August 29, 2008

'What am I called to do?': Spiritual direction helps people deepen their faith, find meaning in life

Cindy Workman, left, meets monthly with her spiritual director, Annie Endris. “Spiritual direction helps me see God being active in my day,” Workman says. “Even when I’m making macaroni and cheese or changing diapers, I see him as part of that.” (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Cindy Workman, left, meets monthly with her spiritual director, Annie Endris. “Spiritual direction helps me see God being active in my day,” Workman says. “Even when I’m making macaroni and cheese or changing diapers, I see him as part of that.” (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Annie Endris knew she needed help in answering the major questions of her life.

A college senior at the time, Endris wondered whether her romantic relationship with a fellow student—her best friend—would lead to marriage. She also worried about her choice of a career after college.

Confused, she knew she needed direction. So when a campus minister at her college talked to her about the process of “spiritual direction,” Endris decided to give it a try.

“It helped me not to worry about what my life was going to look like. It helped me relinquish control,” Endris recalls. “It helped me hear my own story of what God is calling me to do. It was really looking at what the best fit was for me at that time—and how I was going to serve God.”

Endris eventually married her best friend. She also started work as a teacher at a Catholic high school.

Now at 37, she has a different direction in her life. Married for 14 years and the mother of a 13-year-old and a 2-year-old, she has spent the past five years as a spiritual director, helping others hear their own stories and listen for the voice of God as they try to deepen their faith and make sense of their place in the world.

“I think we could all benefit from spiritual direction,” says Endris, a 1993 graduate of Marian College in Indianapolis and a member of St. Agnes Parish in Nashville.

So what is spiritual direction, and how have priests, religious sisters and lay people used it to help others in their faith journeys? (See also: Spiritual direction internship program begins on Sept. 9)

Seeking the meaning in life

Start with the goal of spiritual direction, a goal defined by Father Donald Schmidlin, a retired diocesan priest who provides spiritual direction for about 25 people, meeting them on a regular basis one at a time.

“An overall goal is to see how, in all the parts of our lives, God is teaching us how to love—how to love God, how to love ourselves, and how to love others,” Father Schmidlin says. “People are really seeking the meaning of life.”

In spiritual direction, the way to that goal is through one-on-one sessions between the spiritual director and the spiritual directee—a relationship that also invites a third party into the session, the Holy Spirit. Indeed, one of the symbols for Spiritual Directors International is three chairs, with one chair representing the presence of God.

“I always try to start off with entering into quiet prayer together,” Father Schmidlin says. “It can be 30 seconds to a couple of minutes. That’s to be in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Then we try to see how the Holy Spirit is directing them. I believe that the Holy Spirit is the real spiritual director. I’m just trying to help a person by listening. Many people have never really listened to themselves because no one else ever listened to them.”

Listening is the key to spiritual direction, according to Benedictine Sister Rachel Best. She is the director of spirituality at the Institute for Spiritual Direction at the Benedict Inn Retreat and Conference Center. It is a ministry of the Sisters of St. Benedict of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove. The institute offers a two-year program to train people to become spiritual directors.

In Sister Rachel’s office, big wooden letters spell “LISTEN!” There’s also a picture of a young St. Benedict, who encouraged people to, “Listen with the ear of your heart.”

“I think God speaks to us in many of our nudges, our inspirations,” Sister Rachel says. “It’s learning to listen to those nudges and inspirations that happen in our lives. As a spiritual director, you listen to the other person and you try not to get hooked in their story and you try not to fix it. You try to listen for the deeper things going on inside of them. They might be telling me about something going on in their life, and they say, ‘I don’t know how God is working in my life.’ ”

Cindy Workman had that feeling at two turning points in her life: when she quit her job to return to college, and when she became a mother. At both points, she sought spiritual direction to make sense of her transitions. She has stayed in spiritual direction for eight years now, including the past three years with Endris as her spiritual director.

“It’s a relationship I trust and I know it’s going to have my spiritual health in mind and not just what I want to hear,” says Workman, 44, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Edinburgh. “It’s helped me live more intentionally and with greater balance. I want to live a Christ-centered life. That’s hard to do in the secular world. I don’t want to be at the end of my life and say, ‘What did I do? Did I keep God in my life?’ ”

Her monthly, one-hour sessions with Endris help her focus on making time every day for her relationship with God.

“Spiritual direction has helped me see God being active in my day,” Workman says. “Even when I’m making macaroni and cheese or changing diapers, I see him as part of that.”

‘What am I called to do?’

Lori Watson has also seen her faith life benefit from spiritual direction. For the past six years, she has met about once a month with Father Schmidlin, a relationship that began when she was a graduate student at Indiana University in Bloomington and Father Schmidlin was a priest serving St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington.

“I find it’s very helpful to have a chance to reflect on where God is in my life, and how he calls me to live a life of faith,” says Watson, 31, a chemistry professor at Earlham College and a member of St. Andrew Parish, both in Richmond.

“Father Don helps me to reflect and be honest with myself—to reflect on how God is present. He offers suggestions for things I might think about as I pray. He also helps me with a bit of a reality check—how struggles with faith are a normal experience.”

She believes that spiritual direction has helped her faith grow.

“It is a journey,” Watson says. “I continue to pray and reflect daily on what’s happening in my faith life. ‘Where am I seeing God? What am I called to do?’ Sometimes, I might write about it in a journal or draw a picture or read a spiritual book. Sometimes I just think and pray about things. My relationship with God is constantly evolving as I grow.”

Caring enough about your faith to try to deepen your relationship with God daily is an essential element in spiritual direction.

“You tell your story and then you can link how God is working in you,” Endris says. “Sometimes it just helps us slow down and pay attention. By our baptism and confirmation, we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. But how do we see it in the day-to-day, moment-to-moment parts of our life?

“I see spiritual direction as calling me to be me—to pay attention to my prayer life, and to nurture that—that it’s not just a Sunday obligation or five minutes of telling God, ‘Here’s what I need.’ It’s the listening part.”

It’s listening to—and sharing—stories of joy, sadness and frustration, stories of surrender, trust and forgiveness. It’s embracing silence and spending time to develop the most important relationship in life.

“You get encouraged to continue your journey with God,” Sister Rachel says. “When you face hard times in life, you work through them so you have a deeper relationship with God and you don’t give up.”

It makes the shared journey of spiritual direction special and sacred.

“I love doing this,” Sister Rachel says. “For people to talk about their spiritual journey and their relationship with God touches my soul. I’m always amazed and awed by the stories of people’s relationships with God. I’m always amazed how God works in people’s lives.”

(For information about becoming a spiritual director or seeking a spiritual director for your faith journey, contact Benedictine Sister Rachel Best at 317-788-7581. Most spiritual directors charge a fee for their services.)

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