Sit in on a conversation with spiritual director Bishop Bob Hibbs and his directee, James R. Dennis of St. Luke’s, San Antonio, about the place of spiritual direction in our lives today.
How would you describe spiritual direction?
James Dennis (JD): I’d say it’s working through spiritual issues or challenges with someone who is committed to my spiritual growth, who acts as the face of Christ for me. My spiritual director helps me learn to hear God’s voice among all the other competing voices in my life.
Bob Hibbs (BH): It’s a shared journey toward holiness. But we are always aware that God is the one pointing the way. My directee is already on the path; my commitment is to help him see what God is presenting along the way.
How does the spiritual director/directee relationship differ from that of soul friends?
JD: I see soul friends as two people who are roughly in the same place in their walk of faith and who encourage each other, whereas the spiritual director is a little further along the path than his or her directee.
BH: I think that what I bring to our session is simply “time in the saddle.” Spiritual direction was something that I learned about in seminary where I was introduced to Ascetical Theology. There I was encouraged to seek spiritual direction, find and use a confessor, and it was there that I began a life-long habit of reading the classical literature of spirituality.
So the spiritual director brings a degree of experience and wisdom?
JD: Yes, and it’s mostly suggesting another way to think about an issue or another way to live in the world. Sometimes, Bishop Hibbs will suggest something he thinks I need to read or do in order to help me address a concern. It’s been my general experience in spiritual matters, easy answers may be easy, but they’re rarely answers.
BH: A spiritual director is a kind of “scout” who has been over the trail, gone a bit ahead, knows where some of the quicksands are, been snake bit a few times, gotten over it, and can remove enemy arrows without cutting off a whole limb.
How does one know that it’s time to seek spiritual direction? Is it always because of a crisis?
JD: I have used spiritual direction in times of crisis, but more often in times when I was just uncertain how to proceed in a given situation. When I began with Bishop Hibbs, I was in a pretty black place, having worked for several years on the question of my vocation. At the time, it wasn’t that I had lost my belief in God, but I certainly had lost my trust in Him and in my ability to know God.
BH: Often there is a yearning for “something more” in a person. When that still small voice in our heads just won’t quit yammering, even though we have tried all the silencing mechanisms society has to offer, perhaps it’s time to enter into a serious relationship of spiritual direction. The penalty for not having a spiritual director is that one has oneself as his/her spiritual director. That’s a sure way to fall into the ditch. At worst, such unhappy people think they are mainlining The Holy Spirit and then the smell of sulphur gets pretty strong.
So how does a session between the two of you work?
JD: We meet once a month, theoretically for an hour — although I don’t think we’ve met for just an hour since we started working together. Generally, about a week before we meet, I begin thinking of issues we might discuss. Most of our talks have centered on the subject of vocation, in one sense or another. I recently entered the Dominican Order as a novice, largely as a result of advice and then finding my way through spiritual direction.
BH: I think our sessions “evolve” as we go along. Usually the conversation will reveal underlying themes, concerns, potential problems. As we have explored James’ vocation, I have devoted some time to research regarding Dominican spirituality.
Is your time together fairly loose? Or do you prepare for each session? Is there “homework”?
JD: We have been working together for quite a while now, so we know each other pretty well. We normally catch up with what’s going on in our lives for about five minutes, and then get pretty quickly into the issues we’re going to address. Sometimes, Bishop Hibbs brings an issue up and sometimes I come with something I want to discuss. While we are pretty rigorous, we’re not very rigid.
BH: While I don’t think I have an established pattern, I am on the lookout for stresses, conflicts, inconsistencies and try to help with these.
And how does this differ from therapy or counseling?
BH: Therapy and counseling generally are problem-oriented with a goal of solving a particular issue. Spiritual direction has as its goal the discernment of God at work in one’s life and the vocation to which one is being called. I seek to find out where the directee seems to be headed and make suggestions that may nurture that development. Early on I became aware of the danger of trying to shape directees into a pre-determined pattern of spirituality.
How does someone choose a spiritual director?
JD: I would start with my clergy, with friends in the church and with anyone who has had experience with a spiritual director. I wouldn’t stop looking until I found the right fit. That doesn’t mean necessarily that it’s comfortable; sometimes, good spiritual direction might be quite uncomfortable. But if the richness and depth of your prayer life, your worship and your relationships with others are growing, you’re probably in the right place.
How does one go about becoming a spiritual director?
BH: I don’t think I ever intentionally set out to be a spiritual director. I just sort of topsy-ed into it – and that is not necessarily a good thing – but there are good programs available. I am particularly impressed by The Shalem Institute, but there are others. There is much to commend a kind of apprentice system where one learns to be a spiritual director by being the directee of a good director. That’s kind of what happened to me. It is important too, I think, to be aware of the fact that all good spiritual directors need not have an ecclesiastical seal of approval. There is a world of shade tree mystics out there who know stuff. But a sound theological foundation is most desirable, and a sure and certain awareness that one is not qualified to practice psychology or psychiatry is critically important.
JD: Well, I think it’s very interesting that what I thought was a time of great crisis was actually the foundation for God giving me one of the most wonderful gifts I’ve ever received, my friendship and study with Bishop Hibbs. I suppose the Church often works like that, looking back to the crisis of Golgotha leading to the amazing gift of the Resurrection and the fellowship of Pentecost. It seems we can most often see God’s grace only in hindsight, but at least we can see it and be thankful for it.
The Rt. Rev. Bob Hibbs is retired bishop suffragan of the Diocese of West Texas; he served 1996 to 2003. Reach Bishop Hibbs at Hibbsrb@aol.com;
James R. Dennis, O.P., is a member of the Dominican Order. Reach James R. Dennis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is from the Fall/Winter issue of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
♦ What is the difference between a spiritual friendship and spiritual direction? Author David Benner discusses these and other topics in his book, Sacred Companions: the Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction. Visit the Congregational Resources website at: http://www.congregationalresources.org/sacred-companions-gift-spiritual-friendship-and-direction for his understanding of spiritual friendship, spiritual direction, and a combination of the two.
♦ Although often a good starting point to find a spiritual director is to talk with your priest, another option is to visit a website with resources to find one in your area. Select the following link to look for one through the Spiritual Direction Institute. http://www.sdiworld.org/seekfindguideagree/terms-of-use/seek-and-find-guide-instruction.html
♦ Spiritual Direction Training centers:
- Spiritual Directors International: http://www.sdiworld.org/enrichment_formation_and_training _programs.html.
- The Shalem Institute: http://www.shalem.org/
- Lebh Shomea House of Prayer: http://www.lebhshomea.org/ .
- The Haden Institute: http://www.hadeninstitute.com/training/spiritual-direction-us/
- Oasis Ministries: http://www.oasismin.org/Assets/Direction%20for%20Guides.html
- Sustainable Faith: http://sustainablefaith.com/school