The prophetic dimension in spiritual direction

Eileen Glass


I would like to begin by outlining an understanding of the prophetic stance to which we are invited as spiritual directors.

I will then develop the following themes as a way of exploring the subject:

The culture in which we live and exercise our ministry

The importance of story, the sacred, graced story of each person

The necessity of listening to the voices from the margins of the dominant culture and from the margins of the sacred story

Spiritual direction in cross-cultural and interfaith contexts

I should also say a word about language. My beginnings as a spiritual director are in my formation in L’Arche. As a community which was founded in France , the spirituality and language of L’Arche are shaped by that context. So I will often use the word ‘accompaniment’ interchangeably with the word ‘direction’. In many respects I prefer it because it communicates a less ‘directive’ stance.

The prophetic stance

The Mission Statement of the AECSD states, ‘Our goal is to support and foster the prophetic dimension inherent in the ministry of spiritual direction which calls attention to the presence of God in all of life. This prophetic ministry calls for a practical lived response to that presence in ways that are just, reconciling and healing for all people and the whole of creation’.

What I would want to emphasize here is the inherently prophetic dimension of the ministry of spiritual direction. By its nature, this ministry is prophetic as it calls attention to the presence of God in all of life. We profess our belief in a God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves and yet so often we, and our directees, live and speak as if ‘God could not be in this experience’ or ‘in this particular part of my life’. The tension between what we profess and our behaviour which reflects our deepest convictions is embedded deeply in our quest for God, it woven into the fabric of human experience. The prophetic dimension of spiritual direction is underlined by the extent to which we, as directors, value the whole gamut of experience in each life; the giftedness and limitation, the vulnerabilities, the sinfulness and failures. We know that the Spirit of God hovers over all that is chaotic and broken in us and in our world, awaiting our readiness to receive the breath of life into the compost of our experience, to bring forth new life from what we would discard. So the prophetic stance in spiritual direction is in touch with this fundamental tension. It values those dimensions of life experience which are often feared, ignored, denied, repressed or mocked because they are judged to be bad, unworthy, shameful, signs of weakness, outside the domain of the spiritual journey.

I would describe the prophetic stance in spiritual direction as ‘the ability to read the signs of the times through the lens of a contemplative gaze; to be aware of and speak to the inner meaning of situations and life experiences; and from a place of interior freedom, to bring to awareness, and to affirm or challenge, what is often unreflected in the life of the directee and of the culture with which the director and directee are engaged’.

A word about the lens of a contemplative gaze. We know that the material of a spiritual direction encounter may not differ significantly from the material of a conversation with a counsellor or a professional supervisor. What then distinguishes the nature of each encounter? I believe it is the lens through which we view the material, the experience of the person. For example when a person is living a bereavement it may be important to work with a counsellor in order to process feelings, to explore how the death is impacting relationships, to work with the issues that emerge now that the person is no longer there. Professional supervision might address questions of how to respect the need to grieve in the context of continuing with one’s work and work relationships. The fundamental question for the spiritual direction encounter is ‘where is God in this experience?’ The answer to that question is not always evident and it is only in an attitude of respectful and compassionate listening and reflection that glimpses of life may emerge. This is what I mean by the lens of a contemplative gaze.

The culture in which we live and exercise our ministry

The dominant culture of the world in which we live and exercise our ministry is characterised by the drive for money, power, success and prestige. Personal worth is judged according to what we own, the social status of our friends, and our capacity to ‘buy’ meaningful experiences. It is a culture which increasingly draws lines between those who have, who succeed, who matter; and those who have not, who are weak, ill, strangers, often without hope, and because they matter less their basic needs and rights are considered less important.

The dominant culture moves at an increasingly rapid pace, generating endless activity and noise, and thereby entrenching an unreflected way of life. There is little time to sit and think, to recall, remember, review and reinterpret significant life moments. Consequently we encounter people who live with lack of meaning, and accompanying feelings of restlessness, emptiness and dissatisfaction. In an emerging global culture we witness a process of depersonalisation even as the emphasis on individualism persists.

