By Aaron B. Daniels
In the interest of full disclosure, C. Wess Daniels is my beloved cousin; but telling the stories of our family’s religious history in the Quakers, Spiritualism, and New England Protestantism must wait for another time. Today, Wess has asked me to put together some initial thoughts on emerging vectors of Spiritual Direction in America. Perhaps today’s reflections can serve as a first written installment in what I hope is a lifelong conversation with Wess about how we can give voice to the soul-deep longing for the Spirit.
Spiritual direction is an interstitial practice. In a world of disciplinary silos, divided denominations, political polarization, segregation, redlining, socioeconomic apartheid, and dozens of other walled borders, spiritual direction, in the hands of an emerging group of directors, exists ‘in between.’ This liminality is, in large part, what attracts me to the practice.
From the mid-90’s to the mid-00’s I practiced counseling and psychotherapy in community mental health and private practice settings in Seattle. In community practice, I worked with clients with severe and pervasive mental health diagnoses. Introducing, as I did, a men’s Great Books Reading Group for six of my clients was a short-lived blip on the radar of an otherwise deeply defined territoriality of medication, case management, and other manifestations of a system designed to keep people in a tenable but often immobile position.
My private practice offered greater latitude; but the insurers, who covered ¾ of my clients, wanted codes, updates, and outcomes that reduced humans to symptoms and the treatment relationship to a series of targeted interventions. In addition to my work as an LGBT specialist, my practice also developed a small niche for ‘spiritual seekers.’ My training had entailed a robust emphasis on meaning-making, myth and religion, and dreams and imagination as core functions of being human. As I attempted to integrate these sensibilities into my practice, I ran into barriers, both systemic and integrated into my clients’ desires for discrete boundaries and compartmentalization of their lives. For them—and most of us, most of the time—dreams, career aspirations, faith life, prayer life, sex life, diet, political passions, purchasing proclivities, television show and literary preferences, depression and anxiety, exercise, intimate friendships, and meditation could each dwell in their own fuzzily-defined but scrupulously-defended domains.
Moreover, this all existed within the Atheist Priesthood of Psychotherapy in which I was not to be a member of clients’ faith communities, could not acknowledge them in public, could not in the past nor in the future have any sort of social relationship, and must carefully manage and curate any shred of my self-revelation. Although for very good reasons, the professional boundaries of the practice could too often create boundaries in the topics and life domains we could address in any authentic and integrated fashion.
Through all of these attempted border crossings, the question of a Deep Intentionality remained tenuously just outside our field of vision. It was a rare client that overtly questioned what things mean, and an even rarer one who could ask _how_ they mean. Plenty of individuals could blithely dismiss an event, symptom, or turn of phrase in the session as ‘meaning nothing.’ But to pierce through to—or even point toward—what the ground of meaning was? If anyone did begin to approach such discourse, pat aphorisms, articles of faith, and/or a carefree agnosticism covered over the threat of that gaping maw quickly. The _experience_—the embodiment, thoughts, feelings, relationships, ways-of-knowing, aspirations—that could accompany an approach to these frontiers of knowing almost never had room for consideration.
Since my time facing the couch, I have gone into higher education. I have been able to approach these fundamental questions rather more directly with many of my students, and have had a re-assuring minority take me up on the offer to play on these edges of knowability. Occasionally, advisees might even begin to consider how these questions play out in their lives. I have, nevertheless, realized that professors also have boundaries they must maintain, and I have not always known where to send my advisees to further pursue these traces in their landscape.
Enter Spiritual Direction. Once one starts reading in the subject, one will inevitably encounter paragraphs, chapters, charts, and references that seek to define the practice against psychotherapy, life coaching, pastoral counseling, chaplaincy, friendship, and more. I continue to find it fascinating that the art of spiritual direction best defines its practice against what it is not. The rest of the chapter, article, book, or blogpost may give marvelous stories from companioning, witnessing, and soul-friending; but to define it unto itself seems… Indiscrete? Inappropriate? Blasphemous? Arguably, spiritual direction’s interstitial status extends to its own definition which tenaciously defies the colonialism of labels.
What is common throughout the presentations is that the art relies on, stands on, lives in the conviction of that Deep Intentionality. This is: The Call; the Still Quiet Voice; The Holy Spirit; The Light. It operates underneath, above, beside, before, between, within, and without. We make meaning because of and in the face of this Breath. That is, spiritual direction seeks in any number of ways to bring the participants—directors and directees—closer to a more direct relationship toward the horizon of Being.
For me, the authors I read, and many of the directors with whom I speak, one of the surest paths to this border crossing is to listen to longing. Taking our cue from Dante, Aquinas, C. S. Lewis, and others, the emerging cartography of this journey is one in which we mark our yearnings and acknowledge how unfulfilling so many of our efforts to sate them have been. Our thirsts have sought so many unfulfilling draughts and our world twists the discourse of desire; but spiritual direction can hold the tension of our journey and let these deepest of longings guide our pilgrimage across these frontiers.
If you are interested in looking into spiritual direction, Wess or I would be happy to speak with you about finding a director
. If you are in the greater Boston area, I am available through the Bethany House of Prayer in Arlington
for my internship. If you are outside of Boston, I would be delighted to discuss arranging video-call-based direction for an eight- or nine-month period.