How God Works Through the Ministry of Spiritual Guidance

As a spiritual pilgrim, director of Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program, and associate of a Benedictine monastic community preparing to welcome a new class of associates seeking to explore their vocations as spiritual guides, I’m wondering about what light the Rule of St. Benedict might shed upon the formation of spiritual guides. What, within the core experience of the monastic vow, might nurture a richer understanding of one-to-one spiritual direction?

Let’s begin with a look at the word, “Monastic,” the adjective form of the noun, “monk.” It derives from the Greek word, “monos,” meaning “one,” “whole,” or “complete.” The monastic is called to discern heaven on earth. In fact, the word for a monk’s dwelling, a cell, derives from the Latin word, “caelum,” meaning “heaven.” Therefore, a spiritual pilgrim within the monastic tradition is invited to embark upon an intentional journey towards wholeness or fullness of being, union with the Divine, heaven. The critical word here is “intentional.” Both Marsha Sinetar, in Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics, and Wayne Teasdale, in A Monk in the World, present stories of ordinary people who find themselves on intentional spiritual journeys towards wholeness. A critical companion on this intentional journey is the spiritual guide. Thus, it is important for this new breed of monk, whether married, partnered, or single, to explore what it might mean to intentionally journey in the company of a spiritual companion towards fullness of being outside traditional monastery walls.

How might ordinary people embrace this reinvented monastic journey? We can look to the monastic vow itself for a viable map. Although the monastic vow is one vow, it has three manifestations within the Benedictine tradition. They are stability, obedience, and conversion of life. This threefold manifestation of the vow is the cornerstone of my understanding of spiritual guidance. In stability, we commit our entire being to the life God gives; in obedience, we honor the freeing demands and limits of this life; and in conversion of life, we remain open to change and growth. Therefore, as we make a commitment (stability) to journey faithfully with another (obedience) to discern the Spirit’s call to journey more fully into the open spaces of God’s transfiguring and all-transforming love (conversion of life), the discipline of spiritual guidance emerges as an incarnation of this threefold vow.

Journeying with a pilgrim into a new relationship is an excellent example of how the monastic vow is incarnated by seeking one-to-one spiritual guidance. In my early days as a spiritual guide, the chair of our Diocesan Task Force for Days of Quiet Reflection asked spiritual guides within the diocese to provide “business cards” for distribution at the task force’s table at an upcoming diocesan convention. During the course of the convention, one of our diocesan leaders approached me holding one of my cards. This person, who lives from a deep spirituality informed by an advanced psychological and intellectual development, said she was unaware that I was a spiritual guide until she saw my card. It caught her eye because she was looking for a guide and felt I would be a good one. She expressed concern, however, that our paths cross in so many ways through our respective ministries. She was afraid that if we were to sit together conflicts of interest might arise. Honoring her concern, I responded, “It can be challenging, within a small diocese where everyone knows everyone else, to find a spiritual companion. However, I believe in my heart-of-hearts that the Spirit will lead you to the right person at the right time. Just be patient. Keep your eyes and ears open to discern the presence of Christ in those you encounter.” I went on to share with her a bit of my own journey as it had taken me over a year to find my current guide. Then, I suggested some excellent guides for her consideration.

Imagine my surprise when I received a call from her three months later. She said, “Phillip, I’ve really prayed about this, and I believe you’re the right person for me at this time. I’ve considered all the people you suggested, along with others, and they just don’t feel right. I feel like with you there’d an honest, authentic, Spirit-filled relationship.” This statement brought me up short. It had a ring of honesty that is best not ignored. So, I asked about her previous concern about potential conflicts of interest. She said that she had come to see that unless she wanted to travel for several hours each way that it was unlikely that she would be able to find a guide whom she did not encounter in other spheres of life. Then, she said that as she prayed about a possible guidance relationship with me, she felt calmed about her previous concerns; she said I was someone she knew, through experience, that she could trust. I asked for some time to pray about her request and suggested that she give me a call the following week, if she still felt we were called to sit together.

During the next week, she was very much in my prayers. I discerned that I did not share her initial concern about conflicts of interest because I am constantly working within confidential relationships. I know what it is like to have to tell a third party, kindly but firmly, that an inquiry is out of line and none of their business. In other words, I have lots of experience discerning and sustaining appropriate boundaries. Therefore, I was willing to serve as her guide for one-to-one spiritual direction if she were still interested. She did call again a week later, and we arranged an introductory meeting to explore more thoroughly how we might journey together. At present, we have been sitting together for some time and I sense that we are both graced by the relationship.

I believe the above narrative is an illustration of how God works through the ministry of spiritual guidance. Within the paradigm described in the example, the pilgrim guided by the Spirit (stability) sought a committed relationship of mutuality with me (obedience) where we would prayerfully seek to discern the Spirit’s call for her life (conversion of life). The most important qualification of a guide within this paradigm is the ability to be attuned to the Spirit’s call for the pilgrim to journey more fully into the open spaces of God’s transfiguring and all-transforming love; the guide is called not to just hear but to listen from the heart. Within this model, one does not decide to become a spiritual guide; one is called. This model is congruent with my spiritual formation within the Benedictine and Anglican traditions as refined through three streams of interpersonal experience: my vocation as an associate of the Benedictine Order of the Holy Cross, a call to cross-cultural studies, and a commitment to interspirituality.

Within the Benedictine monastic tradition, one commits one’s entire being to the life God gives through stability; one honors the freeing demands and limits of this life through obedience; and in conversion of life, one remains open to change and growth. Therefore, as a directee makes a commitment (stability) to work faithfully with a guide (obedience) to discern the Spirit’s call to journey more fully into the open spaces of God’s transfiguring and all-transforming love (conversion of life), the discipline of spiritual guidance emerges as an incarnation of this threefold vow.

November 11, 2023 by Phillip Stephens 1 Comment
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Georgann Low
6 months ago

Thank you⭐️

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