Spiritual Directors Help in the Quest for Harmony

Times Staff Writer

For Los Angeles photographer Leanna Creel, a gay Christian, marrying a Jewish woman in May was the culmination of not only a six-year relationship, but also of a yearlong spiritual journey.

While she pondered a lifetime commitment to Rinat Greenberg, she sought out spiritual director Lynn Taylor to help guide her in discerning where God was in her life.

For a year, the two met monthly at St. Peters By The Sea Presbyterian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes to talk, contemplate, pray and seek God's guidance. During their monthly sessions, Taylor heard Creel's concerns about how God might view a same-sex union. She also expressed concern about how she and her partner would deal with their different faiths.

By the time Creel was ready for a church wedding, officiated by her Presbyterian pastor, she had worked through the issues.

"I felt that God was very much part of the wedding," she said. "I believe God is much bigger than the topical debates of our generation."

To Creel and others, spiritual directors such as Taylor offer the one-on-one companionship of an unbiased friend.

Some spiritual directors are ordained pastors, priests or nuns. Others are lay people. Some in private practice charge $45 to $125 for a one-hour session, but many offer their services for free. Spiritual direction is different from pastoral counseling or therapy. Spiritual directors don't give advice, diagnose a condition or try to help fix a problem.

"It's not like you know it all and you've been there," said spiritual director Karen Goran of Anaheim, an elder at Morningside Presbyterian Church in Fullerton. "It's about listening, and asking questions to help them listen to themselves talk about their experience of God."

Spiritual direction dates from the second, third and fourth centuries, when many -- so-called Desert Fathers and Mothers -- went to the deserts in the Middle East to deepen their lives with God.

"Out of that experience, spiritual direction began to be formed," said Sister Thomas Bernard MacConnell, director of the Spiritual Growth Center, formerly affiliated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Today, what was once viewed as a Catholic tradition is being sought by mainline Protestants and, to a lesser extent, Jews and Buddhists.

"We are responding to a need because life is so hectic, so fast-paced," said Wilkie Au, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University and a spiritual director. "People want some grounding for their life that helps them live more peacefully -- in more harmony and balance."

A former Jesuit priest, Au works with pastors and conducts retreats for churches and secular groups.

The Rev. Elizabeth Nordquist, a professor of spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary's Southern California branch, says there is an important distinction between spiritual direction and psychotherapy.

"The lens of the psychotherapist is, 'How do I participate in my own healing?' " Nordquist said. "The lens of the spiritual director is, 'How do I most closely follow God's invitation?' The presenting question is: 'How can I learn to know God more deeply to do what God is inviting me to do?' "

Nationwide, there are more than 200 training programs for spiritual direction and formation, according to Liz Bud Ellmann, director of Spiritual Directors International, of Bellevue, Wash. More than 4,000 U.S. spiritual directors belong to the organization -- 485 from California.

Unlike psychotherapists, spiritual directors are not licensed. Their training is not standardized. Most receive a diploma or a certificate after completing a three-year program.

In January, Loyola Marymount University will begin a program to train spiritual directors within its master's degree in pastoral theology.

"The whole focus [of spiritual direction] is helping people become aware of the way God permeates our lives," said Sister Thomas Bernard. "Once people begin to become aware of that, that awareness deepens, and then it becomes natural to find God in all things" -- whether one is taking a walk, going through tough times or having fun, she said.

Prayer is an important underpinning of spiritual direction, said the nun, a 30-year veteran.

One enrollee in the center's fall class is Rhoda Blecker, a Jewish author in Los Angeles.

After 30 years of studying spirituality on her own, Blecker, who attends a Conservative synagogue, was led to seek formal training to combine it with her master's degree in business administration to become a corporate chaplain, she said.

"I want to be able to accompany people on a [spiritual] journey, whatever faith they have," she said.

As a Jew studying with Christian spiritual directors, she looks for the "truth that goes across the spirituality" and disregards what is strictly Christian, such as "The Spiritual Exercises" of St. Ignatius, a foundational work for spiritual direction in the Jesuit community.

"Religions are exclusionary and spirituality is inclusionary," Blecker said.

When a person seeking spiritual direction seeks out the Rev. Kikanza Nuri Robins, the first thing this spiritual director does is to ascertain whether they are a good fit.

When they are comfortable with each other, they explore the person's spiritual landscape -- the issues that get between that person and God.

Often, the person ends up writing a journal and studying Scriptures.

"Sometimes a spiritual director is a companion along the path, sometimes a guide to a path," she said. "Sometimes a spiritual director helps you get ready to get on a path."

The Rev. Frank Alton, pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Koreatown, has received eight years of spiritual direction over the last 20 years. He did two years early in his ministry, then the last six with two spiritual directors: Au and Abbot Francis Benedict at St. Andrew's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Valyermo.

"My best experiences of spiritual direction have helped me connect my emotional and spiritual journeys," Alton said.

"Spiritual direction helps make sure that my faith journey is experiential, not just intellectual."

Essentially, there are two aspects to spiritual direction, experts say. One is listening to people's stories and helping them tell them; the other is helping them see where God might be in their stories.

"Spiritual direction is about helping people identify and understand their religious experience in a very ordinary sense," Au said.

"It's not anything dramatic like what happened to the saints and mystics, but [it's] the ongoing religious experience of people in their daily life, whether they encounter the Holy One or the numinous, watching a sunset or listening to somebody sharing a story about their life or listening to a piece of music or be moved by something they read in literature or paper."

Programs for training Jewish spiritual directors are relatively new.

Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction, an Internet-based center for training Jewish spiritual directors, will produce its first crop of 12 graduates in November.

Spiritual director Anne Brener, who is also a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, teaches at Yedidya, meaning "a beloved of God" in Hebrew. She said an important question in spiritual direction is: "How do we engage holiness so that we can learn to rely on it when everything else is changing? On some level, that is the core of what spiritual process is."

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