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In reflecting on what to write for this column, I was drawn to some of my assigned writings for the Spiritual Direction Internship Program at the Benedict Inn in Beech Grove. In this formation program, reading faith-based books and articles was a part of the curriculum that I treasured.
One of my favorite books that we read for class was The Impact of God by Iain Matthew on St. John of the Cross.
Though St. John was rejected, imprisoned and beaten, his writings were reminiscent of those of the Psalms … expressing emotion and heart. They spoke of encounter with Christ/God, despite the hardships John endured.
Matthew said that, “in his darkness, there was disclosed to him, Christ’s unpaid-for desire to love him.” This theme of a God who loves us and longs to meet us in our deepest needs and darkest times manifested throughout John’s life.
As a spiritual director, I am drawn to St. John’s sensitivity to the individuality of each person’s journey. No two follow the same route—“each person is unique, and God is infinitely varied.” This allows for flexibility that respects the dignity of each person and their individual growth.
God loves us “with order, gentleness, and in a way that suits the soul,” and John’s writings address the fact that each of our lives are unique and unfinished. This sensitivity in the spiritual direction relationship frees directees to come as they are. A spiritual director, in turn, lovingly helps them notice where God is active in their prayer and daily lives.
St. John’s view of spiritual direction was highly regarded. He aptly said that it is “easier to get up when there is someone walking with you.” His advice is timeless when he reminds us that the Holy Spirit is the principle agent and guide who never fails to care for people. This allows spiritual directors and directees to relax and trust that God will carry both in the process.
John placed emphasis on relationship over perfection; not on our forging the way, but on getting out of the way. Spiritual direction is ultimately and simply making space, receiving God and opening ourselves up to transformation.
Often, spiritual direction is the sacred space where a directee unburdens pain or struggle—the feeling of the absence of God or “the dark night of the soul.”
St. John says that wounds are spaces through which God may graciously enter. “When you are burdened, you are joined to God. He is your strength, and he is with people who suffer.” Darkness then can become an opportunity to abandon self and cling to God; ultimately finding a deeper capacity to love. Spiritual companionship in this time of darkness can provide the space to connect the dots between a self-lavishing God of love and the dark night of the soul.
St. John of the Cross models for us the impact of God in his life through struggle, surrender and encounter. Spiritual direction can provide companionship, support and encouragement in all life has to offer—but especially in affirmation and comfort as our lives invariably move back and forth between Good Friday and Easter.
(Teresa Venatta is a discernment companion and spiritual director in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. She is also a member of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis and can be reached at email@example.com.) †