03 December 2009

Ignatian Retreat, Month 2-3: Making Spiritual Decisions

This story is a bit intense in that I share some negative experiences with spiritual direction. I don't often like to share negative stories (it has a good ending) but I think that it could provide helpful "what not to dos" for those interested in this kind of thing.

A couple months ago, I wrote about my first month in the 9 month Ignatian Spirituality program. I had my reservations about my director but I gave her a chance and she came through. There were ups and downs but the ups seemed to be winning out.

Until that is, a few weeks ago when I came home with so much anxiety that I could barely fathom the thought of prayer. I was so disturbed by my session with my director that I was yelling and bursting into tears while J. sat by bewildered.

All of this was so confusing as it is when you're under any kind of spiritual direction, whether that be the leadership of your priest or pastor or mentor. They have the power to be that voice of comfort that you need so much...that word of wisdom or love, whatever it is that you feel you need. You want to trust them, to think that they are providing you with sound leadership. My spiritual director told me that my anxiety was an issue I had to work out with God although I was telling her that our sessions gave me anxiety and made me feel uncomfortable. Somehow, she made it about my issues and my unwillingness to be in line with God, rather than truly listening.

Some bad signs:
1. When I told her something, she responded with comments that were completely off. I told her, I don't think you understand what I just said. She smiled benevolently and said, Oh yes, I think I do understand. {it was creepy}
2. When I said, I just don't believe that God forces us to do something we don't want to do. She said, are you trying to be the boss of God? {the look on my face was one of incredulity}
3. When I said, I just think we all see God differently and noone can tell us God looks a certain way. She said, Are you telling me you believe in more than one God? {i was so taken aback}

Dear Lord. Out of the naivete of my heart, I gave it one more week after that anxiety provoking session and it was worse. Oh so much worse. We actually argued in my session. And then I drove home bawling.

I knew driving home that I had had enough. Sure, I may have issues. But there was no way in hell that my session was supposed to make me feel this way.

I gave myself a couple of days to calm down and then I mustered up the courage to call the head director of the program and tell her about the problems I was having. I was so relieved to find that she agreed with me completely and affirmed that spiritual direction should not look like that. She found me a new director and I met with her yesterday for the first time. I'll call her M. I went into it ready to bolt at the first sign of dogmatic tendencies.

And you know what, from the moment we sat down, I felt a peace in my heart (which I never really did with the previous one). She asked me, how would you like to start? And I said, with some silence. So we sat in silence and the difference was profound. We started oh so gently and I felt like I finally had some breathing space to just be.

As our hour progressed, I would ask questions, my director would respond, and I could just feel this weight lifting off my chest. I had felt so oppressed by my former director's view of God and it had really made me want to run away from religion as fast as I could. But with M., she never gave me unsolicited advice and I could tell she was just fully listening and being present. And when I told her how the whole Ignatian "sin" language felt unhelpful and made me feel worse about my life, she said, you know, when we recognize ways in which we turn away from God, it's not about shame or guilt. It's about desiring more freedom to be who we are truly meant to be. M. suggested, when you pray to God about ways in which you turned away, ask for more freedom, ask to be more alive to who you truly are. And pay attention to all those moments when you feel so alive because that's where God is. In the unexpected, in your joy.

Ah. My heart unfurled a little more at that. I soaked it all in. And when I walked away from the office towards the parking lot, I wanted to shriek with joy at how light my heart felt, how good it was to meet with a director who shared what I was longing for in a relationship with God.

The difference in my spiritual direction experiences was night and day. I feel grateful to have another chance with M. but it also made me realize how difficult it is to find a spiritual community or guide when there is so much bad religion out there. It is no wonder so many people just don't want anything to do with religion. Manipulation and power in the name of God is one of the most harmful abuses of people anywhere.

Some key pointers from this narrative:
1. Shop around for a spiritual director. My program didn't give me the chance to do this because they assigned me one. But it's like shopping for a therapist. If it doesn't feel like a good fit, stop going! You wouldn't waste your money on a bad therapist, right? There is no right or wrong here, it's all about how you feel and if you feel safe with your director. If you don't, then it's time to find someone else. A few years back, I met with a spiritual director who encouraged me to check out at least 3 others before deciding. Her advice stuck with me and helped me request another one.

2. Follow your gut. Religious experience can be manipulative and tricky to navigate. Your gut may be telling you that it just doesn't feel right but then your spiritual advisor could be telling you that you need to question your gut and perhaps it's your gut's woundedness that is speaking and reacting, not your true self. C'mon now! Always trust your own voice before another person's. From my first session, I didn't feel quite right about my spiritual director and I should have listened to that instead of my need to not cause a fuss.

3. Spiritual direction can be a profound experience but negative emotional experience should never be mistaken for profundity or positive intensity. I have met with some profound spiritual directors where from the moment I entered the office, I started crying because there was something so safe and profound about the space. When I met with my first Ignatian director, I cried but it was from alarm, frustration, and pain. Be mindful and aware of how you are feeling. Direction can bring up past woundedness but you should never feel threatened, pained, or uncomfortable with your director.

Exploring spirituality and finding something that enlivens you is a beautiful process that I am glad to be a part of. But as with anything, you gotta watch out for the bad guys and learn to avoid the potholes. Till next time, arrivederci.


  1. Hooray. I'm proud of you for not just taking it.

  2. good for you hanna. thanks for writing about this.