SPIRITUAL DIRECTION: HOLY LISTENING
Kol Nidre, 5771,
September 17, 2010
A long time ago my teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, said, “A rabbi has two tasks: to bring forth creativity in others and to reveal oneself.” He added that you don’t say more than the people can take. So I hope that what I’m about to reveal about myself isn’t too much; I have just signed a new contract.
This evening, as we enter into the most intentional and awesome of seasons, I want to share a new rich stream of religious experience I’ve discovered that has brought me into deeper relationship with myself, God, and Judaism. Like Sarah discovering her fertility in old age, so I too am radically amazed to discover that I still have so much room to grow parts of myself that I didn’t know existed.
Until three years ago I didn’t feel that I wasn’t missing anything in my spiritual life. I davened each morning, did what I loved most–teaching and learning–and I had abundant opportunity to be helpful. I got together with colleagues a couple of times a year for a heightened sense of inner life, and believed it was enough, because how can you be in that place in ordinary time?
At one of these gatherings, I learned that Rabbi Shohama Wiener, who had been my dean at AJR and is a respected friend, was heading a program for ALEPH in Spiritual Direction called Hashpa’ah, from the Hebrew root, shefa, which means abundance. Although I didn’t know much about it, I was intrigued. The three-year curriculum would provide learning, I’d have the pleasure of new chevrutahs, study partners, and I’d increase my skills as a rabbi. Now I will tell you, a year and a half into it, that what I’m learning has increased my skills as a human being as I’m learning a new path for inner exploration.
Originally developed within the Christian tradition, Spiritual Direction is the relationship between one who seeks to explore life beyond the mundane and to venture into the Mystery within oneself. A spiritual director is a companion who will be with and guide the seeker on the journey.
The Hasidic world provides a similar healing relationship. After every hasid, or disciple, gets the general instruction the rebbe gives to the whole community, the mashpia, which means giver in Hebrew, works with the hasid to help him understand the lesson personally. In this relationship he is a mushpah, or receiver. In monthly meetings the mushpah explores with the mashpiah how to know God in everything. Historically, other rabbinic seminaries have trained the mind more than the heart. While religion may be dangerous or cruel when emotions detach from the mind, we need both rational thought and non-rational experience to become complete human beings. In response to this generation’s hunger for spiritual intimacy, most seminaries today require that their students train in Spiritual Direction.
As with other SD training institutes, I have a Spiritual Director to help me learn the process by receiving it. She is an experienced companion who listens as I imagine God listens, and my trust allows me to find new spaciousness with myself. This is the place where I feel most transparent, most clear, most open-hearted, and most loved. This is where everything is connected, and no matter what is going on, I’m all right. This is what being in God’s house means to me.
A director’s or guide’s main qualification is to be at home in the world of contemplation and inner exploration not as an expert but as a fellow traveler. The sponsor in Twelve Step groups is a model for this work, except in one chief way. The SD doesn’t say much. He or she is a holy listener, skilled in guiding the seeker towards his truth that puts him naked before God. Unlike other helping relationships, this one has no inherent termination date. If the mushpah feels the relationship continues to awaken him to a greater consciousness, it can last a lifetime.
Forty years ago, I started attending Shabbat morning services. The Torah discussion was perfect for an English major. After a couple of years, I surprised myself when I burst into tears when the Torah was returned to the ark. I would have to wait a week to feel her wisdom again. I wish that I could have talked to someone experienced in such things to help me understand how important that moment was: I was no longer an agnostic. I had begun a new relationship and I had no one to talk to about it. In Hashpa’ah, I finally had someone to talk to about such experiences.
It doesn’t mean, however, that I only talk about the good parts of myself in my monthly meetings. When I speak from the narrow, constricted, and cold parts of me, she helps me find my ground of being, my truth, my godliness amidst the muck.
SD has shown me how to imagine God’s house through my own life by taking me out of the analytical and into the imaginal world, where God may manifest as someone who was or is a loving wise teacher. This is how we can relate personally to a non-personal God. For me, the holy palace was an apartment in Greenwich Village with grandparents who thought everything I said was interesting and true. They always had my favorite food and they never asked questions. I felt safe with them.
