I write this sitting in the convent retreat house at the Mount of the Beatitudes in Galilee. This morning at breakfast, we celebrated a sense of global communion with the Italian nuns on retreat by clapping after prayers for their country’s win of the World Cup. An icon on my desk of the Last Supper, from St. Catherine’s in the Sinai, is filling in for the many people with whom I am trying to have a conversation by way of writing an article. The disciples seem real enough as one is leaning over to sniff the wine; another, his face leaning on one hand, appears bored, while others look up, perhaps to see angels who appear to have gathered over the scene. I am trusting in the larger communion of saints over miles and years and denominations to make a conversation come alive in this space. Although I had intended to write this article earlier, I have discovered that trying to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the midst of Gaza warfare (and, days later, full-scale war) offers a great vantage point from which to share the gem of group spiritual direction. The same process I have used in groups back home works wonderfully well with travelers who want to make holy connections during a journey together.
As a family therapist pursuing spiritual companionship, I have focused on a form of spiritual direction that fosters not only relationship with God but also community: group spiritual direction. I learned it from Shalem Institute’s training program as detailed in Rose Mary Dougherty’s book, Group Spiritual Direction. Not only does the group offer a rich, wide source of spiritual companionship for each participant, but the very process of learning to listen to God on behalf of others also trains participants in a most crucial spiritual task: listening to God in the midst of life. My use of group spiritual direction with traveling groups has helped me in a lifelong dream of turning from tourist to pilgrim.
01. Group Spiritual Direction Basics
Group spiritual direction involves meeting monthly with a group of usually four members, along with a group director or facilitator. Like individual direction, those who come must have the intention of seeking God and a willingness to share their lives with God. But they must also have a willingness to be a prayerful listener to the others in the group. The facilitator’s role is primarily to hold the silent space that keeps everyone attentive to the real spiritual source in this process: God. In groups in which all members have learned to listen well, the role of facilitator can rotate, or ongoing groups often fall into a rhythm of everyone’s bearing responsibility for keeping the sacred space.
Groups begin with twenty minutes of silence, centering each person in listening for God. Out of the silence, one member shares a question, a struggle, or a joy in his or her life. Although the thing shared may concern any aspect of life, it relates to relationship with God. During the sharing, other members of the group are prayerfully listening to the person and to God on behalf of the person. Once the sharing is complete (perhaps five minutes), all return to silence, asking, “God, what is your prayer for this person?” Listeners have to learn to stifle the quick reassurance, easy identification, or telling of a similar story. Silence invites them to go to God for a response, slowly savoring the taste of divine flavoring for whatever is on the plate. At first this can be awkward, unfamiliar territory. The facilitator must hush chatting, immediate reacting, or easy reassuring and invite deep listening. After approximately two minutes of this deep, prayerful listening, members speak any word, image, question, or simple thanks that rise from this time. Although there may be a few questions and reflections back and forth, generally there is little cross talk. Rather, listeners offer simple gifts of what is heard from God to the speaker. The speaker takes in the offerings from the group with the freedom to sift and discern as he or she senses God’s wisdom.
After the first speaker has spoken and prayerful listening by the group is complete, a few minutes of silence punctuate the time before another member speaks out of the silence. Again, after speaking, the members take time to listen to God on behalf of the speaker and offer what comes forth. This process is repeated until everyone in the group has had a chance to speak. The group concludes with a short time to reflect on the prayerfulness of the group. This is a way to assess and shift the group’s tone and to grow into a prayerful listening community. A concluding prayer, such as the Lord’s Prayer, may be used to conclude the group’s time together.
What this process teaches is keeping both the greater and the lesser silence of the monastery. In the actual silence, we truly speak nothing. In our sharing times, we speak only words from the spiritual heart.