I believe we are all spiritual by nature. In other words, we are in search of something other than ourselves, i.e., an “otherness.” I prefer to call that otherness God.
Meister Eckhart wrote, “God is always at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.” The center of our lives is God, but often we have to say,“should be” God.
Some years ago when I visited the magnificent Sistine Chapel, a strange thing happened. I had brought 38 young students on a trip to Rome. After this event a poem, “Making Love in Public,” practically wrote itself:
Finger to finger,
God touches man
each panel moving
outward into biblical
expanse. Three times
in twenty-five years
I visit this chapel,
each time scaffolding
walks its walls,
reaches for the ceiling,
fresh paint whiffs me
backward in time,
faded pastel tints
reborn as Michelangelo’s hues.
I bring you here
to see what love can do—
an artist making love
in public, exposing
himself to art voyeurs.
We crowd our bodies
through an entrance portal,
living the last judgement
before it comes into view.
I am so absorbed in genius
I forget about you—
it isn’t until months later
when I speak of the ceiling that you
“I never looked up.”
I believe that most of us “never look up.” We muddle through life with eyes cast down and feet plodding forward, often with no real direction. In this article I would like to discuss our personal wellness and the spirituality that we choose in order to pursue our ministries.
I teach a class in which students explore their own spirituality so they may better understand themselves. I start by forming two circles with my fingers, one representing who we think we are and the other representing who we are to those around us. I then bring the two circles together so they start to overlap. Most of us overlap periodically, poorly, and often unsuccessfully. But our true aim is for the two circles to fit together totally and completely. This is balance or a balanced life—one in which our fragmented self becomes whole or “holy.”
Spirituality requires time, space, silence, solitude, and introspection. The problem is quite simply we are too busy to be “spiritual.” We do spiritual things, but frequently are not spiritual ourselves. We don’t “look up.” We don’t even look around. Then we wonder why we are so fragmented, “burnt-out,” tired, and unwell.
I will speak from my own monastic spirituality, but I believe that this approach is applicable to many others.
A Balanced Life
The Rule of St. Benedict is a microcosm of a balanced and “well” life. St. Benedict tried to create a life based on the “via media” or “middle road or way.” He writes”…we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome (Prologue of the Rule).” But what this life requires, as does all spiritual life, is discipline. Spiritual life requires perseverance in the way of the Lord. In our present world, a world of self-centeredness and “me-ness,” spirituality is often taken to be what I want when I want it. But a true spiritual life needs structure and self-discipline.
The Rule sets up a life—set times of prayer, time for lectio divina (spiritual reading), time for work, time for recreation—but all in balance. It is an extremely structured life. But surprisingly, the Rule is undergoing a resurgence. Recently a professor of business from a university in the state of Washington wrote me saying he uses the Rule of St. Benedict in all his business classes.
Saint Benedict in the sixth century had the first key to the spiritual life—balance creates a wholeness that leads to wellness. The motto of the Benedictine Order is “ora et Labora” or “Prayer and Work”—not one or the other but both. Anyone who sets out to create a spiritual life must keep this in mind. Fixed times for prayer is essential. “I’ll fit it in” never works.
I teach evening graduate level courses for people who work during the day. My schedule is continuously hectic. But the structure of my life as a monk, with morning prayer at 6:25 a.m., prayer at noon, Liturgy at 5:00 p.m., and Vespers at 7:30 p.m., is essential to my day. It fortifies my day and centers it on and in God. When my life gets unbalanced, I find myself losing my wellness. I become unfocused. I no longer witness well for Jesus, and often my physical health suffers as well. A healthy spiritual life requires structured self-discipline as its foundation.
Environment of Silence and Solitude
Once one has set up a structured life, and accepted its discipline, the next step is to address the environment. The ultimate pollution of this world is noise coupled with the media. Our senses are overwhelmed. We don’t “look up” because we can’t hear, see, and think, for we are inundated by the world around us. Radio, television, computers, internet, and e-mail have captured our senses and held them ransom. Our external and internal worlds are noisy and non-contemplative.
The word “monk” comes from the Greek word monos which means “alone.” Today we avoid being alone, we want to be where the action is. But most of us need time alone—with ourselves and with God—to be truly healthy. We are social animals, but we do need solitude. We are never truly alone, for God is there, but we need the silence and solitude in which to find a nourishing peace that is the key to a balanced, healthy life.
We must confront our essential”aloneness” if we are to learn that whatever our life may be, it is of our making. I have found that one of the basic components of an unbalanced and unwell life is an inability to confront who we are. Even professional ministers or religious are often concerned about what others will think and how to impress others. Solitude and silence are essential to a spiritual life that is balanced and well.
We are all monks, as Karl Rahner, the great 20th century writer, put it “priest as poet.” That can be translated into “minister as poet.” Poets require solitude. Solitude has been described as the ultimate spa for mental health (Bianco, p. 36). It was Emerson who wrote “It is easy in the world to live after the World’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
Thomas Merton talks of the need for silence constantly in his works as he does of solitude. They walk hand in hand. John of Ford, in his work on the Song of Songs, writes “The treasure of our Love is hidden in the field of our heart and lies buried down in its very depths.” Only in silence and with solitude can we pursue love into our very depths. Knowing who we are helps us appreciate that we are. The environment of silence and solitude is essential to our professional development and our wellness as ministers. We won’t “look up” if we are too busy looking down.
A final clue to balancing our lives with a spirituality that will allow us to grow in God and in wellness is finding a spiritual guide in this journey. However, I have found it extremely difficult to find a spiritual guide. Even in the seminary I found good spiritual directors few and far between. More recently I struggled to find someone to help guide me through mid-life crisis.
