Spiritual Directors


LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: Sunday Mass at St. James Cathedral in Seattle, where attendance has actually been growing, defying a national trend of fewer people attending church. Sister Joyce Cox, a Catholic scholar and spiritual director for the Seattle diocese, says a survey in a book called “The None Zone” found that people in the Pacific Northwest are less religious than the national average.

SISTER JOYCE COX: The first question was do you have any faith or church that you follow or you participate in? And the answer was “none.” So 67 percent of those who answered answered none, but they still claimed in other questions that they believed in God and that they were spiritual.

SEVERSON: That’s the good news: an increasing number of Americans say they are searching for spirituality.

Pastor Don Mackenzie

PASTOR DON MACKENZIE (speaking to retreat group): “By whatever name you might call the Holy One of Being…”

SEVERSON: And many inside and outside of church are finding it with the help of a spiritual director, someone to listen and offer guidance in the quest for the experience of God’s presence. Sometimes it’s in groups, like this retreat. Most often it’s one on one and deeply personal.

Attendee speaking to retreat group: “And I’m finding that that’s not a real serene place to be…”

LIZ BUDD ELLMANN (Executive Director, Spiritual Directors International): It isn’t as though one has to meet with a person as a spiritual director in order to know the spiritual journey, but it sure helps.

SEVERSON: Liz Ellmann is the executive director of Spiritual Directors International, which has a worldwide membership of 7,000, a number that has been expanding rapidly.

ELLMANN: And our members are clergy, our members are rabbis, they’re Catholic priests, they’re Methodist ministers and Presbyterian ministers. They’re also lay people of all different faith traditions.

SEVERSON: The first step to what some call a personal experience of the holy, most agree, is to find a state of tranquility and silence. These two women, both spiritual directors, invited us to observe the process, or what they call “the journey.”

Breathing exercise

Woman speaking during spiritual direction session: “During the day sometimes when I’m feeling kind of chaotic or pulled in too many different directions, I’ve come up with a simple gesture that reminds me to center, to quiet, to quiet…

SEVERSON: Not surprisingly, with the upsurge of those seeking a spiritual connection there are an increasing number of courses around the country for spiritual directors in training, like this one at Seattle University. It is not a lucrative undertaking. Many don’t charge for their services. Some may ask for a donation to a religious or humanitarian organization. For those who charge, the rates vary from around $25 to $60 an hour.

ELLMANN: Many people seek a spiritual director when there is something tragic that’s happened in their life. They’re trying to make sense out of it. Where is God in all of this? And so they reach out to meet with a spiritual companion, a spiritual director, to journey with them into what is the deeper meaning.

(speaking to retreat group): “I’d  like to share a story about this…”

SEVERSON: Ellmann knows about overcoming tragedy with some spiritual guidance. Her journey began after she was almost killed in a car accident, then survived a brain tumor. As head of Spiritual Directors International, she is often invited to explain the role of the spiritual director, as she did when she attended the spiritual direction retreat at this Interfaith Community Church in Seattle.

ELLMANN (speaking to retreat group): “So I’m going to talk about prayer first as these three chairs…”

SEVERSON: She explains there is a person in one chair who is a spiritual director, and there’s a person in the second chair who’s coming with a story of what is going on in their spiritual life.

Ellmann conduction a session

ELLMANN (speaking to retreat group): “There is an understanding that there is a third chair always present. God is in that third chair.”

SEVERSON: This retreat, over a series of Saturdays, was organized by one of the directors in Liz’s organization, Sheikh Jamal Rahman.

SHEIKH JAMAL RAHMAN (speaking to retreat group): “As we allow this to just sink within us, just end with a chant, Allahu Allah.”

SEVERSON: Sheikh Rahman is a respected scholar and teacher in the mystical branch of Islam known as Sufism. At this retreat, he is getting some help from two other spiritual directors—Don Mackenzie, a retired minister for the United Church of Christ, and Ted Falcon, a rabbi.