The culture of organised religion is also impacted by the rapidity with which the dominant culture is changing. Many mainstream churches are struggling to find new forms of speaking to the needs and hopes of the women and men of our times. In the midst of this, our sure experience as spiritual directors is that there is a growing search and thirst in many people for a deeper understanding of the spiritual life, even as they abandon more formal expressions of church membership. We are witnessing the quiet growth of the ministry of Spiritual Direction, a ministry which begins with the person and his or her fundamental relationship with the transcendent, the relationship where each of us holds the questions of faith, of meaning and of values.

The centrality of story

Spiritual direction begins with the person and each encounter is unique. In listening to the person we give prominence to story, and the primacy of the graced story of each person is at the heart of our ministry. I believe that it is a prophetic aspect of the ministry. The process of depersonalisation in the dominant culture means that we are losing the art of telling stories and of receiving the stories of others. We spend our evenings being ‘told’ stories, which often have little relevance to our life at the time. I remember the feelings of dismay I experienced when I noticed the first television arrive in the neighbourhood of our community in Chennai , India . Such a fantastic acquisition could not be kept in the little house; it was outside in the yard so that all the neighbours could gather round and watch third rate American movies for hours on end. I could not imagine what that meant for the crowds of children who spoke no English and who had likely never travelled much beyond the village.

Spiritual direction offers a place for people to tell their unique story, the story which is entrusted to no other person on this earth, to have it received, validated and sometimes challenged. It is a place of listening to the spirit which moves at the centre of each life; of discerning the unrepeatable grace of the lives that we are privileged to accompany.

The story of each person reveals the way in which God enters into human experience. The word becomes flesh in each life and it is our privilege to be witnesses to that reality. In story we encounter resistance and grace, despair and hope, tears and laughter, anger and acceptance, judgement and forgiveness. We hear of life and death, grief and joy, endings and beginnings. In our focus on story and on the relationships of the directee with all aspects of his/her experience and with the God revealed in that experience, we become engaged with the questions and concerns of the world around us. Every one of the great issues, challenges and questions of our times spring from the earth of the human heart and spirit.

Recently I saw two very compelling pieces of Theatre which dramatically illustrate this point. The first was called ‘Shadows’, a presentation by William Yang in which he combined words and images from his life to tell stories which encompassed the following themes:

  • through his friendship with another artist he established a connection with an Aboriginal community at Enngonia in western NSW. As his relationship with one of the families in the community developed he discovered something of their story and of the silencing of their story, specifically in relationship to a massacre
  • a meeting with two German Lutheran women in South Australia led to his discovery of the story of their people, including incarceration during the World wars
  • his own relationship with a German man and his interest in architecture led him to Germany where, among other things, he explored the story of the holocaust and told us ‘at least in Germany they don’t deny the past’

In what was in many ways an intimate and personal account, William Yang allowed himself, and his audience, to be touched by experiences of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, economic status and sexual orientation; of the silencing of story; and of the life-giving power of authentic relationships where story is honoured.

Then three weeks ago in Alice Springs I attended a performance of Ngapartji Ngapartji, which is a story of the people whose country encompasses Maralinga. The story of the years of the bombing of their country was interwoven with the story of Hiroshima and the plight of Afghan refugees today. The first foreigners the Pitjantjatjara people ever knew were the Afghans, who being Moslem, did not introduce them to alcohol, an image of ‘what might have been’. The composition of the cast reflected the inclusive Aboriginal understanding of kinship and family; the themes of their story encompass dispossession, destruction of country, silencing of story, loss of culture, including loss of language.

I was struck by the way these two pieces of theatre illustrate how we are all only one or two relationships removed from people on the margins of the dominant culture and from the great issues and needs of our world. As I watched the production I found myself unexpectedly cast back to a time in 1973 when I was very ill and travelling in Afghanistan . I was taken in by a family who cared for me for three days while my companions took a side trip. In the past twenty years I have often wondered what happened to that family but did not expect to be reminded so strongly of them while engaging with the story of the people of the Spinifex country.

