Traveling the Path: Getting to Know S. Carol Brenner
Q. How would you define spiritual direction?
A. I have a number of definitions that I like. Simply put, spiritual direction is accompanying someone in their search for a deeper relationship with God. It could also be called one beggar helping another beggar find food, or helping someone find the gold in life, the gold being the goodness in their life. It’s listening for God’s presence in someone’s life, spiritual coaching.
Q. What first attracted you to this ministry?
A. I was working in Saint Lucia in the West Indies a number of years ago, and people in the Charismatic Renewal were coming up to me and saying, “I need a spiritual director, would you be mine?” At that point, I didn’t have any training in spiritual direction, but I had this basic sense that I could do it and that it was something I would like to do. I would tell people, “I’m willing to do it, but know that I don’t have any formal education in it. I think I could try it, though.” After I was there for seven years, I came back to the states for some updating, as the Community asks us to do, and that’s when I asked if I could take an internship in spiritual direction. So I came back and spent 13 weeks at Milford Spiritual Renewal Center in 1987, and I learned then how to officially be a spiritual director. It was a wonderful experience, and I really felt called to it. When I went back to Saint Lucia, I felt that I was a bit more qualified to do what I was already starting to do. When I came back to the states permanently, then, I began working in the Sisters of Charity Spirituality Center, and one of the pieces of what I did there was spiritual direction, as well as retreats and other activities.
Q. Did you experience spiritual direction yourself before becoming a spiritual director?
A. Yes. I had spiritual direction from a priest in Detroit, Michigan, when I was beginning to think about going to the West Indies. During that spiritual direction, I was discerning whether I was really being called to a missionary experience, because I had never even thought of it before that.
If you’re a spiritual director, part of the commitment is that you will also receive spiritual direction yourself and that you will be a member of a peer group or individual spiritual supervisory direction. It wouldn’t be good to do this without experiencing it yourself. It’s a really important piece of it.
Q. How do you begin spiritual direction with someone?
I always tell people that to see if we’re a good match or to see if this is really what they want, to try it for three months, meeting once a month. At the end of the third time, we do a little evaluation. The person says how it’s been for them and I say how I feel it’s going, and then they decide if they really want to do it. You’re not committing yourself for the rest of your life if you come to a spiritual director. You need that initial period, because sometimes, even if you think you want spiritual direction, if the person doesn’t really match and you don’t trust them, then it’s better to help them find somebody else than to stay with them.
That’s another point that’s really important. Trust is probably the most important piece of the relationship of the directee and the director. The relationship has to be one of trust. You have to be comfortable because it’s personal. Also, the agenda, or what you talk about, is always the agenda of the directee. The spiritual director does not have any agenda except to listen to what you want to talk about and help you see what God might be saying. So I probably ask more questions than make statements because I work with whatever they tell me and I try to not give them answers, but to help them find answers. There’s a lot of getting in touch with what’s inside, trying not to stay too much in the head but more to the heart and the feeling level.
Q. Has the number of lay people coming for direction increased over the years?
A. Definitely, yes. I think for me, it’s been about half Sisters and half lay people for a number of years, now. I think that it’s for anyone who’s seriously wanting a deeper relationship with God and wants to try it. A lot of the directees that I’ve had over the years came through the Spirituality Center for retreats or programs and then wanted to continue or follow up. Other directees are referred from Sisters who receive spiritual direction and tell their family and friends.
Q. What do you find most rewarding in the relationships you form with a directee?
A. I’m always in awe of how God works uniquely in different people’s lives. It gives me great joy to see the growth, surprises, struggles, pain, and just the cross section of humanity and how special God is for each person. We all see and meet God in a different way. I always feel so privileged. I often say to myself, this isn’t work, it’s a privilege.