Anam Cara: Dance Instruction From the Spirit

Work in the invisible world at least as hard as you do in the visible. ~ Rumi

I worked as a hospice chaplain at a time when people were just starting to purchase and learn about the value of a GPS (global positioning system) in their cars. I understand the need to be guided, especially when time dictates the fulfillment of the “urgent care” service you provide, as is often the case with hospice work; however, I never needed to buy one because I generally worked in easily located nursing facilities.

And, to be honest, I inherently resisted purchasing a GPS. I suppose this was fundamentally due to my deep mistrust of authority and love for finding my own way through the maze. This is not a trait that has always served me well, but I’m at an age where I notice it, shake hands, and agree to reassess and reconsider when appropriate, finally aware that the one who offers guidance is not always intent on suppressing my rights and gifts so much as wisely assisting me in living more freely as well as more fully, and avoiding the road hazards I’ve ignorantly or unconsciously placed in my path.

I’ve always been someone who naturally spirals into the knots life presents and figures her way out; I love employing unique blends of creativity and logic within an ethical framework, and I credit my parents and years (and years) of Catholic education for inviting and encouraging my style of reflective cartwheeling through life. (I have no stories of abusive, scary nuns to share at parties. Mine were highly creative, gentle-but-spirited and well-educated women who were gifted, affirming teachers and wonderful role models. Still are.)

But for me, being a smart creative woman in the Catholic Church—one who did not view the convent as a potential path—eventually meant taking and exploring my spirituality outside the boundaries of the dogma and hierarchy the Big C seemed to perpetuate and rely upon more for its power to dominate and control than nurture. I was/am neither a virgin nor a mother, the two archetypes the males controlling the Catholic spin seem to recognize and promote as valid.

Ironically, the excellent education provided by Catholic schools led me to value my spirit enough to save it by leaving the structure and living with its better teachers, like Francis, Bernard, Teresa, Ignatius, and my lifelong mentors, Pierre Teilhard and Thomas Berry. More recently, I’ve felt embraced by the writing of people like Judy Cannato, and throughout my life, countless and treasured teachers from other paths have fed my spirit and connection with Love.

I am a spiritual pilgrim, and chose peregrinatio consciously and authentically, because it was the only path I could see and name for myself. (Peregrinatio, roughly translated, is choosing expatriation from one’s homeland—in my case, from the Catholic Church—in favor of the broader journey, pilgrimage, and encounter with Love.) I guess I’m a kind of nomad setting up her tent smack dab in the center of Mystery and attempting to let it reveal itself—or not—rather than having it solely defined for me by others.

I have not rejected my teachers or the gifts of my C/catholic (“universal”) upbringing: they are very much evident when I open my spiritual backpack and reach for my tools, filters, and methods of translating insight and experience into perception and—I hope—wisdom. Many experiences and challenging times of reflection have co-created my path and I do not offer it or recommend it for others (we all must find our own) so much as I highly encourage myself and others to be conscious in our choices and the paths we choose, for we are always on them, dancing our own steps of progress/regress with Spirit between the inspiration and expiration we call life.

Sometimes, though, life leads me to feel I’m sitting out the dance and my partner’s abandoned me. Or I feel the need to learn some new steps or try some different music.

Choosing the “little c” over the “Big C” ironically made me more aware of the need for community and spiritual pit stops than when I dutifully attended weekly church services, accepted the need for an ordained man to intercede with Love on my behalf, and limited the number of sacraments to seven. And so I began to schedule regular retreats, embarked upon a wonderful relationship with a spiritual director, and later pursued the three years of education and preparation that would enable me to offer trained spiritual companionship to others.