RABBI TED FALCON: I think more and more people are—have greater degree of awareness that the path exists within them. The institution has a tendency of protecting us from the immediacy of the spiritual encounter.

MACKENZIE (speaking to retreat group): “What are we doing here? What’s it about?”

SEVERSON: Pastor MacKenzie says the tradition of seeking help from a spiritual director is ancient, and historically it’s been people active in their faith who have been doing the seeking.

MACKENZIE: People are feeling there’s an emptiness, and how is it that we can get back and claim the substance that comes through our traditions in a way that moves toward healing, that fulfills us, that makes us better citizens, that—and so forth.

SEVERSON: Searchers say they sometimes feel closer to God when they’re not in church. That would apply to Sally Marquis. She also thinks her engineering and science background may have jaded her faith.

Ellmann conducting a group session

SALLY MARQUIS: This whole idea of prayer was so alien to me that I had no idea how to start.

SEVERSON: At this retreat, they are practicing prayer techniques that spiritual directors say are universal, that help clear the mind of distractions.

ELLMANN (speaking to retreat group): “Was it easier to be the speaker or the listener and be conscious of your breathing? How was that?”

Attendee speaking at retreat: “When I just noticed how I was breathing as opposed to trying to breath in some way, then it was very easy to engage.”

ELLMANN (speaking to retreat group): “Listen with the attention that I was hearing going on over here, of not only your ear, but your eyes and your heart and breath.”

SEVERSON: Liz Ellmann explains one way to clear the mind in this exercise designed to focus on the act of breathing.

ELLMANN: Breathing is one of the most basic prayers. God gives us breath. We are so close to God, we’re as near as our breath.

RAHMAN (speaking to retreat group): “And then once again you make a commitment to really submit your attachment to your ego to God.”

SEVERSON: At this spiritual retreat, they learn how different faith groups reach out to God, including the Muslim prayer of Salat, always facing Mecca five times a day.

Rahman leading a group in Salat

RAHMAN: An Islamic prayer is essentially about praising God and thanking God, and when we bow to God, the wonderful saying is: one prostration of prayer to God liberates you, frees you, from a thousand prostrations to your ego.

SEVERSON: The Sufi’s whirling dervish, performed here by Reverend Karen Lindquist, the Interfaith Church’s co-founder, is also a mode of prayer, although it requires a life-long commitment.

FALCON: One of the benefits of ritual is it gives us a form, for example, the ritual of prayer. But every ritual that we do in our lives also has us going on automatic. So there comes a time where I might be doing it outwardly, I might be saying the words, but I’m no longer conscious of them.

Woman speaking at retreat: “Months later, I realized it was an act of surrender to God, that my life is not in my own hands.”

SEVERSON: A common theme among spiritual directors is that first it’s necessary to value and love oneself as God’s creation.

MARQUIS: So what I’ve been doing is using the Buddhist prayer to quiet me down, quiet my thoughts down and open myself up, and then the Sufi prayer to just reassure and love my own heart so that I can feel really full and complete, and then from that place I can pray for people that are struggling, people that are sick, people that I feel like need some extra love.

SEVERSON: Even Sister Joyce Cox, in describing her method of personal or centered prayer, finds herself borrowing the language originally of the ancient Indian Vedic tradition.

COX: What I do in centering prayer is I choose a mantra, which is my sacred word, doesn’t have to have any meaning for me. What I simply do is return to that sacred word as a method of intention and just sit.

SEVERSON: Liz Ellmann says it’s a sign of our times that so many people have turned from searching for material things to the pursuit of spirituality, and, she says, it’s a good thing.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Lucky Severson in Seattle.

  • Rev. Hank Galganowicz

    Your article is an example of what can drive me nuts about the media.
    My own inclination is quite interspiritual and interfaith. But, the role of spiritual direction is ancient. Of all the places to start, your reporting begins from a viewpoint that makes it sound like a new, new age, thing.
    I don’t argue with it’s value in our pluralistic, eclectic context. But have some sense of responsibility to history for how long this kind of role has existed. It’s not new.

