The Rev. Cathy Kerr
Once a month Servant Year members have the opportunity to gather for group spiritual direction. The foundation of this experience is the belief that God speaks to us through ordinary experiences that we can help each other to notice and understand.
The term spiritual direction has a long history, but unfortunately it can be misleading for modern people because it seems to suggest that someone else will tell you what to do, or what to believe. It might be more helpful instead to think of it as spiritual companionship, a relationship in which another person listens with you as you sort through the thoughts and feelings that accompany your experiences, looking to identify where God is leading you. While spiritual direction in its traditional form involves working with an individual spiritual director, this process can also take place in a group setting.
Here is how it works in Servant Year: We gather and share a few minutes of silence to help us settle into being present where we are, attentive to each other and to the ever-present God. After a brief check-in, we turn our attention to a reflection question or exercise for the day. Then, speaking out of the silence, those present have the opportunity to share their thoughts – or not. Members of the group listen carefully to each speaker and may ask open, honest questions in response. These questions – which may be answered out loud, or not – are never intended to challenge or elicit information out of idle curiosity, but rather to open the possibility of new or different understanding. The answers are accepted as offered; we own our own experiences, and there is no cross-conversation about them. Later, toward the end of the session, there is time for wrap-up discussion and feedback offered in a general sense. Finally, we end in silence.
Anything that happens in life can be considered in spiritual direction, but some basic questions tend to come up again and again: Who am I? Why am I here? What do I want to become? What do I believe? Who is God to me? What are my values, and how can I make a difference in life? What am I good at? Where do I find deep joy in my life, and what gives me the deepest satisfaction? When do I feel that I am my most authentic self? When do I feel most alive? Where am I experiencing growth?
Although we might experience a jumble of ideas and emotions when we first come up against questions like these, patterns and understanding gradually begin to emerge as we sort through them and talk them out, and the way ahead begins to seem clear. This kind of meaning-making is important at every stage of life, but it is particularly relevant for Servant Year members who are living an experience that will come to an end within a limited period of time. “What's next?” becomes a question that each one will have to find a way to answer.
As an Episcopal priest I feel comfortable using traditional religious language, but I think it’s worth noting that spiritual direction can be a helpful process for those whose beliefs are different, or who aren’t exactly sure what they believe. Our spirituality has to do with the basic driving forces of our lives, our deepest desires and dreams, and as such it is the source of all that gives our lives meaning. Whether you call it “listening for the voice of God” or “listening to your own inner leadings,” or “recognizing your own deepest wanting,” I believe you are describing the same process. Our goal in spiritual direction is to make this awareness an ongoing way of life.
The Reverend Cathy Kerr is Servant Year's Spiritual Director.
By Annie Salorio
I’m spending this year serving as the Youth Ministry Assistant in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. Along with the routine administrative work expected in an office setting, I provide assistance with some more creative projects. At the moment, I’m working on a series of daily devotions for the upcoming Advent season. Interested parties can sign up to receive two text messages every day, from the first Sunday of Advent at the end of November, all the way to Epiphany in early January. In the morning, they receive a relevant scripture verse to consider for the day, along with a related prayer in the evening. My job is to select the scriptures and write the prayers. And, to make things especially fun, these texts must be 140 characters or less. No easy task, but I’m very much enjoying the challenge so far.
As I was selecting scripture passages, I came across one that was very familiar. It is one of the opening passages of the Gospel of John. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Not only is this passage familiar, but it’s short. Perfect for the requirements of my project, but also something to watch out for. Short passages are easy to gloss over and forget about, especially ones as familiar as this. We think we know what this passage means. We’re convinced that it’s simple, too obvious to spend too much time considering. But let’s pause for a minute. There are many things that this little passage does not say. For example, it asserts that the light shines, but it doesn’t promise that we will see or appreciate the light when it comes. Need a real world parallel? This wonderful job I’ve been given for the year. It’s giving me valuable work skills, introduced me to hard-working, kind people, and makes sure that I’m always busy and fulfilled, which fends off boredom and loneliness. But on days when I’m stressed and tired, robbed of an opportunity to lounge on my bed with a book or reconnect with old college friends, the “light” of these benefits may go unnoticed. This passage also doesn’t promise that there won’t be moments when it seems like the darkness is winning. We in Servant Year have probably noticed this already. Many of our placements involve work with vulnerable populations. Despite their hard work, good intentions, and desperate need, people continue to suffer. We pray that our little bits of help may be a “light” to them, but cynicism can make it all seem pointless.
Obviously, this passage has great theological meanings for Christianity. But Servant Year has made me see it through the lens of our experience this year. You come into a program like Servant Year so optimistic. Optimistic about yourself and the personal growth you’re sure to accomplish. Optimistic about the people you’ll meet and the impact you might have. And then you come up against all sorts of darkness. The darkness of the world around us, that makes our idealistic vision hard to achieve, and sometimes, even as our hearts break to say it, impossible. The darkness of our own flaws, when we’re forced to admit that sometimes, even when people we’ve come to value and respect need our help, we sometimes just don’t want to help. In these moments, the message of this beautiful scripture can seem hollow. “The darkness did not overcome it.” Really? Because that darkness is seeming pretty darn powerful. Not to mention stubborn, since it keeps. Coming. Back.
That’s why we need to reexamine this piece of scripture. It’s not so simple. The presence of darkness in our work and lives is not a sign of tragic failure, or that the world around us is crumbling. This year, we must remember that darkness is an opportunity for light to show itself.
Now, I say this as though it’s easy. I know it’s not. And I also know that I haven’t suggested anything terribly radical here. We all know this to be true. No pain, no gain, as the saying goes. We know it. It’s a cliche. We’re probably sick of hearing it. But here it is again, for those moments when you need a little reminder. In darkness and light, we’re in this together.
Annie is serving as Youth Ministry Assistant for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania this year.