Which direction is spiritual? And what does that have to do with the practice of spiritual direction. I am a Unitarian Universalist Minister and the job I currently have is a congregational life consultant for the MidAmerica Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I travel all over the region and the country, work with some great colleagues like Rev. Tom Capo, and ultimately I get to serve a people and a faith tradition that’s in alignment with my deepest held beliefs. Something the Buddhists call “right livelihood.”
Because theology and spirituality are so much a part of what I do, I was able to find the time and resources to get trained as a spiritual director, or an Interspiritual Counselor—as the training program I attended calls it—a title I find almost as vague as congregational life consultant.
And the work I do justifies what might seem by some as an extravagant expense: paying for monthly spiritual direction sessions. I pay for those sessions myself, but some of my colleagues even use their professional expense money to pay for spiritual direction. It’s that important.
Spiritual direction is a work in progress
I mention all this not to present myself as some sort of expert in spirituality. I’m not. I mention all this because I want you to know that whatever I might say about which direction is spiritual, know that it’s a work in progress. That’s what our tradition says about being human—we’re works in progress. William Ellery Channing, one of our Unitarian forebears, is said to have described our state as being “infinitely perfectible.”
What’s more, our tradition also tells us that when it comes to having a relationship with “that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life”—as our first source puts it—there’s no such thing as one size fits all spirituality.
So I guess the answer to the question “Which direction is spiritual?” is “It depends.” It depends on your temperament. It depends on where you are on your journey through life. It depends on how much time you have available to contemplate your relationship to life, the universe, and everything.
Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die
For me, spirituality does, indeed, have something to do with that relationship. Here are a couple of definitions that I’ve found helpful. Elisabeth Lesser, co-founder of the Omega Institute, says that spirituality is “a fearless, relaxed, open-hearted investigation into life and death.”
That jibes with a definition of religion by the late Forest Church, a prominent Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, who said religion is
Our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. Knowing that we must die, we question what life means. Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What is life's purpose? What does all this mean?
I’ve come to realize, with the help of my spiritual director, that my way of investigating and responding to being alive and having to die is a holistic one. Holistic in the sense of “wholeness,” which comes from the same root word as “health” and “holy.”
On the need for a program of self-renewal
I first stumbled upon this concept when reading, Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Of all the habits Covey presented, the one that really caught my attention was the idea of “sharpening the saw.”
Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have—you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.
There are a couple of things I love about this. One, it’s about taking care of yourself. If one is going to have “a fearless, relaxed, open-hearted investigation into life and death,” one needs to be in the best physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual shape one can be.
Over the last few years I’ve learned just how thoroughly intertwined spirituality is with the other areas of life Covey mentions: the physical, the emotional, the mental. So now when I make decisions about how I live my life in those other areas, about eating, exercising, resting, about making meaningful connections with others, about reading, writing, and learning, I take my spiritual wellbeing into account as well.
How? Covey has a relatively simple list. It’s about “spending time in nature,” he says. It’s about “expanding [the] spiritual self through meditation, music, art, prayer, or service.” A simple list, yes. But I have to confess, I’ve always found it difficult to be intentional about things like this.
Asters at DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church; photo credit: Pat Clancy
I bet I’m not alone there, either. Most of us who aspire to a more balanced life, who want to attend to the spiritual side of our being, are aware of the importance of what is called “spiritual practice” or “discipline.”
But as minister and writer John Ortberg has noted, “If you're looking for a conversation stopper, try asking people this question: How are your spiritual disciplines going?”
Back before I was trained as a spiritual director, before I started seeing a spiritual director on a monthly basis, I might have imagined that was the kind of question a spiritual director might ask.
When faced with such a question, Ortberg says that, “Most people think of a very short list of activities that fall in the ‘I ought to do this, but I don't do it as much as I should so it makes me feel guilty just thinking about it’ category.”
And if that’s what would have happened in the sessions with my spiritual director, I can imagine that I may not have seen the sort of spiritual growth I recently have in my life.
What do you do that makes you feel fully alive?
But that’s not the kind of thing we talk about in spiritual direction. Instead, our conversations are started by other questions, ones closer to the kind Ortberg goes on to describe. He says, “So here's an alternative question: What do you do that makes you feel fully alive?”
Those are exactly the kind of things I’ve been exploring with my spiritual director. I’ve learned that taking long walks in any and every kind of weather makes me feel alive. I’ve learned that reading a poem and journaling about where the spirit is moving in that poem makes me feel alive. I’ve learned that slowing down and breathing intentionally for 10 minutes or so three times a day makes me feel calmer…and alive.
I feel privileged and blessed that my life has worked out in such a way where I have the time and resources to make spiritual direction a priority. It has helped me see things in myself and in my relationship with others that I probably would have missed otherwise.
Group Spiritual Direction
But what about people who can’t afford the time or the money? Fortunately, there is an alternative. While one-with-one spiritual direction may currently be the norm—as it has for most of the history of spiritual direction—there has recently been a new emphasis on group spiritual direction.Here are the basics of a group spiritual direction session: a small group, usually about four people, meet once a month or so with a facilitator who's been trained in the group spiritual direction format. They spend somewhere between an hour and a half to two and a half hours sharing and responding to one another about how “that transcending mystery and wonder” is moving in their lives. And woven throughout the entire process? Silence. Silence, sharing, silence, response, silence.Rose Mary Dougherty, a Roman Catholic nun and zen sensei says, “When a group can give itself to the process over a period of time…transformation occurs.” But what does Dougherty mean by the group giving itself to the process? I tend to think of this as engaging in the kind of covenantal relationship with one another that’s the foundation of our UU religious tradition. In group spiritual direction, the covenant looks like this.
Members must agree to:
• commit themselves to an honest relationship with “that transcending mystery and wonder”
• to participate wholeheartedly in the group process through prayerful listening and response
• to open their spiritual journeys for consideration by others.
And just a note about the word “prayerful.” I like to put it in the context of what Brother Wayne Teasdale called prayer or meditation:
The kind of mental and emotional stability produced by stillness that brings forth the highest potential of our hearts and minds.
Imagine, meeting with a group of people who have made this shared commitment to one another: to have an honest relationship with the holy, to bring the highest potential of their hearts and minds to the group process, and to open their spiritual journeys to the consideration of others.
It can be a very powerful experience. More powerful, perhaps, than individual spiritual direction can ever be. With group spiritual direction, each participant has the opportunity to play two roles: the one who shares, and the one who responds. What’s more, when you see an individual spiritual director, you get one perspective. But when you meet with a group of three or four other people, you get multiple perspectives.
And as John Ackerman, author of Listening to God: Spiritual Formation in Congregations, says, “Spirituality is generically understood as the search for meaning, finding something greater than oneself to belong to.”
I believe that small group spiritual direction is the ideal place for the “search for meaning” to happen.
That’s why I’m encouraging congregations to explore small group spiritual direction. The idea is to get a few people trained to facilitate groups, then see if anyone’s interested. If you are, or would just like to find out more, you can join us this afternoon for a conversation about forming small groups for spiritual direction here at DuPage UU Church.