This is a letter from Luci Shaw to her friend Madeleine L’Engle about spiritual direction…. (and if you know me, that sentence just encapsulated three of the best things that happened to me in my life). It is from Shaw and L’Engle’s book Friends for the Journey.
I’m sitting here at my desk, just full of the sense of wonder and joy that always comes when I suddenly realize that God is at work behind the scenes, “working things together for good” for me.
You know some of the history of my searches and findings of spiritual directors. How Eugene Peterson suggested I go about this process: “Pray, and see whose name or face comes to mind.” Which is how I found my first director in Chicago–the wonderful cleric who introduced me to Ignation spiritual disciplines. But when I moved to California, the search and the prayer began over again, after an abortive encounter with a staff member at the local retreat centre.
At a retreat for the women of my church, Holy Trinity Menlo Park, my prayer was answered. M.R. was our retreat leader, a young woman half my age whose quiet wisdom and creative humour i found refreshing and spiritually invigorating. After the retreat was over I asked for her business card. It read: Retreats and Spiritual Direction. When I phoned her later and asked “Are you open to taking on new directs?” she replied, “Let’s get together and talk about it.”
I know from past experience how important it is to find “a good fit” in one’s spiritual director. I’m not looking for a peer, or a priest, though often the function is priestly. Perhaps what I’m looking for is more like an experienced companion on the way. And in the quiet of her home, with her young baby asleep in another room, we introduced ourselves, each to the other, talking and praying and exploring our spiritual “fit.”
I told her some of my conservative Christian background, and how some of those elements of faith are still very necessary for me. I have a hard time, for instance, calling God “She,” or “Her,” or “Mother,” because though I believe God is beyond gender, Jesus calls him Father, and having had a loving and affirming father myself, God’s Fatherhood is reinforcement for me. I also believe what CS. Lewis said, that in the the presence of God the Creator, the Initiator, all of us, whether men or women, are “eternally feminine.:
I told M.R. some of my past doubts and questions, my griefs and spurts of growth, and how, beneath everything else, I am a truth-seeker. She needed to know I’m not satisfied with easy answers. Platitudes make me nauseated. I don’t just want to be reassured and comforted, but I need a spiritual guide who will challenge me and hold me accountable for my choices and the directions I’m finding.
When we next met, she’d provided a glass of cool water next to my chair and before talking together we sat quietly, collecting ourselves, entering in to God in silent prayer, breathing deeply to deoxygenate our bodies and our spirits. I’m such a sacramentalist. This deep breathing speaks to me not just of physical calming, but of God’s breath, his Spirit, being invited into my deepest being, a wind to scour out false assumptions and guide me into truth.
M.R. has degrees in theology and psychology, and she is aware and informed at that intellectual level. But what means the most to me is her listening heart. She listens to me (and remembers, with amazing clarity, the personal details that she hears from month to month) and she listens to what God is speaking into our conversation. Time and time again I find her listening, then touching the precise knot which has me bound, or putting together, and making sense out of the diverse aspects of a spiritual conundrum. She makes apt use of metaphor, which endears her to me particularly. And when I write my fears or experiences into a poem, she responds to its deepest truth without having to have it explained to her. She affirms what is healthful in me and questions anything that is spurious or superficial. Our monthly sessions are always highlights for me. I leave her with journal notes which give me much food for thought and I also note in my journal her challenges and assignments for the coming month.
Because, of course, my journal is one of the best aids in this spiritual pilgrimage, I read her my passages of intimate insights and decisions, of conflict or struggle, confident of her confidentiality. So, you can tell something very good has come into my life, a good person, one in whom I meet Jesus so powerfully. Maybe I can sum it up by saying that when I am with her, it is like being with Jesus, he is so powerfully present, and I hear his voice in her voice, see his face in hers. I write this knowing it will give you joy too.
I’ll call you soon, perhaps even before you read this.