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Being a Formator of Spiritual Directors

24 April 2009 – Brian Gallagher
To be fully-alive human beings, free, faithful, and fruitful, is the goal of any process, any model of formation. In AECSD’s desire to support you in your ministry of formation, the Council has thought and prayed, consulted and struggled with different expectations, and written and re-written several times the document entitled Formation Guidelines:Recommendations to foster, support and recognise the formation of spiritual directors in Australia (initially calledStandards for Formation…). Through it, we’ve always believed that, first and foremost, we are called to be free, faithful, fruitful human beings. Then, maybe, we can be spiritual directors, supervisors, mentors, and formators of others.
The very terminology raises questions. We’ve all come today, obviously considering ourselves formators of spiritual directors – and yet I know some are asking “what exactly is formation?” AECSD uses the word “formation” of spiritual directors, since that has been the traditional term. We recognise that some may say “training” of spiritual directors, some say “preparation”: we’ve continued to say “formation”, meaning that we are concerned with the ministry of helping to prepare others for their own ministry as spiritual directors. (You recall that we had similar questions about calling ourselves spiritual directors: some preferred terms like “spiritual companion”, “soul friend”, “mentor”, but the traditional term holds. No spiritual director, in fact, directs others, in the sense of imposing direction; similarly, no formator formsothers, in the sense of shaping them into some pre-determined mould.)
I don’t imagine that anything I’m about to say is terribly new. Maybe we can see this time as an opportunity to remind ourselves of the basic principles we hold as spiritual directors and formators, and to review the ways we translate these principles into our ministry.

*****

I have two basic assumptions:
  • formation is a personal, dynamic, developmental, wholistic reality. Its aim and its outcome are not pre-determined, not static or measurable. Certainly, there is an intellectual content to formation – as Teresa of Avila once said, make sure you talk to someone learned! I would add, someone who has integrated their learning, integrated the intellectual, spiritual and pastoral components – for formation is essentially about personal growth, conversion, transformation. Learning aboutspiritual direction is a mere first step in learning to be a spiritual director.
  • secondly, spiritual direction is God’s work. However we go about our work as spiritual directors or formators of spiritual directors, we cannot risk distracting from what God has done and is doing in those to whom we minister. As spiritual directors and formators, we focus on the workings of God’s Spirit in others; we listen (with those to whom we minister) to the invitation of God’s Spirit in their prayer, their ministry, and their life experience.

*****

We probably didn’t need the reminder, but we were given it strongly in the early writings of Gerald May. May says it’s rare that any one of us comes to ministry utterly freely. We all come with varying degrees of unconscious self-interest and conscious or unconscious preconceptions about what we can offer and what we imagine the other person needs. It’s precisely because of the unfreedoms that all of us carry that we are invited to conversion – to be fully alive human beings, let alone open, sensitive spiritual directors and formators of spiritual directors. Because we are called to life, to freedom and to truth, our ministry of listening to and responding to God’s Spirit requires constant discernment and constant reflection on our own inner movements and personal dynamics.
On behalf of AECSD, I want to pick up this insight of Gerald May to see what light it can shed on our ministry of helping others to be spiritual directors. I want to address questions like when and how does formation happen – for us and for those to whom we minister? And what does it mean for me to be a formator?