The practice of soul-tending is vital once we recognize that Spirit is our dance partner in life, for we then organically want to make the dance more graceful, elegant, fun, creative, intimate, honest, deepening and illuminating. I cannot locate and string together words that express the value a spiritual director has added to my life or isolate in imagery what serving as anam cara (“soul friend”) to others has afforded me. But I do highly recommend that you explore this practice with someone trained to provide it. (You can start here: www.SDIworld.org )

A spiritual director doesn’t commandeer your spiritual journey, but holds the mirror so you can see it for yourself and explore its meaning. What is your current image of the Holy and how has it evolved? How do you communicate with and experience the Sacred? Are you being pulled toward or pushed from these encounters? How do you experience the Transcendent and what are your sacred stories?

A spiritual companion asks the right questions, opens and holds the fertile silences, uses tools and shares new practices—for example: walking a labyrinth, prayer, bodywork, breathwork, meditation, creative exercises (free-writing, drawing, mandala creation)—but the point of spiritual direction is to allow you to see and name where you are with the Holy and where you desire to be…if you have a religious connection that’s meaningful to you, it is honored and can be deepened through the discernment offered by spiritual direction.

It’s not mental health therapy or counseling, though a spiritual director often works in tandem with a therapist, and spiritual direction is founded on “meeting the Sacred exactly where you are,” which often includes sharing and exploring the types of issues and experiences you might share in therapy, simply because everything in our lives connects to our spiritual well-being; it’s all interrelated. But there are specific elements, motivations, areas of expertise and modalities that distinguish therapy from spiritual companionship and there are boundaries to each profession that need to be clearly communicated and honored. Therapists are licensed; spiritual directors are not, which emphasizes again that you need to question and feel resonance with someone you choose for a spiritual companion.

The difference between a good friend and a spiritual director is the training and “professional” emphasis on you and your spiritual journey. Spiritual directors ask questions and invite explorations a friend might not (and shouldn’t) to support your discernment.

Some spiritual directors charge a fee; others do not. I studied for three years and completed a recognized program to serve as a spiritual director, for which I was charged tuition. I charge a fee not just to honor my education and time/gifts, but also to encourage a seeker to recognize that his or her commitment to the spiritual journey is worth pursuing and of value. If we think nothing of paying a hair stylist regularly and well, for example, we might also consider devoting as much conscious time and value to our spiritual journey and regularly (usually once a month) meet with a trained spiritual companion.

The website mentioned above lists spiritual companions geographically and offers some background information: you can call and further clarify a person’s orientations, qualifications, etc., by phone, or schedule the initial meeting and see how it feels for you. (You should never be charged for these initial meetings.) Spiritual direction can invite growth and be challenging; an hour-long session can end with questions left unexplored and a sense that “nothing’s changed,” but you must always feel safe, loved, and accompanied. A good spiritual director will also not agree to accompany someone with whom she isn’t comfortable, and the relationship can end at any time, at either person’s wish, but oh how lovely when it continues for years of soul-affirming deepening. In my own times of grief and transition, it’s been my safe harbor.

Some workplaces, especially healthcare institutions, have hired trained spiritual directors for staff members’ support and discernment, and as a service for their patients. (http://mayoclinichealthsystem.org/locations/onalaska/medical-services/complementary-medicine/center-for-health-and-healing/spiritual-direction) I’ve always thought it should be integrated with medical school training as well.

Another approach is group spiritual direction. The group functions as a community of discernment, guided by a trained spiritual director and blessed by their own mutual deep listening, commitment, and openness to sharing. As with one-on-one spiritual direction, confidentiality is sacrosanct. The spiritual director may work with one person while the others support with listening and prayer, or one person may share while the spiritual director guides the other members in supporting the person’s discernment as this is requested.

Spiritual direction is not about “fixing,” but it may be deeply healing. In the end, the dance is Spirit-led, and I have left my own spiritual direction sessions immersed in deep peace, welcome affirmation, greater clarity, and a sense of renewal. Living the questions is never easy but, for me, it’s infused with greater gratitude and spaciousness when I journey with my spiritual companion. Whenever I feel I’m sitting out the dance, spiritual direction allows me to see my partner’s embracing me and leading me on, deeper into mystery and always in Love.

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