The juggernaut of the dominant culture can devalue and silence those voices which seek to give expression to a different experience and understanding. I have discovered through my friendships with people with intellectual disabilities that when a culture has an oral rather than a written tradition, it can be judged either to not exist or it is deemed to be inaccessible by those of us who rely on the written word as the hallmark of authenticity. So Spiritual Direction is prophetic as it lays claim to the importance of spoken sacred story.

By definition the voices from the margins will speak a different language and communicate differently. They are not always able to communicate in the language of the dominant culture. Recently I met an older Arrente woman who had suffered a stroke. She had been taken to Adelaide for rehabilitation and had been rehabilitated in English, which means she can no longer speak Arrente. As a consequence she is not able to pass on the stories of her people as she simply cannot transmit them in English. When we accompany people whose life experience is very different from our own, people of different cultures, ethnic and religious backgrounds, we need to be open to different language, different images and styles of communication. We need to open ourselves to the possibility of learning what we can of the language of the other. We will experience a stretching of our emotions and our understanding as we are invited to explore unfamiliar terrain with our directees. I will offer some examples for my own work as a director.

Accompanying people with an intellectual disability

The reality of living with an intellectual disability renders a person very vulnerable in any culture which values the power of intelligence, the capacity to be productive, physical beauty and success. So people who live with this particular form of disability are wounded by the experience of being devalued and marginalised; they are often aware of being a source of disappointment to their parents and a ‘problem’ for their family.

At the same time, the wounded heart can be the repository of grace. People who are limited in their capacity for intellectual thought are often gifted in their affectivity and their capacity for relationship. It is in daily life in L’Arche that I have been invited into authentic relationships such as I have rarely encountered elsewhere. I have been schooled in truthfulness, compassion and forgiveness; opened to the joy of the present moment, consoled by friends who can often offer little else than their presence – and indeed, in times of sorrow, what more is necessary?

In learning to divest myself of the lens of carer, teacher or even of spiritual guide to friends in my community, I have been opened to a new reality. I have discovered that vulnerability and limitation is not something which of itself has to be feared. When I know I am loved, I am freed to be truly myself, the protective masks fall away and I can begin to befriend parts of myself which I otherwise judge to be less attractive. When I grow in an authentic relationship with someone who is weak, I discover that healing and transformation are mutual and that together we are changed by the encounter. It follows from this that people who are gifted at the level of human relationships have an accompanying ease in their relationship with God. This was powerfully illustrated for me one night during prayer after the evening meal. I suggested that we might like to draw a picture of God. There was no hesitation on the part of my friends; they simplicity they ‘drew God’, confident that they know who God is. For me the task was much more formidable and less free!

Last year a group of 54 L’Arche people went on a week of retreat at Galong in NSW. Almost half the retreatants had some form of intellectual disability. I have long known that these are the most inspiring, life-giving retreats in which I participate. We take a particular scripture each day and explore it in many ways. We begin with a 20 minute breaking open of the word in the morning and then spend time with our companion. We may be silent as we sit or walk together, we pray together and journal, and conclude the morning in small groups sharing about our prayer with other companions. The afternoon offers opportunities to further deepen the meaning of the story through art, music and drama. All of these elements are brought together to shape our evening liturgy.

Recently I was speaking with a woman who for the first time was a companion on that retreat. She told me that beforehand, without really knowing what would happen, she had told herself it would be a Claytons Retreat. She was going to support one of the people in the community and did not expect to receive very much for herself. Her experience can only be described as life-changing – she has not stopped speaking of it these past eight months. She was profoundly touched by the depth of engagement on the part of the retreatants, the way they stayed with the story of each day and responded to it. She witnessed a level of care and concern for one another which gives the lie to the assumption that people who need support in their lives have little to give to each other or to those around them.

For my part, in my accompaniment of some of the companions through those days, I was reminded that the life issues, the experiences, questions, hopes, fears and wounds of people whose voices may be barely heard in mainstream society or churches, are nonetheless deeply part of the story of the people of God. We share a common humanity. People with intellectual disabilities also live with experiences of discrimination, dispossession and silencing of story. Given a safe and supportive environment they will allow what has been silenced in their story to surface. I find it humbling to discover how often the need is simply to be heard and believed. An accompanier who can do this is already a profound instrument of healing.

