What is it about Spiritual Direction?

What is it about Spiritual Direction?
An interview with Tiffany Curtis & Dave Woessner
by C. Perry Dougherty

As part of a series of conversations I conducted to help document and celebrate Still Harbor’s 10th Anniversary, I spoke with Dave Woessner and Tiffany Curtis, two graduates of Still Harbor’s Spiritual Direction Practicum. We spoke about their own spiritual paths and their perspectives on spiritual direction in addition to their feedback on our training program—what served them and what might be improved upon in the future. In reviewing the transcript of our conversation, this excerpt stood out as a thoughtful series of reflections on the vocational calling to spiritual direction, the ways spiritual direction may be practiced, and the demand for spiritual accompaniment specifically at this moment in history.

Tiffany Curtis

Tiffany Curtis

Tiffany Curtis is the co-founder and lead organizer of the Santa Fe Faith Network for Immigrant Justice as well as the minister of First Christian Church in Santa Fe. Tiffany is trained as a clinical chaplain and spiritual director. She has worked extensively as a community organizer and as a spiritual companion in prisons. Spiritually, Tiffany is nourished by a committed Ashtanga yoga practice, quality time with loved ones, and hiking in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico. She has a B.A. in Peace Studies and Latin American Studies from Chapman University and an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School. 

Dave Woessner

Dave Woessner

Dave Woessner is a priest, serving as Rector of St. Michael’s-on-the-Heights Episcopal Church in Worcester, Massachusetts. For many years, he also has practiced and taught Samatha, a form of meditation originating in Theravada Buddhism. He writes that his rich relationships with spiritual directees kindle a constant gratitude for his training with Still Harbor. At home, two dogs, two cats, and one wife fill his daily life with love and laughter. 

What follows is an excerpt of my conversation with Tiffany and Dave.

Perry Dougherty: Thank you both for joining me in this conversation about your experiences with and perspectives on spiritual direction. As you know, we are celebrating 10 years at Still Harbor, where you both trained in Spiritual Direction, and it is nice to be able to take some time to look back at our work and listen for our impact. 

I’d like to begin asking you both the fairly straight-forward question of what brought you to want to do spiritual accompaniment work and to seek out training in that? 

Tiffany Curtis: I’m going to give a little bit of background to help it make sense. I was raised in a very religious household and environment. So, spiritual practice was really important to me from a really young age, and in my particular case, the water that I was swimming in was Latino evangelicalism and charismatic spiritual practices like speaking in tongues and prophesying. And as I got a bit older, I really departed from most of that and became an activist in high school. 

There was particularly a really pivotal moment for me when I was 15. I went to the US-Mexico border, and I started to understand the context for the environment I had grown up in and some of the systems that were at play around me. As I became involved in politics and activism, I sort of naturally, from a faith-based perspective, became involved in a lot of mainline, liberal Protestant environments, which felt right to me in certain ways and also not so right in other ways. This led to an ongoing journey of seeking spaces where I could both be an activist but also really find that spiritual juice that I had known when I was growing up. The spirituality I knew growing up was, in my case at least, really divorced from any kind of social analysis and was pretty apolitical, which did not speak to me spiritually anymore. 

So, I went to divinity school. I ended up doing CPE, chaplaincy training. I pursued chaplaincy, which is its own story in and of itself. I had known going into it that I wanted to apply chaplaincy skills and training in more of a community context, not in a clinical context. Especially in the experience of working in a hospital, I found that I really had a longing to work with people on a more ongoing basis as well. I think towards the end of that year I heard about the Spiritual Direction Practicum at Still Harbor. The particular orientation of spiritual support for folks who were active in the community and engaged in social change combined with my desire to continue to build my skills to support movements, to be a community chaplain, to work with communities and individuals on an ongoing basis really drew me to the program. 

I had also been in spiritual direction for quite a while at that point and found that practice really meaningful for my own nourishment and wanted to be able to offer that to other folks in some way as well. 

