Spiritual Direction


BOB ABERNETHY, host: From time to time on this program we have referred to spiritual direction and spiritual directors. Recently, the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington gave us permission to record a full spiritual direction session with two of its most experienced directors, one seeking the help of the other. That is not unusual, they say—like one doctor treating another.

Spiritual directors say what they do is more like prayer than therapy, not so much counseling as helping people sense God’s presence. Every spiritual direction session is probably different, but this is what happened in the conversation we covered.

In Northern Virginia about a mile from the Pentagon, Bill Dietrich, a Quaker, came to the home of Jean Sweeney, a Catholic, who had a concern. I asked Bill to define spiritual direction. He likened it to being a midwife.

BILL DIETRICH: One who accompanies and is present to another as they discern how God is moving in their lives. We often say that spiritual direction really is prayer—nothing more, nothing less.

Bill Dietrich

ABERNETHY: Bill’s opening prayer with Jean was about surrendering to God.

DIETRICH: Be no more than God hath made thee. Give over thine own running, give over thine own willing, give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing.

JEAN SWEENEY: It’s perfect for today. That’s really what I bring.

ABERNETHY: Jean is the youngest of five sisters. The oldest, Rocky, now 80, is in a nursing home suffering from dementia. Jean had just been to visit her.

SWEENEY: There we would be standing in front of the elevator and she could not decide to press the button, and when we got in the elevator, we’re on the second floor, she could not figure out that she would hit the button for first floor. Sometimes she would do it with two hands. And she looks twenty years older all of a sudden, you know, so I am watching this enormous loss.

ABERNETHY: The loss of Rocky’s powers and companionship, and also Jean’s sense of the loss that might be ahead for her.

SWEENEY: I mean we don’t know what’s in front of us, but I’d like to believe I could just give it over somehow. But do I want to live that way? No way.

DIETRICH: Do you see God working in Rocky’s life now?

Jean Sweeney

SWEENEY: It’s a good question. (Can you reach these Kleenexes over there?) You know, I really see what abandonment looks like, in a way. Life goes on without us, and that’s what I see for Rocky in some ways. Her kids are—they have lives and children and it goes on, you know, and I thought, you know, Jesus felt abandoned, you know? I mean I think it’s—would you say that?


SWEENEY: To feel abandoned. You stop working and you go on and life goes on.

DIETRICH: It does, it does.

SWEENEY: I guess my own desire for myself, and actually even for Rocky, I wish she were just having a little more fun in the midst of it, you know. I think that’s what I want, and if I surrender to that moment, this is what is, could I have a good time, too, you know? To have fun with people in the midst of hard times? Yes, I want people to not be afraid to come near the abandoned one.

ABERNETHY: Jean recited a prayer she likes.

SWEENEY: Give me only your love and your grace. That’s enough for me.

post03-spiritualdirectorsDIETRICH: What if we can’t feel the love?

SWEENEY: Well, I hate that, for God’s sakes. I know from the scriptures and from people that that actually does happen. No, I don’t want that. There are plenty of people that do not feel the love, and they have loved. They have been people of love.

DIETRICH: And you’re being that person of love for Rocky.

SWEENEY: Yeah. It did feel like precious in-the-moment time.

ABERNETHY: Bill offered a prayer for Jean.

DIETRICH: God, keep me rooted in your love in this moment, that I might trust that others will convey and carry your love to me in the times when I can’t feel it, as I hope to be the bearer of that love to those who can’t feel it in this moment.

SWEENEY: Amen. Dear Bill, thank you. Who knew? Who knew?

ABERNETHY: Bill said afterwards that he had sensed God’s presence with them. Jean said she had been helped. We had worried that cameras and lights might be distractions, but both Bill and Jean said what happened felt to them fully authentic. Jean also said everyone has a story to tell about their spiritual life. All they need, she said, is for someone to ask about it.

  • Linda Pierce Knutson

    How beautiful to have a real-life spiritual direction session. It seems the brevity will attract people. The feel is genuine and dispels any akwardness one might anticipate if unfamiliar with this spiritual practice. Thanks for the preview.

  • Midge Wholey

    I found this to be a very strong statement on abandonment and helpful in acknowledging as fears as yet unfaced.

