From the Catholic Universe Bulletin

Receiving the Call for Spiritual Direction

The call came in October 2008. I was on vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains with my husband when  Nancy Erickson, UB editor, called to ask if I’d like to write a piece on spiritual direction for the paper. In passing she dropped the comment that she thought this was “right up my alley.” As I hung up the phone, I remember wondering how Nancy knew this. I didn’t remember having ever shared with her the fact that I’d had a spiritual director for most of the previous 20 years.  But I did think that she was very perceptive.

Oh, and I did take the assignment, which led me to talk to Sr. Mary Ann Flannery, director of the Jesuit Retreat House in Parma and Dr. Joan Nuth, a theology professor at John Carroll University who also directs the University’s Ignatian Spirituality Institute. The “call” continued throughout these interviews. In particular, as I spoke to Dr. Nuth and we discussed the ISI program, I revealed that I’d long considered spiritual direction as a ministry/profession for myself, but had not known there was a Catholic training program in greater Cleveland for this ministry. I began to notice that as we talked about spiritual direction, I developed an inner trembling I can only describe as a combination of excitement and fear. It was clear something important was happening.

Several more conversations followed, and Dr. Nuth, knowing by now I was discerning whether to join the program, asked whether I’d be willing to begin the 19th Annotation Retreat with one of her interns. This retreat, often referred to as the retreat in everyday life, is the version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius that he designed for lay people or those who are unable to spend 30 days in seclusion The Spiritual Exercises have for centuries been used by Christians as a means to learn discernment, in life decisions but more importantly, in becoming aware of God’s movements in one’s life. Beginning with the Exercises gave me clarity. In September of 2009 I began ISI with a cohort of 14 other spiritual-directors-in-training.

Our first year was academically challenging. We plowed through readings from a variety of more or less contemporary spiritual writers (with the actual writings of Ignatius, a 15th century Spanish mystic, certainly the oldest, but still very contemporary,) all focused on aspects of the conversion process the Exercises engender. For most of us, the writings of Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner and his commentators proved especially thought-provoking and inspiring. These readings and our classroom discussions opened our eyes to aspects of our faith that many of us had not previously explored. We wrote soul-searching reflection papers on what we were learning. Speaking for myself, the immersion into deep contemplation of my faith was inspiring and maturing. The sense of the constant presence of the Spirit was palpable, and rightly so, because Ignatian spirituality and spiritual direction have as their purpose becoming more aware of God in our lives.

During the second year of ISI, students actually learn the art of spiritual direction by doing. I was terrified before meeting my first few directees, still getting in my own way and unsure whether I would ever know the right thing to say or do. But soon I realized I had four vital supports to fall back on. The first was regular supervision by an experienced spiritual director especially trained to mentor a new one. The second was the solid faith formation that had been provided during that first, uber-challenging year. The third was my own ingrained knowledge of the spiritual direction encounter, gained through many years of experience as a directee. And the fourth, which completely eclipses all the others in its importance, is the presence of the Holy Spirit. You see, the spiritual direction encounter is not just two people. Three are present, and all the two really need to do is let go of their own egos and listen to the third, the real Director in spiritual direction as in all of life.

They call it a “contemplative stance,” and it entails putting my own concerns aside and listening to what is being said, by the person with whom I am working and by God, who speaks through that person and through my own heart. For me, this is the most thrilling aspect of being a spiritual director, the sense of being there, completely present and completely trusting, confident that God is in charge.

Although I had fears, I never doubted my call to this ministry. Today I feel as if God has been preparing me for this for, and with, my entire life. Truly being with another, experiencing the trust placed in oneself as he or she shares the deepest aspects of life, is an incredible and humbling honor. Knowing the Spirit trusts me with this gift is, for me as for others who have pursued the same path, a “pearl of great price.”

To learn more about spiritual direction, Google or call the Jesuit Retreat House in Parma, 440-884-9300; River’s Edge, a ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph on Cleveland’s west side, 216-688-1111, the Ignatian Spirituality Institute, 216-397-1599 or email me at andrea.mcgovern@gmail.com.