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Spiritual Direction
Spiritual Direction

The Mystics as Directors

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Spiritual Direction

The Mystics as Directors
Thursday, June 24, 2021

In addition to his work as a therapist, my friend James Finley has served as a spiritual director for decades. While spiritual direction most often involves one-on-one conversations between two living persons, Jim shows us how reading the words of the mystics can be a form of contemplative spiritual direction. They serve as a mirror, revealing to us their own humanity and the Presence of the Holy Spirit that is ever present to us, just as it was to them: 

Mystic teachers . . . offer trustworthy guidance to people who feel interiorly drawn toward this deeper unitive experience of God’s presence in their life. . . .

[The mystics] are assuming several things, that first of all, there’s the dignity, and the reality, and the complexities of the human experience. . . . They’re always assuming that these are real life people living a real life. So, in that sense, it’s a deep respect for the dignity and gift of the human experience.

Secondly, they assume that it’s the human experience illumined by faith, and specifically as revealed in Christ and all of the Scriptures, that we’re living our life in a relationship with God, and that God’s in a relationship with us, and God’s in this related state of oneness with us. And God’s oneness with us is the reality of us. That is, God’s perpetually creating us breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat. . . .

They bear witness to the godly nature of the intimate immediacy of ourselves, everybody, all things. The mystic teachers are then men and women who, in having traveled this path and then awakened to it, they want to offer guidance to people who are just beginning to get a taste of this. [1] . . .

The first season of Jim’s podcast focused on the work of Thomas Merton (1915–1968), who served as Jim Finley’s first spiritual director when he was a young man at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Here is a passage from one of Merton’s journals that highlights the humanity of this very holy man who in many ways sounds a lot like us!

Now at last let me begin to live by faith. Quaerite primum regnum Dei. Seek first the kingdom of God. Why do I mistrust Your goodness, mistrust everyone but myself, meet every new event on the defensive, squared off against everybody?

Dear Lord, I am not living like a monk, like a contemplative. The first essential is missing. I only say I trust You. My actions prove that the one I trust is myself—and that I am still afraid of You.

Take my life into Your hands at last. Do whatever You want with it. I give myself to Your love—rejecting neither the hard things nor the pleasant things You have arranged for me. . . . Everything You have planned is good. It is all love. [2]

[1] James Finley with Kirsten Oates, “Turning to Thomas Merton,” February 24, 2020, in Turning to the Mystics, season 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), podcast, MP3 audio.

[2] Thomas Merton, Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings, ed. Jonathan Montaldo (HarperSanFrancisco: 2001), 51.

Explore further resources and watch Father Richard Rohr explain why more people are asking for—and benefiting from—spiritual direction.

Story from Our Community:
In 2007, I started a two-year course of study to become a spiritual director. . . It was truly a life-changing time for me. A book from the reading list included Fr. Richard’s “From Wild Man to Wise Man,” and, seeing myself as a highly educated and sophisticated individual, feelings of resentment followed the inference that I was a “wild man.” But once I got into the book and saw the parallels with my own life, I was astounded. A local Roman Catholic Priest agreed to be my spiritual director and I found his guidance to be as transforming as Fr. Richard’s writings and my training. What a different person I am now. Ego has been “reorganized,” and that little piece of God whose image my soul reflects is now discovered. —Jimmy B.

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, caught II (detail), 2020, photograph, Bellingham.
Image inspiration: This pattern of leaves exists for a brief moment in time—a calm just before wind buffets the surface and the leaves shift. Like these leaves, our many facets of human experience are in constant motion. Spiritual direction invites us to gently reveal this dance, moment by moment.
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