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Spiritual direction can help people discern God's plan

Published: February 21, 2009   
Malea Hargett
Sister Joan Pytlik, DC, a spiritual director (left), checks in with one of her "directees," Carol Siemon, in her office at St. John Center in Little Rock Feb. 5.

"Spiritual direction is, in reality, nothing more than a way of leading us to see and obey the real Director -- the Holy Spirit hidden in the depths of our soul." (Thomas Merton, Trappist monk)

Like the early Desert Fathers of Merton's book, "Wisdom of the Desert," Chuck Ashburn, 17 years ago, found himself in the desert searching for answers.

"It began in Desert Storm where I really found my faith. It was the desert that drew me to the idea of spiritual direction," he said. "I had worked with the army chaplain as a eucharistic minister for the battalion while we were at war. Father Fuller was my spiritual director there. That is where God got my attention."

Now vice principal at Catholic High School in Little Rock, Ashburn continues to be guided by spiritual director Msgr. Scott Friend, diocesan vicar general and vocations director.

Describing his spiritual journey, Ashburn said, "It is hard to put into words the graces you gain. We all look for a deeper, more intimate relationship with God and the spiritual director guides you and helps you with that relationship. Sometimes it is hard to find it on your own."

Msgr. Friend has a master's degree in applied spirituality from Creighton University, a Jesuit college in Omaha, Neb. He is certified to direct retreats as well. To him, retreats often lay the groundwork for those interested in spiritual direction.

Recently, Msgr. Friend said he helped lead a three-day Ignatian silent retreat at St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith. During these events, people get to talk with a spiritual director.

"They really begin to focus on how they are growing and how they are working on their spiritual life," he said. "There certainly is a movement of the Spirit in our diocese and it is very exciting."

Father Tom Elliott, pastor of Christ the King Church in Fort Smith, is also a spiritual director, and he agrees with Msgr Friend.

"More and more people are requesting spiritual direction. From my discussion with other ministers, this is not simply a trend in the Catholic Church," he said. "There is a great spiritual hunger among Christians of all denominations, and many are looking for spiritual directors. Unfortunately there are not many trained directors available. The good news is that the Church is responding to the need of developing training programs."

Father Elliott was certificated through the Institute for Priestly Formation in Austin, Texas.

At St. Raphael Church in Springdale, Deacon Charles Marino and his wife, Anita, have completed their second year of a three-year spiritual direction certification program at Creighton University.

"As a deacon couple, people continuously request to meet with us concerning a wide range of spiritual and personal topics. Both of us, of course, have had experience and some education on pastoral counseling in our diaconate formation. Anita and I also have our own spiritual director and have been attending spiritual direction for years," Marino said.

In spiritual direction, Marino said the person being directed "strives to develop a deeper relationship with the Lord, to love and serve him and others, and to notice where he is present in our daily lives."

"Spiritual direction is not counseling. In counseling there is a problem, a person seeks help, and often it is time-ended," he said. "In spiritual direction, there is not necessarily a problem and it is ongoing."

Sister Joan Pytlik, DC, is spiritual adviser for the South Central Region of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, where she trains the charity's spiritual advisers on the parish and diocesan level. Her office is at St. John Center in Little Rock. She also offers spiritual direction to others.

"Whoever they are, they should be prayerful, wise and prudent," Sister Joan said when explaining what to look for in a spiritual guide.

"You should find someone who will listen and keep it confidential. When you first talk to a spiritual director, it is good to agree that in a few months, and from time to time, that we will evaluate how we feel about it," she said. "Is it mutually beneficial? Am I helpful to the individual? Do they think I am helpful to them? There is no shame to say I need to find someone else who meets my needs."

Msgr. Friend said those seeking a spiritual director should find out what style the director uses.

"There are different ways of doing spiritual direction -- different methodologies. You have to see what is going to fit your own kind of personality. You have got to have a good relationship and trust in order to talk about everything," he said. "You have to feel free to talk about all aspects of your life because spirituality is the very depth of your being."

"If someone has not had training as a spiritual director, this does not mean he or she could not be a good director. And at the same time, just because someone has had training doesn't necessarily mean he or she is going to be good," Msgr. Friend said. I were looking for a spiritual director, my first step would be to pray about it."

When Marti Corff was looking for her spiritual director, she said it was important for her to befriend the person first. She has attended several retreats, which helped her consider the idea of spiritual direction on a regular basis.

Alice Nahas said she was encouraged repeatedly by a friend to get spiritual direction while attending a theology class. But questions that arose in her Bible study provided the impetus for Nahas to take the first step.

"It was like one of those things where the Lord said, 'This is what I want for you and I need you to go in that direction so we will start in baby steps because you seem to be reluctant,'" she said.

Nancy Brown said she was drawn to contemplative prayer 10 years ago when she attended conferences in Nebraska.

"I was just drawn into contemplative spirituality and into Ignatian spirituality. From there I went to an eight-day silent retreat that was very powerful and the direction was wonderful," Brown said. "In spiritual direction you come to know your identity better. There are so many walls that we have up, and it is in prayer that those walls start falling away. You come to see yourself in a new way -- through his eyes."

All three women are members of Christ the King Church in Fort Smith and receive spiritual direction from Father Elliott.

"The number one expectation for the person coming to spiritual direction is that he or she is a person of prayer," Father Elliott said. "Most directors expect that their directees have a set amount of time when they pray each and every day. Without deliberate daily prayer, there is no 'material' to bring to spiritual direction."

Corff said she journals to assist her on the spiritual journey.

"When you journal, you can go back and look at your journal to see patterns that are developing -- a pattern of spiritual growth or a pattern that makes me aware that perhaps I need help at that time," she said.

Sister Joan said she finds journaling and the study of dreams useful.

"Writing their dreams down and bringing those directions to get some help to see where the Lord is leading you I think is a very biblical way to look for the Spirit in your life, such as St. Joseph and his dreams," she said.

Msgr. Friend emphasized the importance of journaling for several reasons.

"When something significant happens in prayer, writing them down keeps them on your mind. You will see a pattern developing of how the Lord is speaking to you," he said. "When you experience something in prayer, it might not seem significant until you see it on paper. Writing also uses a different muscle in the brain. Writing it down incarnates what happens in prayer; it makes it concrete and you claim your experience. You have a document of your relationship with the Lord."

Spiritual direction can also be done online and by phone. Sister Joan said, "I have been a spiritual director with someone by phone for the last three years once a month. The ones I do by phone seem to have worked well for both sides."

However, Ashburn felt that online spiritual direction would be difficult.

"Online spiritual direction would be tough for me because, through my conversations with Msgr. Friend, God opens my eyes to so many different things that I don't think could have happened otherwise," he said. "I just don't think the relationship is there for online spiritual direction."

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