Sunday, October 29, 2006

Become what you are . . .

. . . was the name of an album by Juliana Hatfield, an underrated indie rocker whose music was extremely meaningful to me for a good number of years. . . and it's also what I think Spiritual Direction is about -- becoming who you are.

I've been giving a great deal of thought to Spiritual Direction ("SD") over the last year or so. . . . There's a phrase in the Information Technology field -- "a late adopter." My Father, of Blessed Memory, was a classic late adopter. He loved computers (he was a Systems Analyst) and technology in general, but his experience wtih technology made him very suspicious about the flashy hype that people put up around new computers and software. You really had to prove to him that it was worth adopting something new. But when he did adopt it, he did so with great seriousness and fervor (witness how he kept track of even the minutest detail of his finances on it when he finally bought a PC!!).

I'm a sort of late adopter to -- especially when it comes to new _spiritual_ technology. I'm very suspicious of all the breathless _flash_ that comes along with _new_ spiritual practices. I need to feel that something is serious, rigorous legitimate and well-rooted in the thousands-years old Jewish tradition.

And, so, I've sort of come to my interest in SD in a backwards way. First I tried something very rigorous and serious -- the world of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). CPE, for those who don't know, is the standard way that Chaplains (hospital and otherwise) are trained. It's called "Clinical" because it -- like most medical education -- does _not_ take place in a classroom. Rather, it's an on-the-job sort of training where the student learns through intensive review of his or her experiences with patients.

Most mainline Protestant denominations require their seminary students to do a summer of full-time CPE (something students often dread intensely because of the intensity that CPE, and hospital work in general, has a reputation for). But only a small fraction of rabbinical students do the training. I was one of those few.

There are so many things I love about CPE (I love it so much I've signed up for a two-year full time residency that I am in the middle of right now). But one was the opportunity to talk seriously with my supervisor and others about what Christians call "discernment" -- the process of trying to determine just where it is that God really wants you. Or, more specifically for the rabbinical student, where and how you should best serve as Rabbi (and whether you should become a Rabbi in the first place).

For a wide variety of reasons, I did not find much room to do this discernment when I was in rabbinical school. I was able to learn many things in rabbinical school -- and am grateful to my teachers and for the great friends I was able to make there among my fellow students -- but I simply did not find it to be a "safe space" for sharing my struggles with fellow students and professors. I felt as though I was expected to have arrived at the school's doors essentially already fully formed and not as a 'work in progress.'

CPE, then, was a breath of fresh air for me -- here "discernment" was highly valued and encouraged. It was supported.

As I've developed in my work as a resident chaplain -- and as I've considered whether I should try to become a CPE supervisor (a kind of educator and guide who trains other chaplains) -- I've had more and more opportunities to help other CPE students with their discernment process. I have found that I love this work. It's an amazing opportunity to have a kind of intimate engagement with another person -- to join them for a bit in their (beautiful) struggle to become what they are . . . . It's a Holy work. . . . because it's God's call that people are trying to hear, the call to serve God. . . .and one of the most beautiful things to find in other people is their desire to be part of the Holy. . . to be connected to it through what they do in, and with, their lives. And, so, the moment of the struggle to discern is a moment that a person is at his or her most beautiful. . . it's a real priviledge to be able to be present at such moments.

And so, now, I think I've fully made the journey here in this post _backwards_ to Spiritual Direction. . . . because what I wrote in the last paragraph sounds a lot like SD to me. . . . Or, at least SD as I understand it at this point. When I was recently starting to read a book on Jewish Spiritual Direction,
edited by Howard A. Addison and Barbara Eve Breitman, I wrote down my definition of SD (as it stands now):
SD is about learning one's own unique, personal path re how to serve God [and Israel] through the help of a guide or director. The main tool for this task is self-examination and reflection.
This seems a bit different than this definition that Addison gives (pg. xviii):
For many, spiritual direction might best be described as a contemplative practice through which people companion one another over time as they reflect on their spiritual journeys and expand their awareness of the sacred dimensions that underlie the ordinary and extraordinary events of life. (emphasis mine)
What's missing to me in the above definition is a concept of _service_. That is, it seems to be all about developing _awareness_ of God (or what some people might call developing a God relationship).

To me (and, in Addison's defense, I am only quoting one sentence from a whole book), this is at best only _half_ of what a true spirituality is really about. It's only about the indvidual. It's entirely inward looking. But a real spirituality -- certainly, at least, in the traditional spiritualities of both Judaism and Christianity -- is outward looking as well. It is about community, and, yes -- dare I say it -- about obligation. It's about holding something in common with other people of faith. It's about acting in the world. It's about trying to make this world more like the world God wants from us. It's about service.

Some years ago, I read a really great book called Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America by Robert C. Fuller. He lamented that too many Americans are living this sort of half spirituality, a spirituality that is all about the self and satsifying the needs of the self. He thought this ultimately is an empty vision of spirituality. I could not agree more.

So, if Spiritual Direction is _only_ about connecting with God then I don't think I'm much interested in helping people with it. But, if it's also about finding where God wants you to be -- about finding how God has made you to serve -- then I am interested.

In the coming months and days, I'm going to be trying to get a better sense of this. I have some great opportunities here at the hospital to find out more about spiritual direction. Some of my colleagues here, especially the Catholic ones, have had much experience with either being directors or being directed. I want to find out how their own understanding of spiritual direction matches up with my own.

And I'm starting to reach out within the Jewish community to find out about people's experiences with SD and about training programs. Last week, I had a phone conversation with Jinks Hoffman, a Toronto-based spiritual director and psychotherapist who has a chapter in Addison and Breitman's book. I also recently spoke with an RRC rabbinical student who meets once-a-month with a spiritual director as part of a program they have there.

I'm also continuing to investigate whether training to be a CPE supervisor might fit into my future, and I had a phone conversation on Friday with somebody at the Healthcare Chaplaincy in New York to try and determine whether that might be a place for me in the future.

So . . . getting back to the become what you are idea, I think that some would criticize _my_ definition of spiritual direction above as being _too_ close to psychotherapy. Obviously, there should be a difference.

I had a fascinating on-going debate with a good rabbi friend about this over Rosh HaShanah. He thinks therapy is very important and should perhaps maybe even be required of rabbinical students. But he's very suspiscious of Spiritual Direction, finding it to be a kind of gimmicky thing.

I argued that there is more in common between the two than there are differences. Surely, there are differences. The goals are different. The players are different. In Spiritual Direction, God is also in the room. It's not just about fully actualizing your personal potential. It's about finding the direction that God wants of you and getting closer to God. Spiritual Direction might be more narrow, in this sense. It might only be about discerning where God calls us, about such narrow questions of whether one should become a rabbi or not. Or what kind of rabbi once should become.

But, I think the core techniques and the core process is the same -- they are both counseling relationships where the main goal is for the client/directee to learn more about his or herself. In both, the big issues ultimately revolve around relationships with figures of primal authority, whether they be the Deity or about the parents that raised us. The same kind of unresolved issues -- the same kinds of hurts and joys and defining moments -- are in both.

So, I'm going to keep thinking about this. I'm going to read some more of the chapters in Addison and Breitman. I'm going to keep talking to people. Jinks Hoffman told me that there's a Intro to Spiritual Direction retreat to be held in August at Isabella Freedman (I think she told me Aug. 14-19); I'm going to see if it's possible for me to attend that.

So, that's all there is on this for now. . . . . but I'm sure I'll be writing more about it in the future.

PS -- Other works (besides Hatfield's album) called become what you are include:
PSS Some Jewish spirituality and spiritual direction sites

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