Spiritual Direction: Where Does It Fit into the Wellness Picture?

Daniel Nelson, OFM Features

This is the ninth in a series of articles provided by members of the Province’s Wellness Committee.  Information about the committee and about health concerns is available through chair J. Patrick Kelly at 201-280-7644 and member Sr. Vicki Masterpaul at 716-373-0200, ext. 3304.

One of the “wisdom sayings” most frequently repeated to those training in the practice of the depth psychotherapies is: “you cannot take someone where you yourself have not been”.  Each nightly installment of HBO’s recent original series “In Treatment” dramatically portrays the truth of this guiding adage as Paul, the wizened psychotherapist, navigates the turbulent waters of his clients’ immediate personal struggles and deeper inner dynamics. 

More than any other fictional depiction of the process of in-depth work, this series strikingly represents the relational and interdependent nature of the healing enterprise long identified by scientific research. Each client’s struggles in some way forces the identified “expert” of the series to come to grips with his own insecurity whether it is his personal emptiness, capacity for violence, parenting inadequacies or marital struggles. Not only must he come to face them, but indeed to use them as the ever-deepening basis for empathic interventions with his clients. His own weekly meeting with a former training supervisor insures that points of identification with the client and the inevitable challenge of growth inherent in professional encounters are not lost. And, it all can make for some engrossing (if not addictive) television viewing.

Spiritual Direction Highlights Mutual Support
So, just what does all this have to do with spiritual direction and its contribution to ones “Wellness”? While admittedly different in focus and purpose from psychotherapy or pastoral counseling, spiritual direction similarly emphasizes the relational, “accompanying” nature of this process to enhance a person’s understanding of his/her life story as “sacred”. Spiritual direction invites each individual to further deepen one’s relationship with the spiritual aspect of being human by growing ever closer to God.  Underlying these definitions is the understanding that such “direction” and “companioning” is indeed an interactive, interdependent process whereby director and directee make available to one another the life moments and movements  — significant and ordinary —  experienced in their everyday lives as reflecting the action of God’s ever present Spirit.  On the part of the director, the fruit of his/her own spiritual journey is the frame of reference whereby support and encouragement is offered for the benefit of the directee’s own spiritual self-exploration, understanding and growth.

It is this aspect of mutual support and shared spiritual experience in “fellowship” that the research has shown contributes to the overall well-being and health of those involved. Within the context of spiritual practices such as is found in the spiritual direction relationship (especially when offered in a group setting), individuals find sources of support and community which exceed the benefits of individual therapy (Russell & Yarhouse, 2006).  Included among the benefits derived from such spiritually-based relationships are:  spiritual strengthening, protection from external pressures, avoidance of self-preoccupation, developing a sense of belonging, and providing a sense of purpose and assistance in coping with a multitude of difficulties.  In addition, other dimensions of well-being enhanced by developing ones spirituality include greater personal happiness and life-satisfaction (Richards & Bergin, 2005). Further discussion of the positive impact and contribution of spiritual and religious practice to one’s physical and mental well-being can be found in a “Wellness” article in the Jan. 31 2007 issue of this newsletter.

Survey Shows Many Friars lack a Spiritual Director
How is all this pertinent to us, the friars of Holy Name Province? As reflected in the results of the Wellness survey completed by 310 friars of Holy Name Province in 2006/2007, one third (34 percent) of all respondents reported having a spiritual director. However, when the numbers are broken down according to age groups, what becomes most evident is that as we friars age, we become increasingly less likely to be engaged formally in this spirituality-enhancing activity as directees. Whereas 65 percent of the friars 30-39 years of age have a spiritual director, only 18 percent of friars in their 70s do so. Midlife groupings average around 40 percent participation. 

While no further information was solicited by the survey, it at least indicates that fewer friars are likely to take advantage of this potentially beneficial practice over the course of their religious life. Can we presume that with age comes such spiritual experience and consequent wisdom that spiritual direction becomes less salient and meaningful? Does ones ministerial activity preclude the time required for such engagement? Or, does this finding reflect a difference in the inculcated values of each groups’ initial spiritual, Franciscan formation? Further investigation would be necessary to determine the factors contributing to this measureable shift in friar spiritual practice.

What must be acknowledged, however, is that a developmental approach to understanding both the psychological and spiritual maturation of the individual friar indicates that each life stage contains unique and previously inexperienced challenges of its own.  Later life stages are no exception as they are frequently marked by the experience of a diminution of physical abilities and capacities, the ever looming possibility of “retirement”, and the necessary realignment of one’s energies and involvements on the professional, personal and social level. This too is the “stuff” relevant to our spiritual growth and reflection and grist for the spiritual direction mill. Engaged as we are in the spiritual formation and service of those entrusted to our care, it is well to remember that we cannot take someone to a place we ourselves have not been. For the mutual benefit of doing our own spiritual “inner work” and those whom we are called to serve, perhaps it would be worthwhile to reconsider the ongoing value of spiritual direction at every stage of our Franciscan development and ministerial involvement and not reject it summarily out of hand.

For discussion of spiritual direction from various faith perspectives and how to find a spiritual director in your area, one may consult the website of Spiritual Directors International (www.sdiworld.org).

—  Fr. Dan is associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y.

Related Links