Fr. Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He has been a priest for 36 years and has worked in spiritual direction at various levels, including teaching it at the graduate level. His books (notably The Shattered Lantern, and The Holy Longing) are popular throughout the English-speaking world and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.
Watch the video below and read my summary and reflection which follows.
Most people who begin formal spiritual direction ask the question, “What am I to expect?” Rolheiser provides three answers, each addressing a major starting point for pilgrims.
He begins with what he calls the level of “essential discipleship.” This is the person who is “. . .entering spiritual direction in a time in their life where they’re still kind of searching and trying to get life together. . .What you expect in spiritual direction is somebody to help you get the fundamentals. It’s not abstract. . . Initially, spiritual direction is a lot about laying foundations, laying fundamentals. This is necessary. This is optional. This is deep. This is fluff.”
Rolheiser’s second level is for the proficient (to use the classic term). These are people who are entering spiritual direction who are “. . .no longer starting out the day asking, ‘Who am I? What this life mean? Is there a God? Are all the churches the same?’ You’ve already got basic commitments in your life and you’re already basically a generative person and you have discipline. . .Spiritual direction at that level is all about deepening. I’m praying, but how do I pray deeper? I’m serving, but how do I serve deeper? I think I’m unselfish, but what are my hidden areas of selfishness?”
The most advanced level is what Rolheiser calls “radical discipleship.” These are people who have been on the journey for a significant period of time and are at “the stage where you prepare really for death” and during which “your health is failing, and then spiritual direction is a lot about letting go.” Here the major questions become things like: “How do I die? How do I exit my family, my community, in such a way that I’m leaving them a legacy of faith and decency and that they can be proud of the way I died, not just the way I lived?”
Rolheiser believes that everyone would benefit from entering into an intentional spiritual direction relationship and likens this to one’s relationship with their doctor or physical trainer. He writes: “Whereas a professional trainer, a professional doctor can simply help you to avoid certain things that maybe you don’t know about, they’ll move you faster, you don’t have to invent the wheel by yourself. . . everybody, ideally, could benefit from spiritual direction the same as everybody ideally could benefit from having health food, health professionals are trainers in the gymnasium.”
In a very encouraging section of the interview, Rolheiser makes a crucial distinction between spirituality and religion. After alleviating fears that one’s prayers are “incorrect” in some fashion, he explains that “. . .everybody’s spiritual. Spirituality doesn’t necessarily mean. . .a faith tradition and a church practice and so on. But spirituality, the way I define it it’s what you do with your spirit and your spirit is your energy. So that everybody has this spiritual life. Everybody’s doing something with their energy and so people shouldn’t be intimidated. Nobody should ever say I’m not spiritual. Now they might more actively say I’m not a church person or I don’t go to church or I’m not cultivating a faith tradition. That’s still a long ways from saying I’m not spiritual.”
The disconnect in modern American spirituality, according to Rolheiser, is that “people see spirituality as, they identify with church or some faith tradition and practicing a faith tradition. That’s the way of working with your spiritual life but it’s not, it doesn’t define the spiritual life.”
Responding to the question “How might receiving spiritual direction help create world peace?”, Rolheiser opines that “peace is only going to come along when there’s enough hearts at every level from the janitor through the president of the country that are at peace themselves. So that you can’t have, see what you see at the collective level is only a reflection of what’s inside people. . .We can’t achieve outside what we haven’t achieved inside.”
This reviewer appreciates the taxonomy which Rolheiser provides in regard to the levels of spiritual direction. Obviously, while a “one size fits all” approach to direction is insufficient, the commonalities of the human condition and experience does lend to general categorizations. Knowing where one’s directee is entering the relationship is crucial for effective direction.
This reviewer's experience of spiritual direction training programs has led him to realize that most of the instruction deals with equipping students with the tools to operate at Rolheiser’s level 2. It is usually assumed that level 1 people will not find their way to one’s office and that level 3 people are the preserve of the parish clergy doing their rounds of visitation. This reviewer has had some of his most memorable direction sessions with people at level 1 and 3.
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