*****

I believe that what Gerald May says about the unfreedoms we bring to our ministerial relationships is true for all of our relationships. Few of us come to any relationship utterly freely, whether our relationship with God or our relationships with our loved ones. Invariably we come with some level of possessiveness, self-interest, selfishness in our loving, though we rarely know this in our awareness. John of the Cross would say that the normal development of any relationship is a process of purification of our desire and our love for another. It happens in all of our relationships, often quite painfully: we can experience it as a time of crisis in a friendship or marriage, a time of frustration in our spiritual direction or our therapy, a time of apparent loss in our lives, a time when God seems remote and uncaring. Moreover, we experience it as a time of helplessness to change what seems to be happening to us. As you know, John calls this experience a dark night. And though it may be dark and joyless, he says it’s the way our desire is purified and freed. It doesn’t feel so, but in fact, it’s a time of growth, personally and relationally. It’s normal; indeed, it seems it has to happenfor all of us.
As we are purified, we come to know the other, the one we love, more truly, in herself / himself, not judged by our likes and dislikes. And we come to know God more truly, not as we ourselves have imagined God. To say it another way: in this process of purification, we are constantly invited to move from loving, ministering, being with others because of the satisfaction it gives us, or the affirmation we receive, rather to loving and ministering to others for their sake, regardless of the cost. This point of freedom is the goal of formation.
As supervisors and formators, we are especially interested in others’ ministerial relationships, but more and more we find that we cannot isolate these relationships from other relationships in a person’s life. When the process of purification happens for someone, it will be across the board, integrated into the person’s whole life experience. And it will be ongoing: I’m tempted say, never-ending.
We want our spiritual directors to be free, faithful, and fruitful in their ministry. We want it for them because we know that a spiritual director’s ability to be present to another, to listen to another, and to sense the movement of the Spirit of God in another’s experience, depends on the director’s own inner freedom. An unfree director will hear what she wants to hear, or what suits her to hear, or only what he is able to hear. Our ministry of supervision and formation is intended to promote that growth to freedom in the spiritual directors who come to us.

*****

We need to talk about how we go about this, how we can help the movement to inner freedom in another person. Because we believe that spiritual direction, supervision and formation are God’s work, we’ve committed ourselves to acontemplative approach to our ministry. Contemplation is to see as God sees, to hear as God hears. As we help others to be spiritual directors, we’ll want to work contemplatively ourselves, at the same time as we are encouraging them to a contemplative way of ministry.
We know we can’t teach someone to contemplate the beauty of a rose or the shimmer of the moon rising over the bay, or the uniqueness of the person sitting across the room. But we can ask what happens in your inner world as you focus on the rose or listen to the person opposite you… how are you affected by what you see and hear. As we focus on our inner life in this way, we find that most of us experience a mixed bag of movements in ourselves as we look and listen. There is much we could say about discernment, the task of sifting these mixed movements. For now, we note that, as we help others in the process of purification, a key focus for us will be identifying and naming the different spirits at work in the other, in both their prayer and their ministry. (Needless to say, we will need to name the different spirits in ourselves, too, as we listen and support others.) In simple terms, God’s Spirit will promote true self and will challenge any falsity, while spirits not of-God will promote untruth and unfreedom – and will even make them seem attractive! If a person is honestly open to God’s Spirit, anything not of-God will be exposed – false images, hidden agendas, inner attachments or unfreedoms, any unconscious tendencies to control or manipulate God’s work.
Thomas Keating calls this process of purification “divine therapy”, a therapy for the “tyranny of the false self”. Keating promotes such “therapy” by the practice of centering prayer, on which he has written widely. Contemplative prayer (with spiritual direction) and contemplative ministry (with supervision) serve to bring into our awareness any blocks or resistances to God’s Spirit, enabling us to grow in freedom. Keating says that “if we don’t allow the Spirit of God to address the deep levels of our attachments to ourselves and to our programs for happiness, we will pour into the world the negative elements of our self-centeredness…” In other words, when we do allow – and only when we allow – the Spirit of God to address the deep levels of our inner attachments, through contemplation, only then will we avoid pouring our self-centeredness into our world — which includes, of course, into our ministry.
Formation, in summary, is about encouraging true self, the unique free, faithful, fruitful person God has created each of us to be – we began by saying, the true person innate in each of us. And so, at the same time – and for the sake of encouraging true self – formation is also about exposing and rising above false self, as we have been describing. Then, as formation deepens and our spiritual directors grow in inner freedom, we find that their ministry thrives. In directors committed to such inner freedom, each in her/his own unique way of ministering, we find that contemplative listening, sensitive discernment and prayerful spiritual direction flow quite naturally.

