The Quiet Miracles of Spiritual Direction in Groups
Today’s article is by Ginger Essink (in February 2017 eNews)
I fell in love with what Shalem has to offer by starting in group spiritual direction. During the five years I was with my group, I was more enriched than I had ever imagined possible. This program of once-a-month meetings can create deep relationships in small groups of people, often lasting for years, where quiet miracles occur as people share their journeys within sacred space.
My own involvement began because I was strongly drawn to the whole idea of spiritual direction in groups and I had heard of Shalem through a friend. I was in transition—I had recently “retired” from corporate life after 17 years, to address chronic migraines and to spend better time with my son before he grew up. It was through God’s grace that I had finally been able to leave my work world, and now I was straining to hear what on earth I was to do next. The idea of a little community who could somehow help me hear God and share the ups and downs of my journey seemed an answer to an unasked prayer. I learned what I could through the web site and by reading Rose Mary Dougherty’s book on group spiritual direction.
People who wish to partake of the bounty of group spiritual direction need to have some kind of relationship with God that they want to deepen, and they have to be willing to show up for each other and to share their journeys with each other. There is no group, no spiritual, no direction without these. When people do show up and practice spiritual direction in groups, lives can be greatly enriched. How is this possible? What actually happens?
The process sounds simple enough. A facilitator guides each new small group in a sort of graceful dance: a time of sharing and intense listening, then prayerful silence while group members wait for guidance in how to respond, then responding, silence, and then the “dance” with the next person. At the end we always take time to talk about how the experience worked that day. I found that the silence after sharing stopped any tendency (however well-intentioned) to listen with half an ear while thinking of an appropriate response. I learned what it meant to listen and be listened to with full attention. And from the silence I found much more.
Although I’m still uncertain about the future, I’ve learned through this process that my life is infinitely richer if I pay attention to where God is in my life now. I had, it seems, segmented God. I knew God intimately in certain places—in most natural settings, and in times of joy and sadness. Early on I learned that someone in the group could always be counted on to ask, “Where is God in this?” and I learned to find God in entirely new places—in arguments with my adolescent son, in places of deeply held anger with my spouse, even in places of intense frustration with my computer. Someone in my group always responded to my sharing with an image, others with a phrase, a word, a question, and I often found an entirely new way of looking at things. And, always, regardless of whether I came in feeling troubled or happy, I left feeling that people who cared about me and my journey with God had helped me see my path better.
I was initially attracted to the group for companionship. It wasn’t until I had been in group spiritual direction for a while that it dawned on me that this process works not only because the groups are safe places to share, but because each person in a group learns to become a spiritual director for the others. In this facilitated process of sharing, listening and silence, I learned what it felt like to wait until a response seemed to bubble up and needed to be said versus my instincts to jump and offer consolation, empathy, or worse, advice. And the times that my own ego caught me up and I couldn’t hear that deep place of truth within, the facilitator and group process gently got me back on track. Learning to hear that voice within for others, in ordinary times, has been an extraordinary gift—one more quiet miracle of spiritual direction in groups.
A slightly different version of this article first appeared in the Shalem News, Summer 2004.
Interested in exploring Group Spiritual Direction? Join Shalem for Group Spiritual Direction: A Conference and Retreat, April 3-April 6 in Lexington, VA. This conference and retreat is designed for those who are currently engaged in or offering group spiritual direction and want to enhance their practice as facilitators or participants.