September 7, 2009

Spiritual Direction and Mood

In a typical spiritual direction relationship, the director encounters me for about an hour each month. That's not much, and I've learned over the years that I need to be careful lest the particular mood I happen to be in that day give the wrong impression of my spiritual condition.

When I was a postulant I used to have my spiritual direction appointments on a Friday afternoon. Our postulancy program is pretty exhausting, and on Friday afternoons I was always at the low point of my weekly cycle of emotional and physical fatigue. That's just how I would show up for direction. To make things worse, Sister's office was right by Washington Square Park, so to get there I would have to wander through all of the students and young people enjoying themselves, full of the Friday afternoon giddiness and perhaps other substances, (apparently) unencumbered by all of the transcendental concerns that had got me into the mess of postulancy to a religious order. Because of this, my very walk to spiritual direction would require of me--already tired--a very rigorous 'guard of the heart' against indulging the emotions of self-pity, nostalgia, and resentment, all of which are very destructive in the spiritual life, especially for celibates, not to mention simpler and more superficial temptations like envy and lust. I didn't always succeed in all of this, and so Sister would often diagnose my spiritual state as much more negative than it really was, leading to a famous quote she offered to me and which I dutifully recorded in my spiritual direction notes: "Well, if that's how you feel, of course you should leave!"

I was thinking of all this the other day when I felt very tired and had my monthly spiritual direction that afternoon. Not feeling like I had time to nap, I decided to have a big cup of Starbuck's coffee. Well, by the time I got to my appointment I was talking a manic streak and full of insight, and I didn't get to any of the interior discernments with which I actually needed help and guidance.

This is part of the reason why I need to always take quiet time in prayer before spiritual direction. Yes, it's critical to pray for my director and for the Holy Spirit to come into the appointment, but it is also important to recollect myself so as to find the place that is below* the changes and vagaries of mood.

*In antiquity and the Middle Ages people would have said, 'above,' but the opposite metaphor seems to work better for us post-/late moderns. That really fascinates me.


qualcosa di bello said...

thanks for this insight. i am fairly new to spiritual direction (after a few years of praying for a spiritual director). it is a happy accident for me that my direction generally follows a daily Mass & some time in Adoration before Father is ready. i will keep your post thoughts in mind for next month...God bless!

just evelyn said...

Good point. I do not have a set meeting time with my director, and so naturally seek him out when I feel the need. I try to journal enough that I have something to say when my mood isn't helpful. The last time we met, we mostly looked at each other. It's never a waste of time, per se, but I feel like I could make better use of the time if I knew how.

Jeanne said...

What a great post. Can you share more about spiritual direction - finding a spiritual director for the lay person, what and why?

Washington Square Park on a Friday afternoon - make it a bright, sunny spring time afternoon - and I can see how that would affect your mood! I was at NYU around that time :0

Qualis Rex said...

Great story, Father. I met quite a few nuns from my aunt's order in Rome who were spiritual directors at the Vatican for seminarians. To me, this was a good thing and it proves false the notion that women have no place in the church hierarchy. They actually have a very important and active role. And, unfortunately like the priests that get formed, there are good ones and bad ones. Sounds like you got a good one, and it definitely shows : )

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Thank you for sharing that! I am so fortunate that my spiritual director takes the time to make sure that I am centered before starting -- we pray together for a while, before beginning, and we pray for however long we need to in order to know that we are together as a threesome: he, I, and God.

I am also exceedingly fortunate that there is a local, elderly, highly experienced priest who likes me and lets me just drop in for an informal sort of spiritual direction when spiritual things happen to me that I don't quite understand.

I know I am truly blessed in this way. I am also blessed by your posts. I read them regularly even though I don't necessarily comment. They are wonderful!

just Evelyn said...

Elizabeth, that such a good idea! Thank you :) My formation sessions lately have started with Morning Prayer, and it has been so helpful as I'm in the middle of some family drama and have to set it down to some extent for formation. I will ask my spiritual director to consider doing the same thing.