Spiritual Direction in cross-cultural contexts

It is my friends at the heart of L’Arche who teach me how to accompany directees who come from different cultural or faith backgrounds. People with limited capacity to communicate with words help me understand the importance of listening to what is unspoken, what is communicated in silence, gesture, facial expression, posture or mood. Much can be communicated simply in a quality of presence. All these aspects of communication are important in situations where there is no common ‘first language’.

My first such experience was when a German speaking woman wanted me to accompany her during a Renewal program. Realising I do not speak German, she asked if I would accompany her in French (her second language and mine too). She also has a good level of fluency in English but as it is her third language she is not as much at home in exploring her spiritual journey in English. She would find it more challenging to access the language of imagery, symbol and metaphor in English. At the time I did not feel sufficiently confident to work at that level in French so we reached a compromise. She would speak French (which I could hear well) and I would respond to her in English (which she could hear well). Her graciousness to converse in this way eventually gave me the confidence to work more and more in French with her. It was probably not an ideal situation but she was very clear that she wanted me to be her accompanier and was prepared to accept my limitation in the situation.

In the years following that encounter I worked in a number of countries in Asia . While my work there at that time would rarely be in the realm of Spiritual Direction, I was often asked to accompany people in a mentoring relationship. At times this work could only be done with the help of an interpreter. We would often touch on very personal matters and I learned an immense amount about differing cultural understandings and levels of comfort with self disclosure, as well as different ways of communication. An Indian person for example, is more likely to speak freely; a Japanese person will typically speak less but there may be several layers of meaning in the few words which are spoken.

I also learned a lot about working with interpreters; the best interpreters are like a pure conduit in the process, they do not insert themselves into the conversation. Others bring their own agenda to the conversation and although I may not know what exactly is being said, I have developed a sensitive antenna for the quality of interpretation. I have also learned the importance of being aware of the unequal power relationship which exists when I work in English with someone whose own language I do not speak. The awareness of that dynamic demands that I speak clearly, carefully and use language in a way that is appropriate to the experience of the other. For example with a Japanese person who is risking to speak English (in a culture that links mistakes with loss of face), if I know that person has learned American English, I need to be careful not to lapse into Australian idiom.

Last year I led a retreat for a group of long-term L’Arche people in Rome . My reflection on scripture each morning was simultaneously translated into French, German and Polish. The languages of the retreatants included Flemish, Armenian, Turkish, Hungarian, Italian, Slovenian, Malayalam, Tamil, and Filipino. It was the week of Pentecost and I felt so close to the experience of the early church as we listened to the word of scripture through the lens of such diversity of culture and language. I was reminded that the Spirit of God moves through and beyond the constraints the world would seek to impose, calling God’s people to be one body in and through such delightful diversity. Why was I surprised then when a German speaking woman asked me to accompany her? She does not speak English and needed to use an interpreter. I confess I was a little apprehensive about having a third person in the intimacy of the direction encounter. How might it affect the level of the sharing, the dynamic of our communication? I should have learned by now – she knew her interpreter and trusted him. He is an extraordinary young man, gentle, discreet, respectful and faithful to his task. I have never before met someone with such a particular graced ministry. It was a rich privilege for me to journey with that woman through the week.

A further richness of that week was the range of denominational belonging reflected in the group; Armenian Orthodox, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Protestant, Reformed, Brethren. This is another face of the prophetic dimension of the ministry of Spiritual Direction and is richly illustrated in the composition of the AECSD Council. Where the churches of our different traditions struggle to reconcile differences of doctrine or theology, people are learning to enter freely into the different households of the Christian faith, to pray together, to listen and learn, to be enriched by what the other offers. These actions of voluntary displacement, similar to what we may experience with people on the margins, serve to create a space for the breath of the Spirit to fashion us anew. As we lived the rich experience of that retreat in Rome we knew that the unity among us sprang in large part from the experience of having been formed in truthfulness, compassion, forgiveness and joy through our common journey with people with intellectual disabilities. As Jean Vanier tells us, in L’Arche, we are called to walk with one hand in the hand of Jesus and the other in the hand of the poor.

