There’s something about spirals, the way they go in and out, in and out, that’s mesmerizing. It’s like viewing a sidecut of a nautilus shell. Your eyes don’t know whether to follow the lines from the outside in, or from the inside out, and so they go back and forth and back and forth, taking in lines, form and shadow.
The resulting mood is of tranquility and calm.
And so it’s with serenity in mind that I find myself, from time to time, wandering in spirals. Head lowered, feet moving me forward, left, right, left, right, slowly I lift my foot up, meditatively I place it down. I wend my way toward the inevitable center of the spiral; the end of the beginning, the beginning of the end. The centerpoint.
Left, right, left, right, I walk with my head lowered, focused on the ground before me. It’s pebbled with small stones that crunch and shift under the weight of my body. But although my body holds weight, my inner experience is one of lightness and peace.
Inside the spiral, or labyrinth, I pause, not wanting to wend my way back out. Not just yet. I want to absorb the feeling and let it sink into all of my cells. I want to soak it up as if I were a dry sea sponge. I wish every part of my being to be saturated before I began my departure out of my sacred spot. Before I venture back to the work-a-day world and the unexpected twists and turns inherent in it.
"You might want to give one a spin," my spiritual director said to me regarding labyrinths, and I remember my first labyrinth well. It was mowed into the side of a hill at Claire’s Well, a spiritual retreat 60 miles west of Minneapolis. I went in at dusk, chased by mosquitoes and demons of my own making. I came out as the stars began to dot the sky, and in my wake was a quiet emptiness, insect and demon free.
"You never know what – or who – you might find there," she had encouraged, and she shooed me out of her office like a fledgling out of it’s nest.
That was 10 years ago, and I’ve had a spiritual director in my life ever since. Not always the same person, but someone to guide me over the bumps and ridges, to help me discern my life and my relationship with what lies in the Great Beyond.
Most people call it God. For others that’s too staid, too male-centric men. They use more esoteric terms like Spirit or Higher Power. Still others can’t put a word to a force that they feel is bigger than they are – a divine notion or ethereal essence that’s "out there somewhere" or "everywhere."
But there’s been a movement over the past decade toward spiritual direction. The question is, why now? Is this a new industry drummed up to create more jobs? Hardly.
According to Liz Ellmann, executive director of Spiritual Directors International, spiritual direction dates back to early Christianity.
"Spiritual companionship dates back to the desert fathers and mothers," says Ellmann of the Christian hermits who lived in the Egypt’s Sahara desert in the third century. They followed Jesus’ lead as he had taught people to pray in small, contemplative communities in rural or agricultural settings. There, they could more deliberately follow God’s call without the given trappings of society.
But spiritual seeking isn’t limited to Christians. In Judaism the practice is called Lev Shomea, which literally means "hearing heart."
In the Buddhist tradition a person is guided to become peaceful and end suffering, which is the ideal of enlightenment. The practice dates back to the birth of Buddha in 624 BC.
For centuries it was the monastics and clergy that sought spiritual direction, but in the last 100 years there’s been a movement – in all of the faith traditions – for non-clergy to seek Spirit as well.
"I think the world goes through violent cycles," explains Ellmann. "In times when there’s great violence, there’s also a human cry for compassion. That’s when spiritual teachers appear and help find creative ways to deal with the anger and violence."
In the physical realm, spiritual direction involves a seeker and a director. But perhaps the most critical element is the desire for spiritual growth.
Kay Vander Vort, M.A., a spiritual director at Loyola in St. Paul, Minn., who also is an adjunct professor of theology at the College of St. Catherine, is quick to relate that the relationship between spiritual director and the client presumes that the real director is spirit.
"It sounds like we’re directing someone’s life," she says, "but the real director is the holy spirit."
Loyola has been in the business of spiritual direction for almost 30 years. Housed in an unpresuming building with a humble but beguiling labyrinth out front, Loyola has eight spiritual directors working within its walls. They all hold graduate degrees in the field, and some conduct workshops in specialty areas such as the Enneagram, biospiritual focusing, dream work and journaling.
A typical entry into spiritual direction begins with a desire for "more" or a yearning for a deeper understanding of self and spirit.
"The drawback to being a seeker is a sense of impatience, or longing, that doesn’t seem to go away," says Brett Benson, a 40-year-old marketing manager and father of two. "The beauty is that the longing is the voice of God. I used to view that longing as meaning that I’m broken – now I view it as a gift."
Brett visits his spiritual director once a month at 7 a.m., as he’s been doing for three years. Like so many 40-plus people, he’s "done therapy." He feels that he is already a healthy person, but he wants a sense of connection to and with God that he can carry with him when he walks outside of church. Something that he can still feel on Tuesday in the lunch line.
"My goal in spiritual direction is to develop a more meaningful and closer relationship with God," he relates. "In the sessions I get feedback about what I perceive to be obstacles to that end."
Everything seemed to shift
Chris Sorenson, 55, a pastoral minister in Faribault, Minn., began spiritual direction eight years ago when her life was in turmoil. Everything seemed to shift at once – her sister died, her husband’s job was downsized, and her oldest child left home for college.
Her desire to understand such change in her life brought Chris to her first director, who also happened to be a psychologist. "I needed something to help me focus on what it was I was trying to live through, and help me integrate it," she says.
In the course of spiritual direction it is not uncommon to work with a director for a period of time, and then shift to a relationship with another director. But sometimes the relationship between client and director will last a lifetime.
After three years Chris found her current director.
"Working with her has been nothing but a gift," Chris relates, admitting that she gets out of spiritual direction what she puts into it.
Sometimes the feedback is tough. We all want to hear good things about ourselves, and while spiritual direction looks at the positive, it also gives us the opportunity to look at our shadow sides.
And sometimes people get impatient, wanting a "quick fix." But building a relationship with God, or spirit, is not unlike any other relationship – it requires time.
"In our culture we’re never encouraged to be still," says Chris. ‘We’re bombarded by Muzak, text messages, e-mails, people talking on cell phones…. Spiritual direction keeps me nourished through all of this and brings me to a greater understanding of myself and my spiritual side."
Outside of Loyola I pause in the center of the labyrinth. I close my eyes and breathe. Really breathe, taking the oxygen deep into my lungs before I exhale and let the spent air leave my body. Then I slowly follow the spiral out, visualizing the curved walls of the nautilus shell. Left, right, left, right, the pebbles crunch under my feet.