Why non-Christian ‘seekers’ are trying spiritual direction

A few years ago, Casper ter Kuile sat across from a woman and told her he did not want to pray on his knees. She suggested, instead, that he try standing up, with his hands open, in the position used in the ancient Christian church. In that moment, he says, she handed him a key to understanding “with which I could unlock the tradition.” This type of conversation, in which a seeker—someone who is religiously unaffiliated but who is interested in growing in their relationship with God—comes to someone for guidance in that relationship with God, is a form of spiritual direction. And it is typically Ignatian and Christian. But Mr. ter Kuile does not consider himself Christian at all.

He was raised in a nonreligious family in Britain, and as he grew up and realized he was gay, he felt that religion treated L.G.B.T. people as “either irrelevant or cruel” and assumed he would never participate in any religion. But as he began to work in climate activism he saw that religion can be transformative for people and their communities, and this insight eventually led him to pursue a master’s degree in divinity at Harvard. Mr. ter Kuile is a self-described none who chooses not to participate in organized religion, and thus was in a small minority among his divinity student peers. At Harvard, Mr. ter Kuile says the community chaplain, trained in Ignatian spiritual direction, was one of the most important people he met because it was through her that he discovered the value of spiritual direction, which ultimately transformed his life and sense of vocation.

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Mr. ter Kuile says his understanding of spiritual direction developed over time. At first, the chaplain he saw for direction “just asked questions” as a way to prompt his deeper reflection on God. After about a year and a half, she described what she was doing as “spiritual accompaniment” and asked him if she could suggest some readings and prayers. And at that juncture, Mr. ter Kuile began to understand “it was such a gift to have someone who could connect my questions and my longing” to the histories and traditions of Christianity, which had mostly been unfamiliar to him. Through this process, he was able “to find a way into the tradition” without feeling a pressure to convert. A good spiritual director, he says, can act as “a kind of translator” for a nonreligious person and help prevent them from tuning out religious language they may not understand.

Spiritual direction is an ancient form of mentoring and conversation, but it was St. Ignatius Loyola who developed the form of direction most people encounter today in Christian circles. Ignatian direction focuses on imaginative prayer, with the director helping directees to place themselves in biblical scenes or conversations with Jesus, Mary or the saints, for example. But it also helps the directee with discernment, which consists of helping guide people to a better understanding of their relationship with God by developing their sense of awareness of religious and spiritual experience in the everyday. And, perhaps most important, spiritual direction helps people to get a better understanding of what they want from their spiritual lives.

We know that roughly 40 percent of Americans in the millennial generation self-define as nones, but my own study of such seekers in my book The Nones Are Alright discovered many people who actively wanted to talk about prayer, God and faith but found they had no place to do it. But what can the Ignatian tradition in particular, with its emphasis on prayer as a way of figuring out both God’s will and the directee’s desires, do for people who find themselves on the margins of faith? And how can seekers—many of whom say the reason they have drifted from church is because of a lack of a space to air the kinds of doubts and questions that are so frequently ignored in conversations about faith—find spiritual directors equipped to meet them where they arrive?

Professor William Dohar, who teaches church history at Santa Clara University and trains spiritual directors at Mercy Center in Burlingame, Calif., says that even among devout Catholics, not everyone correctly understands the purpose of spiritual direction, and many people have never experienced it. That problem is compounded for people who feel marginalized by the church, for seekers and for nones, who are even less likely to have even heard of spiritual direction and may feel too intimidated to pursue it. Many people think of it as a kind of therapy, which it is not. It is guided conversation about a person’s spiritual life. While spiritual directors are trained to listen carefully to directees, they are not psychologists licensed to treat mental health issues. Instead, the focus of their work is on prayer and contemplation. For those new to direction, according to Mr. Dohar, there is a “learning curve that happens where first they learn what spiritual direction is; then as a person steps into the experience, they learn what they’ve gotten themselves into.”

Just as there is a growing number of nones like Mr. ter Kuile, there is also a growing interest in spiritual direction both within and outside of the Catholic Church. The website of Spiritual Directors International lists directors from many Protestant denominations as well as directors who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist. A number of evangelical programs in spiritual direction following the Ignatian model have also sprung up in the past few years. Interestingly, as more Americans move away from participation in institutional religion, many seekers and nones are also seeking out places where they can have in-depth conversations about their spiritual lives. Our nation currently struggles with an epidemic of social isolation and loneliness, perhaps exacerbated by the increasing amount of time people spend online. There seems to be a lack of—or a lack of knowledge of—places for people to have in-person discussions about their beliefs and how to form them. For nones, spiritual direction could be a key to solving some of that puzzle.

