As I See It

Spiritual direction is a journey into mystery for this Jesuit

by Patrick Howell, SJ

SEVERAL YEARS AGO the painkiller Medaprin ran a clever ad on TV. The first images showed a burly guy with a jackhammer tearing up the pavement on a New York street. Blaring traffic, high-pitched noise, and tension filled the air. The guy had a splitting headache. In the next set of images, a sharp businesswoman rushed from meeting to meeting, conference to conference, not a second to spare. She, too, had a stunning headache. Then came the soothing voiceover: "Medaprin-when you don't have time for the pain."

When we suppress our pain, we may end up projecting our unresolved pain onto our family and friends. And if we choke off the desires flowing from our true self, we choke off God's Spirit moving within us.

As St. Augustine said, "The entire life of a good Christian is an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when God comes you may see and be utterly satisfied."

My point is illustrated by this story about Tom and his father (with changes in names and details for privacy considerations). Tom, a young building contractor, came to me for spiritual direction over a period of time because he wanted to deepen his spirituality. He and his wife had two sons, Matt, 15, and Bill, 13. Tom loved them but felt distant from them.

"We never communicate more than just what's more or less necessary," he said. "God seems really distant too, and I feel driven in my work. There's always more to do. Lately I've been a lot more anxious and a little depressed. Things are getting out of hand. I just can't control it all any more."

At a later session he told me that his parents had come for a visit.

"I was more tense than ever. I felt a couple of times I might go off the deep end again, but I'm okay now."

Fr Patrick Howell, SJ

Yet he remained tightly wound, straining to say what had happened. He told me tersely about his parents' visit, his lack of interaction with his boys, an argument he'd had with his wife. In all this, he never once said how he had felt. But as he was talking, he was pounding his left palm with his clenched right fist.

"What's that?" I asked him. "What are your hands saying?"

He looked at his hands with some wonderment: "This is the way I feel. All tight. And pounding myself."

"Boy, that's hard-painful. Your hands are feeling what's going on."

"Yeah, you're right," he said reflectively.

"How does it feel?"

He pounded his palm. "I'm all tied up. I keep driving myself. It's painful. It hardly ever stops."

He just sat there quietly for a while and then finally said, "I think I know what it's all about. My father was a carpenter. When I was about sixteen, I begged him to borrow his tool chest for a school building project. After several warnings, he agreed. Well, I lost the hammer, and it wasn't just any old hammer. It was his best hammer. When I told him, he pounded the hell out of me.

"So my hands are that hammer and I keep pounding and pounding and pounding." He started to cry, and then heaved and caught himself. "I suppose that's what I do to Matt, too."

Simple gestures

In the next sessions we explored how he was feeling by examining his hands and whatever it was they were telling him. His gestures enabled him to encounter himself. They linked him to his emotions. They carved out a space for him to interact with himself and to start to imagine not only how to stop the pounding but also how to start accessing his deeper self.

Tom discovered as well that he could learn to relax. Often in our sessions he would loosely hold his palms down, flexing his fingers as if they were wings of a plane about to take off in flight.

Out of a craving for his father's love, he had learned how to "pound" himself because that had been his primal experience of his father. Tom needed some ritual space to explore his deeper feelings. His own two hands, the very hands that had been pounding him, keeping him so busy and conveniently distracted from his most painful feelings, became the tool he needed to pray, to touch and be touched by God's Spirit. And at a still deeper level he awakened to the enslaving dynamics of his family and then how God's Spirit desired to bring him to freedom.

At the Last Supper, Jesus says to his disciples, "With desire I have longed to share this meal with you." By including everyone at the table-wastrels, tax collectors, rough fisherman, public sinners, Jesus showed us a new face of God as father-not at all a harsh judge who pounds us with guilt but a loving compassionate parent ready to embrace us and let our spirits soar.

Self awareness

In my years as spiritual director for Tom and many others, I've found that spiritual direction fosters growth in living out our relationship with Mystery and how Mystery plays out through all our relationships.

A spiritual director helps you to become more aware of God's revelation as you experience it affectively, that is, in your feelings and emotions, not just in your mind. And because spiritual direction is potentially such a vulnerable place, the most crucial element for successful direction is trust. Most often I can tell immediately in the first session whether this relationship is going to "work." And the underlying foundation for such a perception is trust, trust, trust!

When people come to me for spiritual direction, I'll often tell them, "Listen to your body. It's telling you the truth. The pain is telling you something. It may be shouting at you. If you deny your pain, you're probably denying your own deepest longings and desires. And it's these life-giving desires through which you touch your own spirit and ultimately God's very self."

Another crucial aspect of spiritual direction is discernment. What are the interior movements in my life? Are my choices congruent with the Spirit who brings peace, love, compassion, and kindness, or are they driven by a false spirit that creates envy, hatred, acts of dissensions, factions, drinking bouts, and the like? (See Galatians 5:19-23).

In my book A Spiritguide through Times of Darkness, I relate the story of Sheila to explain how a sacred symbol can help us in discernment and making decisions. During a retreat, Sheila imagined herself playing in a large, flowered meadow on the slopes of Mount Rainier. She became conscious of coming into contact with her own masculine energy, which both terrified and comforted her. She felt vulnerable, open, and fruitful.

Later in the same retreat, she imagined a dual set of images that depicted two dimensions of her self. One showed her harried self and the other her peace-filled self.

In the first, she imagined herself as a busy executive on the fifth floor of a 70-story building, working her way to the top. Busy, busy, busy. In the second, she imagined herself in the midst of a warm, cellar kitchen of a large castle. In the center of the kitchen, a wise black woman kneaded the bread, peeled potatoes, listened, nodded, smelled the musty wine, attended to the movements around her. Like a black Madonna, she was silent, knowing, caring.

Sheila knew instinctively that the decisions she made as the harried executive were destructive and dissipating; those she made in the cellar kitchen in the quiet presence of the black woman brought strength and peace.

In these crucial choices, I am reminded of a Cherokee tradition in which a wise elder narrates a story to the tribe's young people about a fierce battle between two wolves that live inside him. One wolf, clever and proud, is known for its greed, hate, envy, and violence. The other, strong and courageous, is known for its grace, love, peace, and humility. As the Cherokee elder describes the frequent and mounting tensions between the two wolves, an excited boy implores him, "Please tell us which wolf will win!"

"The one who will win," the elder replies, "is the one I feed."

Spiritual direction enables us to choose with God and to experience the live-giving, deep inner peace that only Mystery, that is, God, can bring.  *

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