Spiritual Growth: Polishing the Cup or Growing in Love?

butterfly_cPeople enter into the process of spiritual direction for many reasons, and sometimes it takes time and deep listening for me to discern the motivation.

Because spiritual direction is not particularly widespread among my part of the religious world, I often take some time to differentiate among the practices of counseling, therapy, analysis, and spiritual direction. I often recall the caution the director of the Spiritual Direction Institute in Houston, Texas repeated at the beginning of each of the three years of our training.

“Remember,” she said, “the real director is the Holy Spirit. Our job is to discern the direction the Holy Spirit is wanting to guide the directee and cooperate with that.”

That good counsel has served me well, and I’ve added to it that spiritual direction is loving a person toward God. My job is not to solve problems or figure out how a person got to where he is at the moment. It isn’t to give advice, but it is designed to provide the listening and caring environment in which a seeker can grow more fully into an intimate, personal, dynamic relationship with God.

Toward that end, I often suggest various spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation, Bible or devotional reading, journaling, solitude, and silence as ways of deepening one’s relationship with the Living Christ. My job is to be a companion to my directees as they go through dark nights of the soul, struggle to surrender to God in a tough situation, come to terms with their own character defects and learn how to make confession, forgive, and be forgiven. At times, my job is to sit strong and steady while a directee flounders, wavering back and forth between wanting to be faithful to God and wanting to go his own way.

Sometimes, I have the privilege of sitting with a person through the lengthy process of grieving, listening to their questions about where God might be, given all the suffering. At other times, it is my job to be quiet and calm while a directee faces her own dark emotions, often allowing what has been buried down in the unconscious to come to the surface through tears.

“Tears are the body’s way of praying,” I often tell a directee who apologizes for crying or feels embarrassed for taking too long to weep through a terrible loss.

My long-time experience as a spiritual director has taught me a great deal about the ways God works within the depths of a person.

I will never forget an experience many years ago when a beautiful young woman came to me with a long list of her goals for her work with me. Admittedly, she was more task-oriented than anyone I had seen before, and as I listened to her read her list of daily “tasks”, as she called them, I found myself feeling weary and overwhelmed. With her particular responsibilities and jobs, adding her list to her already over-burdened schedule was clearly a set-up for failure.

I explained to her that spiritual direction was more about learning how to be friends with God than it was a competition for “most holy”, by virtue of checking off eight or more “spiritual” tasks each day, but she insisted that she knew what she wanted.

“Basically,” I told her, “spirituality is about becoming more whole and healthy. It is about learning how to love God more deeply, as well as loving others as oneself.”

“I’ll get to that,” she told me, always self-assured, “but for now this is what I want to do, and I want you to help me.”

I told her we could give it a try, but all the time I was remembering the eight-point record system of my childhood, a system against which I had rebelled.

Within a short time, my over-achiever failed at her impossible list of what she thought were spiritual goals, but to her credit, she admitted that what she had set out to do was more like polishing the outside of the cup of her life so that she would look good to herself and others.

It took a great deal of humility for that particular directee to admit her failure and to be open to learning what it was to deepen her life with God.

As she stumbled and trembled before the challenges of her life and her desire to know God more clearly, she came to the point of declaring to me one day that her new spiritual practice was to be kinder to the people she loved.

In her zeal for success, she had been an unrelenting taskmaster for herself and her children, and with their reactions, she had been forced to come to the place of learning the spiritual arts of gentleness and kindness. She also had to learn how to admit her own flaws, faults, and failings, which was especially difficult for a self-proclaimed Super Woman, but in doing that hard, laborious, and painful work, she opened up a new world for herself, a world of love, joy, and peace.

“All my life I thought that to be a spiritual superstar, you had to study harder, pray longer, and be hard on yourself for your sins,” she said. “I thought I had to look good, no matter how bad I felt on the inside.”

My zealot taught me a lot about soulwork, and she taught me lessons for my own life. Working through her programming that had taught her to compete and defeat, win at all costs, I saw clearly how easy it is to take the rules of the road and the workplace and super-impose them on one’s spiritual journey.

“I’m learning how to love,” she said to me one day. “How had I missed that for so long? It was Jesus’ great commandment, and I’d missed it!”

Love is the great lesson of life, isn’t it?

It is certainly the most important lesson.

Jeanie Miley is a writer and columnist, retreat leader, and speaker on topics of spiritual growth and contemplative prayer. She is the author of ten books including Meeting Jesus Today and has written a weekly newspaper column, “Growing Edges,” for thirty-three years. Trained at the Spiritual Direction Institute in Houston, Texas, Jeanie has read and studied broadly in the areas of spiritual growth and is a spiritual director. Her work rests, as she says, on a “four-legged stool”—Bible study, the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, contemplative prayer, and Jungian psychology. Jeanie teaches a popular women’s Bible study at River Oaks Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and at other sites in the Houston area. She is a frequent retreat leader for groups across the country. Visit www.jeaniemiley.com for more information.

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