Tag Archives: Spiritual direction

Spiritual Direction and Healing the Soul

(Note: This is a reblog of an article by Lou Kavar. I thought it to be very informative and worth sharing. I will share some thoughts of my own on “Healing of the Soul” soon)

Spiritual Direction. It’s an odd term. It refers to a practice in which one person tends to another as a companion for the spiritual journey. The “direction” aspect of “spiritual direction” is what makes the term awkward. A wise spiritual director doesn’t direct anything. At best, an experienced spiritual director may make some observations about what form life is taking for the other. But someone shouldn’t be giving directions or advice.

Some people have tried using other words for “spiritual direction.” There’s spiritual friend, spiritual companion, spiritual coach or advisor, spiritual teacher …. all of which have their own problems. Conveying the dynamic of this process seems to elude all of these terms. It’s similar to trying to define spirituality itself: as soon as it’s defined, it becomes obvious that something is missing.

I don’t know when the English term “spiritual direction” was first used. In all my study, I’ve not been able to find a reference for that. But the actual process is found in every great religious tradition.

My understanding of the practice of spiritual direction is rooted in the Eastern Christian tradition. In the Eastern Christian tradition, spiritual direction traces its origin to the third century of the Common Era. At that time, the fathers and mothers of the Christian contemplative tradition sought refuge and quiet in the Sinai desert. From them emerged an understanding of what we today call spiritual director. The person regarded as a father or mother, abba or imma, was a person known for living a well integrated spiritual life. Others would seek out the wisdom of the father or mother. More often in small groups, but sometimes individually, the father or mother would offer perspective about the path of the spiritual journey. This process was understood to be one of healing.

Unlike many other approaches to spiritual direction common today, spiritual direction in Eastern Christianity is primarily known as the healing of the soul. Affirming that each person is at heart the image and likeness of the Divine, soul healing is meant to remove all obstacles that prevent the person from living fully in consonance with the Divine spark that animates each of us. From this perspective, spiritual direction isn’t just about prayer and spiritual practices or a set of exercises. Spiritual practices and disciplines do have merit in that they enable us to live into the truth of the inner light we carry. But the process of healing, of returning to wholeness, is the focus of spiritual direction. Healing and wholeness are the result of turning toward and reorienting ourselves to (Greek: metanoia) the Divine presence in us. In this process, every aspect of life is refocused to enable us to manifest the Divine light, to be transfigured into the image of God we were created to be. Healing is a movement toward integration from all the ways we each lead lives that are imbalanced or off-target (Greek: hamartia). This healing doesn’t come in an instant but is a process of growing into greater balance and harmony throughout all of life.

When I meet with others as a spiritual director, either in my study or by way of Skype, any aspect of life may be part of the conversation. For example, some people explore how the spiritual direction of life can be better integrated with work and career while others explore living compassionately in our complex world. In these conversations, my role is not that of a counselor or psychologist who identifies problems and establishes goals to solve those problems. Instead, my role is to be a reminder to return to the simple perspective of how the spiritual dimension of a person’s life gives form and shape to the other aspects of life. While only the person seeking spiritual direction can come to that kind of integration, it’s often helpful to have another ask questions or share perspectives on the process of integration. That’s what the fathers and mothers in the Sinai did when people sought their counsel.

While the spiritual dimension of my own life is rooted in the contemplative tradition of Christianity, many of those with whom I work in spiritual direction don’t share that same background. While some are Christian, some are Buddhist, and others describe themselves as spiritual but not religious or humanist. The metaphors for the integration of the spiritual dimension of life with the other aspects of life may differ because of our beliefs and practices. Yet, the essential process of healing the soul, of journeying with another along the process of wholeness, is very much the same.

Today, there’s a wide variety of perspectives on spiritual direction. Some follow a particular approach to prayer and spiritual practice, like the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, and others use psycho-spiritual tools, like the Enneagram. My approach is one of integration and is rooted in the tradition that understands spiritual growth and development as a process of healing and wholeness for all of life.

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An Honest Answer

Monk in Prayer

A brother went to Abba Mateos and said to him, “How is it that the monks of Scetis did more than the scriptures require in loving their enemies more than themselves?’ Abba Mateos said to him, ‘ As for me I have not yet managed to love those who love me as I love myself.’

—-Abba Mateos of the Desert

Everyone wants an honest answer to their questions, but they are not always pleased with the answers they receive. The brother went to his spiritual director and asked the age old question about loving our enemies. Somehow he had gotten the impression that the monks of Scetis were miles ahead of him in dealing with the spiritual dilemma of loving enemies. Abba Mateos speaks volumes in his answer. He says that he does not love his closest companions as much as he loves himself. True Christ-like love is a very difficult task. My read is that he was telling his brother not to believe everything he hears, but to work and pray for his own enlightenment.

This Abba’s word is as relevant today as it was 1500 years ago. We are surrounded by people that have arrived spiritually and are willing to tell us everything we must do and how much better they are than us. Discouragement is alive and well, and it is a plague of the church. Humility and knowledge of self is the foundation of all Christian maturity. Take the time to examine your love for yourself and others with the eyes of your heart and not the words of others. That’s my honest answer.

