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Spiritual Intimacy: The Power of Group Spiritual Direction

Today’s post is by Tom Adams

There is no deeper intimacy than hearts united in a desire to be with God and each other in prayer. Group spiritual direction is for me a unique and no-fail opportunity to experience that intimacy and to grow in love. The love that develops among strangers in group spiritual direction feeds and nurtures all our loving—with spouse or children, friends and the broader community and world.

I had the privilege of being part of Shalem’s group spiritual direction when it first met more than 20 years ago. I was in the same group for over 15 years until two of our four members moved away. We met at Shalem until our schedules suggested we find our own time. We met as a group in our homes after that.

I felt amazingly close and connected to the two women and one man in our group. We did not know each other socially and were quite different by personality. We came together and sat in silence and asked ourselves where we were in relation to God and what God was up to in our hearts and souls. Then we listened as best we could with “God’s ears” to what God might be saying to each other and shared what came to us in prayer. We learned how to resist giving advice and let the Spirit do the moving and fixing, not us. We caught ourselves when the ego took over and reflected on our desire, as Jerry May would repeat so often, to “let God guide.”

Early on, on a hot summer night with no air conditioning, we had a reading from the Old Testament about Lot’s wife looking back and turning to salt. God used that moment to make it abundantly clear to me that I could worry and doubt if I chose, but there was no need to look back in regret. God invited me to trust God’s love in the moment. I continue to learn more about that invitation and appreciate that powerful moment. Another time we read from the Song of Songs, and our facilitator spoke so deeply from her heart about how much God loved each of us that my faith in God’s love took a big leap forward.

Whether dealing with big decisions, such as staying in a difficult marriage, or dealing with everyday happenings, each time I participate in group spiritual direction I am awed by the power of being with God and community in prayerful listening.

When our group ended because of members moving, I tried for a while to get connected to another group. It never seemed to happen. Three years ago, I participated in Shalem’s Personal Spiritual Deepening Program. As part of it, we met with two other members over the year. I quickly felt like I had been led home. The same amazing connections and spiritual intimacy occurred. When the course was over, we decided to continue to meet. We have met for three years on our own, about every four to six weeks.

The same “magic” that I experienced years earlier happens in this group. Sharing at a deeper level about our journey with God draws us closer. We discover repeatedly that we are more alike than different. We are supported, encouraged and challenged to listen for God’s call and to respond.

In early May, I attended Shalem’s Group Spiritual Direction Workshop. I went with a desire to get refreshed on the principles that guide group spiritual direction. Secondly, I had retired in December and thought some quiet would be welcome. I was delighted on both counts.

One of the sessions at the retreat introduced the idea that group spiritual direction is like a three-sided triangle. One side is spiritual direction; the second spiritual community; and the third intercessory prayer. I am usually aware of the power of being in community with others. I appreciate the guidance and direction that comes from having others listen to where I am with God and then responding as they are led by the Spirit. Remembering we are there to pray for one another and for the world sometimes gets lost, or at least for me, is easy to forget.

One of the leaders made a triangle and gave us a visual aid to reinforce the point. All three dimensions of group spiritual direction are its essence. When one gets lost, the opportunity for spiritual intimacy diminishes. We keep time not to be rigid; rather to remember we are community and it is important that there be mutuality and equity in our sharing. We don’t give advice because we are there to listen for God’s voice, not to solve each others’ problems.

For long-time Shalem participants, it is easy to imagine how often Sister Rose Mary Dougherty was mentioned and her wise leadership in developing this approach to group spiritual direction. My favorite Rose Mary recollection at the retreat was when a facilitator responded to a question with: “Well as Rose Mary said often, just remember it is all prayer.” Her simple faithfulness to listening for God’s guidance and praying without ceasing continue to anchor Shalem’s way of group spiritual direction.

My personal favorite Rose Mary story is one she often used to introduce newcomers to group spiritual direction. With her impish Irish grin, she would quietly ask: “Have you heard the African proverb about why the antelopes walk side by side in the jungle? It is so they can blow the dust from one another’s eyes.”

Whenever a few are gathered with a desire to be and hear God, the dust is blown from our eyes and love grows. Love for God; love for self; and love for others. At our retreat, we met three times with the same group for a couple of hours each. Two days later, strangers had shared intimate details of their spiritual and life journeys and had grown in love for one another and were renewed and refreshed.

Safety and belonging are key pathways to my desire to love and be loved. Group spiritual direction with its triangle of spiritual direction, spiritual community and intercessory prayer is like MiracleGro on that desire to love and be loved.

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