Spiritual Direction in an interfaith context

We are no doubt all familiar with the experience of accompanying Christian people whose personal spirituality is expressed in different words and images to our own. While this can move us to ‘widen the spaces of our tent’ we can draw a certain security knowing that our faith in Jesus and the Trinity are familiar points of reference and understanding for us. There may be times however when we are asked to accompany people who belong to another faith tradition or whose search remains outside the domain of an established faith. Such encounters come to me both as a gift and a challenge. They call beyond the limits of my knowledge and understanding, beyond what is familiar to me and invite me to a deeper experience of the rich diversity of the people of God. They underline the call to me to reverence the movement of the Spirit in each life, to be evangelised by the faith, compassion and integrity of the person who is entrusting her or his spiritual journey to my gaze.

In 2002 I lead an International retreat for L’Arche in India where approximately one half of the group were Hindu. Asha Niketan (Home of Hope – the name for L’Ache in India ) has over thirty years experience of interfaith community living. The way of life, the daily prayers, the celebrations of feasts and festivals all bear witness to this. The question for me as retreat leader was how to honour the journey of each retreatant by offering texts from the Gita as well as from the Bible. It was a reasonably complex task for while I have read the Gita, it is not the scripture which informs my life and prayer. The language, symbols and stories are not ‘mine’. In such situations I believe it is utterly important that we, as directors are soundly grounded in our own tradition and that we speak from that tradition. We do not serve people when we pretend to be someone other than who we are.

I invited a Hindu friend of mine, a woman with a knowledge and love of the message of Jesus, to help me identify texts in the Gita which could be said to be parallel to the texts I would use. I invited her to offer part of the morning reflection to break open these texts. To my disappointment, she did not feel able to that so I made some simple connections between the parallel texts as I spoke and encouraged people to pray with their own scriptures in the course of the day. As with the retreat in Rome , a strong unifying aspect of our retreat was our formation in community with people who live more on the margins of mainstream culture.

I offer this example not because I can presume to have anything very much to say in the area of interfaith spiritual direction, and in India there are surely many people with sound formation and understanding of the different scriptures, be they Hindu, Christian, Moslem or Buddhist. Rather I want to point to the possibility that this area of ministry is one which will claim our attention more and more over time as men and women different faith traditions seek to grow in dialogue and understanding of one another and of the God they worship. In many ways the ministry of Spiritual Direction is a particular gift of the Christian tradition; the experience of being accompanied on the spiritual journey is not necessarily the same as having a master or a guru whose tradition may be more to teach or guide in more formal ways.

In Conclusion

I began by describing the prophetic stance in spiritual direction as ‘ the ability to read the signs of the times through the lens of a contemplative gaze; to be aware of and speak to the inner meaning of situations and life experiences; and from a place of interior freedom, to bring to awareness, and to affirm or challenge, what is often unreflected in the life of the directee and of the culture with which both the director and directee are engaged’.

I have spoken briefly about the nature of the mainstream culture in which we exercise our ministry and about the importance of personal sacred story and the need to create space for the stories which are silenced within ourselves and within the dominant culture. In attending to the unique stories we are privileged to hear, we recognise threads and patterns in the greater story of the people of God.

Drawing on my own experience as a Spiritual Director I have spoken of the transforming power of sharing a spiritual journey with people who are on the margins of mainstream culture; and of how that experience has formed me in my work with retreatants and directees of diverse cultures, languages and religious traditions. I concluded by referring to the realm of interfaith retreats and direction as an as yet largely unchartered domain and one which might well call for greater attention in the future.

I want to conclude by again acknowledging the prophetic nature of this gathering. I thank all those whose attentive listening, prayer and discernment has served to bring to life the Australian Ecumenical Council for Spiritual Direction. May each of us remain true to the prophetic nature of the ministry entrusted to us.

Eileen Glass, June 2006