*****

Finally, it hardly needs saying that our ministry of formation of spiritual directors asks of us the same inner freedom, the same contemplative listening, the same ongoing growth in self-awareness that we hope for in the spiritual directors who come to us. Accepting that we are all committed to deepening human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation (for ourselves and for our spiritual directors), then there are implications : implications for each of us, personally, as formators, and implications for any program of formation that we set up.
I thought it might be helpful if I talked of some of the implications that have emerged for me over my years of involvement in the ministries of spiritual direction, supervision and formation. I cannot say, precisely, what the implications are or will be for you – though I think I can say confidently that, of its nature, this is not an easy ministry! There are no short cuts to this growth towards inner freedom.
  • To begin with, growth in self-knowledge and self-awareness is not easy. The invitation to such growth is never-ending and asks a clear commitment from us. In my experience, one reason I’ve found it difficult is that there seems to be no let-up: it demands constant reflection on all of my life experience, and on all of my relationships, as much as on whatever is happening in my ministry. It seems that every interaction, every day, has the potential for some new awareness.
Two experiences have helped me: I had some months of intense personal therapy (a number of years back). I recommend that strongly. It takes some learning that intellectual insight into my inner dynamics, of itself, doesn’t bring change. Only emotional insight does that – and we need proper help to come to that level of awareness. As you know, people preparing to be psychotherapists are required to attend one or two years of personal therapy themselves, as part of their formation: I’m not sure that spiritual directors – or those helping others to become spiritual directors — should be any different? I found it immensely helpful. And still, today, I believe that I couldn’t do this ministry, without my own regular spiritual direction / supervision.
The other major help I’ve experienced has been to work closely with others, as part of a team, mutually supporting, challenging, inter-acting with others – and having to work hard to keep the relationships open and honest. I can’t imagine now working any other way.
  • Secondly, fidelity to a contemplative way of life is not easy. I’m sure I’m not alone in my experience of impatient struggle with the waiting time, the temptation to fill the time with something apparently “more useful”, the ever-present un-knowing, seeming to have little to show for the time given to contemplative prayer. And I’m sure I’m not alone in my experience of waiting on God in ministry, resisting the temptation to tell the other person what to do, to put the other person on the right track (what I think is the right track).
Again, thanks be to God, I’ve experienced good helps. The first was a spiritual director who guided me in a contemplative way, learning to be still and to appreciate the place of my body and my breathing, learning to let go of my ever-active mind and all my good ideas. Later, I lived in a Zen centre for some months and practised Zen meditation for some years. All of which, I think, helped me to be more open, and vulnerable, to let go control, and to wait on God.
The other help came from an experienced supervisor who, some years ago, challenged me to direct a 30-day retreat, without mentioning the words “Ignatius”, “Spiritual Exercises”, or “Discernment”. Clearly, it was an invitation to listen contemplatively to the movement of the spirits in the retreatant’s experience, without preconceived ideas on what should happen in the retreat. I think this helped me, too, to integrate my learnings about what we call the “rules for discernment of spirits”. I valued that very much.
  • I want to say, too, that the ministry of being a supervisor or a formator of other spiritual directors is not easy, either. Maybe what has challenged me most has been the very uniqueness of each person who comes to me. With all the demands of the ministry (that you know), the temptation often is to tell others “this is what it means to be a spiritual director” or “this is how to be a spiritual director”. But, in fact, there are no moulds, are there? As a friend of mine says often, there is no other spiritual director quite like you, or me. (There is no other formator quite like you, or me, either.) We are each called personally and uniquely. Given all that I’ve already said, the risk of putting others into a kind-of  “mould” of spiritual director is all the greater when there are not too many helps available to us in this ministry: we’ve all experienced how difficult it is to find a good supervisor for ourselves; and we all know how little is available in programs for formation of supervisors.
Again, I’m happy to name where I’ve been helped. We began our formation progam for spiritual directors 30 years ago with good experience of being supervised ourselves, but little experience of being supervisors. The greatest help was that we were not alone: I could not have, and would not want to have, moved into this ministry without the mutual support, challenge, and learning that came from close interaction with others on the job. I referred to that above. Moreover, we had excellent professional mentoring from an experienced therapist and supervisor. That ensured our own formation, transformation, as we worked with others in their formation. Again, my strongest encouragement to you is to seek such professional mentoring.

*****

References:
John of the Cross: The Ascent of Mount Carmel; The Dark Night Collected Works, many editions
Thomas Keating: Intimacy with God Continuum Publ., NY, 1996
The Human Condition Paulist Press, NY, 1999
Gerald May: Care of Mind, Care of Spirit, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1982
Will and Spirit, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1982