Dave Woessner: I suppose that the quickest way into my story is: I was raised in the church, very devout, very engaged with my family. Later in high school and college, I couldn’t really make things work anymore; I couldn’t reconcile what I was being taught about Jesus in church and then what I saw the church holding in different positions. It was very disturbing to me, particularly around GLBTQ issues of identity and ordaining people and marrying people. I also had bigger questions like how the problem of evil was tackled and so on and so forth. So, this all became problematic for me, and I distanced myself from the church by choice. 

I then became very deeply involved with philosophy, pursuing the study of philosophy, the teaching of philosophy as a way of life, almost as religious expression. I studied and taught philosophy for a few years, but I was also finding that I needed a kind of spiritual practice. Or I needed a way of exploring my inner life without the dialectical method, which led me to meditation. I was practicing in a Buddhist meditation tradition. More and more that became a community for me, and it became a very life-giving tradition for me. And at the same time, I was teaching philosophy at the University of Colorado. 

It was at that time that two different things were happening. One, I was realizing that, while working with my students, I was much more interested in their individual stories, in how they were encountering issues in their lives, and I felt like I didn’t necessarily want to be constrained by the burden of teaching philosophy to people in the midst of those conversations, if that makes sense. I mean, I love teaching, and I loved the subject matter I was teaching—in Western philosophy, ethics in particular—but listening to somebody is different from being their teacher. And you don’t have as much time to listen and engage and follow up if you’re trying to share content with them or if you have dozens and dozens of students. I was feeling the tension between teaching and listening. And the other thing unfolding was that in the meditation tradition I was practicing, called Samatha, there’s a very close relationship with your teacher, who then listens to what’s going on in your practice and asks very detailed questions about it. A lot of stuff, of course, can come up in those conversations. Those conversations created my first experience of spiritual listening. The other thing about Samatha is that one doesn’t need to be Buddhist in any way shape or form in order to do it or participate in it fully. So, there really was this kind of model of deep spiritual listening that I was seeing modeled. And then I eventually came to learn the practice of listening myself when I was asked to become a teacher in the tradition. I became very interested in this idea of just  listening and accompaniment—with really almost anybody—and to have that be separate from the question of sharing a tradition together. 

Later, through all these experiences and others, I felt the call very strongly to ordination. I’m now a priest in the Episcopal Church. And even now, I find that spiritual direction is radically different from pastoral care. There’s really something special about being able to sit down with somebody, fully inhabit your tradition or traditions, help co-create space with them, where they can be who they are and fully inhabit their tradition or traditions, and then mutually listen together. It’s just a separate skill that I knew I needed to have, that I wanted to have, that my vocation called me to have. It is different from teaching. It’s different even from teaching meditation. It’s different certainly from pastoral care and parish leadership. It’s this other thing that is essential.

PD: Dave, could expand on what the qualities or the practices that you feel make spiritual accompaniment so different than pastoral care and teaching? 

DW: For me, personally, it’s always helpful, and always in my first session with directees, I will say, “this isn’t pastoral care, in part, because we do not necessarily share a tradition.” I think that’s the most important thing. And also, even if we do share a tradition, I don’t have the authority to present to you teachings of the faith such that you might organize your life around them. Presenting teachings of the faith is one of the aspects of one-on-one pastoral care that I call upon and has been helpful in my relationship with parishioners. We sit down, I know or learn a little bit about their situation, and, frankly speaking, because they trust me, because I have a relationship with them, because they look to me as an authority in the church, I can take their situation, represent it to them or reframe it, and put it together with relevant examples from Scripture or the history of the Church, such that they can then receive it as something new. That is much more elaborate and it depends on a very different kind of relationship and structure of power or authority than spiritual direction. 

Spiritual direction is much more about accompaniment and just listening. There is a little bit of reframing, but it’s not until you know somebody extremely well, like after years of listening with them, that you can begin to take pieces that they themselves have identified as being meaningful and relevant and then offer a reframing of their situation.

