By Connie Burkholder
What is the connection between the ministry of being with the dying, and the ministry of being a spiritual director? That question was prompted by the theme for the Church of the Brethren spiritual directors’ retreat May 22-24 at Shepherd’s Spring, the camp and conference center of Mid-Atlantic District. About two dozen Church of the Brethren spiritual directors attended the retreat.
We heard a number of answers to the question through the presentations of our guest leader Rose Mary Dougherty, a School Sister of Notre Dame who spent many years training spiritual directors at Shalem Institute and who now does hospice ministry. Sharing personal experiences from these two ministries, Dougherty spoke of the importance of being fully present in each moment with a person. She reminded us to trust the holy mystery of the process that is going on in the person with whom we are ministering. Quoting Teilhard de Chardin, she said, “Above all, be patient with the slow work of God.”
The retreat participants had opportunity to consider “the slow work of God” in ourselves through an afternoon in the spiritual discipline of silence. Dougherty invited us to a prayerful exercise of stripping away the roles we play and the masks we wear to be closer to uncovering our true selves. She noted that as we come closer to our true selves and allow God’s mercy to touch us, we are able to be present with others without our own agendas getting in the way of hearing, welcoming, and receiving whatever the other person brings.
An evening session in group spiritual direction gave the opportunity for each of us to share our prayer experience in a small group. I found this to be a powerful experience of sharing deeply with people who were willing to be present to me in my journey as I continue discerning God’s leading in my life.
I was moved deeply by Dougherty’s instruction to cross each threshold with openness to God and to the other person’s experience. The threshold may be a physical doorway, as we enter a room to see a person. It may also be a moment in time, when we pause to pray and set aside what has happened previously and prepare ourselves to be available and present in the moment, to what is right in front of us.
“Listen with the ear of your heart,” said Dougherty, quoting the Rule of St. Benedict. “And listen. Listen. Listen.” Such is the calling and task of spiritual directors. The retreat allowed me and others to be refreshed and renewed to follow that calling.
–Connie Burkholder is executive minister of the Church of the Brethren’s Northern Plains District.