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Filed under Ascetics, Desert Fathers, Love

A Monk’s Story 7

I had the pleasure of meeting Becket while I was doing some personal soul-searching at St. Joseph Abbey. At the time he was a professing monk who had not taken his final vows. He has since left the monastery to become the personal assistant of the writer Anne Rice. In a recent conversation   has given me permission to reprint his story as he is posting it on Facebook. I hope you find these installments as fascinating as I do. This one is a little special because I had the great priviledged of being advised and befriended by Father Thomas as well.       Irvin


by Becket

The monastery runs a small retreat house. The monk who ran the retreat house was Father Thomas.

Father Thomas was a true New Orleanean – he was a “Yat” in the finest sense.

A “Yat” is a dialect of New Orleans. And New Orleaneans who speak this dialect are called “Yats” because you’ll commonly hear them say, “Where y’at, dawlin’?”

Saying “Where y’at, dawlin’” is a common Yat greeting.

I always smiled whenever I went into New Orleans and heard two Yat friends greeting one another on the street with “Where y’at, dawlin’?”

Ah, I love New Orleans.

I loved Father Thomas like a brother. He was my monastic brother and he was my priestly father. He took me under his wing and he taught me much.

I used to help him give retreats in the retreat house.

When he first asked me to help him, I knew little about giving retreat conferences. As a teen, I worked in a spiritual youth program called “Search”. My job was to give one “talk” to my peers that weekend about my spiritual life.

But as a monk, and as a 20-something kid, I had to stand before all sorts of people once a week, wearing my black monastic habit, and speaking about a spiritual topic that might be pertinent to a retreatant’s life.

Retreatants would come from all over the country just to get away from the helter-skelter of their lives for a week. Some were in their 20s. A few were in their 30s. Most were in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Some were in their 70s.

Retreatants came not to forget about finances, or paying bills, or fears of bad parenting. They came not to forget about their spouse or the struggles of their job.

No, they came to be better parents, betters spouses, better employees. They came to find out what God was calling them to do with their life. They came to better understand their relationship with God and with one another. They came to be better people and better children of God.

I truly loved giving conferences. Father Thomas invited me back almost every week.

Each year Father Thomas developed a new spiritual theme to talk about, and each year I gave a new talk on a spiritual topic. Sometimes I talked about prayer. Other times I talked about the theology of the human body. I tried to make all my conferences accessible, relevant, and meaningful for the retreatants.

At the beginning of each year, I usually read my conference from notes. By the end of the year, my conference would be memorized and I would converse more freely with my audience, sometimes joking with them, sometimes asking them questions, usually engaging in a more Socratic method of spiritual instruction.

I hope I served as a channel of God’s love for them.

Some retreatants felt refueled at the end of the retreat week, and they returned to their lives with a greater sense of spiritual stability.

Other retreatants wept at the end of the retreat week. They did not want to leave the peace that our simple, small monastery gave them. They were the ones I usually saw return year after year.

Giving spiritual conferences became more than just a wonderful avocation of my vocation. It helped me better understand the meaning of our monastic motto: Ora et labora (prayer and work).

Giving spiritual conferences was as much a prayer to God as it was work for my soul.

Father Thomas and I quickly became good friends. He also became my spiritual director. Father Ambrose had been a great spiritual director during one season of my monastic life. But as my habit grew heavier, Father Thomas helped shape me into a better man for my brothers and a better monk for God.

I would go to Father Thomas to confess my fears, my wrongdoings, and all my dark thoughts. He would help me see the difference between sin and bad habit. He helped me see that what I thought was sinning against the Love of God was simply me enabling a bad habit because I’d never learned the discipline to do otherwise.

Father Thomas was a wise and good monk. He had such a delightful laugh whenever he looked at my bad habits mercifully — the way I hoped God would look at them. Father Thomas would laugh and he would say in his Yat accent: “Lawd, Becket, I love ya like a brotha, but you’re such a fool, dawlin’.”

Father Thomas confessed to me also that he loved being a priest more than he loved being a monk. Yes, he loved quiet and prayer and contemplation — the quintessential elements of a monastic vocation. But the prayer and work that fueled his monastic existence was wholly different from the prayer and work that enflamed Father Ambrose’s vocation.

For Father Ambrose, the priesthood of his monastic life focused on the interior dynamic of the brothers in the monastery. For Father Thomas, however, his priesthood focused on how the shockwave of the monastic life affected the surrounding neighborhood. One looked inward, the other looked outward.

Both men helped me become in myself the synthesis of a monk: A man working to be less selfish and more selfless.

Soon I became Father Thomas’ assistant retreat director. Sometimes he would have to go out of town and he would leave me in charge of a retreat week. It was my job to ensure that the retreat weekend went smoothly. Those weeks also gave me a chance to see what Father Thomas meant: His work was different from Father Ambrose’s work, although their prayers were similar. Father Ambrose attended every hour of community prayer. However, Father Thomas’ work required him to be away from many monastic services. I did not see him often at Laudes or Vespers, but he was usually at mass. His brother monks understood that his work required him to show constant hospitality to the guests in the retreat house.

