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An examination of the topic of Group Spiritual Direction and key spiritual disciplines using Alice Fryling’s

 “Seeking God Together: An Introduction to Group Spiritual Direction” as a basis

Shireen Chew

 

In “Seeking God Together”, experienced spiritual director Alice Fryling outlined how spiritual directions can be experienced in a group setting and pointed out key aspects such as effective listening, asking life-giving questions, exploring thoughts and feelings, meditating on scriptures and prayer, conviction and confession of sin, navigating different personalities, etc. It is not the intention of this paper to cover all the aspects, only the nature of group spiritual direction and key spiritual disciplines highlighted by Fryling.

Spiritual direction is a way of companioning people as they deepen their awareness of God and His guidance and transforming work in their lives. At its core, the practice of spiritual direction involves a spiritual director and a directee. Dr. Alex Tang puts it this way: A spiritual mentor or director is a person who is gifted to discern the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of another individual. Basically, such people help others in their spiritual formation, either as someone who walks alongside, teaches, or facilitates discernment.[1]

Although individual spiritual direction is common, spiritual direction in small groups are gaining prominence. It is important to note that a spiritual direction group is not a typical small group. Fryling asserted that it is not a study group, fellowship group or an accountability group. Its purpose is not counselling or therapy. It is, first and foremost, a listening group. The purpose of spiritual direction groups is spiritual formation. Dallas Willard defines spiritual formation as “the process whereby the inmost being of the individual (the heart, will, or spirit) takes on the quality or character of Jesus himself” and that this is “a whole life process” involving “transformation of the whole person.”[2]

 Group spiritual direction provides a unique opportunity for the church to cultivate a sense of spiritual community and affirmation, something that evangelical churches are not doing enough of. Many described the experience as “transformational” because it is a place they can be vulnerable and authentically talk about their relationship with God in a safe and loving environment. Some individuals discover others with the same yearnings for spiritual growth as theirs. For most others, there is a sense of surrender to God’s love and a “coming home” to Him.

Individuals in the group are given the opportunity, one at a time, to be the directee, and the group responds prayerfully to what the directee chooses to present. Usually, the spiritual director facilitate starting with a time of silence and reflection. Then the assigned directee shares whatever topic he or she desires, facilitated by spiritual director and prayerful questions by the members. At the close, there is another time of prayerful silence where the group prays silently for the directee. The group may allow for two people to share in one session (if time permits) but over the course of several months, everyone will have the opportunity to be the directee.

In such groups, leadership in the form of trained spiritual directors or informed facilitators are important. It is ideal for the director to be “gifted” in this area. However, where there are no trained spiritual directors, someone who has proven leadership skills can facilitate the group process. The role of the facilitator is important guide the process of spiritual direction – time of silence, inviting assigned directee to share, encourage with questions, keeping track of time, etc.

To ensure a safe environment for sharing, the environment must be very welcoming and not judgmental. It should be a place where people feel loved, and not condemned. Absolute confidentiality is key to ensure that what is shared stays within the group. Regular attendance is another. Group members need to be committed to come for all meetings, where possible. This is important for trust and camaraderie to be established for authentic personal sharing. It is also good practice to allow group members to evaluate on how they feel the group is doing from time to time.  

Apart from the nature of spiritual group direction, my interest is also on how spiritual disciplines can be introduced to the members and meetings. Spiritual disciplines are activities that retrain a person’s mind, will, body, and biblical heart so that he or she becomes more sensitive to sin and to the working of the Holy Spirit.[3]

 

Firstly, scripture meditation in the context of group spiritual direction and spiritual formation interest me very much. Fryling spoke about two formational ways of reading the bible where the goal is to nurture a deeper communion with God. They are the ancient practices of lectio divina and imaginative reading.

Lectio divina means “spiritual reading” in Latin. It is a way of reading the bible very, very slowly. Usually, only a few verses are read at a time. The goal of lectio is not to gain as much information from the bible as possible. It is to deeply experience the truth of a small portion of the scripture and apply it to everyday life. I like how succinctly Dr. Voon Choon Khing[4] puts it:

A lectio divina involves these five movements:

1.   Silencio – prayerful preparation of the heart to be quiet before God and become attentive to God

2.   Lectio – reading aloud a scripture passage a few times

3.   Meditatio – staying with a word or a phrase that catches one’s attention, and then reflecting on that word or phrase in one’s mind

4.   Oratio – talking with the Lord about it

5.   Contemplatio – allow the emerging spiritual insight and understanding to feed our souls, and to respond to God’s word in loving obedience

Lectio divina fits very well with spiritual direction. Spiritual directors who sense the Holy Spirit bringing up a scripture for the directee can invite him or her on this exercise. Afterwards, the spiritual director can facilitate conversations on what the directee feel the Holy Spirit is saying and how it can be applied to his or her day to day life.

The spiritual director can also get the group to read a selected passage before they meet. Each member can take personal notes on how the passage spoke to them and how it can be applied in their own lives. Then when the group meets, the spiritual director can invite the members to give one or two minute summary of their lectio experiences with the selected passage. Some groups can also start their meeting with reading a scripture passage slowly and quietly. This can be repeated, then followed by a time of silence, reflection and sharing.

The other is imaginative reading which was introduced by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Society in the 16th century. This is scripture reading using our imagination and picturing ourselves in the setting of the Scripture passage. We imagine what it is like to be at that time and place. We imagine what we see, hear, smell, feel, touch and how we might respond to whatever is happening in the scripture.

