, to lose our life in order to find it. With our often crude self-centeredness, it is no wonder that we remain enclosed in our falsity and fear, shut out from the very love we, in our deepest desires, long for.

Ralph Harper reminds us of the elusiveness of presence when he says:

The experience of presence is a delicate thing, even apart from the obstacles surrounding its attainment and the ever-present danger of its foundering. Like a sea anemone it closes when handled, and when one next looks it is only a hard little shell. Everything about it is unexpected, which carries not only the negative implication that it can collapse but, even more, the uncertain but nevertheless exciting promise of inexhaustible riches (The Existential Experience 122).

One of our most common human traits is to try to grasp, to hold onto what is perceived as good, to possess and manipulate it, to make it into a thing to build up our ego. We try to domesticate it, so that we feel in control. In the same way we tend to grasp consolations in prayer, that warm sense of God's closeness, and often enough try to artificially reproduce the same feelings. John of the Cross, however, exhorts us to the opposite:

To reach satisfaction in all
desire its possession in nothing.
To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all
desire the knowledge of nothing. (Ascent 78)

The Dark Night

The dark nights of sense and spirit in St. John of the Cross are associated with a sense of the absence of God. This is so in that God is not felt to be near, and seems to have withdrawn his consolations. Speaking of the night of the senses, John says: "Spiritual persons suffer considerable affliction in this night, owing not so much to the aridities they undergo as to their fear of having gone astray. Since they do not find any support or satisfaction in good things, they believe there will be no more spiritual blessings for them and that God has abandoned them" (Dark Night 184).

Here it is important for the spiritual director to understand persons who are going through this experience. The director helps them clarify whether they themselves are the cause through some negligence or sin. When someone who has felt the closeness of God begins to experience emptiness in the relationship, it is important to look at all aspects of the person's life. One's spirituality is not at a remove from one's life, but is embedded in its center. Therefore, personal crises, be they of a moral, psychological, or physical nature, will impinge on a person's relationship with God. Having reviewed these various aspects, the director and directee together reflect on God's action to determine whether God is leading the directee deeper. In this case it may be that the directee needs to leave behind a way of prayer which delighted him or her in the past.

John of the Cross says: "If there is no one to understand these persons, they either turn back and abandon the road or lose courage, or at least they hinder their own progress because of their excessive diligence in treading the path of discursive meditation" (Dark Night 185). Thus he points out how necessary spiritual direction is at certain key points in a person's life, most especially at times of transition. The dark night is such a time, as Kieran Kavanaugh observes:

What the person undergoing the dark night experiences is a painful lack or privation [. . .] Such persons receive a vivid understanding of their own misery and think they will never escape from it. Their faculties seem powerless and bound; all outside help appears useless; they feel no hope for any breakthrough or remedy in the future. The effect of all this is the dread-filled experience of being abandoned by God. (159)

In this instance a compassionate director can help them continue the journey in hope. All their familiar ways of prayer are useless now. Although initially unaware of what is happening, they are being moved in the way of contemplation. John of the Cross explains:

This, precisely, then, is what the divine ray of contemplation does. In striking the soul with its divine light, it surpasses the natural light and thereby darkens and deprives individuals of all the natural affections and apprehensions they perceive by means of their natural light. It leaves their spiritual and natural faculties not only in darkness but in emptiness too. (Dark Night 200)

This purifying effect of God's nearness is experienced by the person as absence. By continuing on his or her spiritual journey the person is led to deeper faith, hope, and love, and ultimately into a more profound communion with God. By remaining faithful in the darkness the person thus reaps the fruits of the dark night. The paradox is clearly expressed by Olivier Clement, who says:

The 'descent' into the heart corresponds to Moses' 'ascent' of Sinai. Moses penetrated then into the darkness where God was. Likewise we, in so far as we are personal existence in relationship, by going beyond any vision of the mind or the body, penetrate into the divine Darkness. It is the symbol and the experience of a presence that cannot be grasped, a night in which the Inaccessible presents himself and eludes us at the same time. It is the nocturnal communion of the hidden God with the person who is hidden in God. (246)

Paschal Mystery

Constance Fitzgerald helps us focus on this purification of the dark night in light of the central mystery of our Christian faith - the Paschal Mystery.

When John says that the Dark Night is an inflow of God, this inflow is of a God imparting a secret Wisdom who is Jesus Crucified, a secret, unitive, loving knowledge indicative of more intimate relationship (IDN 10.6). Dark Night is not primarily something, an impersonal darkness like a difficult situation or distressful psychological condition, but someone, a presence leaving an indelible imprint on the human spirit and consequently on one's entire life (101).

Captivated by the mystery of the one who, lifted up from the earth, draws all people to himself (John 12:32), the Christian enters more fully into what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It is a choice of Jesus' way to God. In his or her own experience of the dark night the Christian cries out with Jesus on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46).

