Fifteen years ago, Susan Cole was a pastor with a troubling dilemma: She felt unable to pray. It was a stressful time in her parish at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City, and Cole felt her anxiety climbing. She tried closing her eyes and focusing on a meaningful passage of Scripture. She tried waking before dawn to pray. All that did was make her tired.
"I was a mess," she recalls. "I would feel myself working really hard, I'd get more anxious and not feel any connection to God."
Finally Cole found an adviser, a Roman Catholic nun, and began meeting with her. The woman listened closely as Cole described her spiritual anguish; one day she asked Cole to read aloud from Colossians. "She paid very close attention to where my voice shifted. She said, 'Go back to that line and read it again.' She kept leading me deeper and deeper, to a place where I felt very sad and lonely, and there, I could feel God's spirit."
Almost immediately, Cole's prayer life unclogged. "It felt like magic: I go to see [my adviser] and my spirit gets revitalized."
Cole, 64, now knows the process wasn't magic - it was spiritual direction, an ancient practice with Christian roots that has recently seen a revival among contemporary seekers from all faiths, including some who don't necessarily believe in God. In a culture where people readily engage physical trainers to hone their bodies and psychotherapists to untangle their neuroses, an increasing number are looking to spiritual directors as "spotters" for their souls.
About 300 training programs in spiritual direction exist worldwide, housed in universities, seminaries, and independent retreat centers. Spiritual Directors International, a 20-year-old organization based in Bellevue, Wash., has seen its membership swell from 4,000 in 2002 to 7,000 in 2008. There are even YouTube videos explaining and promoting the practice.
"I have seen a huge rise in awareness" of spiritual direction, says Liz Ward, director of the spiritual guidance program at the Shalem Institute in Bethesda, Md., which draws students of numerous faiths including Jews, Buddhists, Baptists, and Roman Catholics to its two-year program.
Spiritual directors typically meet monthly with their directees, who may or may not share the same religious background; the relationship can continue for years. Unlike psychotherapy, which is problem-based and designed to alleviate distress, spiritual direction doesn't aim to "fix" anything. Instead, it offers people a place to talk about their spiritual lives without fear of judgment. For some, that means discussing God or prayer in the context of their faith; others use language such as "the yearning of the soul."
"In this culture, it's easier for us to talk about sex than about spirituality," says Cole, whose experience with spiritual direction was so positive that she enrolled in the training program at Chestnut Hill College and, five years ago, left her parish ministry for a full-time independent practice. "I've had people come who've had a religious experience that made them feel 'odd,' and they'd never told anybody."
Liz Ellmann, executive director of Spiritual Directors International, which publishes a journal and creates ethical guidelines for practitioners, says trauma often unleashes spiritual questions: "How do I be present to pain and joy? Why do I have to be so busy that I can't enjoy my life? And who do you talk about that stuff with?"
On a Thursday evening at Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Roxborough, a small group of women and men gather near the wooden ark that holds the Torah.
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer has a 6-year-old son with mild autism and difficulty speaking. Meredith Barber's 3-year-old has suffered digestive problems since birth. The group's facilitator, Andrea Madden, has a 25-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy and mental retardation. But they have not come together as in a typical support group, to swap parenting strategies, offer advice, or suggest new treatments. What brings these adults here is a search for the spiritual dimension of parenting a "special needs" child.
Madden, a spiritual director, started the group six months ago after a several-year discernment process led her to the realization that "one of the great spiritual practices I have is being Claire's mom, shepherding her soul through the world." She begins the session with a prayer; then each member talks for about seven minutes while the others listen. They may ask clarifying questions, but they don't offer opinions.
"When you have a child with special needs, you're always trying to figure out what's best - this therapy, that school," Kaplan-Mayer says. "In the group, no one's in a fix-it mode. Your work is just to listen."
Barber says the group has helped her feel more compassionate toward her own imperfections as she cares for her toddler son and his 5-year-old sister. In the group, Madden may gently nudge a parent to focus on a child's triumph - she can follow directions better than she did last year! - rather than on her deficits. She asks them to notice flashes of gratitude that might otherwise be swallowed in the relentlessness of parenting.
Barber tries to savor those instants, whether she's changing diapers, hauling David to one more appointment at Children's Hospital, or making a gluten-free challah out of rice flour.
"When my children wake me at 6 by jumping on my head, instead of thinking, 'Arrghhh,' I try to see that I'm getting blessed."
Kaplan-Mayer says the group has helped her shift perspective on her son's challenges. A few months ago, at Valley Green, Kaplan-Mayer was listening to the chatter of other kids George's age and worrying, "Why can't he talk?" But when they hiked, George courageously forged ahead, turning periodically to grin at his mother. "He'd found a new path, he was leading the way, it was a hard climb, and we were doing it joyfully. I was aware of how it was resonating for me as a metaphor."
Is spiritual direction one more variety of modern self-absorption? Barbara Breitman, a Mount Airy therapist and spiritual director who helped launch a program of spiritual direction for students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, says it's just the opposite. "In spiritual direction, we get quiet enough to actually listen in to our souls. When you really listen in, the call is always about something greater than yourself."
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, four graduate students earning certificates in spiritual direction supervision gathered in the library at Chestnut Hill College, talking about the struggles and joys of their work. One woman described a directee who was "agnostic . . . cradle-Catholic, but gave up God because of bad experiences."
"We are dealing with the gamut of human experience, from ecstasy to tragedy, and how people navigate that," says their instructor, Carolynne Ervin, who coordinates the spiritual direction practicum at the college. "Your role as spiritual director is to accompany them in that place."
The growth in spiritual direction - here, in the seminary-rich Philadelphia area, and around the world - doesn't surprise Ervin. "We are at a crisis in our culture - not only for how to live, but how to live with the whole world. . . . People come down with breast cancer, they lose their job, the company downsizes, everything's falling down around them. Spiritual direction is a way of grounding themselves in the midst of that and seeking meaning."