This sermon was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron by Spiritual Director Bethany Ward in June of 2018
To introduce you to the art and practice of Spiritual Direction–or any concept attempting to capture the human spirit, really–it helps to begin with a story. The story I am about to tell has origins unknown to me, yet I find I always retell it whenever anyone asks me about the nature of my work in Spiritual Direction. It goes like this….
Our story is about two different plant species in the middle of a forest path. One of the plant species was a tall and spindly plant. There wasn’t much too him—he was thin and lanky and was blown about by even the slightest breeze. The other was a wide, plump, stout toadstool who appeared solid and thick.
The spindly plant and the stout toadstool were cordial neighbors who would occasionally engage in cheery small talk from the midst of the forest path.
One day, a young boy came running down the forest path and ——what do you think happened?—-the boy absent-mindedly kicked the toadstool and stepped right on the spindly plant.
As he ran on, the result of his actions remained. The thick stout toadstool lay in pieces all over the forest path and the spindly plant, well,…..he just popped right back up!
The toadstool, now frustrated and perplexed, and frankly, a little sore, looked up at the spindly plant from all his pieces strewn about the forest floor and he asked, “Say, why are you, this tall and spindly plant, with barely anything about you able to just pop right back up, while I, the thick and strong toadstool, lay in pieces all over the forest path?”
The spindly plant replied, “Ah, don’t you see Toadstool, I was able to get back up again because I have roots!”
This story illustrates the grounding nature of Spiritual Direction. It also illuminates my own personal story…
For over ten years I served as a Director of Lifespan Faith Development to two different Northeast Ohio Unitarian Universalist congregations. In that span of time, I tended to the spiritual development of many children, youth, young adults, and adults. Being a Director of Lifespan Faith Development meant that I was a keeper of stories. Not only did my congregations come together around the universal language of story during the weekly Time for All Ages, but we also came together in small group ministry, adult religious education, Coming of Age programs, Youth Group, and virtually every area of programming, to engage in the timeless practice of shared storytelling.
In my time as a DLFD, what my acronym-loving religious association liked to refer to as a Director of Lifespan Faith Development, I began to see that I was not only a story-teller, but a story-listener. In the sanctities of these spaces, congregants would share of personal tales of loss, heartache, triumph, questioning, belief. Through Unitarian Universalist religious education, members of my congregations were simply trying to learn how to be human.
Knowing how to live a life is far more challenging than perhaps we give it credit. The people I served, despite age or stage, all had something in common. They wrestled. Perhaps not in the public spaces of coffee hour and social gatherings, but they wrestled where they felt safe to be vulnerable—in small groups and in their learning environments.
Congregants wrestled with dichotomies in theology, injustices in the political landscape, were vexed by interpersonal relationships, and struggled to forgive their own perceived failings. The stories I was tasked with hearing were wrought with the very real struggle on how one might go about living a very real and daunting human life.
Children, youth, and adults knew that our principle of Unitarian Universalism–the free and responsible search for truth and meaning–resonated intellectually with them, but they all desired to know how to live out their unique truth and how to actually go about seeking their own meaning in the world.
And truth is, I wrestled too. I did not feel equipped to hold space with their inquires. I often felt uncomfortable with being present with my congregants worldly, and otherworldly, wonderings. I often relied on the intellectual foundations of Unitarian Universalism to try to meet their needs. I would quote a formative theologian or invite them into another program or event, most likely overwhelming them more than they already were.
Truth is, I didn’t feel equipped because I wasn’t equipped. Though I loved my work as a religious professional, I silently struggled to understand my own spiritual expression. A persistent voice of discontent became the background score of my own life. I felt overwhelmed, overworked, and unable to trust. I was charged with cultivating the faith journeys of the people I served, and here I was, completely without my own sense of faith.
I didn’t have my own sense of faith because I hadn’t taken the time to cultivate it. I knew a lot about Unitarian Universalism but I knew absolutely nothing about the spiritual aspect of being human. Worse, I knew absolutely nothing about who I was, what I trusted, and who I was called to be in the world.
This dissonance became crushingly known when, a day before her 37th wedding anniversary, my mother was stuck down by a massive stroke. Five months later she suffered another. A week on from that, she just slipped away, out of my life forever.
I was ill prepared for the sudden loss of my mother. I had no idea how to make sense of where, or who, she was now, or if she was now. And I certainly didn’t know how to cope with the nagging sensation that I had somehow been ripped off. I knew quite a lot of what other people thought about death and dying, but I had no idea what I believed about it. I had a whole lot of questions, unprocessed emotions….and no where to go make sense of them.
I had no roots. …and because I had no roots, I was shattered and metaphorically, in pieces.
…And, the more closely I looked around at the people I served, the more I realized that they seemed to be just as confused about what they had going on inside their hearts and minds, as I was.
In response, my work in faith development took on a new lens. I had enough insight to conclude that it seemed that our life stories, mine and my congregants, lacked a….depth of meaning. We were doing a whole lot of telling our stories to each other, but we weren’t really doing a lot of living into them.
Initially, it was the desire to live into the stories that drove my search for answers. I started to read, seek, and search for what I thought was the missing piece of the puzzle that would help me, and my congregants, more deeply engage with their own lives.
One afternoon, over tea, my dear friend and UU minister, Rev Katie Norris told me, almost as a lazy aside, that she thought I’d make a rather talented Spiritual Director. I leaned in and asked her to explain.