Referring to the experience of Jesus in relation to the transfiguration from Mark's Gospel, Terrien asks:

Was there an agony in the middle of his public career, like that which was narrated at its beginning in the desert temptation or at its end in the Gethsemane alternation between resistance and surrender? The intimates of Jesus, remembering him, knew that the holy in this human life was a transfiguration of obedience to a very present voice - glory in an overshadowing cloud, power in darkness. (427)

Here seems to be implied the dark night as it touched the life of Jesus himself: the dark night which found its culmination on Calvary; the dark night which embraces the darkness of all of us: John Shea writes:

The Cross is the communication of God's care but it is not a message from the outside. God loves us by receiving our lives into himself as we experience them - torn and broken. [. . .] God has accepted those aspects of our lives we ourselves have disowned and denied. [. . .]

God's acceptance of even the worst in us has freed us from fear and without fear we do not need to lie. We can trust the long journey into ourselves and the Mystery of which we are a part (152-53).

In the shadow of the cross and in the hope of ultimate victory in the resurrection, the director journeys with the directee. In this time of crisis the directee may feel all has been lost, or that he or she has slipped back or that all was illusion in the first place. What well might be a strong support at this point is the director's encouragement to the directee to keep looking at his or her deepest desires. In this respect, Ann and Barry Ulanov observe: "Our admission of desires into consciousness becomes an admission of divine presence. Our desire for something so utterly outside us mirrors the desire of that outerness to become our innerness. Our very doubts about prayer turn into a struggle to accommodate this foreign presence" (20).

This struggle will also include the desire to accommodate that divine presence as it is, not as the directee would wish it to be. For the directee it is a time for purification of desires. The Ulanovs continue:

There are no guarantees, no assurances, no certainties in the ultimate precincts of desire except our own willingness. There is a special meaning to those constant injunctions to us to ask and seek, with their unbelievable accompanying promise that we will receive, that we will find what we want. The special meaning is that we must be willing to seek.

To be willing is not to perform a prodigious act of will which strains every muscle of the spirit. [. . .] willingness is a going-with-desire. (22-23)

In the darkness, when the experience of the cross is more real than that of the resurrection, the directee needs help to engage God's desire for him or her. It is a time when faith, hope, and love come into their own. It is the time of fidelity, when there is no obvious satisfaction in remaining faithful. Dyckman and Carroll refer to Thomas Merton's teaching in this instance:

The director perceives that another is truly going through an authentic 'desert experience' and being called into this 'prayer of faith', by the mere fact of an insistent seeking for [God] blindly, undauntedly, in spite of dryness, in spite of apparent hopelessness and the irrationality of the quest [. . .] Perceptive insight into what is happening in the rest of life helps the director and the directee to trust what is transpiring. (63)

They emphasize the importance of looking at all aspects of the life and relationships of the directee and point out that the fruitfulness of prayer is judged not by how we feel, but how we live our lives. Living life out of the fruits of the Spirit - "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23) - reveals seeds of resurrected life shining through the darkness.

Dynamics in the Relationship

A sense of presence and absence can be experienced in the director-directee relationship itself. Like all relationships there are times when the presence of one to the other is more vivid and alive. Equally there are times when one seems distant, or absent in one way or another. There are times of struggle, misunderstandings, disappointments - all the limits that are met with in human relationships. Nemeck and Coombs refer to this:

Not only do we as spiritual directors undergo our own personal poverty, but also we necessarily take upon ourselves something of the poverty of our directees. We undergo with our directees something of their struggle to become like Christ. Paul, reflecting on this aspect of his own spiritual parenthood, writes: 'My children, I go through the pain of giving rebirth to you until Christ is formed in you' (Ga. 4:19). (190)

Staying with directees in the dark places, in times of resistance and pain, can be demanding. Because of the director's vulnerability and sensitivity he or she suffers empathically with the directee. Awareness of personal inadequacy can, at times, seem overwhelming to the director as he or she tries to help the directee discern where God is leading. With the other the director is often conscious of stepping out into unknown territory, realizing that he or she has no answers. The director must learn again and again to rely on God working through human weakness. For both, the words of Paul are a constant reminder of their human condition: "I do not understand my own behavior; I do not act as I mean to, but I do things that I hate [. . .] the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want that is what I do" (Rom 7:15,19). Journeying with his or her limits, the director can take comfort from the words of Henri Nouwen when he says:

The minister who has come to terms with his own loneliness and is at home in his own house is a host who offers hospitality to his guests. He gives them a friendly space, where they may feel free to come and go, to be close and distant, to rest and to play, to talk and to be silent, to eat and to fast. The paradox indeed is that hospitality asks for the creation of an empty space where the guest can find his own soul (The Wounded Healer 94).