For Mr. ter Kuile, the discernment techniques he learned helped him to redefine himself as a minister to other spiritual seekers. While still a student, he began co-hosting a podcast called “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” which now has up to 100,000 listeners a week. On the podcast, he and his co-host practice lectio divina (which their special guest James Martin, S.J., helped them explain to listeners); and at live podcast recording sessions they lead hundreds of people through Ignatian-style imaginative exercises, in which they immerse themselves in the world of Hogwarts.

Mr. ter Kuile says that such ancient sacred practices that are regularly used in spiritual direction can help move people who are skeptical about religion to a greater understanding of it. And framing these practices within the context of a text they already know and love, even if it is a “nontraditional entry point,” can help peel back some of the layers of confusion and anxiety many younger people have about religion.

Finding Spiritual Direction in the Everyday

For Ashley Wilson, a millennial living in Washington, D.C., finding spiritual community and spiritual direction has been a complex enterprise. Ms. Wilson grew up Catholic and attended a Jesuit college, where she “got hooked” on the idea that faith could be part of a person’s moral framework. She moved to Washington after graduation and went to work for Network, the lobbying group that sponsored the Nuns on the Bus. But in Washington she found that “work felt like me going to church, and going to church on a Sunday didn’t really do it for me on the community aspect.” At Network Ms. Wilson found that the sisters always made room for spiritual community alongside their political work. The day after the 2016 presidential election, she says the only place she wanted to be was in their conference room, where they could “cry and reflect and pray together.”

Ms. Wilson had tried spiritual direction at her Jesuit college, but as a working adult it just “felt like homework.” But since Ms. Wilson recently began a new job with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the D.C. lobbying office of the Quakers, she has been amazed by the parallels between Quaker spirituality and the Ignatian tradition, and she finds the Quakers’ broad definition of who qualifies as an authority on spirituality a refreshing change. One of Ms. Wilson’s friends converted to Quakerism from Catholicism and went through a discernment process with a group of Quakers that Ms. Wilson says seemed, from her friend’s description, very similar to spiritual direction, except that it takes place in groups instead of one on one.

Ms. Wilson said that a yearning for spiritual companionship was common among her Gen X and millennial peers. She said her group of D.C. friends who also work for faith-based lobbying groups meet once a month to talk about “life and spirituality and faith and politics,” and keep a running Google chat about the same topics. She also looks for spiritual connection and conversation on social media, with “robust conversations” about faith and community on Twitter, in particular, leading to real-life connections and friendships. But for Ms. Wilson and some other younger Catholics I spoke to, one-on-one Ignatian spiritual direction feels too much like confession; and, as Ms. Wilson says, since she has deep spiritual friendships already in place and can “text or call a nun whenever I want,” seeing an individual director seems redundant.

Training Spiritual Directors for a New Era

The number of programs for training spiritual directors is growing. While there are a few main centers of Ignatian spiritual direction run by Jesuits at Creighton University, Guelph and Loyola University Chicago, a growing interest in spiritual direction among Protestants, evangelicals and interfaith people has also led to a surge in the number of programs training directors elsewhere.

Unlike therapists and clergy, however, spiritual directors are not always certified. While some programs do offer a certificate in spiritual direction, it is not a degree recognized by any central licensing authority in the way that a master of divinity or a marriage and family therapy degree would be recognized. There is usually an informal agreement that a person doing spiritual direction should be supervised, like a therapist. Time requirements for the program may vary; some programs last several years, some are online, and some are short intensives. Some directors meet people online and some insist on face-to-face conversations. So a person seeking a spiritual director by looking online, as most unchurched people might do, may be met with a confusing, dizzying and intimidating array of options.

George Murphy, S.J., has helped lead the spiritual direction program at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley since 1991, when he co-founded it with Jane Ferdon, O.P. Father Murphy says that from the beginning, he and Sister Ferdon wanted the focus to be on developing a person’s “God awareness.” The summer program includes sessions of prison ministry, in which students travel to a women’s prison in Dublin, Calif., to work with women who are not always from a Catholic or even a religious background. Father Murphy says it has been clear for years that the spiritual directors he was training needed to be aware that God does not always come to people “in church or during a holy hour,” and that religious experiences happen outside of a religious context more often than we might think.

Today, Father Murphy says, what he sees in people seeking spiritual direction is that St. Augustine’s adage—that our hearts are restless until they rest in God—is true in the culture all around us, which seeks to fill the hunger and thirst for prayer and God with other things. But religious experiences are still happening to people all the time, in the Ignatian sense of finding God in all things. “Whether people name it as God,” he says, “that’s secondary. It’s important not to bang people over the head with God, but to get them to the truth” of their religious experiences. He adds that one of his convictions is that “most people have these experiences of transcendence and the holy,” but that our culture cannot or does not want to talk about them. In his experience, however, “God loves to be noticed,” and the work of spiritual direction is really about helping people to “notice God’s activity in the world, in their lives, and to learn to talk about it.”

