Category Archives: spiritual direction

Helping others without knowing how to help myself

The biggest questions that have plagued me lately cut deep in my soul:

  • How can I help people, when I can barely help myself?
  • How do I provide hope for others, when I myself feel very little hope ?
  • How do I heal, when I am so broken?
  • How do I offer spiritual direction, in the dark night of the soul?

It’s a painful query and I don’t really know the answer. The best I can do is remind myself that when things get basic, I have to get basic as well. How can I take care of myself in this time? I know, in part, how connected our minds and our bodies are to our soul’s… how to even disconnect them? So when I don’t have answers to the existential questions, at least I may find some clarity in my body.

What am I eating, what am I drinking, am I moving (exercising is good, but at least I should be moving), how much sleep am I getting… there is a need to get clean.

Because we are still called to be present with those around us… to hold space in their suffering… and so often we really don’t have a choice, we come with our broken selves and we listen. How difficult it really is to be brutally honest about how I’m doing and not take all the attention on to myself. We learn as we go, and we remember especially in these times how equal we all are as human beings.

I am also reminded by the ancient mystic, John of the Cross, the one who first wrote so extensively on the dark night of the soul:

“When we begin our spiritual journey we often want God to desire what we want, and become dejected if we have instead to learn to desire what God wants. We measure God by ourselves and not ourselves by God, which is quite contrary to the gospel. For our Lord says that those who lose their lives for his sake will gain it, but that they who desire to gain their life will lose it.”

What does “losing your life” mean to you? How do you help others when you are at the end yourself?

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Listening to Heal

Wisdom from Rachel Naomi Remen, in Kitchen Table Wisdom:

“Everyone alive has suffered. It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our own experiences of suffering that makes us able to heal. Becoming expert has turned out to be less important than remembering and trusting the wholeness in my self and everyone else. Expertise cures, but wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people. Only other wounded people can understand what is needed, for the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise.

“[In a Master’s class given by Dr. Carl Rogers, he shared,] “Before every session I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this person has that I cannot share with him, no fear that I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever her story, she no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow healing to begin.”

“Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to to effect the most profound changes in the people around us. When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness. Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person That which has been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and by others. That which is hidden”

This is, in great part, why I am so drawn to spiritual direction and why I am so blessed to offer this gift to the community. I don’t claim to be an expert. But I do listen well, and I believe in the power of the divine to heal when we pay attention. We are all equals, all in process, all becoming. I trust this… do you? What is your experience of listening or being listened to that led to healing?

Entering your suffering with you – the opportunity of spiritual direction

“If there is any posture that disturbs a suffering man or woman, it is aloofness… After so much stress on the necessity of a leader to prevent his own personal feelings and attitudes from interfering in a helping relationship it seems necessary to re-establish the basic principle that no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, even destroyed in the process. The beginning of all [good spiritual leadership] is to give your life for others. Thing about martyrdom can be an escape unless we realize that real martyrdom means a witness that starts with the willingness to cry with those who cry, laugh with those who laugh, and to make one’s own painful and joyful experiences available as sources of clarification and understanding.

“…In short: ‘Who can take away suffering without entering it?’

“The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there. Our lives are filled with examples which tell us that leadership asks for understanding and that understanding requires sharing. So long as we define leadership in terms of preventing or establishing precedents, or in terms of being responsible for some kind of abstract ‘general good,’ we have forgotten that no God can save us except a suffering God, and that no man can lead his people except the man who is crushed by its [pain]... Personal concern makes it possible to experience that going after the ‘lost sheep’ is really a service to those who are left alone.” (Henri NouwenThe Wounded Healer) Italics mine

One of the things that I love most about offering spiritual direction and companioning as my practice as work is that there is so much more room for responding to the movements of Spirit and less “protocol” for staying removed from people’s pain. So often, directees have left my office and I have found myself crying in compassion and sadness for their situation. How needed are those who will enter the pain with us and let us know that we are not alone.

Though Nouwen asks his question about taking away suffering by entering into it, I don’t believe that it is the director who does this. What I do believe is that the director points to and helps to notice a compassionate Source who does take away suffering and does enter into it. Healing happens… I don’t know when, who, where, or always how, but it is always a reality in the midst of our pain.

On speaking our truth in spiritual direction

We must be perfectly open and simple, without prejudices and without artificial theories about ourselves. We must learn to speak according to our own inner truth, as far as we can perceive it. We must learn to say what we really mean in the depths of our soul, not what we think we are expected to say, not what somebody else has just said. And we must be prepared to take responsibility for our desires, and accept the consequences…

True simplicity implies love and trust – it does not expect to be derided and rejected, any more than it expects to be admired and praised. It simply hopes to be accepted on its own terms. This is the kind of atmosphere which a good director tries to produce: an atmosphere of confidence and friendliness in which the [directee] can say anything that is on his [or her] mind with the assurance that it will be dealt with frankly and honestly… Anything he or she says that is genuine, that really comes from the heart, will be understood and accepted by a wise director. Such real, genuine aspiration of the heart are sometimes very important indications of the will of God for that soul – and sometimes they must be sacrificed.

This gives us a clue to what the director is really seeking to find out from us. He does not merely want to know our problems, our difficulties, our secrets. And that is why one should not think that a direction session that does not tackle a problem has not been a success. The director wants to know our inmost self, our real self. He wants to know us not as we are in the eyes of men, or even as we are in our own eyes, but as we are in the eyes of God. He wants to know the inmost truth of our vocation, the action of grace in our souls. His direction is, in reality, nothing more than a way of leading us to see and obey our real Director – the [Spirit of the Divine], hidden in the depths of our soul. We must never for get that in reality we are not directed and taught by men, and that if we need human “direction” it is only because we cannot, without man’s help, come into contact with that “anointing (of the Spirit) which teaches us all things.” (1 John 2:20)

Thomas MertonSpiritual Direction & Meditation