"The heart is more devious than any other thing, and is depraved; who can pierce its secrets? I Yahweh, search the heart" (Jer 17:9-10). Facilitating the directee as he or she opens the heart to a searching God, is one of the key activities of the director. Discerning where God is leading this particular person, the director meets again and again a Presence which seems to hide itself. The task here requires openness and courage and prayer, and freedom is central.

"One becomes more free through opening to the Spirit as one ponders life's choices. The Spirit's desires for us, reflected in our own deepest desires, are not self-evident. The major task of spiritual direction is to help directees sift desires and experiences. Listening to God's word as revealed in Scripture, and allowing one's actions and responses to be confronted by this word is part of the discernment process. Then, as Barry and Connolly point out, it is important to be able to distinguish what is "of God from other potentially misleading impulses. If we recognize that discernment is, finally, nothing more than being able to recognize and admit differences, we can appreciate both its simplicity and its value. We can also realize that directors are helping people discern when they help them notice what is going on as they pray" (102).

Three verbs used here are of particular relevance to the meaning of discernment - to distinguish, to recognize, and to notice. In order to do this one realizes how contemplative the process must be. Both director and directee are invited to a depth of listening to the Spirit at work in the heart of the directee. "Helping a person sort out movements within, even seemingly contradictory movements like peace and sinfulness, compassion for the poor and disbelief in God, is exactly what spiritual direction and its discernment is all about" (Reutemann 54). This sorting out over time begins to reveal, however tentatively, the direction God desires for this particular directee.

Reutemann continues: "When spiritual direction is focused on discerning the inner movements, then ordinarily connections can be made, themes and tendencies become apparent, and a sense of a desirable direction becomes clear" (54). This is a direction which may affect the whole thrust of the directee's life, in all his or her relationships - to God, self, others, and to God's creation. Reutemann concludes: "Insight alone rarely changes people. Action, or commitment to trying to live differently, often does change people" (55). To this action in individual lives and on behalf of God's Kingdom I now turn.

An Unending Journey

A person who comes for spiritual direction wishes to grow in his or her relationship to the Lord. As the directee journeys more deeply into the sanctuary where God dwells within, he or she is invited more and more to put on the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5). In Christ the directee journeys to the Father enlivened by the Spirit of love. Drawn more profoundly into the communion of love in the Trinity, the directee desires to make Paul's words his or her own, "I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me" (Gal 3:20). Growing into the likeness of Christ, this person wishes to live the Christ life - a life distinguished by love, and service, and total surrender to God.

Spiritual direction takes place in the real world of both positive structures which allow for human flourishing and negative structures which are destructive of human growth and development. Dyckman and Carrol have pointed out that:

Spirituality is the style of a person's response to Christ before the challenge of everyday life, in a given historical and cultural environment. [. . .] For some of us the starting point for a mystic life is the goodness or the needs of people, which will lead us into prayer, reflection and deeper awareness of the reality before us. Others, centred in a profound prayer relationship are thereby impelled into the lives of people and challenged to enter life more fully. [. . .] Real prayer leads to involvement. Real involvement leads to prayer. (79-80).

In other words, the spiritual direction relationship tunes in to all that is happening in a person's life - in the private, personal sphere, and in the public sphere of action, ministry, and involvement on behalf of the Kingdom. Called by a gracious God, both director and directee realize that:

An integral response to grace entails a concern for the social structures and institutions in which all participate and which have a bearing on the lives of others. [. . .] The reality of faith and love, one's real commitment that defines who a person is, consists in the fundamental option and direction of one's whole life. This fundamental option is embedded in one's action and can only be fully discerned by an analysis of action. (Haight 462).

The prophet Micah reduces the criteria to a simple, yet profound, summary of what the director should be alert for as he or she listens to the unfolding truth of the other: "This is what Yahweh asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).

Spiritual direction, therefore, has a societal dimension. It calls the person to reflect in order to become involved in action for the Kingdom. Spiritual direction is a forum for arriving at an authentic spirituality. As Dyckman and Carroll point out, authentic spirituality does not remove us from the world but "immerses us more deeply in it [. . .] [It] will always include some uprooting and rerooting" (83). An awareness of the cost enters in here, as well as a sharing in the cross. Having helped the directee discern God's call in this dimension of his or her life, the director remains as an encouraging, supporting, sustaining and challenging presence.

Barry and Connolly state that in the practice of spiritual direction it should give pause if a directee's prayer never raised a question about his or her part in the struggle for social justice (197). When the director is alert to this dimension he or she can raise a question or help the person see a missing connection in this regard.

