This post is part of Dominican Center's series Stay in the Light ~ Stories of Prayer and Hope During a Pandemic. At Dominican Center, we believe we are prayer in action, and that connection, contemplation, and creativity will see us through these unsettling times and help us find and be in light. We invite you to share with the Dominican Center community your prayer in action and to feed our souls with that which feeds yours. Read more about the Stay in the Light series here.
On the evening of March 9, Spiritual Directors gathered at Dominican Center to celebrate the ministry of Spiritual Direction. Spiritual Directors gathered to reconnect with each other, to share a meal, and to reflect on the impact the ministry has on their lives and on the lives of those they walk with in spiritual direction. The following reflection was shared during the evening gathering by a beloved Spiritual Director, Esther Yff-Prins. May the light of Esther's journey touch yours as you explore ways of staying in the light.
Insights and Wisdom Regarding My Spiritual Direction Ministry
by Esther Yff-Prins
It's an honor to be a part of the ministry of Spiritual Direction, work I never imagined during most of my professional career. I often wake up and wonder anew how I arrived at this wonderful place in my life. For me, it all began on a sunny Saturday morning about 20 years ago, as I was reading the Religion section of the Grand Rapids Press. Tucked in between the weekly columns of Rabbi Lewis and Charles Honey - remember? - was a three-inch square ad inviting me to join a class in Foundations of Spirituality at Dominican Center. Hmm, I thought, sounds interesting.
So I called my dear friend Mary and convinced her to join me, little knowing that I was turning a huge corner in my life. I’d been raised in a parsonage, had some severe reservations about Catholicism, and some very tribal notions about how salvation worked - and for whom. I thought my inclination to join the class arose from an intellectual and academic place.
Only later did I realize that accepting this invitation was more heart-driven than head-driven, that an unspoken longing in me was emerging.
Two things happened during the months of the Foundations in Spirituality class. First, the mystics really began to mess with my mind - and then with my heart - big time. Second, one of the requirements of the class was to enter Spiritual Direction, which I had never heard of in my life. I was a little dubious about it, but being a rule-follower, I signed up, utterly clueless about where that practice would lead. I was assigned to Sister Jude, whom I came to love fervently and gratefully. She was about half my size, but her generosity and directness soon enveloped me.
We spent several sessions talking about beliefs, creeds, doctrines - head stuff - until one afternoon she sat up straight in her chair and said, “OK, Esther, cut the bullsh!t - we’re here to talk about your heart, not your head. What is your heart telling you?” Everything changed in that moment, My heart simultaneously sank in fear and rose in relief. And slowly, slowly, the layers of armor that surrounded my deepest self began to soften. Sister Jude “listened” my soul into a place of disclosure and discovery. That was her greatest gift to me, and one I try to give to my own directees to this day. She also sent me to therapy to deal with some of my family of origin issues.
Insight #1 ~ Know Your Own Story
Cut the BS. Know your own story, and regard it with compassion and humility, telling that story until you don’t have to tell it anymore. Listen deeply to your internal commentary - images, feelings, thoughts - what resonates in you? What meaning is coming through? Enter the depths of your own life, touching the pain, holding the hurt, expressing the rage. And note the good as well - mountaintop experiences, love expressed and returned, sources of joy. Why is this so important?
Because we can only accompany others as far as we ourselves have gone.
About a year into spiritual direction, as I gradually allowed the tuning fork of the Spirit to change me, Sister Jude suggested I think about becoming a Spiritual Director myself. I thought she was nuts and told her so, but her faith in me remained steadfast. I discovered that I could go to the edges of myself and make different choices, to grow, to integrate, to understand - and that I was richer for those kinds of choices. Sister Jude was a mirror for me, allowing me to see myself through her non-judgmental eyes, and finding the sparks of light and beauty that were deep inside. She listened me into a place of grace and goodness, and faith in what the Spirit might do with me. She helped me befriend my uncertainty, to let my questions breathe, to let the answers find ME.
Insight #2 ~ Find the Sparks of Holy Light
Realize the wonder and truth in listening to another’s story. Be that mirror, and find the sparks of holy light and beauty in the person who has entrusted his or her story to you. Let your eyes be soft, let your heart be hopeful, let your faith in the other’s original goodness be steadfast. Focus on the desire of the heart, and notice where resistance attempts to overcome that desire.
And remember, others’ stories offer a portal into your own story.
Some know the difficult details of my own personal story - a story that is not much different from all that has challenged your own lives. Sorrow and heaviness are part of our existence in this world, but I don’t want my suffering to be my identity. The cross each of us carries is the burden of our past experience, as Richard Rohr teaches us. And paradoxically, those burdens, those painful places in our lives, the sadness we know too well - once we make peace with them, can become sources of wisdom and strength for the journey that lies ahead.
In everything that happens to us, God is offering new possibilities of life and healing. We can read books, we can attend workshops and conferences, we can talk, talk, talk, but until we begin to see the gift in our own life experiences, until we journey to the edges of our lives and take a long, loving look at our realities, our shadows, we will not transform into wholeness or holiness.
Insight #3 ~ This is the Work of the Soul
Cultivate attentiveness to yourself, to nature, to the tuning fork of the Spirit, and to the other. Continue your inner work, noticing where the Spirit may be taking you. Find the sparks of holy light and beauty in your story, and allow transformation to occur. Do this through your own spiritual direction, through your peer group, through journaling, through developing habits of the heart that sustain and deepen you. “It’s not the weight you carry,” Mary Oliver says, “but how you carry it - books, bricks, grief - it’s all in the way you embrace it, balance it, carry it when you cannot, and would not, put it down. So I went practicing. Have you noticed?”
Like you, I bring the gifts of my experience to this work - loves requited and unrequited, losses mourned and honored, devastating sadness and exuberant joy, a heart that has overflowed in gratitude and turned to stone in anger and fear. My desire is to allow the wisdom and grace of those experiences to arise and transform me as I listen to another’s sacred story with the ears of my heart. This is the work of the soul. This is service.
Regardless of your or my faith history, the path to truth in each of us is a deep, revealing and redeeming movement of grace, and I welcome any seeker who wishes to nurture his or her relationship with the Divine, knowing that the Spirit can make us radical agents of transformative love.
My own connection to the Divine is strengthened by the practices of Centering Prayer, Examen, Taize, silent retreats, monthly spiritual direction, solitude, poetry, travel, music. and reading. I am blessed with good friends.
Insight #4 ~ Our Stories are Never Finished
Nurture your spirit daily with contemplative practices that are lifegiving and nurturing, that root you firmly in your particular reality, that speak to your soul.
Listen to your life, divine its meaning, and open your heart to the other.
Spend time in solitude and stillness. Our stories are never finished; there is always more meaning, more revelation, more grace to discover. As Mary Oliver says, “Pay attention. Be astonished. And tell about it.”
May the Spirit bless your work.
To take part in the Stay in the Light ~ Stories of Prayer and Hope During a Pandemic series, please send your writings and related attachments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Esther Yff-Prins listens to sacred stories in spiritual direction and mentors aspiring spiritual directors. She writes poetry and lives an intentional, contemplative life.
Dominican Center Marywood at Aquinas College is a ministry of Dominican Sisters ~ Grand Rapids.