  • kelebohile nkhereanye

    Thank you for sharing important information to help us understand the role of religion in our lives weekly.
    Keep up the good work. I look forward to growing and learning more about religion and ethics.

  • Sister Loretta Fahey

    A wonderful, inspiring piece! I am a member os Spiritual Directors International and this piece is a wonderful service to all those seeking spiritual help. It was especially good for me to see Liz “in action”. Thank you. Is it possible to buy a video of this program (in addition to being able to see it on the internet). If it is not, how long will the video be available on the internet?

  • Peg Maguire

    Great article. I liked the different insites and the different faith believers. It is so important that people become more aware of all the possiblies out there for growth and sharing. We are the people of GOD, Holy and wanting to be whole…….

  • Sally Jo Gilbert de Vargas

    This was a great story! You really captured the essence of spiritual direction and the interfaith spiritual journey. Leave it to Seattle to be leading the way for interfaith spirituality! It’s just unfortunate that the program aired in Seattle at 5:00 AM on Sunday morning!

  • Karen Hastings

    This was a wonderful article!Got so much out of it!

  • Cecelia A. Roderick

    Thank you for publishing this article. More like this will help the people in our country find God in their hearts and from there in all their interactions with others. Having a Spiritual Director is a wonderful manner to connect with God, especially if one is unsure of the questions to ask, let alone knowing the answers. May God be with ALL of us on our journey.

  • Kristen Hobby

    What a rich and engaging show! I really enjoyed the openness and diversity of views expressed. SDI did a fabulous job. Well done Liz and the team.

  • Reggie Dirnberger

    Thank you for broadcasting this very important message. It is this type of message that will put our world back on track.

  • Gail Froyen

    Thank you for this program/article. It drew me into a deeper understanding of the spiritual journey and the role of direction. SDI and Liz Ullman bring faith and life together in a very positive way.

  • Barb Selletti, SFO

    What a marvelous tribute to our profession! I am so glad that this program/article brings Spiritual Direction into the mainstream public eye. Liz (and SDI) are to be commended for their efforts in bringing a valuable (often viewed mysterious), ancient tradition into the 21st Century. Bravo!

  • Causey Coffield

    Great article! I hope you publish more about Spiritual Directors and spirituality!!

  • Linda Sperber

    Thank you for introducing so many seekers to our profession! Although the practice is ancient, it is unknown or new to so many today who are searching and had no idea there was opportunity to be companioned on the journey!

  • Br. Bill Harkin, O.S.A.

    The program confirms our experience at our reflection center that people of all faiths and none hunger for direction in their spirituality.

  • Diane Allmann

    Thank you. Wonderful piece. I am a Spiritual Director in Lakeville and so few are aware of what I do. Explanations can be difficult. Your piece showed that it is old and it is new and it is open to all. A blessing for those of us who believe it is important to have someone come along side of us through this journey of life.

  • Virginia Evard, OSB

    Thank you for this great story and for putting it on-line. It was an inspiring, informative and gave a great interfaith message.

  • Cait Kokolus

    This was an excellent piece on Spiritual Direction. Wish more people knew about the personal spiritual growth that can happen with Spititual Direction.

  • Bill Grace

    This was a wonderful overview of spiritual growth and direction, highly accessible and delightfully diverse.

  • Teresa Sewell

    I really enjoyed this presentation! I especially liked the different ways of prayer which were shared. At times, i find that silence is where i can hear best and recieve guidance. Though i have never had a spritual director, i continue to have spritual mentors who guide me in my spiritual journey.. I encouragfe everyone to have this kind of person in his or her life. At times i have had the priviliege of being a spiritual mentor for others. The connectedness and relationships are vital to a healthy human being.

