Gerard Guiton, New South Wales Regional Meeting.
QUAKERS HAVE HAD spiritual directors since the first Friends gathered around George Fox on Firbank Fell in 1652, although they never used the term “spiritual director”.
At the time, others were also giving freely of their spiritual counsel—François de Sales and Jeanne de Chantal in France, and English Puritans like the great poet, George Herbert. Unfortunately, the first Quakers seemed unaware of the work of these contemporaries, and also of that great wealth of shared spirituality during the Middle Ages—the sermons and letters of mystical luminaries such as Eckhart and Tauler, Hildegard, the Beguines. Indeed, there is no indication they were aware of the beautiful spiritual letters of Augustine of Hippo, for example, or the 4th century Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early Church.
Even if the Friends had known of the above, such people and movements would have been dismissed as ‘papists’. In looking elsewhere, the first Friends missed natural allies in the Spirit.
These days, suspicions among Friends about spiritual direction lingers despite, firstly, the evidence of spiritual directors a-plenty among the original Quakers—observe their epistles and letters to fellow Friends and non-Friends alike—and, secondly, the popularity of the above luminaries among present-day Friends. Spiritual direction is regarded by many as ‘priestly’, about one person (the director) telling the other (the directee) what to think and say (and therefore a form of proselytizing), and that it is Christian only. They point to our system of eldership and clearness meetings, for example, as sufficient means of support for immediately accessing God without intermediaries.
There are other concerns but these seem to be the main ones. Are they true? The answer is simple: they bear no relation to the truth of spiritual direction. Let us, then, first define spiritual direction or, as some prefer to call it, ‘spiritual friendship’ or ‘spiritual companionship’.
Sandra Schneiders: Spiritual direction can be understood as a process, carried out in a one-to-one interpersonal context, of establishing and maintaining a growth-orientation (that is, direction) in one’s faith life. This process has two movements . . . listening to God’s call in one’s life, and progressively elaborating an integrated and adequate response to that call.
Kathleen Fischer: Spiritual direction is a conversation in which a person seeks to answer the question, ‘What is spiritual growth and how do I foster it in my life?’ The exchanges that comprise a spiritual direction relationship focus on awareness of, and response, to God in one’s life. But since God is the deepest dimension of all experiences, the conversation will range over every area of existence. Spiritual direction concerns the movement of our entire lives in and towards God.
Liz Ellmann: Spiritual direction helps us learn how to live in peace, with compassion, promoting justice, as humble servants of that which lies beyond all names.
The true “director” in any spiritual companionship is the Spirit. In essence, spiritual friendship is quintessentially Quaker. How? To answer that question I’ll now briefly outline my thinking about, and practice of, spiritual companionship:
1. As the guide (“friend”) I have a deep regard for the other’s integrity. The process is a highly personal one and confidentiality is sacred. Violation of this principle is seriously unethical and, in my opinion, is a spiritual crime.
2. I try to create a calm, pleasing, hospitable environment. A lit candle, a picture/photo, a posy of flowers, two glasses of water and a box of tissues usually adorn a nearby table. I prepare other refreshments.
3. I start with prayerful silence; the seeker speaks when ready to do so.
4. I listen attentively, encouraging the person to ‘depth’ themselves by asking questions at special moments. These are not the “why?” or “how?” type but takes the form of something akin to, “Would you like to tell me more about that?”, “Can you describe the picture that comes to mind when you say that?” Or there may be “echoing” in which I repeat back to the person a word or statement just uttered but as a question. The idea of spiritual companionship is to reach heart-knowledge, “to sink down to the seed”. There are many, many types of questions one asks.
5. It is wise to be alert to images, metaphors and repetitions, and to explore and develop these.
6. A seeker’s body language is important to note. Tightly clasped hands or folded arms across the stomach, for instance, may signal reluctance to admit something. The guide must be observant and patient, while at all times allowing the seeker time and space to tell his/her story.
7. I “bookmark” phrases, words, statements (in my head) that help me “depth” the seeker or “pilgrim” (as s/he is sometimes called). After the session I will jot these down along with other impressions and ideas; this helps me to re-visit the seeker’s situation at a subsequent meeting.
8. I take note of my own reactions and feelings as the session proceeds. Again, I jot these down to bring to supervision.
9. All the time the seeker and I try to discern the working of God in the process to enrich the pilgrim’s prayer-life, and his/her path into a deeper relationship with God. We help each other up with a tender hand.
10. If someone is agnostic or atheist they may come to direction for all sorts of reasons—a desire to understand faith more or to explore spirituality more generally, or find meaning and purpose in their lives. People in the throes of a spiritual crisis can, and often do, seek direction.
11. Sometimes people enter spiritual companionship for help in making an important decision, or with an eye to healing themselves. There are times when the guide must admit they can go no further with the latter seeker and refer him/her to a counselor, even a psychiatrist in more serious cases.
12. The session usually lasts an hour and is held monthly, although people might ask for more frequent sessions. I gently draw the session to a close at an appropriate time and end with silence.
That’s the broad outline though, of course, it will always be more complex. In many ways, it bears an affinity to the early Quaker convincement in which people searched themselves for that which separated them from God’s Love and Light. Oftentimes this was an intense and tearful time. My sessions are similar in some ways to Meeting for Worship or Worship Sharing, both based on silence. Our Quaker processes rely on waiting upon God and discerning God’s desire for us. So, too, in spiritual friendship. We also aim to draw that of God out of seekers who walk courageously (“cheerfully”) with us over their own earth answering that of God in themselves. Further, the director must be a pattern and example to seekers.
Spiritual companionship is open to all. I have no problem in welcoming non-believers as well as folks from all walks of life and belief. As my Stillness shows, I draw from the well of many religious traditions and sources, and it’s a real pleasure to do so. In this vein, it is important to remember that there are many forms of spiritual friendship—Buddhist, for instance, and Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and so on. There is group spiritual direction while many guides use art and music besides other mediums in helping seekers.
It is important the director is qualified, is a member of a professional network (such as the Australian Spiritual Direction Network), undertakes professional development courses, and is under direction and supervision him/herself.
Spiritual direction or companionship is an adventure in the Spirit. There is nothing to fear, Friends, only much to gain. It opens people to the world and its concerns. It is peaceful and invites us to take the path into wholeness and unity in the Spirit. I end with two quotes from the early Friends:
George Fox to Elizabeth Claypole (daughter of Cromwell) in 1658:
Be still and cool in your own mind and spirit from your own thoughts, and then you will feel the principle of God to turn your mind to [God], whereby you will receive strength and power for whence life comes, to ally all tempests against blusterings and storms. That is it which moulds up into patience, innocency, soberness, stillness, into stayedness [persistence], quietness, up to God.
Richard Hebden to Friends in Co. Durham in 1655:
Wait for the increase in God, being content of what is made known of him . . . every motion that calls upon you to act or speak, do not lend an ear to it . . . return in again . . . and be not hasty . . . but wait that you may know the mind of God that you may not be deceived . . . such waiting is not disobedience but, on the contrary, when the mind of God is clearly seen in it, and nothing of self at all to be seen upon the examination . . . then be faithful . . . to put you into a search in your selves that you may know from whence all your obediences and performances do arise.