Using Ignatian terminology to describe working with nones, the unchurched or with seekers, Father Murphy says that Ignatius “was convinced God dealt directly with people,” and not just through the church. Discernment, the practice of slowing down to understand where God is working in your life, is a large part of the Ignatian method of spiritual direction, and Father Murphy says that people usually seek out a director during the kind of high and low points in their spiritual lives that are the same peaks and valleys Ignatius has a retreatant explore in the Spiritual Exercises.

But if people have traditionally found their directors through churches or retreat centers, where would seekers go to find one? Father Murphy suggests campus ministries, theology schools and other educational institutions might be less intimidating places to start. He adds that for a person made nervous by churches or financially unable to go on a retreat, it might help to begin the search for a director by asking yourself “Where are your places? Where is it safe for you to talk about God?” For some people, that might be online; for others, it might be face to face. There may be a shortage of qualified directors in busier urban areas, and not every director is a good match for every directee, so a person seeking a director will need to be patient and may need to take time to find a good match.

The Challenge Is Institutional

In addition to teaching church history at Santa Clara University and training spiritual directors, Mr. Dohar is also a supervisor for a number of spiritual directors. He says that the Ignatian tradition of contemplative listening and paying attention to interior movements remains important when doing spiritual direction with the unchurched. But when it comes to people finding spiritual directors or even discovering spiritual direction itself, “part of that challenge is institutional.” If people are not showing up at retreat centers or places that train spiritual directors, and if many Catholics and their pastoral leaders are themselves unaware of the purpose of spiritual direction, that means that people outside of the church will have to discover it through dialogue in the world, including online and on social media.

Mr. Dohar says that for seekers who feel lost or confused about their relationship with God, some of the Ignatian language about discernment of spirits can be confusing or off-putting, but in the hands of “a generous, open-hearted listener who’s attuned with the Ignatian tradition and the language of discernment,” those terms can be explained in more contemporary language. The bottom line of spiritual direction, he says, is that for those who are ready to open up to it, seeking God or the divine is also looking closely at our deepest longings and desires. Once a person understands that is the purpose of spiritual direction, “who wouldn’t want to talk about that or reach into it?” he says.

In the past, spiritual direction was connected to the sacrament of penance and mostly in the hands of priests. Today, most directors are lay people, which can feel less intimidating for some seekers, especially those who have had negative experiences of religion or even experienced spiritual abuse. In these cases, spiritual direction can be a step toward healing. Mr. Dohar says that the burdens many seekers have carried can be “remarkably attended to in spiritual direction where there isn’t a certain presumption of what a person means by God.” The “abiding, sensitive” attention directors pay to directees means there is room in spiritual direction for interfaith conversation as well as conversation between believers and seekers and believers and nonbelievers. And, Mr. Dohar says, “it’s really an amazing thing when people come to it; and they wonder, where's this been all my life?”

It may be impossible to come up with the exact number of seekers who would go to spiritual direction if they understood its purpose or saw that it can make a real difference in their lives, but all the spiritual directors I spoke to for the purposes of this article said they had more requests for direction than they could handle. When I needed people to practice direction with during my own spiritual direction training over the past year, I put the word out on social media, figuring one or two people would get in touch. I had more than 50 requests within 24 hours, nearly all of them from people who do not regularly go to church.

I asked Mr. ter Kuile what he would advise for spiritual directors who want to reach nones, nonreligious people or seekers. “The best thing is to just show up where you are,” he replied. Mr. ter Kuile suggested even small changes could make spiritual direction programs more inviting without compromising their core values. Rather than explicitly religious language or imagery, spiritual direction websites or advertisements could use slightly modified language or nature imagery so as to invite in the more skeptical. He said it helps to keep in mind why some people are attracted to life coaching and to explain to the curious how spiritual direction has some elements similar to that. This can help avoid scaring off people who may be intimidated by more overt religiosity. The key, he says, is to have the attentive quality of presence that the best directors have. In a time when social isolation is contributing to the global mental health crisis, the focused listening that spiritual directors provide is a rarity and can help spiritual seekers feel known.

Perhaps getting more people to simply sit down with a trained listener and have conversations about their religious experiences would change some of the numbers on surveys about the so-called nones. In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius tells directors their job is not to incline the directee toward one side or another when it comes to religious experiences, but to be the balancing point between God and the person God has created, so that “worldly thoughts might lose their hold.” Even those outside any church can understand the importance of the consolation that comes from that.

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