Noël Staples reflects on Quakers and spiritual direction.
(Noel is a Friend of Peterborough Meeting, Britain.)
At Britain Yearly Meeting in 2012, by pure coincidence (or synchronicity), I sat next to London Friend in one of the sessions where we shared, for a couple of minutes, our experience of ‘being a Quaker’ with the person next to us.
Afterwards, the Friend said to me “I think you would find it helpful to have someone to talk to about your spiritual life.” She told me she was trained as a spiritual director. I had never heard of “spiritual directors” and had no idea what they did. She added: “Well, actually, God directs, I merely accompany.” We exchanged email addresses so that we could make contact later. About a month after this I received an email gently reminding me of the offer, which I gratefully accepted. Our monthly meetings since then, generously and freely given in her home, have been an immense blessing. Quiet and perceptive observations have moved me forward in my spiritual journey.
What is this “spiritual direction” and how does it help with one’s spiritual journey? Well, my experience is limited, and traditions vary, but in my experience it is not counselling or problem solving: it’s more about listening and accompanying, and holding space for the person being accompanied to be listened to, wherever they are, in a spirit of compassion and truth-seeking. Training for spiritual directors varies but, usually, it mainly comprises learning by practice in twos and threes, developing the experience of listening and speaking and observing encounters and reflecting together on them. Trainee spiritual directors have to learn real, non-judgmental listening skills. They have to listen carefully to someone talking about his or her spiritual experience and try to reflect back something of the wisdom of God and the value of their spiritual experiences, which the trainee spiritual director notices in the person talked with. Spiritual accompaniment is part of many spiritual traditions and there are ecumenical courses in many parts of Britain run by Anglican dioceses. They usually also run referral services (you can find them through the internet), and some supervision and continuing support for directors.
It’s important to find a spiritual director who is on something of the same spiritual path as you, though we are all unique in our spiritual lives. This can be difficult for Quakers as we have no specifically Quaker training in spiritual direction, or a referral network. Although some Friends may be comfortable using traditional God-language, and directors are generally respectful of people’s different journeys (and not out to convert), it helps if you can find someone with some understanding and sympathy with the Quaker way. Both the Quaker spiritual directors I know trained with ecumenical organisations under the auspices of Anglican dioceses; but some Quakers might not be comfortable either with offering direction to non-Quakers or to training within such a Christian context.
How does spiritual direction help? Perhaps the greatest value is the opportunity it gives to talk about your spiritual journey, both your problems and your sense of times when you feel you have really “moved forward”. Simply trying to articulate your spiritual journey out loud to a sensitive and perceptive listener will both clarify and deepen your spiritual life. In order to put aspects of your spiritual journey into words you have, in some sense, to “re-live” those experiences. Doing so often enhances and adds depth to the original experience. By explaining your spiritual life or experiences to someone else, you also have to explain them to yourself!
Originally published in the Friend, 19 July 2013. Reprinted in the Australian Friend with permission.