This presentation was given in the context of a spiritual enrichment series run by the Discalced Carmelite Frairs at Boarshill, Oxford. It draws on insights for the Romances of Saint John of the Cross, a Carmelite saint, on how to journey through darkness, fear and incomprehension in baptismal hope to the embrace of the Trinity together with all humanity
Spiritual Direction in Time of Pandemic Crisis
We are meeting today in the context of the enrichment of the ministry of the spiritual director: I must present a preliminary caveat: I myself am a theologian not a spiritual director; I did a couple of postgraduate modules in spiritual direction while studying theology with the Jesuits in Berkeley, California, and I do have a postgraduate degree in pastoral theology from St Andrews, gained before my doctorate. But I have never exercised the ministry of spiritual direction in a formal way.
What I will be saying is thoroughly imbued with Carmelite spirituality: there’s no question of that, but I will not be demonstrating this by extensively quoting Carmelite saints.
I would like to start off by attempting to describe two possible general settings of the role of the spiritual director as I understand it. I think this will help to set the stage for my theological reflection.
In the first scenario a person is already specifically wanting to develop a life of prayer, spirituality and friendship with God as a Christian. The spiritual director discreetly accompanies this person on her or his relationship with and to God, helping to discern both the presence of God reaching out in love to the individual, and the response of the individual to God, with all her or his aspirations, attitudes, thoughts, words, deeds and particular circumstances. The spiritual director is near to this person, helping him or her to reflect on their present reality as she or he is meeting God. You are in the background, focusing on the encounter of the loving God and the human person. Informed by training, experience, study, theology, and of course the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, you can reflect on the experience of the directee, offer observations, insights, and guidance. This is your speciality: you have an overview of some general principles of the spiritual life, its development and implications.
In a second scenario, on the other hand, there are also those who come for direction who are less sure about where they are going and why: their desire, within some sort of more or less vague religious framework, may be of a more diffuse inclination towards searching for God, living a better life, being a better person, trying to understand their self, their role and their development. I say here ‘within a religious framework’ however vague that may be, as I want to be clear that I am not talking here about a life coach, counsellor or psychotherapist.
Context of Spiritual Direction
Our subject in this talk concerns spiritual direction in the context of the current pandemic, the effects of which are still very raw. They are and will be felt across the “world” – that is to say by individual human beings – for many years to come. People coming to you for direction will have been touched by all this to some degree. The catastrophic impact on economic systems, societies and cultures, and also, let’s not forgot, the countless instances of generosity, courage, and kindness which have also accompanied it, have the strong potential to give rise in our hearts to intense anguish and to myriad questions about how we live, about society, work, business, care for others, consumerism and even to question what the meaning of human life itself is. These questions are ‘like a probe inserted into the depths of [our] reality and [our] existence in the world’. An integrated understanding of the human person makes it clear that our spiritual and religious awareness and aspirations are implicated in this, both because the depths of our reality is being probed, and because daily life including its most mundane aspects, is the path along which we walk with and to God. In addition, we have experienced a totally different access to the parish community, the praying community and the sacraments. The question of prayer, of communion with God when our usual religious practices are not available, is hugely important; for those whose Church is heavily sacramental, as is the Catholic Church, the absence of Mass and Holy Communion cannot fail to have made an impact on perceived spiritual development. (I’d go so far as to say that if it hasn’t this itself could possibly be something to probe.) Individuals may be looking in different ways at ecclesial membership and community, sacramental involvement, and solitude or isolation and interiority and how these impact on their experience of life, on their spiritual life. The anguish, confusion, fear which many feel as the try to live with the effects of the pandemic, both now, and perhaps even more in a few months’ time, is part of the experience which the person brings to God in this crisis in the here and now. As spiritual directors you will find it necessary to help people with these particular and specific issues.
How can Christian life develop in this context? How do you live prayer in this situation? What does it mean to say that God works all for good, and how could that possibly happen? What does it mean to live the fullness of one’s being in this situation?
However, today – despite the urgent need to address the specifics that I have mentioned – I am going to step back:
let’s focus on situating the contemporary in the ongoing and ever-active love of God. Far from being remote to the life of the individual, or lacking in practicality, this will, I believe, be a framework into which the specific experiences of each unique individual may find a place at a time when life can feel so overwhelming precisely because it is so much vaster than our small selves. This framework could help us to continue the spiritual life, and indeed to find significant potential for the spiritual and religious growth of the individual in dynamic, exciting ways. It could open us up within the bigger picture, in a way which infuses our small daily tastes of the catastrophic so that rather than overwhelming us or closing us in on ourselves, this becomes a moment of life-giving grace for ourselves and for others.
Some of what I say may be more directly useful to the first scenario I mentioned – for the person who is already articulating a clear desire to develop a relationship with God living specifically as a Christian, but I hope that the mind-set I am proposing will generate creativity for those of you who work in a less clearly articulated situation.
