Millennials Want Spiritual Directors

The Boston Globe reports an uptick in people seeking spiritual directors, especially amongst younger people.

Driving the growth are millennials like Weaver, who are more apt than previous generations to identify as “spiritual but not religious.’’ Ed Cardoza, Weaver’s spiritual director and the founder of Still Harbor, a South Boston nonprofit, mostly sees people in their 20s and 30s.

Some, he says, are evangelical Christians who have a strong relationship with Jesus but realize, after arriving in Boston from the Midwest or South to study, that they differ with their parents’ church over political or sexual issues. Others have little religious background but find themselves undergoing a spiritual awakening and do not know where to turn.

“What you recognize is there’s this growing population of folks who are out of the purview of traditional institutions,’’ Cardoza said.

That’s been my experience for sure. Lots of young people want to make time for this and seek a trusted source to help them make the big decisions of their lives. Some even like a group experience of doing this while others prefer a one to one companion.

The other group seeking direction according to the Globe are people who are thrust into a spiritual search because of traumatic experiences—again proving my book. The $20 is in the main, Boston Globe.

Ardently faithful people of all ages form the other major group seeking spiritual direction. Often, they are confronting a trauma or transition or want to deepen a particular aspect of their faith or practice. Asking their priest or rabbi for spiritual direction is not always an option. Often clergy limit the number of sessions they have with individuals in order to focus on the broader congregation. Many also lack the training to provide the kind of “sacred listening’’ required in spiritual direction.

In a society that is increasingly comfortable hiring experts as private consultants – personal trainers, personal organizers, life coaches – the decision to seek out a personal spiritual director no longer seems as exotic as it once might have.

I am offering this experience in Buffalo for students, faculty and staff and young adults and the occasional non-young adult. It’s been a great blessing for me in my ministry to sit and listen to the stories of others and seeing where they find God and helping them to form their own image of God more tangibly.

The truth of course is that spiritual directors really don’t direct anything. The real director is Jesus, we just companion people and keep them connected to Christ by pointing out where they might be more open and able to see God working in their life.

A young woman who has been one of my directees reminded me that often she’d come to me with the same experience that was troubling her. She felt disconnected for months and she sometimes wondered if direction was working. Together we stuck it out and she started to see glimmers of where God was working in her life and then, while praying in a Eucharistic Adoration service, she encountered the forgiving love that Christ offers her in a new and intimate way.

I think that’s what people really want from spiritual directors. They want someone who points them back to experiences of God and encourages them to remember that consolation is not far off, even when it seems that God is absent in their lives.

Spiritual direction is a ministry of listening. We hear where people are meeting God and try to connect them to that experience. We listen for God’s voice creeping in through the words and situations of individual souls who long for connection with the divine–especially when times are not good and things happen that are unfair or tragic and one just can’t seem to make sense out of it. But ultimately, God is really the director and my job is to point people in God’s direction.

People are often drastically in need of someone to talk to in a disconnected and alienated world. Some even desperately will seek having a spiritual conversation online through email, Skype or Facebook. And since St. Ignatius said allowances should be made for people to experience the spiritual exercises should be made, I find no issue with that kind of relationship in spiritual direction. Or I at least have no issue with experimenting with that.

That said, if you’re looking for a spiritual director, I’d be happy to help you find one–or even be your director if that’s a good fit for us. Spiritual directors international is another good resource.

Spiritual directors have been a blessing for me in my life. I pray that they become a blessing for you as well.

Are People with Mental Illness Overmedicated?

Therese Borchard at her great blog on mental illness, Beyond Blue, takes on the question.

Are some people overmedicated in this country? Yes. Absolutely. I devote a few chapters of my book, Beyond Blue, to describing the dangerous phase in my recovery led by a doctor whom I call “Pharma King.” I was taking something like 16 pills a day, enough to drop my head into my cereal bowl every morning for about three months. And I wasn’t at all uncomfortable with how the nurses at the outpatient psych program I attended jumped to an increase in medication every time a patient voiced a complaint or raised an issue.

I wanted to scream out, “For crying out loud, let the woman try to sort through this a tad before we up her prescription.”

I think there are many people with mild depression who would be better served by a change in diet, a strict exercise regiment, some psychotherapy, and the other tools we have to help us, than simply by swallowing a pill.

I would tend to agree in some cases, but not in many. I know a few people in my life and in my ministry who would be lost without the use of drugs to stabilize their brain chemistry.

And therein lies the problem. Many people with mild depression rely on meds to bring them back to the borderline when simple talk therapy will do.