PD: Thank you for that. Tiffany, I’m curious about whether you have any experience in how you differentiate spiritual accompaniment and spiritual direction from other forms of support or teaching that you do in your life?

TC: I think that perhaps for me one of the bigger differences is the ongoing relationship and the structure of the relationship. I think a lot of the elements of listening, of reflecting back, of being fully present are sort of present across different forms of being with folks. But the very specific, “we have a time, we meet” is unique in spiritual direction. And there’s a particular structure and timing to that relationship and a quality of being in an ongoing dialogue. I think that’s the part that feels the most distinct to me as opposed to the particular ways of listening or reflecting, or offering compassionate positive regard to the person’s experience and journey and questions.

PD: That makes a lot of sense to me as well. So, Tiffany, what are the ways that you’re practicing spiritual direction, spiritual accompaniment, today? What does that look like for you?

TC: I am practicing a little bit, maybe, in the more traditional sense that I was just speaking about in terms of meeting with an individual at a regular time. I’ve been using Skype for that, which is a new experience for me but has been really working very well. I feel like it is important in this time now that we have those kinds of tools so that we can work with people who live in different places. 

In a less traditional sense, I feel like the elements of the practice of spiritual accompaniment are always with me as tools when I’m doing community work as well, especially some of the immigration justice organizing work that I’m doing right now. I draw upon the practice of spiritual listening in other contexts as well, but perhaps in a very different way because it’s not the ongoing one-on-one relationship with people.

PD: Could you expand a little bit more on the other work that you’re doing, the community work? Maybe you could share a story about how you draw on those skills and practices to inform that work?

TC: One piece that I think it would make sense to talk about is that I have been leading/facilitating a group that I’ve been calling “community circle” where we meet and do meditation and contemplative practice together and then we also do a circle practice of intentional listening to one another. In that space, I’ve been modeling and sharing with the group a way of listening without necessarily responding or without projecting or saying “oh, that reminds me of this thing about myself.” These sorts of responses can happen pretty naturally in an unstructured group sharing or conversation environment, and instead, I’ve been inviting folks to really just listen, practice good eye contact and body language, and not necessarily respond. There’s a feeling of group spiritual direction about that kind of circle practice. It has been really meaningful, I think, for the participants and also for me to be in that kind of space with others.

PD: Thank you, that’s really helpful framing for how you have been integrating those skills. Dave, what about you? How are you practicing spiritual accompaniment or spiritual direction in your life today?

DW: I want to come back first to something that Tiffany said that I really deeply appreciate. That is, the way in which spiritual direction is a kind of physically embodied practice. That is something that has come over into my pastoral care and also my meditation teaching. I also think too, I was hearing this in what you were saying as well, Tiffany, that one important distinction, to take us back to the previous questions, for me is “who is leading” in spiritual direction? 

Divine Presence is leading, but it’s through that other person. So, one of the exciting things that I find about spiritual direction is honing in on what’s happening in the directee’s spiritual life and using that as the contour, the terrain. It’s like exploring together—it’s very exciting. And that again, for me, is a marked distinction to helping a person grapple with coming into a tradition or understanding their own life in relation to a tradition, whether that’s a meditation tradition in Samatha or the teachings of the church. That’s much different. So, it’s much more free form and exciting and enticing.

So, practically, how do I do spiritual direction? I have a few directees—they are of different sorts. In my own case, it’s become interesting because I have some directees who are themselves in discernment processes in our diocese. So, I’m helping people within my tradition, the Episcopal church, discern whether or not they have an ordained vocation. Or in other words, regardless of whether they’re called to be ordained or not, I’m helping them discern what else their vocation is calling them to be. So, that’s one area that I practice spiritual direction. I also see people by word of mouth. Friends and colleagues will call me up and say somebody is interested in direction, and if I can, I will see them. That tends to be much more open, free form, based on where they are, what’s going on with them, and what they bring into our conversation together.

