Soul Feast – Spiritual Direction (Psalm 32, Luke 1:26-38)

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,

in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.

Where is my father when we’re singing his favourite hymn! And it’s a hymn that picks up on today’s theme in our series on spiritual disciplines when we talk about the saints or spiritual directors or mentors or spiritual friends or simply, as we prayed in the ‘call to worship’, wonderfully encouraging people who have accompanied us on our spiritual journey or helped us to grow or, as Eugene Peterson writes, been “attentive to God in [our lives] or circumstances or situation [who have noticed] the Invisibilities in and beneath and around the Visibilities…[who have listened] for the Silences between the spoken Sounds.”

So, what do all these different terms mean?

Firstly, mentoring. In the ancient Greek epic, the Odyssey, Mentor was the friend of Odysseus who placed him in change of his son Telemachus when he left for the Trojan War, and for this reason his name has become synonymous with someone who imparts wisdom or shares knowledge with a less-experienced colleague. Mentoring in a Christian context is about sharing someone’s faith journey in order to help them grow spiritually. There is usually intentionality and accountability in this relationship with specific goals for the person being mentored. We could also use the term discipling.

Secondly, we have spiritual direction, which is, perhaps poorly named because it is less about being ‘directed’ to do something or become something, and more about a process of discernment where a spiritual director helps someone to pay attention to what God is doing or saying to them in their life, to understand their deepest desires and to discover how they are being called to serve in this world. There are lots of images like this (picture of chairs) used for spiritual direction to say that this is a conversation with three participants; the director, the person being directed and God. And it is usually a process where the director does not speak about their own life, unlike mentoring where a mentor often shares their own experience.

However, as Marjorie Thompson points out, there are also forms of spiritual direction where two Christians who trust each other’s ability be attentive to God may enter a mutual relationship of guidance. And there are more informal forms of spiritual guidance, that we might just call spiritual friendships, where, as Thompson says, “You… simply have a friend you enjoy talking to about spiritual matters or someone you turn to for comfort and assurance in times of perplexity and doubt.” Someone with whom you can pray.

And thirdly, there is counselling, which is usually focused on a specific problem in a person’s life; self-image, relationships or work issues. While such problems may be encountered during Christian mentoring or spiritual direction, they are not the focus of these, which are centred on developing Christian character or discovering what God is doing in a person’s life. In a mentoring or spiritual direction relationship, if such a problem persists, the person may be referred to a counsellor for that specific care.

I must confess, however, that I was finding this subject and this chapter rather dry until I heard Monday’s reading from Pray as you go – which we read this morning:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

There are moments in our lives when we, like Mary, are perplexed by the words of God to us, where we ponder what kind of interaction God wants to have with us. Thompson suggests that some of us might say something like this:

“I believe in God, and sometimes I think about God, but I don’t know if I’ve ever really experienced God. I’m not very aware of God most of the time. I’d like to be, but I’m not sure how to make it happen….I’d like to talk to someone.”

Or, “God has taught me a lot over the years….But I’m too sporadic about my spiritual disciplines, even though I know how fruitful they are. I’d like to covenant with someone who’s been on the journey, just to encourage me and make me more accountable.”

Or, very much like Mary, “I’m in transition right now….All the things I thought were settled are shifting….”

I’ve mentioned before the singer-songwriter Ken Medema. Growing up my family were big fans, and he has written a song from the perspective of Mary immediately following the Annunciation. And if you can cope with a little musical theatre, it goes like this…

So many things are happening to me that I don’t understand –
Visions and angels and a baby named Jesus – it’s not what I planned;
The plans I have made are like birds’ nests blown down in the wind and the rain;
I’m scattered like straw, and I can’t quite tell where to find sameness again.

