Answering the Call

How did I get here? How did a singer and voice specialist end up as a spiritual director – much less the director of Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program? I’ve asked these questions a lot over the past year while stepping into my new role within SGP. I share the following reflections upon my own spiritual journey hoping that those folks sensing a potential call to the ministry of spiritual direction might be encouraged to trust and explore the nudges they’re experiencing.

When I was in the middle of my doctoral studies in vocal performance and pedagogy, I suffered repeated retinal detachments with major complications that resulted in me being blind for five months. I refer to this period as “The Dark Summer.” I had innumerable, painful surgeries throughout this period which all failed.

During the five months I was blind, the chair of the voice department and my voice professor insisted I come to school every day – Monday through Friday. I couldn’t sing; I couldn’t read; my ability to get to places on my own was limited; so, they had me spend my days in their studios listening to voice lessons. They wouldn’t let me listen passively, however. They actively engaged me in the lessons. In short, they interceded in an incarnational way.

On the pedagogy side of my studies, I was training to be a voice specialist with an emphasis in acoustics, sensory-motor coordination, and psychology of singing. Realizing that my blindness was a golden opportunity to hone my listening skills, my teachers would continually ask, “Phillip, what are you hearing? What do you sense is happening from a sensory motor perspective? What’s happening acoustically? What adjustments does the singer need to make?” Then, they would ask the singer to sing the phrase again with the suggested adjustments while directing me to place my hands on the singer in various ways. Then they would ask, “How is what you’re hearing and feeling matching up?” If they matched, we’d celebrate. If they didn’t, we’d figure out why not. My listening skills developed to the point that I could diagnose a situation purely by hearing. I didn’t need to see or touch. In short, I learned to listen deeply – not a bad skill for a future spiritual director. Even once my sight was restored, I would periodically close my eyes in a lesson to make sure I wasn’t being fooled by what I was seeing.

After graduation, I went on to perform and teach. Interestingly, during that period people began to approach me asking if I would sit with them as a spiritual director. I had no idea where these requests were coming from; so, I always politely said, “No, that’s not my calling.” Then, about ten years after “The Dark Summer,” I was teaching a voice lesson with a new student, a talented tenor who is also a Roman Catholic priest. His undergraduate degree was in vocal performance, and he wanted to keep up his chops. We were in his third lesson. He was singing beautifully. I couldn’t have been happier. Then suddenly, he stopped singing in the middle of a phrase, slammed his hands down on the piano, and said, “My God! You listen more deeply than any confessor or spiritual director I’ve ever encountered.” I was shocked. Where did that come from? I took a breath, smiled, and said “O.K.” Then, we went on with the lesson.

Yet, I had a sense that the Spirit was trying to tell me something. I kept wondering, “Is it possible I’m being called to the ministry of Spiritual Guidance?” When I finally dared to share this wondering with my spiritual director, spouse, priest, and bishop, they literally all responded in the same way, “I was wondering when you were going to figure this out.” Where did these responses come from? Then, the journey began in earnest. With the guidance of my spiritual director and bishop, I found my way to Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program and upon graduation was invited to join the staff. Who knew that all the prayers of intercession offered during my blindness would lead to this vocation? I give thanks every day.

Several years ago, I retired from singing and teaching and gave my full attention to spiritual direction and serving on the SGP staff. At that time, one of our SGP graduates said to me, “Phillip, you were a really fine singer and voice teacher. What were all those years in music about for you?” His question was a beautiful gift. He invited me to give voice to something I’d known for quite some time but had not yet articulated. I responded, “They were about learning to listen. As much as I loved singing and teaching, those years were preparing me for my true vocation, my true passion, spiritual direction.”

How did I get here? How did a singer and voice specialist end up as a spiritual director – much less the director of Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program? The short answer seems to be that’s what the Spirit wanted. So, the invitation for me is to continue listening for and trusting the Spirit’s movement. For those of you sensing a nudge to nurture your call as a spiritual director, I invite you to listen and trust that nudge. Trust that through you the Spirit can do infinitely more than you can ask or imagine.

September 09, 2021 by Phillip Stephens 3 Comments
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David Wirt
David Wirt
2 years ago

Thank you for sharing! You life journey is an inspiration.

Eileen Epperson
2 years ago
Reply to  David Wirt

An amazing story. I am so moved by your colleagues and how they refused to let you sit idle in your blindness. And what you did with that time!!!!

Andrea "Ani" Vidrine
2 years ago

Dear Phillip, I loved reading about the journey that has brought you so lovingly to us. We are blessed to have you leading and inspiring us. I am so grateful for you. Much love, Ani


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