Spiritual Direction Today

Spiritual Direction
An experience of spiritual direction
An interview with Don Bisson on spiritual direction and Jungian psychology
The Hindu-Christian Dialogue
Response #1
Response #2
Editors' Corner
Ecological Alert

Spiritual Direction

A renewed Christian spirituality ought to be accompanied by a renewed art and science of spiritual direction. A candid letter from one of our Forum members gives us a vivid glimpse of some of the problems that surrounded spiritual direction in the past.

An experience of spiritual direction: I prayed over whether to fill out the prayer questionnaire, but my reluctance to do so has not changed; it is not that I am unwilling to share what the Lord has done for me, but that - since I am, myself, very unclear as to what is his doing and what should properly be attributed to other factors directly, even though he can work through whatever happens - I fear to mislead others. Actually, my "way" is incredibly ordinary: daily Mass and Communion, morning and evening prayer, and some spiritual reading, regular confession (about every six weeks, usually. I have a regular confessor.) and a visit to my spiritual director (a wise and holy nun at a retreat house about an hour away) every other month. Since I can't manage the time to get to her monthly, I usually stay overnight and get about 24 hours of quiet and prayer. And an annual retreat of 7 to 10 days. My "ascetical practices" are even more ordinary: to accept interruptions gracefully ( "woman is the interrupted sex") and not take the stress out on other people.

I can, however, say a good bit about the question on spiritual direction. I have had a regular spiritual director/confessor since the age of 14. Some were superb. That was in the early years: high school, college, graduate school and the first 4 years of marriage. But - partly because of busyness and even more, of my own immaturity (human and spiritual), I was not able to take advantage of all they could have given me. What had moved me to seek direction in the first place was a conversion experience about the time I turned 13 (1 had been an atheist for at least a year before, and had given up all religious practice).

In January of 1965 when I was on maternity leave with a I year old and a 3 year old, I had another, much more intense experience. On only my husband's salary we could not afford a baby sitter. So there was no way I could go looking for anybody. I went to one of the priests in my parish.

He was quite unequal to it. When I said I felt a need to make a general confession, he had a fit, and would not hear of it. He even wanted to forbid me to go to daily Mass. (I used to go to the 6:45 Mass, putting the diapers in the washing machine on my way out, and in the dryer on my way in I'd be back before 7:30 when my husband and the children were just getting up.) The Lord worked in the situation, but "in spite of" my confessor/director, who hadn't a clue as to what was going on. What guidance I had was from my reading.

By the time I returned to teaching, which meant more money and therefore more freedom, I had learned to be wary of young priests who, all too often in those days, had never really been in love and were ripe to be smitten by any woman they got to know at all well. So I chose a priest who let slip, in a homily, some bits of personal information that indicated to me that he had already had his first love experience. He thought he had, too, but he was wrong, though it took nearly a year for me to see this clearly, and by then it was not easy to withdraw from the relationship which was becoming very destructive for me. I needed help - first from a professional therapist, but even better, the priest who had been his spiritual director.

This man was both learned and holy, so I thought I had, at last, found someone I could trust. And, indeed, he was most helpful in the early years. Then he had a heart attack and was unable to see anyone for several years. I had completed my own studies while on maternity leave with our third child, but again, had little free time until she began school.

Having learned that it was possible to do the Spiritual Exercises part time, I asked for a list of local priests who could direct a 19th Annotation Retreat, and chose the man most conveniently located. He was half-way decent as a retreat director, and agreed somewhat hesitantly to continue as my spiritual director. A year or so later he abruptly terminated the relationship in a letter stating that he was no longer able to help me.

So I went back to my previous confessor/spiritual director because I saw no other option, and he knew me. But this time it wasn't good. As a friend later explained when Teresa said: "choose a learned man over a holy man" she meant "learned in the ways of the spirit," and he wasn't. He knew only his own way to God and our personalities are very different.

Still, I hung in since I saw no one I felt more inclined to trust. Finally I learned that a colleague had a good list and I asked for a referral. She sent me to a wise and loving woman who is an Episcopalian priest, and all the raw places in my soul began to heal. But the only sort of retreats she leads are parish retreats for Episcopalian ladies.

That is why I decided to take a chance on a retreat house on the recommendation of my friend. She said one could still do a silent retreat there, and spoke very highly of one of the nuns. I agreed to a private directed retreat with the latter only because I figured she must be at least intelligent and well read. Talking to her would be a respite from the effort to pray. Well, that was quite a surprising experience. I felt that this was the director the Lord had chosen for me.

And it is a great relief not to, in effect, be my own director, trying to decide whether the guidance I'm getting is really relevant. Perhaps, when one is further along, the road will be clearer, but I've not come to that yet. I've no idea what is going on, and just trying to do what seems right, one minute at a time, no matter how I'm feeling, I'm back in the empty silence again, but not like before. This time, I know that it is all right, even though it is painful. It is none of my business to try to label it, or try to decide where it fits on any sort of scale, nor have I any desire to do so - quite the contrary.

Anyhow, so far as spiritual directors go, "beware of unripe gurus"!

Comment: This letter is all the more revealing because it is obviously by someone who valued spiritual direction and did not let past disappointments stop her from trying to find a suitable director. It also highlights one of the most pressing needs if a renewed spiritual direction is going to emerge: deep personal psychological knowledge, both practical and theoretical. Without it the director will not know just who she or he is directing in terms of their specific temperament. Nor will she or he be able to avoid unconscious psychological projections, whether in the form of falling in love or rejection.

