Sally Kingsland, Canberra Regional Meeting

To listen another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another. – Douglas Steere[1]

Spiritual growth has been the central feature of my life since I awoke to the journey in 2003. Since that time I have sought out many avenues of healing, growth and development. Spiritual direction has had a major impact on my life. It does not seem to have been very common within the Quaker community but is growing.

Spiritual direction is an ancient practice in which a ‘directee’ is accompanied on their spiritual journey by a spiritual ‘director’. Various forms of this kind of relationship have existed across faith traditions, particularly in their contemplative arms, and is possibly best known and explicitly practiced through the Catholic tradition. Although named the ‘director’, it is acknowledged that God (however one names the Greater Than) is the true director and some spiritual directors use a third chair, or a candle, during sessions to remind all of the third Presence in the room.

The goal of spiritual direction, as I understand it, is to create a space for soul work. To generate a sanctuary for inner expansion and examination that leads to healing, growth and wholeness.  Generally, the spiritual director spends a lot of time listening to the directee and supporting their discernment. This might include asking questions, making suggestions for practices for the directee to try, and reflecting what they are seeing and hearing. The role of a spiritual director, among other things, is to nurture the directee’s capacity to access their own depths and strengths. Each person has the inner wisdom they need to heal and grow and, while solitude is important, we aren’t meant to walk the path alone. The spiritual direction relationship can be a place to take one’s deepest questions and reflections. Clarifying what spiritual direction is not is also important. It is not such as advice, counselling or therapy. The role of a spiritual director is usefully outlined in Spiritual Directors International’s (SDI) Code of Ethics.

There are many reasons that people seek out a spiritual director. Some are looking for more depth in their experience of life, some want to know why they feel that something is “missing”, some want a spiritual or religious connection and haven’t found a way to meet that need in other ways. Others seek to deepen their prayer life and connection to G-d. Sometimes awakening to our inner world can be abrupt, through a major disruption in life, sometimes it may arise slowly, manifesting in discontent or malaise. It is often the same kind of reason that brought many Quakers to Meeting for the first time. What we seek, or have thrust upon us, is the opportunity for spiritual growth and transformation that comes from the wisest part of ourselves and beyond. A spiritual director can help create the space for ‘seed’ to grow and be made known in our lives.

How a spiritual director manages their own life is essential, as is knowing one’s own boundaries and limitations. The spiritual director needs to have learned and implemented self-care and be stable in their own life with an orientation towards the Holy. They need to have their own practices and support structures to keep them grounded in contemplation, reflection and compassion. To be following best practice (as defined by the SDI Guidelines) they will be continuing their own spiritual growth, seeing a spiritual director, be in some kind of supervision and reflecting regularly on their role as a spiritual director. Within a Quaker context I believe that it also helps to have the Quaker community acknowledge and affirm the spiritual director’s ministry. As with all ministry, the Meeting community then has a responsibility to ensure that the spiritual director has support and oversight, or accountability, though the Meeting may well not be in a position to do that directly.

I find the Quaker Way to be inherently aligned with spiritual direction principles and practice. At the core of spiritual direction we find attention to the inner life through listening and discernment – this sounds familiar to most Friends I think! Through Meeting for Worship, the particular Quaker manner of undertaking corporate business and other processes, such as clearness committees, Quakers are already closely familiar with the ‘feel’ of spiritual direction. While I think many Quakers will have experienced mutual spiritual friendships, spiritual direction is slightly different in that the director is putting themself aside for the purpose of giving spiritual direction. The spiritual director also has to have made their spiritual life a priority and be actively attending to their own growth and accountability as discussed above.

Navigating spiritual direction relationships within the Quaker community can be slightly awkward as we operate as equals and are all involved in the functioning of our community. In some religious environments a spiritual director may be clergy or a nun, for example, and so slightly removed from the congregation with whom one has regular contact. I have seen various Quakers successfully serve in this role and believe it can be healthy for our communities given appropriate attention and care.

I have seen a Quaker spiritual director since 2014 and have found it to have a profound impact on my life. Through the space that the relationship has created in my life I have grown enormously. At one point in my path I had the difficult task of leaving from some very important relationships in my life and having my spiritual director to work through my discernment which was critical. It was also an essential place for me to be able to retreat and continue my deep spiritual reflections while in the midst of working many hours a week for my Yearly Meeting and being a parent of small children. My spiritual director has been responsive to my spiritual needs and brought a dimension to my prayer life that I have not found elsewhere.

Following my spiritual path involved waking up to recognise some gifts that I have to share with the world. We all have gifts, or a vocation, and I believe we are called to use our life to understand this call and bring forth what we have to offer. Although I had always been a talkative, outgoing, action-oriented person, I realised that at heart I am a contemplative with more of a gift for nurturing soul work (in myself and others) than I had realised. This was first shown to me in a way that I could understand during a week-long workshop on eldering. I was able to look back at the previous years and see how I had already been using the gift I had. Soon after this time I was approached by someone to accompany them on a regular basis.

These days many people train to be spiritual directors through one of the many excellent programs on offer in various countries. This is a relatively recent phenomenon though; traditionally this work has been done by those who have grown in their spiritual life and been mentored into the role. To date, I have been blessed with a number of amazing mentors and teachers, done a range of relevant reading, trained in non-violent communication but have not been called to undertake a specific spiritual direction course. I do have an experienced supervisor and have been working under the care of a Discipline and Care Committee who oversee my various Quaker work/ministry, since 2014.

There appears to be a growing interest among “liberal, unprogrammed” Quakers, including Australia Yearly Meeting, with a number of Australian Quakers undertaking spiritual direction training in recent years (and some well before that!). I posit that, in a time in which the Quaker community in Australia is quite externally focussed, there is a balancing movement in which some Friends are looking for more spiritual depth. I suggest that there is a longing and need for spiritual nurture that is currently unmet within the Australian Quaker community and more people are finding the spiritual space they need in spiritual direction relationships.

Other places I see Australian Quakers finding this kind of spiritual nurture are in small nurture groups with Friends from their Meeting, and through spiritual friendships. It is important to remember that “listening someone’s soul into a state of disclosure and discovery” is not confined to any one type of relationship or place in life. This nurture may manifest in many ways, such as through a grandmother, wise teacher or close friend.

For Friends who wish to explore spiritual direction further the Spiritual Directors International (SDI) website has useful information, and a Seek and Find Guide. Many spiritual directors now provide their services using videoconferencing technology so you do not need to be limited to the people you can find in person nearby. I see this as particularly helpful for people who identify as spiritual but are not necessarily attached to, or involved in, a religious body. SDI is an interfaith body that cares deeply about all people finding spiritual direction regardless of their various orientations in life.

Sally Kingsland recently returned from California to live in Canberra. She is a member of Canberra Regional Meeting and Spiritual Directors International.

[1] Steere, D (1986) Gleanings: A Random Harvest. Upper Room, Nashville


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