Peter Henriot talks of the sensitivity of the director to "social consolation" and "social desolation" with a directee. "A feeling of fear or helplessness, for instance, in the face of a nuclear arms race, can affect the prayer of a sensitive person just as much as personal problems of poor self-image" (xiii). Another point of social justice which may emerge in the spiritual direction situation is the relationship of life style to prayer. The director listens, encourages, and challenges the person as he or she struggles with this.

Accompanying the directee, as he or she opens to God's guidance in life direction, the director receives strength, and inspiration, and delights in God's gifts to others. As the directee grows and matures in love of God and of God's people, the director too may be profoundly changed. Together with the directee, he or she is able to respond with wonder and awe at the reality of God's action among his people.

The director's role of graced intervention in the life of the directee may be of long or short duration. For both of them "finding God consists in endlessly seeking God" (Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses). Christian life is a continuous dynamic of self-transcendence, an essentially timeless adaptation of the human mode to the divine through Christ, who is the incarnate sacrament of God's presence. The "day of Christ" (Phil. 1:10) is the presence of God, and where presence is total, time is transcended. God is always present now: I AM (Exodus 3:14). (Freeman 782)

I have reflected further on the implications of the theme of Exodus 3:1-14, and with this short reflection I draw this section to a close.

A young man herding sheep
Discovers in a common bush the face of God:
The God of his ancestors
Calls his name, like love
Bursting into fiery flame;
He hears because perhaps
He is attuned to hear as God hears
The anguish of his people.
Awareness of this Holy Presence
Calls him to let go, to leave
His sheep, the sandals off his feet,
To journey to the heart of pain
Sustained by the transcending life within,
So fiercely felt beside a burning bush
Upon God's holy hill.


In the spiritual direction relationship, when two persons are present to each other and to God, the directee is enabled to discern more clearly the divine presence at work in all of life's experiences. In this article I have explored the notion of relationship as one of intimacy, emerging from the passionate communion within the Trinity. Rooted in this divine relationship through a life of prayer and service, two people are drawn together into the exchange known as the anam cara relationship. I have referred to these two people as director and directee because of the role each assumes in the relationship. Both are united in their desire to help the directee discern the direction in which God is leading him or her. This is with a view to enabling the directee live his or her life in an authentically Christian way.

The encounters between these two persons are carried out in a contemplative atmosphere, which is an atmosphere consciously open to the eternal Presence we call Mystery or God. Informed by this mystery each is able to be more fully present to the other. Active listening and silence play a vital part in allowing this presence to emerge; honesty and transparency are key elements in its growth.

In a world where we are tempted to anaesthetize ourselves against reality with a constant barrage of noise, the quiet constancy of communion in presence is a deep-seated need, though not a popular choice. In a world where 'doing' swallows up our restless hours and days, a presence that centers on 'being' has become a profoundly necessary counterbalance. In a world where ownership of more and more goods endevors our freedom and creates a false identity, the non-grasping attitude of a truly open presence challenges.

Perhaps it is true to say in the context of the milieu in the west, and of all cultures overtaken by consumerism, that to adopt an attitude which focuses on contemplative presence is to be counter-cultural. Yet this is an attitude which Tillich saw as leading to greater awareness, freedom, relatedness, and transcendence - all deep yearnings of the human heart. How to transform these yearnings into lived experience has been part of the exploration in this article.

In order to live one's life out of these values - which are basically Gospel values - one needs to remain close to the Source of all presence through a life of prayer. One would be will advised not to go it alone, but to have a wise companion on the journey, a soul friend who appreciates one's deepest inner longings and encourages one to live from the center. Here, the seeker can receive enormous support and strength to continue the journey, especially when the going gets rough. And it will go through rough times and difficult phases, for to become fully human and fully Christian is a demanding task. It involves work in the sense of a readiness to come to know oneself, through revealing oneself to an other and to the Other, to get feedback, and in the process to let go of the false self.

This in-depth process of conversion requires faith in a God who entered our world in the person of Jesus and empowers us to follow his way. It requires hope in the midst of darkness, as one willingly, time and time again, steps out into the unknown, and encounters the unfathomable mystery of suffering - one's own and that of the world. It requires love of the one who has loved us first and promises to be with us always: "I have loved you just as the father has loved me. Remain in my love" (John 15:9).

Undertaking this spiritual journey in faith, hope, and love is not merely for personal nourishment and private growth. To become more truly who one is called to be is a choice which has far-reaching effects. As one is gradually transformed in Christ, all of creation is in some way the beneficiary. One is touched by a gracious God: gifted in prayer and in spiritual companionship. Part of growing into God's way is allowing one's life to be shaped in such a way that love of God and love of God's creation - being transformed and sharing in the transformation of our world - are brought into harmony in one's life. Contemplation, leading to action on behalf of justice, then returning to contemplation, become the paradoxical rhythm, that breathing out and breathing in that is the sign of all authentic spirituality.


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