The Persian poet Hafiz, one of Islam’s mystical lovers of God, offers this tiny, remarkable poem, “It Felt Love,” about spiritual opening to God and unfolding in that love.
It felt the encouragement of light
We all remain
Frightened.The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master, Daniel Ladinsky, trans. (New York: Penguin Compass, 1999) 121.
In more than one religion and culture, the rose is a symbol of both romantic and mystical love. When evoked in relationship to spirituality, the rose often stands for one’s soul, one’s full opening to God, and one’s full blossoming into spiritual maturity under the warmth of God’s unconditional and very personal love. Although each of us longs for this fullness of love’s embrace from God, who is Love itself, the human condition is such that we pull away from it and often remain too frightened to allow God sufficient access to transform us utterly. Indeed, “How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty?” Hafiz compresses into these few lines an intuition about both our mission in the world, the result of our discipleship, and the necessary opening to intimacy with God that infuses us with the warmth of God’s love. Unless we experience the light of God’s loving touch, we remain too frightened to enter into the fullness of life God offers us. We remain closed buds, stuck in our growth process, closed in upon ourselves and defended against the coaxing rays of the sun’s inviting us into full bloom. Not only do we remain closed in on ourselves, but we also deprive the world of our beauty. Authentic spiritual life has consequences for the world. Once we have received this enlivening light, God’s love moves through us in concrete loving actions, social justice, and prophetic witness in the world. In this circle of Divine-human intimacy, every rose that “opens its heart and gives to this world all its beauty” is a cause for amazement and gratitude.
01. The Need for Spiritual Direction
Precisely because spiritual growth both frightens and attracts us, we often feel the need of a spiritual director, soul friend, or companion to encourage us and urge us to respond to the unique way God communicates with each of us. As Augustine comments in his “Homily on Psalm 121,” “In this life we shall sometimes meet companions who have seen the holy city and who urge us to hasten there.”“Homilies on the Psalms” in Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, Mary T. Clark, ed. and trans. The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1984) 232. Those who have experienced spiritual awakening and who desire to cultivate their personal relationship with God beyond the ordinary communal forms of worship, service, and discipleship frequently experience some form of spiritual isolation or loneliness. We look for others or simply another who has greater experience in contemplative prayer and wisdom about the life choices that follow this opening to the Divine Presence in more pervasive and consistent ways than ourselves. We may seek the support of another to whom we can confidently open our hearts in order to remain faithful to our own inner and outer disciplines of the spirit and to discern with another where God is leading or what is unfolding in the present moment. Spiritual direction thus offers us company and encouragement on our journey toward God and keeps us honest about this journey as we candidly open our hearts to another.
Within Christian tradition, such a person who has grown wise in the ways of God and who offers guidance to another when asked has been called a spiritual director. Although this language of spiritual director and directee (the one seeking direction) was largely identified with the Roman Catholic tradition, it is rapidly becoming more acceptable within Protestant and Evangelical communities, as well as within other religious traditions.
Every major religious tradition has embodied the function of spiritual guidance, often in a variety of places. Frequently, it was attached to ordained leadership but also to spiritual teachers recognized for their wisdom and discernment. The written word of God in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures constitutes a form of spiritual guidance in the wisdom teachings. God continues to speak to us and guide us when we prayerfully contemplate these sacred writings. For Christians, Jesus was clearly a man led by the Spirit who taught from his God-inspired inner authority. His followers called him Rabbi, Teacher, and themselves disciples, learners of this way. Within Christian tradition, those whom others recognize for their God-inspired wisdom and who make themselves available to offer counsel have received a charism of spiritual direction for building up the community through their companioning of individuals or small groups. The great mothers and fathers in the fourth-century desert exemplified this calling in these very particular conditions.