Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Graduation" Speech: Radical Inefficiency

Today it was my privilege and delight to offer the address for the certification ceremony of the Ignatian Spirituality Institute, where I studied spiritual direction (and was "certified"~ there is no official governing body or certification for spiritual directors) two years ago.  

I'll have some reflections later upon the week-end itself, but for now I'm just going to post what I had to say and then I'm going to take a nap!

Most of you know that my first year of ISI was also my first year in seminary, studying for ordination in the Presbyterian Church. One day at lunch I was sitting with a group of people and one of my professors, upon hearing that I was about to head back to Cleveland for my ISI class, turned to me and said, “You know, I really don’t get this spiritual direction stuff.  It seems so inefficient to me.  You can reach so many more people ~ dozens, hundreds ~ in one 20-minute sermon.” 

Now that was a perspective that I hadn’t heard before.  But I’ve concluded that he was right.  You can at least speak to many more people in a shorter period of time by preaching a sermon ~ spiritual direction is a radically inefficient activity ~ and no, he didn’t get it.  Which is ok, because neither did I, not then.

So there’s some irony in the fact that this afternoon I’m here to speak as adeptly as possible about what is perhaps the most inefficient of the spiritual arts:  the companionship that we call spiritual direction.

Now, I don’t want to knock preaching.  I’m deeply invested in the value of the preached word.  And Jesus did some preaching himself!  But we know that he also spent a lot of time with individuals.  In fact, some of the most significant episodes in his life, some of those times in which he said things that resonate most meaningfully in our own hearts, are those in which he singled out one person, absorbed his or her story, and issued that most profound of invitations: 

Abide in me. 

The sentence itself he says to his disciples in the Gospel of John:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5). 

The invitation represented by those words ~ that’s an invitation he issues not just once, but over and over, throughout his life, in all kinds of ways: to Mary Magdalene, to Nicodemus, to Thomas, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the woman at the well. 

Abide in me. 

Abide ~ that’s a rich, deep word.  It means to stay, to reside, to persevere, to linger, to dwell.  

Do those verbs resound with a call to efficiency?  To linger ~ that’s my favorite from that list of synonyms  ~  to linger is to take time, to soak up every last drop of an experience, to delay.  

And there’s another synonym we all know from our friend Ignatius: to savor.  To luxuriate, to appreciate, to revel, to cherish.  How often are we told to savor our prayer, to repeat it and to cherish the unexpected, to roll around in it and sink into it, to taste and see that the Lord is good? 

When Jesus urges us to abide with him, he is not issuing a proclamation in favor of speed, of straight lines and right angles.   He is not insisting upon large crowds or grand sermons.  He is telling us that where two or three are gathered . . .  he is telling us that he longs for us to put aside our fears of wastefulness and untimeliness and ineffectiveness and to remember that one of the synonyms for inefficiency is: extravagance.  

Spiritual direction insists upon the value of extravagance: extravagance in time, in conversation, in relationship. 

I want to suggest three things today, three things upon which we might focus as spiritual directors, as those responding to Jesus’ invitation to abide in him by inviting others to do the same. 

First, we know people by name. 

That seems like such a little thing, but its importance was driven home to me when I was on retreat this past summer.  At the Wernersville Jesuit Center in eastern Pennsylvania, many of the spiritual directors' offices are in a corridor on the third floor, and the waiting area is a kind of sunroom in the middle of that corridor.  Every day when my director appeared in the sunroom, he greeted me with the words, "Good morning, Robin."  Someone knew me by name! ~ in that huge and silent retreat house, someone knew who I was.

And that's the first point ~ not just that we know the names of the people whom we accompany, but that we know who they are.  We are welcomed into places in their lives which they share with few other people, places in which they see God laboring with them, or places in which they long to see God, or places in which they believe that there is no hope of ever seeing God. 

The second point of this small first meditation is we invite people to see that God knows them by name.  We invite them into a deeper understanding- that the God in whose image they are made knows who they are and longs to mold them into even more of who they are created to be.

Perhaps the most telling incident of Jesus calling someone by name occurs in the scene in the Gospel of John in which he and Mary Magdalene encounter one another after the Resurrection.  "Mary," he says to her.  What a transformation takes place in her life in that moment!  She has not recognized him, but ~ he knows her by name and he knows exactly who she is.  He knows her as someone whose friendship for him is so strong - that she is wandering around all by herself in a cemetery at the break of day ~ trying to figure out what has happened ~ and he knows her as someone being re-created by his presence into the woman she is called to be, the woman called to share the good news of the Resurrection.

When we know people by name, when we know who they are in their unfolding relationship with God, then we share in this kind of profound growth in who they are as the friends of God.

That might be enough, right there, to satisfy us as spiritual directors, but there's more, a second small meditation:

First point: It is our great privilege to listen to the stories of our directees.  It is, indeed, holy ground, that place where a person shares with us the story of his or her life with God.  My own ISI classmates may recall that, during our first workshop on discernment with Brian McDermott, it really struck me what a powerful and terrifying responsibility we were undertaking as spiritual directors.  Everyone assured me that, despite my personal inclination to forget, the task is not mine alone ~ or even, mine at all ~ that the Holy Spirit is the one who is at work ~ but the reality remains: we are on holy ground in our listening.

