Conversatio Divina

Part 10 of 19

Gifts of the Journey

Delcy Kuhlman

It is often hard to hear God’s voice in the midst of the competing voices that fill our lives. Sometimes, like Samuel, I hear God’s voice without recognizing who speaks.1 Samuel 3:1–13 At other times, I mistake the voice of others for God’s voice and respond to the wrong person. What a gift spiritual direction has been for me, as both director and directee, as I have sought to learn to discern God’s voice!

Many things can be part of God’s call to deeper places in our life in God. Sometimes we seek to hear the voice of God in response to crisis. We might want God to help us understand what is happening or know how to respond. Or it could be a response to a longing for deeper intimacy with God. These and many more things can be a call to leave the familiar behind and embark on a journey to an unknown destination. Each longing can embody grace, for in each heart that loves God, God will nurture desires that can lead to deeper intimacy with God.Psalm 37:4

01.  Direction for the Journey

Some who experience these longings turn to spiritual direction for companionship on their journeys. Initially we may seek advice, possibly a spiritual rule book or road map. At this stage there might be an unrecognized—certainly unspoken—sense of interacting with a guru, one who is wiser and presumably has all the answers. But as we begin to experience the safety of this path, we begin to realize it is God who is personally directing this journey. When we turn our hearts to the voice of God, our hearts will be heard, and we will be given ears to hear.

At their best, spiritual directors offer a safe setting where acceptance reigns over condemnation and judgment. It is also an environment in which one’s image of God can be examined and can then soften as it grows to reflect love more accurately. It is a place where we may wonder out loud, where attitudes can be examined without criticism, and where doubts can be acknowledged and explored. It’s a setting that provides freedom to ponder all these things in our hearts, as Mary the mother of Jesus pondered the news she received when her son was born.Luke 2:19 Often it’s a place where we are encouraged to lean steadily into Scripture, searching for truth while, at the same time, intentionally listening for the voice of God. Within this safety we can begin to trust God, begin to surrender to transforming love and come to deep knowing of this love. Then and only then can we give up our need for a guru and learn to trust the voice of God.

The journey is slow. In the beginning we may focus on finding answers. Then one day we realize that the answers are not nearly as important as the relationship developing between the Creator and the creature. We begin to hear the voice of God. We begin to see the false gods we have allowed to take God’s place in our lives. Slowly, gratitude for undeserved love begins to replace a fearful desire to be found “right.” Gradually, we begin to recognize that our longing for God is simply a shadow of God’s longing for us. The Word invites us to know each self to be one of God’s created words. Yes, the journey is slow. But the gifts we receive along the way are bountiful.

02.  Gifts Along the Way

Often these are not gifts we set out to seek or can even describe easily once we have received them. They are gifts that find us, not gifts we find. They come to us in the quiet, sometimes weary moments of the journey. They are gifts we often recognize only in looking back.

As I journey with others in spiritual direction, I am privileged to witness the transformation that occurs as they receive the gifts of the journey. Their stories, some of which I will share with their permission, bear witness. Some of these pilgrims are of my own faith tradition, while others seek God within their own traditions. Christian community offers a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that cannot be contained within denominational boundaries. It bears a sense of oneness and love that arises in mutual longing for God. It gives witness to the fact that we are not alone and that it is the Spirit who moves among us.

Sara came to spiritual direction driven by despair. She would soon be thrust into the role of a pastor’s wife and felt little strength for that position. Her image of God blocked any possibility of real intimacy with God. She was frightened, longing to be prepared for what was ahead and crying out for someone to help her make sense of her life. Slowly, she began to recognize that she was more than a needy person seeking expert answers. She began to know that she was and is God’s precious, beloved daughter. As she felt the safety embedded in this knowing, she began to surrender her fear-based view of God and experience God’s love for her for the first time. As grace began to fill her life, she became able to look at Scriptures through this new, life-giving lens. She also began to relate to herself with more grace: long-standing, guilt-based obligations for devotions gave way to the ability to hear and respond to a Divine invitation to spend time with a God who loved her just as she was. Slowly, she came to experience freedom and joy in allowing herself to be more available to God. She realized she didn’t have to jump through hoops to get God into her life. God was already there.

