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Holy conversations lead to spiritual growth

By Katrina Genereux/Staff Writer, OND

Shortly after Deacon Steve Thomas of Sacred Heart, East Grand Forks, was ordained, he was asked to consider becoming a spiritual director. He had mixed experiences with spiritual direction during diaconate formation, and wasn’t interested in becoming a director.

About a year later, while praying, he heard the Lord tell him, “I want you to be holy”. This started a search to discover what it meant to further pursue holiness. Because the importance of cultivating an interior spiritual life kept surfacing, it was made clear to him that he was called to walk with others. He did some research and found the Apostles of the Interior Life, a religious order located in Kansas City, Kansas. They are associated with the Holy Family School of Faith, which has a two-year program in spiritual mentorship. In January, Deacon Thomas completed his certification and is now ministering as a spiritual mentor in East Grand Forks and will soon begin traveling to Crookston one day per week to expand his ministry.

“I think spiritual direction is not an option, I think it is a mandate. We have to be able to walk with each other. These last three popes have been very clear about evangelization. Evangelization is a fancy word … but conversation is something we’re all comfortable with,” said Deacon Thomas. “That’s really what I want people to realize that this is. It’s having holy conversations about things that matter.”

AJ Garcia, the Director of the Office of New Evangelization and Justice for the Diocese of Crookston said relationships with others are key to building and growing in relationship with Jesus Christ.

“A relationship with Jesus is not something we should ever approach alone. Our Lord himself left a Church, a community to participate in. Clearly, Jesus does not intend for us to approach this area of our lives alone,” Garcia said. “As a person is growing in their love of the Lord, their response to him will often result in new or different actions. When a person is going through a time of transformation or looking for better understanding of the spiritual life, spiritual direction and mentorship can be very helpful.”

Garcia has been receiving spiritual direction for 10 years. He has seen five different directors because of changing location.

“Each director was a different experience, but helpful to me and what I needed at that point of my life,” he said. “My experience with spiritual direction has been encouraging and has helped me to continue on the path toward Jesus.”

Stacy Loeslie of Sacred Heart, East Grand Forks, was certified through the same spiritual mentorship program as Deacon Thomas. She said anyone who wants to deepen their relationship with Jesus and share that experience with another should seek spiritual direction or mentorship.

Sister Pat Murphy of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph lives in Crookston. She received a certificate in spiritual direction from Creighton University of Omaha in 2012 and meets with directees in Crookston and Detroit Lakes.

“People seek spiritual direction I think when they have reached a point in their spiritual development when they feel called to share where they are at with another person,” Sister Pat said. “Really, it’s a moving of the Holy Spirit.”

Sister Juli Carron, also a Sister of the Congregation of St. Joseph serves as a hospital chaplain in Fargo, N.D. She is also a certified spiritual director. She was trained at the Benedictine Peace Center in Yankton, S.D., and she has been a spiritual director for more than three years.

She wishes that more people would seek spiritual direction or mentorship.

“People are so hungry spiritually, but I don’t think they know it,” she said. “I think that’s why they buy all the things that they buy to try and fill that emptiness inside. If they would go to Jesus, they would find that he can fill that emptiness that they experience inside their hearts.”

GETTING CONNECTED

“There is a serious need for spiritual direction for anyone anywhere that is trying to grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ,” Garcia said.

The need for spiritual direction to help the faithful progress in the spiritual life and deepen their relationships with God was mentioned in the pastoral letter, “Meeting Christ, Living Christ” published by Bishop Michael J. Hoeppner in 2011.

In response to this need, the Diocese of Crookston has compiled a list of available spiritual directors and mentors.Those interested should call the Chancery at 218-281-4533.

Sister Kathleen McGeary, Subprioress of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Crookston says the need for spiritual directors and mentors will continue to rise. She and Sister Shawn Carruth, Prioress of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, received certificates in spiritual direction from the Benedictine Peace Center in Yankton, S.D.

“I believe that people are instinctively searching for what I would call the wheat in the chaff of these turbulent times and they’re struggling or they’re trying to hold onto deeper roots so that when the winds of change start flying, they have something to hold onto,” said Sister Kathleen.

WHAT IS IT?

Deacon Thomas said spiritual mentorship follows the flow of human dialogue through prayer and asking for the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

“It’s about conversations with God and conversations with other people,” he said. “It’s learning how to have our own conversations with God through prayer and a life of sacraments and a life of service and then walking with others in that.”

He said in his experience too often people have received the sacraments, but not built a relationship with the Lord.

“The sacraments are critical, but they have to be understood in terms of that love relationship that they have with the Lord,” he said.

