Soul Friend

 

I write this on Valentine’s Day, a holiday where friends and family outdo one another in demonstrations of affection. How wonderful! We can never have too much of that!

In my various posts I’ve often referred to my “epiphany” when I was brought back to the church after a 21-year absence. This call was so strong that it drew me to an almost constant sense of wonder and confusion. This strong pull was nothing less than bewildering and I knew from many years of Christian education that I needed a spiritual director. When I heard the homily of a priest new to our parish, I knew that my search was over.

I vividly remember my first visit to this, my first real spiritual “director.” “Now you know,” he said, “I’m not going to tell you what to do.” This was a total shock, as I said to myself: Well, why on earth do you think I’ve come to you?! 

He also asked me to call him by his first name, dropping the Father. This was to remove any artificial and possibly unhelpful distancing between us, as Father denotes a relationship with a superior. 

Since my experience over a dozen years ago, “spiritual direction” has gradually and universally evolved into a more personal relationship as spiritual companion or friend. Even the organization called “Spiritual Directors International” has recently shown a preference for spiritual companion/friend.

So what is this non-directive direction like?

It didn’t take me long to discover and cherish this unique form of friendship. This was a person to whom I could speak freely about my experience of God; one who would not put me down but knew how to gently correct what needed correction; one who encouraged me, who was my spiritual cheer-leader. 

The spiritual friend is an attentive listener, familiar with the spiritual journey through his own experience and through study of the classic writings on the subject. Saints such as Ignatius, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales and his soul-friend Jane Frances de Chantal, and many more have written extensively on the art of holy listening. Probing questions are designed to clarify and discover how the Holy Spirit – the true Director – is working in the soul. 

Even though each seeker is unique, the path usually has the same sign-posts. How do we know we are “making progress”? To put it simply, we know this if we can point to positive changes in our behavior toward others. If, for example, we can see that the anger and grudges we’ve carried around for years have quietly slipped off our back; if we are present to God so that our prayer has seamlessly become more connected with Him in even the most ordinary tasks of our life; if so, then we can probably say we’re more authentically responding to our call to holiness. The love we have for a soul friend can become a model for the love we share with others in our life.