PD: Thank you for adding that idea of the embodied nature of spiritual direction and the “who’s leading” thoughts, Dave. 

I was recently reading a little book by Thomas Merton called Spiritual Direction & Meditation. Right at the start of the book, he writes of spiritual direction in the Catholic tradition, noting, “[t]he original, primitive meaning of spiritual direction suggests a particular need connected with a special ascetic task, a peculiar vocation for which a professional formation is required. In other words, spiritual direction is a monastic concept. It is a practice which was unnecessary until men withdrew from the Christian community in order to live as solitaries in the desert.”

When I read this, it immediately occurred to me that perhaps we are seeing a resurgence of interest in spiritual direction as people leave organized religion these days and find themselves spiritually seeking, but doing so more as metaphorical “solitaries in the desert.” 

I’m curious about your perspectives on what role spiritual direction might serve in society today and in particular in our current social movements.

DW: I love this question. The Desert Fathers and Mothers have such wisdom to give, not just in their “sayings” on prayer, but in the models of spiritual life that they built and lived. I think you are pointing to this with your question, Perry, and that’s quite helpful. I believe that we are coming into another “Desert Time” for the Church, and in practices of religion in the West, in general. People are rightly questioning what religion has to offer them. So much time and energy has been spent on religious practice as a social practice: creating norms, providing morality, channeling the impulses of generosity and service. Religious institutions have meaningfully—and also detrimentally—engaged with their political environments as well. It’s just all so complex. And God is so simple. And I think now, as with those first anchorites who followed Anthony the Great, some people hunger for a way to engage with their inner lives, prioritizing and deepening the direct connection with God. And sometimes—oftentimes—religious structures and communities can get in the way of that. Believe me, I know! Sometimes I feel like the trappings of Church are an obstruction for some of my parishioners! 

The atmosphere today is similar, as it was in the second and third centuries, as the Church became more formalized. There was a need for new kinds of relationships and communities, then and now. One-on-one relationships and real, intimate small groups—at some distance from “the world”—lead to very different spiritual horizons than bigger religious communities, embedded in larger communities. But I think most of us still struggle with how to be in both worlds: developing our spiritual lives while still living our “everyday life.” The monks of the desert (and monks and nuns today) didn’t have to do that. So, that seems like a different kind of discipline, one where spiritual direction is indispensable. We all need help in both going deep and, in most cases, also finding the balance with the “lay life” or “householder life.” 

TC: I agree with Dave, that there are perhaps two themes at play here. One being that of finding meaning within the structure of everyday life, not a monastic or ascetic life for most people. And the other being what you allude to, Perry, which is that many people are seeking spiritual meaning in a more solitary way than before. I admire the earnestness of that searching and the earnestness of this image of monastics in the desert. In a world where there is so much suffering and injustice, genuine seeking—for meaning, and purpose, and healing, and compassion—is what we need more of. Finding spiritual companions for the journey, both in the everydayness of life and in its pathos, is as important now as ever. I find that much of the conversation I have had with folks in spiritual direction revolves around this theme of finding meaning in the midst of everyday life. Finding spiritual practices that resonate and fit into a world of emails and work and subway rides and loss and questions. 

PD: Dave and Tiffany, we could keep talking about all these topics and more, I’m sure. For now, however, I want to thank you both for reflecting with me on your lives and experiences and perspectives on spiritual direction. With so many people spiritually seeking and so little popular understanding of what spiritual direction can offer, I hope that our conversation can serve as both information and inspiration to those who read it. §



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C. Perry Dougherty (Editor) serves as a facilitator, spiritual director, chaplain, and writer in her role as Executive Director of Still Harbor. She has made a career working with non-profit social justice organizations. Perry tailors her programs, workshops, and efforts to the exploration of how spiritual practice, courage, and creativity can enrich leadership for social justice. Perry is an ordained Interspiritual Minister.