The public imagination has adopted the image of the rainbow during this pandemic, being sheltered under the rainbow in hope. The Christian narrative to which we turn is also about the rainbow: it is the sign that arches across the world proclaiming God’s faithful love. The rainbow, the arc en ciel, rises, even before Noah, in the eternal intention of God to create out of love. It spans the history of God’s work in creation and in peoples, having the potential to suffuse with light the life of each individual on the way. The rainbow sets in the completion of God’s work when all things are restored in Christ to the glory of God.
Tomorrow is the feast of the Blessed Trinity, and this rainbow is a love story of the Trinity. Let us turn to the Romance I of St John of the Cross:
In the beginning of all things
The Word lived in the Lord at rest.
And His felicity in Him
Was from infinity possessed
The theme continues in Romance III:
I wish to give you, My dear Son,
To cherish You, a lovely bride,
And one who for Your worth will merit
To live forever by Our side.
Romance VII concludes with the response of the Son:
“I will go now and seek My bride,
And take upon my shoulders strong
The cares, the weariness, and labours
Which she has suffered for so long.
And that she may win new life
I myself for her will die,
Rescue her from the burning lake,
And bear her back to You on high.”
This is the love story, the love story of the Trinity, into which we are called by the Trinity, through discipleship of Christ, and specifically through being baptized into His life and mysteries. We follow that path here and now in this world, each in the specifics of our daily existence: ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one..’ We live in Christ while not being taken out of the world, but still living with all the conflict and anguish. In other words: as disciples of Christ we have as our overarching context the love story of the Trinity into which we are called to take our own unique, irreplaceable part, with all our hopes and dreams, sorrows and anguish, all that with which we struggle; each one of us chosen by the Father’s love for the Son, to be beloved of the Son and to love the Son in return.
The arc of the story of God in the world, from inception to conclusion, is the substance of our calling as Christians, as we hear in Ephesians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. / With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
This is the reality in which we take our part while not removed from the word. I want to emphasise that although this presents the highest, loftiest ideals of life directed to the highest conceivable goals with God, although this is a point of reference which many may feel is not for them, it is in fact a basic proclamation the Christian reality. It is not an esoteric or elitist programme: this is the most basic Christian message which we live through, and within, the most mundane and even messy elements of life.
Can you see here possibilities for real people, in real life situations, both to draw inspiration which could help them to live their daily lives perhaps supported and hopeful in distress; perhaps enriched and envigorated; perhaps with a new outgoing perspective leading them out of their isolation? Precisely because we perhaps may not always appreciate this context of our lives, I am suggesting that the overwhelming nature of the pandemic can be used as a very positive way forward.
Most of us don’t see the rainbow all that often or very brightly (unless we live somewhere like Hawaii), The metanoia, the turning of the mind, the conversion, which is something which you as spiritual directors try to facilitate, is perhaps a turning to look at the rainbow. After looking up at its beauty we look down again at our daily lives, at the world, at people, systems and institutions, and we have a framework and a lens through which to see our own lives within the complex issues in which we play our small part, striving for justice, fairness, community, equality. The majority of us do see colours in all this – and having looked up at the rainbow, looked up at the love story of the Trinity, we could recall it every time we encounter its colours: red, orange yellow, green, blue, indigo or violet. The circumstances of our everyday, mundane lives are the colours woven together in the hand of God as the material of His fidelity, His covenant, His redeeming action – the rainbow he sets in the sky.
But this theological framework is more than a perspective informing and guiding us for the practical aspects of living discipleship. I would like to turn specifically to the hope which the rainbow symbolises at this time, when people and nations are desperate for hope as they experience the battering of the corona virus, with the fault lines in society which it has revealed.
Hope and Redemption
In the document of Vatican II Gaudium et Spes we read:
We can justly consider that the future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping.
The source of hope and the answer to our questions, the document continues, is ‘the mystery of redemption: the work of Jesus Christ that is continually being effected in the Church and, through the Church in mankind and the world.’ The mystery of Redemption is the arc, the rainbow, and we must try to probe it, even as we our probed by the questions arising from this crisis.
…redemption [..], in the structure of our faith, corresponds to Christ’s person and sums up his life, death and resurrection. Redemption is the work of Christ, the Son of God made man; it is the essence of the mission of the second Person of the Trinity whereby God entered visibly into human history and made it a history of salvation.
The reality of redemption is conterminous with Christ’s person; redemption is the summing up of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection, and the essence of the mission of the second Person of the Trinity. Redemption therefore is the cardinal reality in the Divine–human encounter, which transforms the life of the human person and of the world. Could those who come to you for direction through their incorporation into this mystery, find both hope for themselves, purpose for living, and also, crucially, a movement by which their own personal spiritual development is contributing to the renewal of the world in Christ? How might that be made a part of their daily awareness, a part of their own daily metanoia and transformation?
