I was recently asked where I learned my approach to leading a prayer experience. “Your style is not like any training I have ever had,” the woman said. While I have had specific training through the Center for Spiritual Formation and Asbury Theological Seminary, it is in the volume of spiritual direction sessions and retreat facilitation that my particular style has been shaped. Everyone has their own style of leadership, and my particular style should not be your particular style. But, I do believe that there are some fundamental principles from my practice as a spiritual director that can help facilitate deep spiritual renewal and restoration experiences.
What follows are some thoughts I have begun to collect on the particular approach to this ministry of spiritual guidance that has emerged over the years. Because the one-on-one work of spiritual direction is the heartbeat of where I learn to listen and trust the whisper of the Spirit, I will begin there. The way I engage in this spiritually formative process seems a lot like a jazz improvisation. While it is ultimately a free experience led by the Spirit of God’s love, it does not just happen by chance.
The definition of jazz is that it is a music style of improvisation, syncopation, and rhythm. These components are often the construct of a spiritual direction appointment. If I am honest, they are also a way of life. So let’s explore the jazz metaphor as a theme for spiritual direction.
Improvisation: Release Control
As a spiritual director, the process of my listening, the guest’s speaking, and our praying is very much like improvisation. This trust walk to improvise with the Triune God has emerged from a long season of life experiences in which struggle has been my teacher, resulting in the perpetual need to release control. Whether it is called the false self, ego, or flesh, the self protection or pride masks must be taken off. This seems to happen most readily in the midst of hardships.
One gift of the steady beat of suffering in my life has been the breaking down of facades erected over the years to survive, look good, or not be rejected. Another gift of suffering is the deep trust in my spirit that Christ is always with me. And without fail, some form of redemption has emerged out of the suffering (Romans 8:28).
Accepting these gifts means that as a spiritual director, I do not have to grip so tightly to my solutions. God is co-creating (improvising) with me in the midst of each spiritual direction appointment. I can release my desire to fix things with the people who tell me their stories because I have experienced God as trustworthy. We are never left alone. The presence of the Spirit is always with us. I have learned that I can trust God’s creative approach to life, which often seems illogical and improbable. But, it is actually quite inventive.
Syncopation: Seeking Intimacy with God
According to Mr. Webster, “syncopation is a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent in music caused typically by stressing the weak beat.” Syncopation of the spirit comes from recognizing our weakness as we choose to abide (John 15:1-8). This intimacy occurs as we choose to spend times of communion with God. Practices of prayer, stillness, action, solitude, community, creative expression, and tending to the stir of the Spirit are all helpful for the syncopation to exist. With Christ as our Intercessor, we align our heartbeats with the heartbeat of God’s love through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the antithesis of being rushed or solution-oriented. It requires a stillness of inner being which often sends us back to the release of control mentioned earlier.
Learn From The Masters. As a spiritual director, there is a lifelong syncopation of learning from those who have gone before. We admit we don’t know everything. We seek the steady beat of reflection on the teachings of those who have encountered the transcendent love of God and creatively expressed the path toward love.
Sometimes, I hear disparaging comments about the Christian mystics and those who have taught about the inner transformation of the human spirit. This is sad to me. It is in the writing of the likes of Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Madame Guyon, or Therese of Liseaux, and Hildegard of Bingen that I have found great insight regarding the stream of Christendom where there is an openness to deep intimacy with the transcendent. Their work has been significant in helping me understand spiritual awakening and intimacy with God in prayer.
John Wesley wrote that his heart was “strangely warmed” at Aldersgate. This was a mystical experience which he needed to “unpack” for years. A relentless curiosity and love for learning about the ways of the Spirit from those who have gone before us is important in healthy spiritual direction. This leads us to the next element of jazz: rhythm.
Rhythm: Honing the Craft
I often say that someone is either a spiritual director or they are not. If there is always someone seeking you out to hear their story, you may be a spiritual director. Training to hone the craft of sacred listening is important for those given this charism of sacred listening. Like jazz, natural talent is important, but without training, it can often either be squandered or err toward selfish ambition.
The rhythm of continuous improvement (i.e., practice) within a community encourages a healthy environment for spiritual direction to occur. There is no place for the lone ranger in the work of spiritual renewal.
Once the foundational training has occurred, then a long season of apprenticeship and practice is needed. After my initial training completed in 1999, it wasn’t until late 2006 that I hesitantly described myself as a spiritual director. I am learning every day. It is really a lifetime of curiosity, for every gathering brings new dynamics and challenges to navigate. Spiritual directors perpetually explore the infinitely diverse work of the love of God within all of creation. This ongoing practice of learning and collaborating is creative. It keeps us on the edge of the cliff of faith. It is at this place of precipice where we repeatedly rely on the Spirit to guide us as we jump off into uncharted territory. This cliff-edge way of being sends me back to the place of needing to release control, i.e., back to square one.
We cannot fix or save anyone. That is the work of Christ, our Savior. We must listen to the other person and to the wisdom of the Spirit. Often, my guests say, “I feel like I am rambling.” They never are. In the ramblings are strands of Truth, longings of the heart, and places of deep pain The rhythm of lifelong learning helps us understand these more deeply. Our sacred truths are guarded within the life stories we tell about ourselves. Listening for them requires full focus and attention for the common thread the Spirit will reveal.
Much like jazz, all of this preparation and practice allows for the freedom to make music with God and creation in each spiritual direction session. There is a general structure to the time together, but within that structure, there is a complete trust that the Spirit is leading us to a good place of catharsis, enlightenment and an awakening to the reality that we are children of the living God.
Spiritual direction is a co-creation experience which requires the full presence of the listener. We become present to ourselves, the Triune God, and the other person(s) we are encountering. This level of presence requires much practice. It is body, mind and spirit. It is ever changing, always a new and exciting experience. Like jazz, it is exciting and new every time and the result is a free dance of life that brings delight.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:19a (NRSV)
Laura Beach is a regular contributor to the Soul Care Collective.