© Barbara F. Meyers 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 6, 2011

Listen to Audio Version of Whole Service (mp3)
Listen to Audio Version of Sermon (mp3)


Reading from Rachel Naomi Remen's book "Kitchen Table Wisdom" pp 143 - 144

I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it's given from the heart. When people are talking, there's no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they're saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it. Most of us don't value ourselves or our love enough to know this. It has taken me a long time to believe in the power of simply saying, "I'm so sorry," when someone is in pain. And meaning it.

One of my patients told me that when she tried to tell her story people often interrupted to tell her that they once had something just like that happen to them. Subtly her pain became a story about themselves. Eventually she stopped talking to most people. It was just too lonely. We connect through listening. When we interrupt what someone is saying to let them know that we understand, we move the focus of attention to ourselves. When we listen, they know we care. Many people with cancer talk about the relief of having someone just listen.

I have even learned to respond to someone crying by just listening. In the old days I used to reach for the tissues, until I realized that passing a person a tissue may be just another way to shut them down, to take them out of their experience of sadness and grief. Now I just listen. When they have cried all they need to cry, they find me there with them.

This simple thing has not been that easy to learn. It certainly went against everything I had been taught since I was very young. I thought people listened only because they were too timid to speak or did not know the answer. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well intentioned words.

Sermon: Spiritual Direction

I'll start by noting that this is Community Ministry Sunday, and as the community minister here at Mission Peak, I'm happy to talk about an aspect of my ministry this morning.

In December, I completed a certificate program in Spiritual Direction at the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley. A required part of the program was that I myself have regular spiritual direction, and that I do a year-long supervised internship working with two clients. I found that this process changed me - for the better I'm happy to say. Since I have now hung out my shingle as a spiritual director (see my brochure in the cabinet), I thought I would take the opportunity today to tell you about this special discipline and why I have embarked in this practice.

What is Spiritual Direction

The term "Spiritual Direction" is in some ways a misnomer. In general, clients of spiritual directors aren't given explicit directions or told what to think or believe. Perhaps "Spiritual Companion" or "Spiritual Guide" is a more descriptive term about the role of the Director.

Spiritual Direction does not provide easy answers. Instead, it focuses us on the difficult questions our lives present to us and helps us to make careful and soulful discernments, supported by a sympathetic companion.

Examples of these kind of questions are:

A spiritual director doesn't have the answers, but he or she can helping people uncover their own deep-down wisdom so that they can find their own answers.

The Rev. John Mabry, the Director of the Chaplaincy Institute's spiritual Direction program, summed up the purpose of Spiritual Direction as assisting people in becoming more intimacy with the Divine. He explained it this way: "A spiritual director will walk with you on your spiritual journey, listen as you uncover your true purpose, and support you as you discover your true path. He or she will point out things that you may not be able to see because they are too close to your field of vision. But you don't have to take their word for anything. You are always the expert on your spiritual life."

These sentiments are reflected in a quote from the philosopher and psychologist, William James. He said, "Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, 'This is the real me.' And when you have found that attitude, follow it."

You can expect that a Spiritual Director will listen to you, really listen the way that the reading from Rachel Naomi Remen described. He or she can then ask spiritually oriented questions, like "Where do you see the divine (or Where do you see the timeless, or the ultimate) in this experience?"

Why I Wanted to Earn this Certificate

My community ministry is focused on mental health issues. In my own experience, spirituality was tremendously important in my recovery. This was despite the fact that the professional mental health community had traditionally pathologized and discouraged any form of religious expression, even labeling it as a symptom. Things are changing now, thank goodness, particularly in the last 15 years or so. I wanted to have this tool, spiritual direction, available for me to help clients for whom it would be useful. It seemed to be the next most logical step for me to take in growing my ministry.

Very Brief History of Spiritual Direction

The history of spiritual direction can be traced back to the desert fathers in the first few centuries of the Church. It was natural that new Christians (or established ones in search of a deeper experience of God) would seek wisdom from Christians with more experience, knowledge and sanctity. Eventually some of their practices became subsumed into the sacrament of confession in the Christian church.

For 1500 years - such teaching and exploration continued in the monastic model where nuns and monks lived a secluded life in community.

Then, there was a Revolution: Nuns started encouraging others to get spiritual direction. Then, they trained lay people to do spiritual direction. Then Protestants came for spiritual direction. Then Jews, Buddhists and all traditions came. Now it is very widely practiced in many traditions. Spiritual Direction is one of the fastest joining ministries. World-wide organization Spiritual Directors International. Quarterly Journal: Presence.

Different forms: Directive and Non-Directive work for different traditions and people. I have now worked with 4 different spiritual directors and can testify that there are indeed quite different styles of direction. One used the Enneagram model to help understand who I was. Another was almost always silent and asked no questions. One wanted to work only over the phone. The last let me talk and then made insightful comments and asked deep questions. Different styles for different people! Not everyone is going to be a good fit and if you are interested in being a client, it pays to interview a few Spiritual Directors to find the best fit for you.

What I Studied

The Chaplaincy Institute is an "Interfaith Seminary." That means that we studied the spiritual practices of all the major world religions, and learned that they each give precious gifts, and learned how to use some of their wisdom when they are the most appropriate. Here are some examples:

The study for the certificate involved 4 intensive weeks of classes, several books and many readings, a year of supervised internship, deep relationships with the other students which continue to this day, respect for the teachers and the Chaplaincy Institute, and working with two spiritual directors of my own, one of whom I continue to see in an ongoing basis.

What I learned:

What a spiritual director does besides listening:

If you work with a spiritual director, you can expect to:

My particular, interests are people with mental health difficulties and people who are scientists.

However, these aren't the only people I will work with. I remain open to and am honored by companioning anyone on their journey.

Let's try it, so you get the gist

If you wish to get a little taste of this experience, I suggest that we engage in some listening and talking. I invite you to pair up with someone near you. Start by one person asking the other this question: "What do you love the most and why?"

Then, practice listening to the answer of this question. Just listen compassionately - non-judgmentally. Don't interrupt.

Listen for 2 minutes and I'll ring the bell. Then change places and ask the question and answer again.


Thank you for trying this out. I hope you found it spiritually useful to both speak and listen. I'll be interested to hear your reflections during coffee hour, or later. I will close with the words of John Mabry: "Spiritual directors do not have the answers, and the good ones don't pretend to. But we do have a warm, hospitable space to offer and our full attention to give. It is not certainty we offer, but presence. No one needs to walk the spiritual path alone."

May it be so.


counter for wordpress

Back to Top