My cohort consists of mystical and skeptical rabbis, pastoral counselors, chaplains, and students, and we represent all denominations of Judaism. For many of us, going on guided imaginal journeys to meet our spirit guides in the form of ancestors was a stretch. I had always felt a little embarrassed about my daydreaming in childhood. Now I was learning that by relaxing into a contemplative place where I imagined my grandparents, it was creating the same body chemistry as when I was physically with them. What had they come to say to me? What Hashpa’ah was teaching me was to know that the appearance of a particular person or scene came from Somewhere, and to trust its meaning.
In this work, we have a chance to access and share what can be the most intimate relationship we may have: the connection with the Holy One. This is what I mean when I speak of a spiritual life. In our first gathering, we were quickly plunged into ourselves with questions about how, where, and when we experience God. Or, God help us, do we? What is it that we most deeply long for? A few days of such questions primed by heart-opening chants and meditations took me outside of ordinary time and into a new reality where I found that I wasn’t as satisfied as I thought. Despite my fulfilling personal and communal practice, I longed for a more frequent, deeper, and more intimate connection to the holy, and I wanted to help others reach this place.
This is a different relationship from the work I had already been doing. As a pastoral counselor I might help with a problem in life with prayers and practices to gain perspective. Meeting for a while to work through the particular crisis of the moment with the help of our wisdom tradition is the intention of this relationship. Should this person become curious about the forces that are healing her, she may want to enter into a relationship that will allow an exploration of the heart that leads to God. Her work with a SD will guide her to see how her life is an unfolding of spirit.
When I sit as a mashpiah, I invite Divine presence to guide us in helping the mushpah find access to invisible support. The place between us grows sacred. Despite the title, a spiritual director doesn’t direct or guide much. Spiritual friend is perhaps a better description of the one who accompanies another to explore deep inner feelings for which there are often no words. The silence speaks as a container for one’s truth held in loving attention.
When I first began my monthly sessions with a mashpia, I worried that I didn’t have enough to say about my spiritual life–I don’t remember dreams and my davening often is unconscious. Soon I realized that my whole life was spiritual, and the work was to realize it. Although our sessions are by phone, I began to sense that the quality of conversation was unlike any I have had. She opened the session with a spontaneous prayer asking for God’s presence to be with us in the hour.
I’d been working on my inner life for a long time, but never like this, with another who was receiving me through her own lens sharpened by a practice of prayer and meditation. Only one who has lived with such spiritual intimacy could allow me to trust her with parts of myself I’d never shared. The subtle practice began to awaken barely conscious thoughts and feelings that I’d hidden from myself. A field of trust was necessary for this uncensored material to come forward.
I’d been through psychoanalysis, I’d written several spiritual autobiographies, and yet this process opened unexplored territory. Earlier in my life, when I was a teenager, I remembered feeling the pleasure of this depth of being heard. Late at night, when my sisters and father were asleep, my stepmother and I would sit at the kitchen table for hours talking about everything. I talked, I should say, and I remember her face so animated and present to my words. Only now do I understand that she and I were not alone as my heart opened wide in her reception.
Heschel wrote, “I cannot see God’s face but I can see my mother’s.” Although she didn’t summon God, this was holy listening. I felt as if Rita was the first person to take me seriously, and it shifted how I knew myself. Spiritual Direction has shown me how such memories help to access love.
The past year has been challenging for many of us. We’ve lost jobs or we’re working harder to keep what we have. Our demographic has given us more than a minyan of those who have ill parents or who have lost parents in the past year. We also sit with those who have lost children. Despite the downturn of many businesses, faith communities like HaMakom are growing. Prayer, study, and good deeds have never been more relevant and important to our well-being.
Yet the work I’ve been describing has shown me that communal experience is not all there is to a spiritual life. For some, only with a holy listener will they discover their truth. For others, they want more than all the wonderful experiences that HaMakom offers. As they say in the travel industry, they want a bespoke tour, personalized itinerary of where they have been, where they are, and where they are going.
However you get there in this season of self-reflection and self-judgment, I would encourage you to invite the idea that there may be more to being human than you realize. Spiritual Direction is one way to hear a quiet voice within that is only waiting for your reply.
Shanah Tovah! May the coming year bring you deepening insight and connection, sweet surprises, and strength for everything else.