  • Marvin Stevens

    I felt that what she is going through was very real and it is something I went through with my step-father before he passed away in Jan. of this year. He had Alzhiemers and when my mother and I went to visit him in the Veterans home, well, his look and demeaner digressed rapidly. Prayer helped me tremendously. I always felt God was present, especially the day he passed on. God is always around us and his Love is with us always, we just have to look for it and feel it.

  • Alan Johnson

    I was asleep on my sofa with the television on this morning; I had a very hard night the night before, drinking too much and unable to sleep as I am still coming to grips with the terrible illness that has befallen my wife in the last three week’s time. All of a sudden I was awakened and this segment was one; I only caught the last few minutes but I then rushed to the computer to find and view it in its entirety. Seldom (possible never) have I so strongly felt the Spirit move in me, and never so strong as to incline me to write. From one who is struggling deeply with feelings of guilt and abandonment thanks be to God for bringing this message to me through you.

  • Lois Bundschuh

    Beautiful insight, thanks for sharing!

  • Gordon Haynes

    Thank you for allowing us to see a bit of this spiritual direction session, with its deep listening, careful attending and openness to God’s Spirit. I pray that many may be encouraged to seek out a spiritual companion for those difficult times in life. Refer to http://www.sdiworld.org for more information.

  • Liz Ellmann

    Thank you Bob Abernathy and PBS for continuing to report about one of the truly bright spots in religion and ethics today: spiritual direction. Meeting regularly with a spiritual director is an ancient contemplative practice being reclaimed for today. Learning how to pray is not mysterious; it’s about sharing the vulnerable stuff in our everyday lives. Thank you Bill and Jean for opening your hearts to the healing made available by your time together. You are powerful models for what is possible around the world and across spiritual traditions. In addition to Shalem, which is excellent, there are hundreds of spiritual direction formation programs and thousands of spiritual directors listed on the Spiritual Directors International Web site. If you are seeking a spiritual director, you will also find helpful questions to ask as you begin looking for the right person for you, http://www.sdiworld.org

  • Pegge Bernecker

    Thank you for creating this program, and continuing to uplift spiritual direction — which in many ways is deep compassionate listening and presence, or as I like to say, “putting skin on God” for someone while tending to the Spirit at work in every day ordinary, and challenging times. Ironically, I am writing from a hospital room, on my laptop, where I wait while my husband receives an IVIG treatment for a rare neurological syndrome that developed rapidly. As spiritual direction continues to intersect with health care, I am grateful for my friend who is head of the spiritual care department at this small hospital in Alaska–she came to visit with my husband, and he appreciated her presence in this unexpected and challenging time. As a spiritual director myself, I know the value of our sacred stories. Thank you for this segment, and for all the comments people have shared. I’m blogging about this for the Spiritual Directors International Web site next. Thank you Bill and Jean!

  • Ron Clarke

    I recently graduated from a two-year Spiritual Direction program. I think this is a very beautiful example of spiritual direction. Even in watching it on my computer, it was very real, and it was obvious to me that the Holy Spirit was at work in both Bill and Jean. Thank you to all.

  • Alexis Fathbruckner

    Thanks for the succint session to help people understand. I have been involved in Spiritual Direction for many years as a recepient and a facilitator. Took my formal training in Richmond , VA and am presently involved with a group of Spiritual Directors. I like to think of the Holy Spirit of God as the true director and we just listen togethe to hear that voice. I often think of it as lifting up a blind or opening a window for a person to own their own truth. Glad to know there are so many others out there.

  • Pam Chaney

    I would have liked the spiritual director to ask an evocative question after the comment, “There are plenty of people who do not feel the love, and they have loved. They have been people of love.” I wonder what the response would have been to something like, “How is it, do you think, that people can give love, but don’t ‘feel the love’ in return?”

    My experience has been that this is a profound issue for many people: They are able to ‘love’ others, but they have great difficulty receiving love – love which may or may not come from those they have loved. I try to pay attention to this: How are you receiving the love that IS present in your life?

    Pam Chaney
    MiddleWayMinistries, “Meeting people at the intersection of Ignatian spirituality and 12 Step wisdom.”