Hospitality has been a monastic staple for over 1500 years.

Father Thomas was always hospitable to me.

After the final prayer of the night, Compline (our hour for bedtime prayer), I would go to the retreat house. The sun would have already set and the stars would have begun to twinkle as I made the short walk from the cloister to the place where I knew Father Thomas would be — in the kitchen.

He and I would sit in the kitchen and we would talk for a little while, sipping red wine. Sometimes we would play cards. We always played a card game called “Hearts.” We would usually invite Brother George and one other brother because the game was better with four players. Sometimes the fourth was Brother Elijah, other times it was Father Basil, or Father Killian, and once it was Abbot Justin.

We were poor men so we drank red wine from a box. Our cheeks would redden with the wine’s effect and we would raise our glasses in a toast, and with large smiles we would salute the wine in Spanish: “Vino de la caja!”

That was one facet of my life for many years, and to this day I remember the good things of those days and nights. The bad times were unfortunate accidents in a large machine, and today they have been washed away by love and nostalgia.

The year after I left the monastery, Father Thomas had a heart attack and died. He was the first true friend I had who died.

His body was nailed into one of our monastic coffins — a simple box that would house a brother’s remains until the Last Day. The large bell in the bell tower was tolled as the brotherhood carried Father Thomas’ coffin to our churchyard, where he was inhumed.

There would be no more conferences like those he and I gave. There would be no more games of hearts or toasts to “Vino de la caja.” There would be no more Yat Brothers – for me at least.

Another brother took over the work of the retreat house.

We were workers in the hive of God. The pollen we gathered were men seeking a deeper relationship with Eternal Love. The sticky honey we made was a good home of spiritual maturation. We worked, we prayed, and we hoped that we would go to heaven to be with one another for all eternity, where we will understand one another better, why we failed one another sometimes, and how we loved one another as best as we could.

I look forward to seeing Father Thomas again one day. I am eager for heaven where I hope he will greet me in his Yat accent: “Lawd, dawlin’, you’ve been such a fool, but I love ya like a brotha. Get in here!

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6 Tips on Contemplative Prayer

English: Saint Benedict A contemporary icon of...

I was directed to these 6 tips on Contemplative prayer by a fellow blogger. They were written by Carol Crumley who is Senior Program Director for Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. St. Benedict, a sixth century spiritual leader, advised his monks to “listen with the ear of the heart,” that is, to listen deeply, noticing the many ways God spoke to them in their daily activities as well as through scripture and worship. I share these tips with you.

6 Tips on Contemplative Prayer

  1. Establish a daily set-aside time when you can honor your desire to open to God. We recommend 20 minutes of silent prayer time daily. For some that might seem like a long time. For others, it may be way too short. The exact number of minutes is not that important. Start with what is right for you. The important thing is doing it daily.
  2. Create a set-aside place, a space that honors your intent, where you can sit comfortably and uninterrupted for your prayer time. This might be a prayer corner or even a prayer chair. If a chair, just make sure it is different from the one you sit in to watch television, work on your computer or take a nap. A different chair will help you be more alert and attentive in your prayerful listening. You might also place a candle or flower or image in your prayer space, something that helps draw your focus to God’s presence.
  3. Begin with stretching and releasing any physical tensions. We carry the tensions of the day or night in our bodies. Notice the places in your body that are tight or constricted. Stretch into those places, hold for a moment or two, and then relax the tension. Sometimes a gentle body-stretching practice is all that is needed to quiet the mind and prepare the body for opening in prayer.
  4. Notice your breath. Your breath is a spiritual tool that you always have with you. It is your most intimate connection with God. Sense your breath as a living instrument of God’s spirit, ever cleansing and inspiring. At any time or place, you can notice your breath. Is it rapid or slow? Shallow or deep? Just noticing and slowing your breath can quiet the mind and draw you deeper into the heart of God. It is the most fundamental practice in the spiritual life.
  5. Open to God’s living presence, keeping your desire for your own and the world’s fullness in God before you in prayer. No words are needed. Simple, quiet openness and availability are enough. Trust that God’s healing, transforming power is at work whether you know it, you believe it, or not.
  6. Find support for your spiritual life. Support can come in many forms. Listen to music that stirs your soul. Go to a museum and feast your eyes on great art. Walk in nature. Read some of the great classics by contemplative authors. Study the lives of the saints. Find a spiritual director who listens with you to the movement of the Spirit in your life. Attend worship services that nourish your spiritual heart. Seek out others who share a similar desire and join with them for dedicated times of prayer.

We live in a noisy, busy world. Quiet, silent prayer is counter to our culture and yet it offers the missing spiritual resource our souls need. Contemplative prayer is not just for ourselves alone. Eckhart Tolle reminds us that, “To meet everything and everyone through stillness instead of mental noise is the greatest gift you can offer to the universe.”

Contemplative Prayer is a way of being rather than something that we do, a way of being open to God all the time. As you return to your busy day, remember, there are no right ways or wrong ways to pray. You can trust whatever is simplest and feels most natural for you.

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Filed under Ascetics, Contemplation, contemplative, Meditation, Missional Living, Prayer