And so, in the verses that immediately follow our reading, we’re told Mary goes – with haste – to seek the company and counsel of her relative, Elizabeth. In Medema’s song, she sings, “I’ll go tell Elizabeth, she’ll understand. I’ll go tell Elizabeth, she’ll hold my hand. She’ll understand.” And Elizabeth acts for Mary as a spiritual director – or if I can add yet another term – as a midwife to the work of God in Mary’s life.

In this chapter, Thompson lists the central criteria for people from whom she would seek spiritual guidance. One of these is that they are attentive listeners, able to listen to God as well as to the person they are with, but another is that they are understanding.

Look for Christians, Thompson says, “with a wide-ranging experience of life and faith…who are knowledgeable about the ways of the human heart; and…have an eye for discerning the ‘footprints of God’”. Elizabeth has a wide range experience of life and faith – from being said to be barren to being with child; she is able to discern God’s footprints – ironically and intimately – from the kicking of the child in her womb; and she discerns what is in Mary’s heart, speaking to her the words of hope and faith she needs to hear, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Seventeen or so years ago, a woman many of you know, played a role like that of Elizabeth in my life. I was feeling much perplexed by what God was doing, fearing that what had been spoken into my life would not be fulfilled, and she said to me that God’s activity in my life was like the pregnancy I had just announced. At that moment there was very little visible sign, but that did not mean nothing was happening. In the same way, God was very much at work. I hung onto those words for some time until their truth became evident in my life. They were a lifeline. She helped me notice “the Invisibilities in and beneath and around the Visibilities.”

A third criteria, Thompson, lists is, “someone who knows human suffering and frailty from personal experience; who is honest about her or his limitations and not afraid to be vulnerable.”

I’ve been reading another book recently which explores how childbirth and midwifery are used as metaphors in the Bible and in our lives, and it speaks of the moment in almost every birth where the woman in labour does not believe she can keep going. I clearly remember this in my first birth, telling Aron and the midwives that I just didn’t want to do this anymore. I didn’t need to have this baby. I just wanted the pain to end.

What is spoken to the labouring woman in the moment when she feels she cannot continue is crucial the book says. In the same way we need spiritual guides who understand human frailty, who can look us in the eye and remind us, also, of our strength and of the value of what is being born in us, or though us into the world; who can tell us to hold on.

One of the final criteria Thompson mentions is having a mentor or spiritual director or spiritual friend who places their trust in God, who is not dependant on their professional competence or confidence but is waiting expectantly for the Holy Spirit, and who is able to generate this expectation in others, to bring about transformation in their lives.

Mary, the text tells us, stayed at the home of Elizabeth for three months. Most scholars say that she stayed until the birth of John the Baptist; that having had trust and faith midwifed in her by Elizabeth, she in turn helps midwife Elizabeth’s birth, the birth of John the Baptist. In the same way, we are empowered by spiritual direction to bring life to birth in our own lives and for others, to respond to God with greater freedom, Thompson says, to live more faithfully and compassionately in God’s world.

Medema’s song finishes like this:

So many things are happening to me that she’ll understand.
For now that she’s pregnant her life isn’t going exactly as planned.
The plans we both made are like birds’ nests blown down in the wind and the rain.
We’re scattered like straw, and we can’t quite tell where to find sameness again.
I’m coming, Elizabeth, ‘cause I’ll understand.
I’m coming, Elizabeth, I’ll hold your hand – I’ll understand.

Who is the Elizabeth in your life? Or is it a Paul or Jethro, a Pricilla or Naomi? And can I encourage you to think not only of those who have midwifed and directed and befriended and mentored faith in you in the past, but about someone who might continue this in the future? Thompson tells us to pray about this, asking God to guide us to the person we need.

There are many more practical details in this chapter about structuring spiritual direction and what to talk about, but we are encouraged not to go it alone – on the Christian journey.

As our psalm said, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” God is our ultimate counsellor, but as Saint John of the Cross wrote four centuries ago, “God has so ordained things that we grow in faith only through the frail instrumentality of one another.” May we find joy kicking inside us as we midwife for others, or they midwife for us, and we together bring life into our world.