How holy it is - may be more readily apparent to us when we pray with some of the most well-known and beloved stories in which Jesus can be understood as a spiritual director to individuals.  When Nicodemus slips put to meet with him under cover of darkness, Jesus listens carefully to his confusion and question: How can someone be born again?  When Thomas insists that he will not believe the report that the other disciples have made of Jesus' appearance until he sees and touches for himself, Jesus' response indicates that he has clearly heard and understood Thomas' anguish and need.  When he appears alongside the despondent couple on the road to Emmaus, Jesus again listens carefully to what they have to say, to their sense of abandonment and frustration ~ before he begins to guide them away from their misconceptions ~  and back toward the reality they do not yet comprehend.

None of these instances portrays Jesus as a model of efficient ministry.  Look at what he's doing: He is meeting individuals, at inopportune times and in unusual circumstances, and becoming completely present to who and where they are in the uniqueness of each individual journey in the spiritual life.

Abide in me, dwell with me, as I do in and with you ~ those are the terms that Jesus offers, in an extravagantly personal way

And I would be remiss if I did not recall for us that encounter in which Jesus is at his most extravagant in his capacity to take time with another: the story of the woman at the well.  He lingers, he listens, he appreciates the woman’s life and her dilemmas, he responds, he challenges, and he affirms.  If we want to be spiritual directors, we are well advised to spend some time with that story, in which a tired and lonely and disillusioned woman is awakened to courage and energy ~ and to life itself.

Of course, in our listening, we are not solely focused upon the stories of our directees, or limited to the context of their own lives.  We are inviting them into a much greater story, into participation in the life of Jesus ~ as he himself does in every situation that I've mentioned.

I had a conversation with one of my great friends in this Ignatian adventure a couple of months ago, and she and I agreed that two of the great gifts of Ignatian spirituality lie in its inherent challenge and in its optimism that challenge can be met.  

Ignatius always invites us to magis, to more ~ to a sense of this wide, wide world and its opportunities for becoming the people we are meant to become ~ by serving the God we are called to serve - with all the gifts God has so graciously bestowed upon us.  And throughout Ignatian spirituality there courses a relentless optimism that supports us in doing just that ~ becoming most fully who we are in the service of our God.  

That sense of challenge and optimism emerge in part from Ignatius' own narrative ~ the story of a man felled by a cannon ball ~ who went forth to set the world on fire ~ with a keen sense of the God who is present in all things.  But ultimately the sense of challenge and optimism which ground the spiritual direction relationship emerge from that greater story into which we are always seeking to help our directees find themselves.  

We see that orientation break into a human life every time that Jesus lingers with an individual ~ every time he welcomes their questions and dilemmas and reverences who they are. We see it ~ the challenge and optimism that constitute, ultimately, an orientation of hope ~ every time that we help someone abide in Jesus. 

There is, finally, a third aspect of our lives as spiritual directors, a tough one to talk about ~ because some of what we do as directors is that we share who we are.  Not where we are in our own lives -- preoccupied, agitated, confused, relaxed, triumphant, whatever -- but who we are: We are people who pray, people who listen, people with the capacity to absorb, people who are attentive to the movement of God through God's spirit.  We are very inefficient people.

I speak as someone who, like most of you, is a beginner in this enterprise.  That's not a bad thing to be ~ the great teachers of prayer remind us that we are all, always, beginners. 

Nevertheless -- despite our very real status as beginners, we are also people who take the time to savor the life of prayer, to linger with God and with others who long to do the same -- and we need to respect and honor those qualities in ourselves.  In his little book Crossing the Desert, Robert Wicks tells us that "[true] guides are people who teach us even more by who they are than by what they know." 

A little scary yes?  Even scarier than that initial recognition that we are stepping onto holy ground in our accompaniment of others.  Who we are, as we step onto that holy ground -- that matters, too.  Who we are ~ as we seek to abide in Jesus and to welcome him into his dwelling with us, who we are ~ as we devote ourselves to others who are furnishing a residence for Jesus in their own lives ~ who we are is a matter of significance.  It matters that we are people of integrity, of contemplation, of curiosity, of perseverance.  That we are people who meet challenges; people who harbor hope.  That we are people who wait upon the Lord.

We have been given great gifts toward becoming and always re-becoming women and men of prayer who accompany others, who know their names and their stories - and who invite them to settle into the most welcoming and hospitable of homes.  We have been given the gifts of our ISI education and training.  The gifts of our peers and our supervisors and our own directors. The gift of this extraordinary tradition of Ignatian spirituality, passed on for over 450 years from one person to another. (Now that’s radical inefficiency!)  And most of all ~ we have been given the gift of those who share the great treasure of their own lives with us.

We may feel inadequate to the task and yet ~ we have also been offered another extraordinarily great gift in that - in spite of our limitations ~ the Holy Spirit chooses to work with the most astonishing extravagance when we are present to others.

May the face of God shine upon you always as you respond to this call ~ to linger and to listen and to be present ~ both to the Spirit of God and to the individuals whose names and stories you come to know.  And may God always be gracious to you as you seek to help others who long to abide in Jesus.


Image: Ignatius the Pilgrim, Wernersville (PA) Jesuit Center ~ October 2010


  1. Oh Robin, thank you for this, what a gift.

  2. When I think of my spiritual director, I think of many things. But I do especially think of this:

    "None of these instances portrays Jesus as a model of efficient ministry. Look at what he's doing: He is meeting individuals, at inopportune times and in unusual circumstances, and becoming completely present to who and where they are in the uniqueness of each individual journey in the spiritual life."

    Congratulations on giving it.