It is painful to meet despair within the hearts of faithful church attendees still bound by frightening images of the One who loves them most. Within the safety that can be uniquely found in the quiet gentleness of spiritual direction, I am often aware of the loving gaze of God upon the broken soul. While the Spirit may smile on someone’s pitiful “goodness,” or her effort to do everything right, what we all need is the grace-filled gaze of God. The rich young ruler, weary in keeping all the commandments, begged Jesus for further direction. Jesus gazed at him with love as he walked away, unable to give his all. Even more striking is Jesus’ gaze on Peter as he sat by the fire denying his Lord. Spiritual direction provides a place to perceive God’s loving gaze at us, even as God—and the spiritual director—leave us with the choice either to respond to the invitation in this gaze of love or, like the rich young ruler, to walk away.

Marilyn—long concerned with issues of hunger, peace, and justice—chose to respond to the invitation by moving closer to the One who invites her to service. She has always known that her service grew from a spiritual center rather than simply the natural inclinations of an activist. Listening to a talk on spiritual direction twenty years ago warmed and stirred her heart. She responded by entering this intentional journey and soon began to find God to be a real presence in her life. God was no longer simply beyond, but very much present within her. Sitting with a spiritual director, she began to learn the path of contemplative spirituality and began to incorporate lectio divina and centering prayer into her devotional life. Soon she found her heart being filled with gratitude and began to realize that, while life presents itself with many things not of her choosing, all of her life was a gift. Her heart responded with loving service and worship. While she would never devalue her first decision to follow God, she speaks of the transformation that has come through her experience of spiritual direction as “ongoing conversion” in her life. Today she knows herself to be God’s beloved daughter and responds with less judgementalism toward herself and others. Today, Marilyn gives thanks for healing in her life.

The gift of healing is a gift that comes with a bonus: an invitation to draw closer to the Healer. With healing also comes empowerment for service to others. Laurie finds opportunity for service in everyday life. She has always longed to hear the voice of God, but found confusion in trying to hear God through the creeds of the church. Reading spiritual classics of the contemplative path gave evidence of a relationship with God for which her heart yearned. She began the journey into spiritual direction with hope and longing. Her isolating confusion was dispelled as she discovered a larger community of seekers after God. In her bright, lighthearted way, she said, “I no longer feel like I’m crazy!” Laurie’s lightheartedness embraces a quiet receiving of love that, to her, is the biggest gift. Slowly but certainly, she is receiving glimpses into Paul’s prayer for her, that she may “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”Ephesians 3:14–19, Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Her deep knowing of God’s love richly blesses her busy life as a mother of teenagers and a school counselor. Often, she is surprised by the grace of spiritual direction in day-to-day interactions with students in the halls of the school, fellow teachers in the lunchroom, and parents in the bleachers at her children’s games. The grace of intentionally listening for the voice of God is not limited to having a spiritual director or sitting in that role for others. Yet she knows that her participation in that process has unquestionably helped open her ears to hear God’s voice every moment of every day.

Part of my work as a spiritual director affords me the privilege of accompanying seminary students in reflecting on their devotional lives. As they enroll for a course in the practice of spirituality, few understand the concept of spiritual direction.Within the Seventh Day Adventist tradition, which I share with these students, the term “spiritual direction” often prompts defensive fears that another person might presume to tell one what he or she should do. The concept of spiritual friendship is better received. Some sign up simply to get a credit for graduation. Some are experiencing guilt over neglecting devotional practices. Now and then a student appears who hungers for the God about whom he has studied so much. Otis was one of these. He came expecting that I would offer him more information, perhaps some advice. He experienced wonder at being invited to examine his own questions and doubts without receiving the advice or directives he expected. In the absence of criticism, he began to validate his hunger for relationship with God. Words fail to describe the strong sense of the Holy Spirit’s being in our midst as Otis and I talked and prayed together. I was filled with humility in being graced as a true companion in the journey by one who was so young yet had such a tender openness to God. In everyday life we have little in common, yet we have been gifted with a deep sense of community.

03.  Blessed by Community

This sense of community is palpable whenever I meet with someone who has come to trust enough to begin hearing God’s voice within his or her life. It happens when our two hearts are connected by a common desire for God and a longing to live deeply within Christ and allow Christ to live deeply within us. As I become aware of Holy Spirit presence, I sometimes hear myself speaking words that are invitations for me as well as those with whom I sit. There is love. There is hope. There is community. There is peace, joy, and a knowing that, as Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It matters not whether the Spirit is pressing conviction of sinfulness or deep need or whispering encouragement. I experience grace in the midst of shared seeking. I recognize the vulnerability of God as God allows one broken human being to embody Divine love with another wounded soul.