Dr. Voon Choon Khing calls this contemplating the scriptures. It is like watching a movie where we allow ourselves to be involved in the plot and the scene quite unashamedly and honestly through our imagination and senses without conscious awareness…We bring our own life, our personality, and our contemporary culture into the text to interact with the transcultural and transcendent truth of God…You would find that your own story emerges for your own attention.[5]        

This is highly fascinating to me because rather than re-enacting what the bible characters have responded, we need to focus on our responses in that scripture passage. The key step that needs to follow is to reflect on that contemplation: what are our thoughts and feelings? How did we respond? There is no right or wrong answer – the most crucial thing is the dialogue with God afterwards. We might be surprised about what can be unearthed by the Holy Spirit who uses creative avenues to speak to us!

 

Secondly, prayer in spiritual direction is extremely crucial. It is lovely how Fryling puts it: Praying is like coming home to a loving God (pg. 87). She spoke of praying as a surrender to God’s love, allowing ourselves to be loved by Him. As spiritual direction is about a relationship with God, prayer is at the heart of that relationship.

One aspect of prayer I found interesting is the daily examen. St. Ignatius of Loyola was a strong advocate of this discipline and insisted that the Jesuits must not neglect it even in the expense of other disciplines. This is not a prayer of request or commentary. In this prayer experience, we simply notice. Dr. Voon Choon Khing calls it the examination of consciousness. The discipline can be practiced one to three times a day in the form of a prayerful review of a period of time, for e.g. morning upon waking, at noon or at night to pay attention to God’s presence and activities in one’s day, and how one has responded to God.[6]  

The key purpose is to grow in awareness of and attentiveness to God’s speaking through the ordinary things in life. It nurtures greater intuitive awareness, empathetic attentiveness and acute sensitivity towards God. It is like taking a daily dose of vitamins and mineral supplements whose benefits become apparent during a health crisis.  

Some feels that this prayer examen is a good way to begin group spiritual direction, especially where people are not used to thinking about God’s presence in their daily lives. At the start, allowing a brief time of this reflective prayer can be a good way to quiet down before the spiritual director begins.

Another prayer that caught my attention is centering prayer (or silent prayer). This is the practice of intentional silence before God which facilitates resting in Him. This prayer offers a way to grow in intimacy with God, moving beyond conversation to communion.[7] Thomas Keating[8] and other advocates of centering prayer say it does not replace but complements other modes of prayer. Below are simplified guidelines on how this can be done[9]:

·      Sit in an upright, attentive posture that allows for an erect spine and open heart. Place hands on your lap

·      Gently close eyes and bring to mind a sacred word as your symbol to consent to the presence and action of God within you. It helps to ground you in the present moment and allow for your undivided attention to God. Choose a name of God (e.g. Lord, Jesus, Abba, Yeshua, etc.) or a characteristic of God (e.g. love, peace, faith, trust, etc.)

·      As you notice your thoughts, gently return to your sacred word. Do this as many times as needed whenever you notice your thoughts

·      When your prayer period is over, transition slowly to the next part of your activity  

 

The minimum recommended time for this prayer is 20 mins, 2 times a day. One first thing in the morning, and one in the afternoon or early evening. With practice, members of group spiritual direction can benefit much from such prayers of silence amidst their busy schedules.

In my final observation, this paper is a start of my learning journey of identifying spiritual disciplines that can be used for group spiritual directions. Apart from what is mentioned in this paper, there are numerous others that can be examined. Dr. Alex Tang categorized spiritual disciplines into (1) inward, (2) outward, (3) corporate, and (4) circumstantial.[10] This is useful as the basis of my study moving forward.

 

Bibliography

https://gravitycenter.com/practice/centering-prayer/ Internet. Accessed 30 November 2017.

https://www.cpt.org/files/WS%20-%20Centering%20Prayer.pdf Internet. Accessed 30 November 2017.

Tang, Alex, Till We Are Fully Formed: Christian Spiritual Formation Paradigms in the English-speaking Presbyterian Churches in Malaysia. Armour Publishing, 2014.

Voon Choon Khing, Discerning God in Our Life: The Dance of Two Wills. Armour Publishing, 2016.

Willard, Dallas, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship. HarperCollins, 2006.


 

[1] Alex Tang, Till We Are Fully Formed: Christian Spiritual Formation Paradigms in the English-speaking Presbyterian Churches in Malaysia, (Armour Publishing, 2014), 163.

[2] Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship, (HarperCollins, 2006), 53, 55 & 57.

[3] Alex Tang, Till We Are Fully Formed: Christian Spiritual Formation Paradigms in the English-speaking Presbyterian Churches in Malaysia, (Armour Publishing, 2014), 159.

[4] Voon Choon Khing, Discerning God in Our Life: The Dance of Two Wills, (Armour Publishing, 2016), 125.

[5] Voon Choon Khing, Discerning God in Our Life: The Dance of Two Wills, (Armour Publishing, 2016), 127.

[6] Voon Choon Khing, Discerning God in Our Life: The Dance of Two Wills, (Armour Publishing, 2016), 129.

[7] https://gravitycenter.com/practice/centering-prayer/ Internet. Accessed 30 November 2017.

[8] A Trappist monk since 1944 and one of the founders of centering prayer. He founded Contemplative Outreach and is an internationally renowned theologian and an accomplished author. He has traveled the world to speak with laypeople and communities about contemplative Christian practices and the psychology of the spiritual journey

[10] Alex Tang, Till We Are Fully Formed: Christian Spiritual Formation Paradigms in the English-speaking Presbyterian Churches in Malaysia, (Armour Publishing, 2014), 161.

 

| posted 18 December 2017 |

               

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