When I Listen: My Experience as a Spiritual Director by Sister Lou Ella Hickman, OVISS

“Hello, Sister. I understand you’re a spiritual director. I’m wondering if you could help me. I want to make sure I am on the right path because I have been having a difficult time praying.”

During the last ten years or so of my ministry of spiritual direction, I have heard that statement often when I get a phone call requesting direction. Individuals contact me because they have found my name and number on the list of directors that my training program, St. Peter Upon the Water, has posted on its website. Others have found my business card in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel staffed by the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, a cloistered community of nuns across town from where I live. Several have called the chancery office in my diocese; one or two called when a friend suggested my name.

Almost all of those who call don’t know much about what direction entails, except that it has something to do with prayer. Some have it confused with professional counseling. While many who seek direction are Catholic, some are not. Spiritual direction is inclusive in the best sense of the word. In fact, the priest director of my program was the spiritual director of a Baptist minister. I remember him sharing a directee’s (the term for a person who receives spiritual direction) comment during one of his teaching sessions: “Ah, Lent.” I am charged with the ministry of helping people grow in their relationship with God, not with making converts. For me this is particularly important, as I am a convert.

While I don’t always feel drawn to some of my directees’ spiritual practices, I realize that is not my place to intervene. If it feeds them, brings them closer to God, and is sanctioned by the church, who am I to disagree? Such practices also provide a springboard for discussion, so the directee can learn to make the most of how they are praying.

When one of my religious superiors asked me to consider the ministry of spiritual direction, she told me it would be a good fit as I take people where they are. This is one of the several tenets I must honor as I practice my role as a spiritual listener. The real spiritual director is the Holy Spirit, and my personal agenda, no matter how holy, would only get in the way. In other words, it is what God wants, not what I want. So, as I pray in preparation before a session, I ask for the grace of “less of me and more of him.”

During a call from someone interested in direction, we talk about expectations, what the person is looking for, as well as background, my style of direction, and a time for questions. The discussion ends with my request that the person pray about our conversation and call me back in seven to ten days. I make this request because I believe one of the hallmarks in direction, for both director and directee, is waiting on the Lord. Some inquirers call back while others do not. Later, as spiritual direction progresses, some people change their minds or find someone who is more qualified to meet their needs. Others just stop after a year or two, which is sad. As a result of our sessions together, I sensed they believe they have gotten what they need, and for whatever reason they also believe it is enough.

My style can vary. For example, one man asked me to direct him when his director was transferred. We had been co-workers for several years before he found a job in another state. We kept in touch with an annual Christmas card. After his director moved on, he called me as he knew I had become a director. At the time, he was working with members of the Lakota tribe in South Dakota. During our sessions, I would often hear in his voice a need to talk about his experiences, as his job was not an easy one. Rather than employ my usual open-ended questions that would help open our spiritual discussion, I listened. Also, I thought it was important for me to let him talk about his experiences since I had no social context for the culture he was living in. Even though I have profound respect for the First Peoples, I knew little about them.

One recurring theme among my various directees is being spiritually overwhelmed. Underneath “Am I praying right?” can be a swirl of questions that almost paralyzes their spiritual journey. I begin by telling them, “There is no such thing as praying wrong.” Even though I seldom refer to the devil or the Evil One during sessions, this is one time I do. He enjoys stirring someone’s prayer life to the point of chaos. From there, it is just a step away from giving up. Once they learn what they are experiencing is normal, they can begin to discover ways of dealing with the chaos.

Another common thread is the experience of isolation. Even with their deep faith and love of the Lord, they believe they are “the only pebble on the beach.” They often laugh when I tell them respectfully, “Welcome to the human race.” When they realize others experience what they are going through spiritually, they visibly relax. I also tell them, “The greater the struggle, the greater the gift.” Then I share how St. Augustine struggled with the pull of Christianity to the point that he could barely breathe. His struggle was transformed into the gift of his vocation as bishop and doctor of the church. This information often leads to a sense of validation when they learn they have much in common with one of the spiritual and theological giants of our faith.

As I listen, I also pray, not only asking for help or thanking the Holy Spirit for his gift of insight and words, but also for the directee. Often, I am awed when someone begins to awaken to healing, or when he or she realizes how much God indeed loves them. I once told a young lady in her early twenties how much her longing for God meant to her 75-year-old director.

Finally, the adage “One cannot give what one does not have” is more than one of the ethical rules I follow. My training didn’t stop when I left St. Peter Upon the Water: I read, I am part of a support group of other directors, I purchased a set of DVDs so I can improve my skills. I even watch movies with an eye for a scene or two that might help express an insight. And I, too, have a spiritual director (oddly enough, I have a Zoom meeting with her tomorrow). I do all of the above not only because I want to grow as a spiritual director, but also as a religious sister and a person of prayer. I can listen not just because I have been trained, but also because I am being heard on a regular basis.

Pope Francis has declared the year of 2024 as the “Year of Prayer.” May you be deeply blessed as you pray and when you pray during this year. ♦

Sister Lou Ella Hickman is a widely published poet and a member of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament of Corpus Christi, Texas. Her book she: robed and wordless was published in 2015 as a Tom Lombardo Poetry Selection, an imprint of Press 53. It can be ordered here. Her article on the experience of having her poetry set to the music of composer James Lee III was recently featured in Today’s American Catholic.

Image: Detail from Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Conversation, c. 1890.
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