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Unitarian Universalist spiritual directors form network

Network can help religious liberals find a spiritual director.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
5.11.07

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“Spiritual direction” is an ancient tradition that grows out of fourth-century Christianity. Despite its early Christian roots, spiritual direction is a small but growing trend among Unitarian Universalists.

“A lot of Unitarian Universalists are really crying out for more of a connection to the spirit, and they don’t exactly know what to ask for,” says the Rev. Jade Angelica, a UU minister, spiritual director, and a founder of the Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Directors’ Network (UUSDN). “There is a growing hunger for spirituality and spiritual companioning in our culture, and UUs are no exception.”

Last year, a group of 50 Unitarian Universalists joined to form the UU Spiritual Directors’ Network. At the same time, spiritual direction groups have been attracting growing interest at both Harvard Divinity School and Andover Newton School of Theology, schools educating about a quarter of all Unitarian Universalists studying for the ministry. Angelica believes that if more Unitarian Universalists knew what spiritual direction was and where it was available, they would want to explore it.

Spiritual direction is a practice that can take many forms. It is a contemplative process of going on a spiritual journey or growing closer to the spirit in one’s life.

“It is a journey into meaning, a journey into purpose, a journey into mystery,” says Angelica. “People think it’s all about your prayer life or what kind of spiritual practice you are doing. But in reality, since spirit permeates every area of our lives at every moment, spiritual direction is open to any aspect of your life.”

Spiritual directors each have their own style and format, but typically, a session with a spiritual director begins with a period of silence, followed by conversation, prayer, and meditation. Angelica also incorporates Reiki—a practice of stress reduction and relaxation administered by “laying on hands”—into many of her sessions. She explains that “the emphasis is on the relationship between the God energy and the person, not as in counseling where the emphasis is on relations between human beings.”

Believing in God is not prerequisite for undertaking spiritual direction. The purpose of spiritual direction is to connect a person with the spirit in his or her life, and that spirit takes on different forms for different people. Angelica finds the variety of spiritual experiences among UUs exciting. “A lot of Unitarian Universalists have trouble with God, but we talk about mystery, and everyone’s understanding is welcome,” she says. “Even in Catholic circles, everyone has a unique image of god, and people’s images change over time. It’s challenging to do spiritual direction with UUs.”

Angelica became interested in spiritual direction in 1989, when she was attending Harvard Divinity School. Like many people, she assumed that spiritual direction was just for Catholics, and having recently left that faith tradition herself, she did not feel comfortable exploring it. Ten years later, she encountered a UU ministerial colleague in Maine, the Rev. Erik Wikstrom, who was studying spiritual direction at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, based in Bethesda, Md. Wikstrom became Angelica’s spiritual director, and she found the experience so powerful, she says, that she was called to become a spiritual director herself.

Angelica enrolled in Shalem in 2004. During her studies there, she met another UU minister, the Rev. Alida DeCoster. Together, they began to wonder who the other UUs were who were trained as spiritual directors. After they completed their training, they contacted the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations for assistance in compiling a list of similarly trained colleagues. With the help of the Rev. Dr. Michelle Bentley, the UUA’s professional development director, they began gathering names of other UU spiritual directors. They amassed a list of 50 people, mostly ministers, but some lay people trained as spiritual directors, as well. They found spiritual directors in 20 states, as well as one in British Columbia and one in England.

“It’s helpful to come together,” Angelica says. “There is a group of eight of us in the Massachusetts area, and when we found each other there was a sense of collegiality.”

Angelica lives in Arlington, Mass., and is pursuing her doctorate in ministry at Andover Newton, where she is focusing on spiritual direction. In the fall of 2006, she began offering group spiritual direction to UU seminarians at both Andover Newton and at Harvard Divinity School. At both schools, the groups quickly filled with between six and eight students. The next semester, she also created an ecumenical group of 10 students, and waiting lists formed for all the groups. In the spring of 2008, Angelica will be teaching a course at Andover Newton on how to lead group spiritual direction. “It’s a way of passing on the ministry,” she said.

Carmen Emerson joined the Andover Newton spiritual direction group last fall at the start of her second year in the Master of Divinity program. She recalls being bogged down by her academic studies and her part-time job, and she was longing for a way to connect more meaningfully with her peers. “For me, seminary is quite challenging academically,” says Emerson. “This was the opportunity to shift my focus from my head to my heart for a little.”

Led by Angelica, the group met each Thursday, beginning with shared silence and moving into conversation about spiritual experience. “It is such a safe space, and it is such an intimate and tender experience,” says Emerson. “I give Jade and the other people in the group credit for that. I think you can’t help but bring your authentic self there.”

This coming fall, Emerson is going to be an apprentice leader of a new spiritual direction group at Andover Newton. And she’s now hoping to combine spiritual direction with her goal of being a parish and community minister.

The Rev. Charles Stephens combines parish ministry with spiritual direction. He has been minister of the UU Church at Washington Crossing in Titusville, N.J., since 1997, and since 2002, he has been on the faculty at the Shalem Institute. He does some spiritual direction work with members of his church. But due to limited time, he primarily serves as a spiritual director to other clergy, including a rabbi, a Quaker, and a United Church of Christ minister.

“We try and put theological differences on the shelf, and work with the experience of silence and the spirit,” says Stephens, who describes himself as a mystical humanist.

Stephens sees value in the creation of the UU Spiritual Directors’ Network. “A lot of people don’t know that much about spiritual direction or how to find a spiritual director,” he says. “So it helps to have a network where people can check and see if they can find someone who works well with UUs. It can also help us be supportive of one another.”

The network also lists spiritual directors who perform “distance direction”—spiritual direction by telephone—for people who do not have a spiritual director in their geographic area.

Angelica is convinced that as more UUs become aware of spiritual direction, more will be drawn toward taking that spiritual journey. She was recently struck by a passage by the influential Catholic theologian and writer Thomas Merton, who wrote in 1960 that the early Christian desert mothers and fathers of the fourth century who practiced spiritual direction had set off on their own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Says Angelica, “How UU is that?”


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