Soon, Msgr. Mike Patnode will retire from his parishes of St. Francis de Sales, Moorhead and St. John’s, Georgetown. He plans to work as a spiritual director in his retirement. He has received spiritual direction since he was in seminary. In 1987 he completed a graduate degree in Christian spirituality with a certificate in spiritual direction.

“[Spiritual] direction is having somebody else besides myself help me notice how the Spirit of God might be working in and through me, but also in and through those around me and my life experiences,” he said. In his experience, spiritual direction can help people know what God wants and be able to respond.

“For each person it will be different, but for me, I have learned that it’s hard work – being a Christian,” said Loeslie. “It means getting out of the way and letting God come through you to allow others to know Jesus in you. It’s being willing to let God bring you to areas that need healing and transformation.”

Spiritual direction and mentorship are meant to help people who seek the transformation that leads to holiness.

“The very purpose of spiritual direction is to deepen one’s communion with God,” said Sister Shawn. She sees the role of a spiritual director to help a person become more transparent with God.

Sister Pat describes spiritual direction using an image of three empty chairs – one for the director, one for the directee and one for the Holy Spirit.

“I like this graphic because it puts the emphasis on the fact that the most important dimension of the session is the Holy Spirit,” she said.

Spiritual direction and mentorship are not counseling or a place to receive advice.

“I have learned that spiritual direction is really different. It’s open-ended growth and it’s not focused on a problem. It’s a journey throughout life,” said Heidi Whiting.

Whiting, the Coordinator for Mount Saint Benedict Foundation, is currently working towards a master’s degree in ministry with a certificate in spiritual direction from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

Sister Shawn has occasionally had directees ask for advice.

“Then, I’m always reminded of this principle that I don’t give answers – the answers are given. They are given by the Spirit of God and they are inside the person,” she said. She considers the questions she can ask the person to help guide them to the answers they are seeking.

 “A lot of times when people share what’s in their hearts and minds, they come up with their own answers,” said Sister Pat.

She emphasized that spiritual direction and mentorship are not counseling.

“Another reason people seek spiritual direction is to work out a problem … that’s what counselors are for,” she said.

Occasionally something that may need to be addressed through counseling is revealed during spiritual direction or mentorship.

Sister Kathleen said, “As we’re doing spiritual direction, we might discover that the person needs counseling and carefully help that person see the need for that and then usher them into that gently.”

“Confidentiality is another key element of spiritual direction,” she added. She said it is important to make the person seeking direction or mentorship feel safe so they can share freely.

Sister Pat said the only exception to confidentiality is if a person makes it clear they intend to hurt themselves or others. She said this is something she covers in the very first session, and then brings up from time to time.

“[I] continually remind folks that what we say here is sacred, and I as a director am bound not to repeat anything,” she said.

WHAT IS A SESSION LIKE?

Spiritual direction or mentorship sessions occur monthly, or at another set interval, and last between 45 minutes to an hour. Each spiritual director or mentor is different in their exact approach, but prayer and conversation are the focus of the sessions.

 “The spiritual director would be interested in how the person has experienced God in their life, in their vocation, in their work, in whatever things they’re doing so they might be asking questions in that regard,” said Msgr. Patnode. He added that the person’s prayer life would also be discussed.

Deacon Thomas says he opens spiritual mentorship sessions asking the person about their life and how their walk with the Lord is going. From there he asks them if there’s anything they would like to bring to prayer, which leads into a deeper, Holy Spirit-led discussion.

Sister Pat encourages her directees to share the ways they have experienced God in a significant way since their last meeting. She also asks them how they feel about certain things that come up.

“The presence of the Holy Spirit brings peace, so when there’s no peace, we talk about that too,” Sister Pat said.

Loeslie begins mentorship sessions with prayer asking for the Holy Spirit to lead the session and then asks a lot of open-ended questions about the person’s daily life. Near the end of the session, they discuss areas the mentee wishes to improve and then close with prayer. Sister Juli follows a similar model in her spiritual direction sessions.

 “I would just like to encourage people to look at spiritual direction and not be afraid to take the time … to take the time to pray first of all, and then it’s only an hour out of their day one day a month to come to spiritual direction,” Sister Juli said.

CALLED TO WALK WITH OTHERS

Something Sister Shawn appreciated while earning her spiritual direction certificate was the emphasis that it is a ministry of the Church, not just an individual endeavor.

“It’s a vocation, it’s understood this way,” she said. Her experience and that of Sister Kathleen and Whiting has led them to believe being involved in this ministry is a call.

Deacon Thomas encourages those who are feeling called to walk with others to consider the School of the Holy Family’s two-year spiritual mentorship program.