It was already late/ enough, and a wild night, / and the road full of fallen / branches and stones. / But little by little, / as you left their voices behind, / the stars began to burn / through the sheets of clouds, / and there was a new voice / which you slowly recognized as your own, / that kept you company / as you strode deeper and deeper / into the world, / determined to do / the only thing you could do – / determined to save / the only life you could save. – from Mary Oliver, The Journey
Here’s a quick and somewhat disjointed reflection on my first week of study in interfaith spiritual direction at Chaplaincy Institute, Berkeley:
Last week at this time, the Campanile on the Cal Berkeley campus would be chiming 7:00 p.m. It would just be starting to turn cool and, from my “holy hill” window, I might see the marine layer of fog forming in the distance. The memory provides a stark contrast to the dry 106 degree weather-reality this evening, here in Bakersfield.
What a rich week of experience, learning and “being.” I wasn’t sure if I would love the course or hate it. My reaction to things like this tend not to be “in the middle”! Upon arriving at the funky, comfortable classroom – located in a section of a church gymnasium with a wood floor, large worn rug and numerous worn couches – I had the chance to encounter my fellow classmates for the first time.
We didn’t waste much time before sharing and listening to one another – practicing the skills of listening with open hearts and minds. We began to discover that our fellow journeyers were fascinating folks. The conversations that ensued falls under the veil of solemn sharing – so I won’t recount much in the way of anecdotes. But the diversity of my fellow students – from traditional Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic to Unitarian, Wiccan, Jewish, and Buddhist – was powerful. Not that such variety is unusual, but that such openness and respect from all these varied directions is rare indeed.
Each student was open to learning from the others and from the speakers who shared with us. During this first unit we heard from a Wiccan high priestess, a Daoist priest, and a Hindu Swami. As a group, we “sampled” some of each tradition so that spoken word became sacred experience. This, for me, is part of the wonder and excitement of being a part of this process.
We also, as I said, began to learn some of the skills we will employ as “spiritual directors” or spiritual mentors, and guides. I was glad to hear our instructor say that the historic and traditional term “spiritual direction” is problematic because what we do is largely non-directional. To me, that was great news!
Our time with clients is about “deep and mindful listening.” The spiritual (non-) director’s most important job is to hold space for the other person as he or she encounters the sacred or explores mystical energies. We are here to witness and accompany the other on the journey.
It was also affirming to discover that each of us seems to have gifts and experiences that have prepared us to do this. For many of us, our spiritual experience has been our lifeline through life’s challenges and trials.
By carefully opening doors and removing the barriers, we begin to embark upon this journey together. We get ourselves out of the way and let the mystical encounter begin.
I love being a part of a small group of people who have chosen to make this experience, study and practice a part of our growth over the next eighteen months. We are chaplains, therapists, hospice volunteers, clergy, artists and ordinary human beings on spiritual journeys. We are wise, foolish, whole, wounded, veterans and beginners. But we each share openness to experiencing the Divine, the sacred, the energy that vibrates through the universe. Who knows where it will take us?
May the unfolding begin….