I need to find God in community, within a setting of companionship. I need to allow the wonderings of my heart to be heard outside myself. In the early days of my journey, my life was focused on being good and doing what is right. All my vigilant effort to be worthy of God’s love left me fearful. The fear kept me isolated. I was encouraged by the words of Ellen White: “It is not required of you to confess to those who know not your sin and errors. It is not your duty to publish a confession which will lead unbelievers to triumph; but to those to whom it is proper, who will take no advantage of your wrong, confess according to the word of God, and let them pray for you, and God will accept your work, and will heal you.”Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 2. Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 296.  In the context of spiritual direction, I found this companionship: someone who would not take advantage of my wrong. I began to see that while my actions appeared good, deeper workings of my heart needed God’s cleansing light. Without the caring confrontation of a spiritual director, I might have remained deaf to the Spirit’s voice. Merton expressed it well: “It is necessary that we find the silence of God not only in ourselves but also in one another. Unless . . . (someone) speaks to us in words that spring from God and communicate with the silence of God in our souls, we remain isolated in our own silence, from which God tends to withdraw.”Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, Boston: Shambhala, 1993, 97.

04.  Reflections on My Journey

I have been blessed to experience what Merton is talking about in my experiences in spiritual direction over the last twenty years. I came with longings for acceptance and love that were complicated by fear. I came with fears of entering a process so unknown within my tradition and fears rooted in my own distorted image of God. The journey has brought me to a growing ability to claim the quietness of the weaned child in its mother’s arms.Psalm 131 Only persistent love could pierce the self-protective shell around my heart. I needed to find God within the face of community that spiritual companionship represents.

As I reflect on spiritual direction, I no longer see the roles of director and directee as very distinct. Spiritual direction is an occasion of stepping into the Presence with another who longs for God’s love and grace. Whether we prayerfully listen for God’s voice in my life or that of the other, I’m reminded of Moses speaking God’s invitation to choose life or death.Deuteronomy 30:15–20 I think, too, of Elijah being transformed by meeting God in “the voice of a thick, dense, silence.”I’m indebted to Jacques Doukhan, my seminary Hebrew teacher, for this more accurate translation of “a still, small voice” in 1 Kings 19:12, KJV. I am awed at the wonder of being allowed into that Presence when there is still so much that is unclean in my own heart. Yet, as I recognize the grace offered to me, it helps another to receive the same grace for himself.

I know that my journey is just that: my own journey. No one else will walk the exact same path. But these years of seeking greater intimacy with my Abba have brought me hints of knowing the oneness with him that Jesus prayed for me in John 17. This process frees me from fearful effort to make myself worthy of God’s love and leads me to know myself as God’s beloved. That love empowers me to love my enemies and remain close to them. I’m deeply aware that my heart is not pure; I’m aware of fears and prejudice that still clamor for control.

I am not worthy to be a spiritual companion to anyone. But the gift of spiritual direction is embodied in two ordinary persons who share common need for transformation. If I think of myself as a spiritual guru, I will be tempted to believe that I possess what the other seeks. But when I come to spiritual direction as a fellow pilgrim seeking God, there is room for the Spirit to be actively present. It is in this humble setting that Jesus’ words become vibrant truth: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”Matthew 18:19–20 I enter the conversation with reverence, fully expecting God’s presence to be manifest within each of us, and our ears to be opened to God’s voice. And I brace myself to be overwhelmed by love and grace.

It may be you, too, have entered the journey of spiritual direction and received the gifts I have experienced. You may have been blessed in ways I cannot yet imagine. But perhaps you are one who has felt the longing to find a spiritual director but hesitated to respond to it. You may judge yourself too busy. You may be held back by fear, identified or unknown. I believe the experience of spiritual direction can lead you into intimacy with God and God’s community. Most of us are easily distracted by the voice of the world around us. We need the prayerful voice of another who draws our attention back to God.

Pay attention if God is inviting you to know yourself and God and the way of love between you more deeply. Ask God to make this invitation loud and clear in your heart. God’s gifts are abundant. They are for you as well as for me.


Delcy Kuhlman receives many gifts as she tends Still Waters, a small retreat house in southwestern Michigan. She finds great joy in accompanying others into the presence of God. She may be contacted through