S. Mary Ellen Murphy
How would you define spiritual direction?
I would define spiritual direction as the opportunity to walk with somebody on their spiritual journey. It’s a trusting relationship because what they say stays there. Mostly it’s people who want to grow in their own relationship with God, and it’s sharing what their relationship is. It’s listening, and not just listening to words, but listening below the words with the ears of my heart. It’s not about giving advice, but you can sometimes share your wisdom. It’s an accompaniment on the spiritual journey, because the agenda is always the directee’s. I have to be very aware of not bringing in my agenda. For example, if someone tells me a story about a difficulty they’re having with a certain person in the office, I can’t go telling my own experience with that. It’s pretty clear that that doesn’t belong because it should be the directee’s agenda.
How did you begin this ministry?
I did spiritual direction long before I ever had any training for it. It was kind of natural with the jobs that I was in. I worked in a parish, in religious education, and on the leadership team for the Sisters of Charity. You do a lot of listening in all of those. So, after I got out of leadership, I thought that I might as well get trained for it. I went to the Kordes Center in Ferdinand, Indiana, once a month for two years.
What is included in the training for spiritual direction?
The training includes some Scripture background, methods of listening and the importance of listening, and there’s usually some kind of psychological aspect. You learn how to listen and what you listen for. You learn how to ask questions. We had different speakers come in probably every month. There was quite a bit on Scripture, which is excellent background. There were classes on the sacraments. It also includes an internship. We had to actually meet with somebody, write up a verbatim, and then we each had a mentor who would give us advice on how we had handled each situation, with the directee’s permission. Going to spiritual direction was a natural transition. It’s what gave me more energy than anything at that point in my life.
How did your past ministries prepare you for doing spiritual direction?
I think it helped that I started out in the education field, because a lot of education is about listening. I transitioned into pastoral ministry, which is a lot of listening, and then I went to mission in Africa which involved even more listening because I didn’t know the language at first and had to learn. Then in leadership, listening was again very important.
How do you help a person feel comfortable to start sharing their thoughts?
I usually tap into the common, “how are you doing,” or “what brings you here today?” And then I transition into, “Well, we’re here to talk about God. Just tell me a little about who your God is. How do you relate to that God? What is prayer for you?” Little by little, I move into these kinds of topics. A lot of times, they might be having a difficult time at home or their work setting, and all those are very connected to our spiritual life. It’s not like we have one life here and another life over here. Even questions like, “Where do you find God? Have you even looked for Him?”
What is most rewarding for you in this ministry?
I think what’s most rewarding for me is witnessing what I would call the awesome work of God. You just see it happening. And you’re engaged in that awesome working of God as well because God is working in you. I always say there are three people in the room when you meet in spiritual direction: there’s you, me, and God. Everything else just gets set aside.
Just to witness the movement of people in their spiritual life, their “aha” moments, is very rewarding. Readiness is a real key, because I might think, “oh, if they just did this,” but the person has to be ready for it, and it will be an awakening moment when they are ready. There’s a quote by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “trust the slow work of God,” and I think that’s what spiritual direction is about. Trust the slow work of God because God works on God’s time, not ours.