Then there are people with serious issues who NEED meds simply to stabilize their brain chemistry and correct the imbalance that causes mania or depression–or both.

And that being said, those people also need to participate in talk therapy on a minimum monthly basis. These two therapeutic solutions work well in consort for the seriously ill. The issue is that one usually favors one over the other when both are actually necessary.

As is the case with most things, fear is at the heart of this, I think. Mildly depressed people hear horror stories of people who are seriously mentally ill and they don’t want to find themselves in that situation so they medicate unnecessarily. Seriously depressed people take their meds and it stabilizes them, but they don’t thrive on meds alone–they need the talk therapy as well. Those who are seriously ill can participate in talk therapy from now until the end of time without meds and they will never recover –but they fear taking meds for one reason or another. And there are many who lobby against the pharmaceutical industry who tell people to chuck their meds and it leads to a rapid downfall. Others can bring themselves naturally up to the borderline with simple talk therapy–but choose to do nothing.

For many of us in ministry, we see a good deal of people who come to us for pastoral care or for spiritual direction. We’ve learned the signs of mental illness and know when people need more help than we are able to provide. And yet, many people really trust us and want to use us for talk therapy when they really need to see a psychologist–perhaps one who is open to spirituality in their practice would be best. I’ve even toyed with the idea of working on a psychology degree for these reasons. I love doing direction with young people, but at times I can see the blocks that doesn’t let someone even see the possibility of God working in their lives. It becomes my job to send them elsewhere–which really is hard for them to hear sometimes.

I think this is an area where a great conversation can happen between the psychological community and the religious community. We really can help one another here and I know a good deal of psychologists who consult religious professionals for assistance including one who said “Until my client went to confession regularly, I couldn’t get them past their negative feelings. Confession was the piece that helped me to help them make a breakthrough and forgive themselves and the others in their lives and be more able to see the world as a safe place again.”

Indeed. Any other experiences with this?

What is Spiritual Direction?

I’ve answered this question before but this article from the Philly Inquirer does a nice job of explaining:

Fifteen years ago, Susan Cole was a pastor with a troubling dilemma: She felt unable to pray. It was a stressful time in her parish at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City, and Cole felt her anxiety climbing. She tried closing her eyes and focusing on a meaningful passage of Scripture. She tried waking before dawn to pray. All that did was make her tired.

“I was a mess,” she recalls. “I would feel myself working really hard, I’d get more anxious and not feel any connection to God.”

Finally Cole found an adviser, a Roman Catholic nun, and began meeting with her. The woman listened closely as Cole described her spiritual anguish; one day she asked Cole to read aloud from Colossians. “She paid very close attention to where my voice shifted. She said, ‘Go back to that line and read it again.’ She kept leading me deeper and deeper, to a place where I felt very sad and lonely, and there, I could feel God’s spirit.”

Almost immediately, Cole’s prayer life unclogged. “It felt like magic: I go to see [my adviser] and my spirit gets revitalized.”

Cole, 64, now knows the process wasn’t magic – it was spiritual direction, an ancient practice with Christian roots that has recently seen a revival among contemporary seekers from all faiths, including some who don’t necessarily believe in God. In a culture where people readily engage physical trainers to hone their bodies and psychotherapists to untangle their neuroses, an increasing number are looking to spiritual directors as “spotters” for their souls.

About 300 training programs in spiritual direction exist worldwide, housed in universities, seminaries, and independent retreat centers. Spiritual Directors International, a 20-year-old organization based in Bellevue, Wash., has seen its membership swell from 4,000 in 2002 to 7,000 in 2008. There are even YouTube videos explaining and promoting the practice.

“I have seen a huge rise in awareness” of spiritual direction, says Liz Ward, director of the spiritual guidance program at the Shalem Institute in Bethesda, Md., which draws students of numerous faiths including Jews, Buddhists, Baptists, and Roman Catholics to its two-year program.

Spiritual directors typically meet monthly with their directees, who may or may not share the same religious background; the relationship can continue for years. Unlike psychotherapy, which is problem-based and designed to alleviate distress, spiritual direction doesn’t aim to “fix” anything. Instead, it offers people a place to talk about their spiritual lives without fear of judgment. For some, that means discussing God or prayer in the context of their faith; others use language such as “the yearning of the soul.”

In short, spiritual directors, like myself, try to companion people, to unearth where they might be seeing God working in their lives. We ask good questions and provide fewer answers–rather we help you to find some guidance ‘with God’s help” by looking more deeply at where God may be working in your life or where you may struggle to see God lurking in the background.

If you’d like to find a spiritual director in your area check out Spiritual Directors International and look at their blog as well.