An interview with Don Bisson on spiritual direction and Jungian psychology: In order to get a better grasp of this psychological dimension of spiritual direction, we interviewed Don Bisson, a Marist brother and pioneer in creating a new style of spiritual direction which joins spiritual direction to Jungian psychology. Active in the field of retreats and spiritual direction, he is now a master of novices.

Forum: How would you characterize the old style spiritual direction and its strengths and weaknesses?

Don: The more traditional style of spiritual direction seems to be less able to gather the movements of the soul. It was more focused on specific prayer periods and not on the totality of the person and the messages from the psyche. Since its emphasis was more exoteric, one prayed to a God who was "outside" and the formal structures of organized religion played a more significant role.

The old style spiritual direction had greater clarity about what prayer was, who God was, and how one was to move towards this God. Yet, it could not grasp the deeper language of the soul such as dreams, which might reveal the urgings of the divine. Unconsciously, there was a split between the movements of individuation and the explicit spiritual quest. This is a very significant weakness, because I believe the old system could work against the truth of God.

Forum: How extensive was it outside of religious orders?

Don: In our not too recent past, it was nearly exclusively limited not only to religious, but religious in formation or those on retreat. This is an extremely selective group in Christianity. I believe the need for spiritual direction directly corresponds to the deeper searching of people, which was no longer contained in denominational communities, Catholic or protestant. Today, spiritual direction is available beyond denominations and Christianity; church goers as well as those disenfranchised by religion search for spiritual direction.

Forum: Tell us something about this new interest in spiritual direction.

Don: The charism of spiritual direction seems to be exploding throughout the U.S. and English speaking world. Spiritual Directors International now publish a periodical, sponsors meetings, networking and supervision in developing new programs. Formation programs of immense variety are being initiated throughout the country. Catholic retreat centers, universities offering degrees, ecumenical and non-denominational theologates, institutes of transpersonal psychologies are now offering a myriad of opportunites for training spiritual directors. They all seem to emphasize a more inclusive perspective to this ministry.

These programs can vary immensely in terms of quality and professionalism. Some have a shadow side, which is nearly anti-Christian in perspective. It is so difficult to find a balance!

Such movements as feminist thought and 12 step programs have had far-reaching effects on spiritual direction, which are still being integrated.

Forum: What was the principle weakness of the old spiritual direction from a psychological point of view?

Don: The main problem of the older model, which is still in use by most people, is the exclusion of the unconscious. The dialogue has been too much in the light and not enough in the shadow darkness of the human soul. The soul's desire for union with the Mystery becomes increasingly frustrated when it is not truly heard and recognized by the ego. The ego, as choice maker, then becomes more and more attached to social and religious personas. The direction process should facilitate the ongoing conversion towards the Divine. The truth of the soul is a shocking revelation which demands a response to a power greater than one's ego.

Forum: How did you discover a marriage between Jungian psychology and spiritual direction?

Don: This process was not fundamentally a theoretical issue, but a deeply personal one. During my thirties transition, I underwent a severe period of confusion and pain. I was going to a spiritual director. Though a good person, she did not have the knowledge or skills to be with me during this spiritual crisis. The soul was crying for recognition from God; my director was powerless. I was having enormously powerful dreams and I could not grasp their meaning, yet I knew they were critical to the process. I began Jungian analysis, and studying Jung. I have been at it now for fifteen years. I received a Doctorate from the Pacific School of Religion. My work was on a theoretical reworking of spiritual direction through analytical psychology.

Forum: Just what do you do in this kind of spiritual direction?

Don: The most significant word that comes to me is "dialogue." This form of direction is a dialogue between the directee and the Mystery we call God. The dialogue is in the depth of the soul as experienced in dreams, active imagination, shadow work, and our contrasexual journey to wholeness. The individuation process is consciously integrated into the spiritual quest.

The "dialogue" also encompasses an expansion of traditional spiritual processes which include material from beneath the surface, i.e., dreams and discerning God's will in our lives, the contrasexual and our call to love God and neighbor, shadow work with forgiveness and healing. The ministry, as I see evolving from this Jungian context, needs a much greater intensity of training.

Forum: What would you like to see happen in the future of spiritual direction?

Don: I believe we are at the cusp of a radical form of ecumenism, which this form of spiritual direction alludes to. I also sense a deep awakening to the inner, mystical depths of the Christian tradition. When people "return" to their faith traditions they are seeking more than a standard bland Christianity. They are searching for a meaningful link to their souls.

Forum: Given this new kind of spiritual direction, what would the training look like?

Don: I have experienced many spiritual directors with a peripheral knowledge of Jungian thought, yet they would not be able to do this integrative model. The problems are:
     A. Their knowledge of the areas are not deep enough to use as tools for others.
     B. They do not understand the whole of the psychology piece, the larger framework.
     C. They cannot critique Jung or the limits of analytical psychology to the spiritual journey.
     D. They have not experienced for themselves a profound experience of conversion from the process.

Any training would have to address these weaknesses. I hope some day to help create such a program to empower men and women to become spiritual directors of the 21st century.

(For more on Don's work in creating a renewed spiritual direction, see Jungian Psychology and Spiritual Direction: A Visit with Don Bisson - a 53 minute video.