  • Bernard Sungi

    How great it is to be in prayer, praying for yourself , your neighbours and also for those who are in need, sick, suffering of diseases etc, worldwide.

    For the prayer has no any hindrance if a person praying in spirit and in truth by believing that only God is a door of our reguests.

    I like also to prayer for those who are involving themselves in serving God, so that they are empowered and equiped for the Work of God.
    Real I am very happy to joing Spiritual Directors International though I have never able to attend any conference for the lack of money to travel and attend. God bless us all.

  • Darin Johnson

    Thanks for doing the story!
    This intimate, personal approach is so needed today.
    Interfaith spirituality, or interspirituality, is also going to be increasingly important as our society becomes more diverse and integrated, requiring an equally diverse and integrated culture.

  • James Mitchell

    This is no different than all the other self-help, what can God do for me, kind of stuff that seems to make up ecumenical spiritualism. These are people trying to access the kingdom of heaven by laying down their crosses, not picking them up. Not to mention God’s call to come out of Babylon (Spiritual confusion) in Revelation 18, not by this kind of monastic escapism, but by accepting the only real spiritual truth as revealed in the Old King James. Also, they are not asking for what they need to do for God, or mention anything about the laws of the kingdom of heaven. They are just wanting to feel more in touch with themselves and get some headroom, not serve God.This seems to be all eastern mysticism, which is part of the Babylon experience. That they want to communicate with God is good, but that only happens when we surrender ourselves to His laws and instructions. Hosea 4:6, Isaiah 8:20.

  • Mark Grace

    What a wonderful recognition of the vital work being done by spiritual directors around the world. Thanks to PBS for airing this piece and for making the availability of this ancient art more widely known.

  • Lisa Bryan

    THANK YOU!!! Beautiful to learn more about how spiritual direction can help make the Holy more tangible. I’ve been blessed by spiritual direction (Catholic monk & Chi Gong master) for 5 years now. Wonderful to know how others are benefiting too and how are different spiritual traditions from around the world are blessing each other. More stories like this please!

  • Walter

    thanks for this nice overview of spiritual direction!

  • Liz

    Thank you for putting your attention on spiritual directors and seekers! This was a great start – I hope there will be more exploring of this rich, important practice.

  • carla

    Interesting discussion however, in working with many individuals who have had spiritual directors, I find total confusion and a lot of misdirecting. example: yes, to accepting, allowing, and respecting all forms of prayer but teaching the mixing of the different prayer methods, mantras, etc. stalls the spiritual inner progress of the individual practicing a silent prayer. Methods of prayer practices have different vibration frequencies and to mix keeps you from going anywhere but at the mental state of consciousness.

  • Reta

    Thank you for addressing this most important Ministry. Hope there is more of this put on the regular TV and I bless you for the encouragement. People are seeking because they are spiritual and need to connect with others.

  • Sue Foley-Currie

    This article rings true for the lowe rmainland of British Columbia, Canada – where “none” religion is a challenge for all faith traditions. Spirituality is alive and well and in full growth. Yet last night an 11 year old boy talked to me about baptism and how he has started to read the BIble – even though his parents have not been near a church for years. So there is hope for the younger ones – even if the older adults are jaded by their past and the present. We need to listen to the children and the youth – who are far more likely to just burst out saying – I would like to meet God. Thanks for the article.

  • Henry

    I am disciple of Christ, i have been chosen and called by the lord to be His son through faith in Jesus Christ.By the Grace through faith my lord and savior has allowed His Holy Spirit to indwell me.to fill me with His Glory, to guide me into all truth.
    i love to partnership with you to share the word of God with the people of a Africa Kenya. , i have a fellowship church with small members of the ministry here in momabasa kenya i thank God for your work in the ministry so i request you to partnership with us so that we grow with the word of God and you train more pastors in our Area in Africa.

    give our love to your family and all saints of God there. let us hear from you for our partnership . God bless your ministry and all saints of the ministry amen.
    yours brother pastor momanyi Henry