And when she did…my life journey completely shifted.
Rev Norris unknowingly pointed the way to my path to healing…and my future occupation.
Through the process of Spiritual Direction, I began to rediscover who I was within the tapestry woven from All That is. In this rediscovery, I found wisdom, wonder, and the way forward.
In working with my own Spiritual Director, I began to create a foundation for the way I wanted to live. I could articulate what I believed….and it was mine. I knew it was mine because I was the one that had discerned, and wrestled, and contemplated my experiences until I could arrive at my own conclusions. My Spiritual Director simply guided the discovery.
Faith simply means “trust”. Through the process of Spiritual Direction, I was able to finally trust myself and the values I intrinsically held to guide me though life’s journey.
Today, I want to share with you the shift that opened up the way forward for me.
That shift is this…the way forward is inward.
Through introspection and contemplation, the process of Spiritual Direction helps you uncover your unique voice and points the way towards your own inner rooting.
Spiritual Direction provides an accepting, non-judgmental listening space where the hidden parts of your life may be gently acknowledged as you also uncover your unique relationship to All That Is. Spiritual Directors invite exploration of your relationship with you, and with divine presence, as you come to define it. The basic concern of Spiritual Direction is not with the externals, but rather with the inner life. Spiritual Direction is one-on-one spiritual guidance with someone who deeply cares about your personal journey.
Spiritual Direction is not therapy. Where therapy may focus on behavioral modification or addressing trauma, Spiritual Direction instead dives deeper into the realm of the soul and brings to the surface the very essence of who you are.
With the asking of open ended questions and listening to the gift and art of your own story, Spiritual Directors walk alongside you as you begin to uncover the heart of any issue with which you have been presented. It welcomes your attention to life–to who you are, where you belong, and what you do each and everyday, as it also explores where you may be being guided. In essence, Spiritual Direction introduces you to yourself.
Spiritual Direction is a bit of a misnomer. A Spiritual Director does not direct, rather the Director companions the individual, within a therapeutic environment, through finding their own answers as the process of Direction simultaneously expands and affirms their life experience.
What do you talk about in Spiritual Direction? Well, anything that is on your heart and mind. As Paula D’Arcy once wrote, “God shows up disguised as our lives”…so our task as Director and Directee is to sift through the circumstances of your life to find the deeper meaning hidden within in it.
I imagine it as a sort of panning process. The events, circumstances, thoughts and feelings, of your very existence are set onto a metaphorical sifting pan. Then, the Spiritual Director and the Directee, sift these nuggets back and forth, back and forth, through gentle conversation. In time, valuable nuggets of wisdom and insights emerge. These insights inspire action and true and lasting transformation becomes quite a real possibility for the Directee.
Like DLFDs, Spiritual Directors are story-listeners. However, there is one slight difference between the two. Spiritual Directors are trained to hear what is hidden below the surface of another’s existence. They know how to listen for the unspoken and the unseen. They are specifically trained, and tasked, with helping to make the invisible, visible to the Directee.
In a Spiritual Direction session—which can occur as often as every week, to at most once a month—Directees discuss their relationships, their upbringing, their sense of calling, their relationship with, or without, a god presence, or really anything that is asking their attention. The Spiritual Director assists the Directee in making sense of their life and aids in the reframing of their story as it may be needed to move forward on one’s journey.
Liz Budd Ellman says,
“Spiritual direction explores a deeper relationship with the spiritual aspect of being human. Simply put, spiritual direction is helping people tell their sacred stories every day. Spiritual direction has emerged in many contexts using language specific to particular cultural and spiritual traditions. Describing spiritual direction requires putting words to a process of fostering a transcendent experience that lies beyond all names and yet the experience longs to be articulated and made concrete in everyday living. It is easier to describe what spiritual direction does than what spiritual direction is. Spiritual direction helps us learn how to live in peace, with compassion, promoting justice, as humble servants of that which lies beyond all names.”
Describing Spiritual Direction is a rather interesting challenge. To respond to this, you may wish to read about the experiences of others who’ve entered into the Spiritual Direction relationship.
Spiritual Direction provides a space to build a foundation, or to develop our roots, for our own personal sense of faith, our own sense of truth, our own sense of meaning.
Through introspection and contemplation, Spiritual Direction helps us to come to know for ourselves where we wish to place our trust, what we value, what we personally believe, and how to go about living that out in the world.
It is for this reason that I believe our modern culture would be well-served by collectively opening the door to the art and practice of Spiritual Direction.
Don’t you think we could all stand to be a bit more…wise?
For those searching for the space where their heart’s deepest desire and the world’s deepest needs connect, Spiritual Direction gives gentle encouragement to develop in living a purposeful life. Spiritual Direction is the opening up to the “why” at the center of your feelings and passions, the “why” of things in your life, and speaks to what is contained within your desire and your yearning.
If the concept of Spiritual Direction intrigues you, I invite you into my own Spiritual Direction practice. I have been given the gift of partnering with other wellness practitioners to form an Inspiration Boutique in the historic hamlet of Ghent in Bath Township. Here, I am able to serve the needs of my Directees both in private and group sessions. I encourage you to seek out my work.
My hope is that you consider the need for Spiritual Direction in our communities and in the lives of individuals who are seeking a responsible approach to their own search for meaning. When you are able to open the door to your own heart first, only then are you truly able to open your heart to another.
Bethany Ward, Spiritual Director