I think part of the problem lies with what we are looking for in a spiritual director, and I would like to posit an alternative. I believe that a new model is workable for those who wish to have a balanced spiritual life that produces, wellness; namely “spiritual friendship.” I call this approach “soul-speaking.”
“Soul-speaking” may capture what is happening in traditional “spiritual direction.” This intimate union of two souls has been touched upon by many spiritual writers throughout the centuries, but I believe that only Aelred has touched upon the hermeneutics of spiritual direction. Most writers talk about a spirituality of direction, or about psychological aspects of directing a person, or may even touch upon the role of the Holy Spirit. But few writers have dealt with spiritual direction as a relationship based on and in friendship.
I could find no word which really expressed this concept of spiritual friendship, so I coined the phrase “Soul-Speaking.” Only when two souls are in complete communion does a spiritual intercourse take place in which they bare their souls to each other and become one with the One. Only two souls in love with God and with each other, in the purest sense, can grow in the Lord, and stretch each other in true spiritual direction.
For many years, spiritual direction was seen in terms of stages of development aimed toward arriving at God. From Origen through Gregory of Nyssa, and on through the medieval writers, William St. Thierry and even Bernard of Clairvaux, steps or ladders have been used to symbolize the ascent to God. Such a process was imposed on the directee with rigor, producing a rigid structure, sometimes thought to earn salvation.
In the post-Vatican II renewal, psychology became the “god” for the spiritual quest. Often the spiritual director was more psychologist than spiritual advisor. Now we need a new approach. “Soul-speaking” moves us into the realm of friend as spiritual director or spiritual director as friend. I think this whole idea is rooted in the Scriptures, and an application was given to us by Aelred of Rievaulx in his classic work, Spiritual Friendship.
Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167) starts his work with a concept which is essential to any true spiritual direction. “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ in our midst.” (p. 51). All spiritual direction must take place in the acknowledged presence of God. Spiritual direction is not a science or even an art, it is love spilling out from one person into another. Two people sharing their stories of God. Or as Aelred says of friendship: “[to] begin in Christ, continue in Christ, and be perfected in Christ (p. 53)” And since God is love, and love abides in God, true spiritual direction must take place within the loving presence of God.
Aelred emphasizes that a spiritual friendship “…is cemented by similarity of life, morals, and pursuits (p. 59).” I cannot share myself with someone unless I truly trust that person, and since spiritual direction requires total risk of self, that person must be a friend. Such a friendship “…is a mutual conformity in matters human and divine united with benevolence and charity.” We must also love the one in whom we are committing ourselves. Only when I love can I totally commit myself to the risk involved in sharing myself.
What we truly need is someone to “soul-speak” with, a person to share our depth with, an individual who accepts us for who we are and then draws us to grow. How can we find such a person? We have to look, and more importantly, risk ourselves to find that special person. I will suggest some criteria for the search.
The first criterion for a spiritual director and/or spiritual friend is that the person truly believe that Jesus is alive and walks among us. The belief must radiate in that person’s life. She or he must be a fellow-traveler, but someone who believes that Jesus is real. Such a belief is radiated in the action, concern, and care that this person shows to those around her or him.
A second criterion I would put forward is that the spiritual director be imbued with Scripture. For a spiritual director, the gospels must be alive. Scripture is not something to be read with the mind, but the heart. Sulivan writes that the gospels are poems:
…breath, rhythm, gesture, parable, and paradox—poems—are once simple and secret, and only gradually are unveiled. A poem accomplishes what it speaks of, but through a process that is never complete. The persons who receive it must return into darkness where they will never finish exploring it (p. 22).
We can’t insist that a spiritual director be a poet, but it would help. Someone who speaks in metaphor, who is able to zap us like a parable, a storyteller who evokes a deep response from us. Where can this sort of person be found? Often it may be with a friendship that already exists. A close personal relationship may be expanded into a spiritual friendship. The spiritual quest is a mutual journey, and it is filled with doubt. And no one, even if they have walked the same road, can answer all the questions. It is a journey for those who doubt, yet remain faithful. But it is a journey, and both director and directee have to be on it.
What criteria guide the specific choice of a spiritual director who is a friend? First, the person must be someone with whom we can share exactly who we are without shame or fear. Second, the person must be truthful with us; able to confront us when we are wrong. Third, the person should love us deeply enough to remain a friend forever. True friendship accepts the other without hesitation, but continues to help the other grow. Real spiritual direction is mutual growth, with each expanding the other.
Most of us have such people in our lives—people with whom we have an intimate relationship. It may be a fellow member of a religious community, a member of one’s family. It may be a spouse or a life-long friend. We share soul and become vulnerable. Compassion is more important than objectivity, and age makes no difference. Often someone younger or much older is the ideal spiritual friend.
I believe that wellness and spirituality walk hand in hand. Ultimately, a healthy minister is one who has self-discipline, a structured life, silence and solitude, and finally a spiritual friend with whom he or she can “soul-speak.”
The above is an ideal, and balance is something we strive for but rarely achieve. But this is not a pipe dream, rather it is posited in grace; all will come to those who try. William of St. Thierry wrote, “If I do not love, I do not hope. Nor do I love unless I hope.”
“Finger to finger God touches us…”
Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, Translated by Mary Eugenia Lake SSND. Washington, D.C.: Cistercian Publications, 1974.
Auer, Benedict, “Making Love in Public, Whiskey Island Magazine. Cleveland: Cleveland State University, 1987.
Bianco, Frank, Voices of Silence: Lives of the Trappist Monks Today. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
The Rule of St. Benedict in English [RB 1980]. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1982.
Sulivan, Jean, Morning Light: The Spiritual Journal of Jean Sulivan.
The Way of Love, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1977.