Dignity beyond compare
Redemption brings about the restoration of man’s value through the assumption of human nature by the Son of God, who restores it to a ‘dignity beyond compare’. This dignity is not merely a restoration of equilibrium or a wiping clean of the slate: the spiritual life is not merely a turning away from sin and the practice of virtue. The Conciliar Decree Ad Gentes, on the Missionary Activity of the Church says:
So the Son of God entered the world by means of a true incarnation that he might make men sharers in the divine nature; though rich, he was made poor for our sake, that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor. 8: 9). The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many, that is for all (cf. Mk.10: 45).
Something very important emerges in this sentence: we have the reference to the human being as sharer in the divine nature, and in fact this is repeated at every single Catholic Mass, where, during the Offertory as the priest puts a drop of water into the chalice of wine he says “Through the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity”. The spirituality of St John of the Cross is right in here, in the basic every day prayer and self-understanding of the Church. He holds it in tension with the journey of purification, the stripping from us of all that is sin, all that holds us small or great. This sharing in the divinity of Christ is what the conversion from sin is about. It is not unattainable by reason of its loftiness, but it is the daily religious engagement claimed for all people. It is the very nature of the Church and it is a work and a goal which both continue in us, ‘The redemptive work of Jesus Christ … determines the inmost nature of the Church [which] is in fact the work of the redemption of the world. Pope John Paul II wrote:
The work of redemption continues ‘in us’, that is in the Church; which can also be expressed by saying that the Church is a permanent redemption, and that the form which redemption took in Christ must almost flow back ‘from us’ into the Church … In this sense it was founded and is maintained in being by Christ and by the reality of redemption, which abides and constantly renews itself in the Church.
Can this insight help people to an enriched and healthy relationship with the interior life of the Church? What is this ‘form which redemption took in Christ’? How does it flow back from us into the Church? How could we can work on this in spiritual life?
I’d like to probe this a little more deeply in order to see if we can connect this with our experience of our selves and the command of Christ to us to care for each other and to do good.
Participation in Redemption concerns the very fabric of our being, our inalienable dignity and identity. We glimpsed poetically in the brief quotations from the Romances the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love in Jesus Christ, but we also see in those verses the meaning of the human person revealed, in a way which is the ultimate answer to the question, ‘What is the human person?’ And that question and its answer, must be at the heart of our engagement with the world. In those verses the love of the Father for the Son prompts the Father to create a beloved, a bride, for the Son. This is us: this is the identity, meaning and purpose of our lives. Looking at this within the arc of the work of the Trinity in creation and in Redemption, we can see our own lives not merely being transformed by Christ, but also we look at our identity from the perspective of the Trinitarian working of Redemption in creation, particularly in humanity. All that comprises our living is participating in the work of the Trinity in the Redemption.
We are created in such a way that our own fulfilment is found in being part of the love within the Trinity. And that love, in which we find our fulfillment, is redemptive. We are to receive and to dispense God’s effective love working for the restoration of the wholeness of creation, living an existential proclamation of God’s desire for the fullness of life for each unique person in intimacy with God and communion with each other.
The Father looked upon the Son, sending Him to find His own Bride and to save His Bride through His love. God looks upon each of us with that same love and the love of the Trinity dwells in us as the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father and us in the Son. The Spirit given to us teaches us this, brings it to life in us and being involved in this love we are therefore called from within the Redemptive mission between the Father and the Son, and the missionary form of the Son’s love becomes the form of the baptised life. We receive ‘the salvific profile’ of Christ in our lives. This is important for real life situations: The work of Redemption is transferred to the level of humanity, as each baptised person takes on the life of Christ. As the individual is transformed, a ‘wide space’ opens in the individual for the ‘new creation’ in the world through which society and culture are also transformed and brought to participate in the Redemption. Our transformation through the gift of God absorbs our living and our loving, all the we think and do and say, into taken into the power of Redemptive love. Within families, between ourselves and all whom we meet, on whose lives we have impact, we both participate in and dispense the love between the Father and the Son and the love between the Trinity and humanity, because our lives, our very being, is taken up into the mission of Christ the Redeemer. Can you as directors – if you want to – help people to be this bridge in redemption is transferred to the level of humanity?
Gaudium et Spes says that God wills each person, each one of us, for his or her own sake: -‘ the human person, … is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself’. If this is true, and if it is also true that we were created to be part of the interior love of God, then it must be that we actually become our true and most authentic selves, appropriately fulfilled, by this sharing in the life of God and we achieve our potential as human beings when we take part in the Divine movement of Redemptive love. There are of course other more obvious ways in which we achieve our potential: how can these be brought under this rainbow framework of God’s active presence in the world? The striving for authentic human dignity and fulfilment for all people must be the foundation of our involvement in the re-building of life after the pandemic – our own lives and the public life of the societies in which we live. While Redemption the announces future resurrection and participation in the life of God, it is also is the ultimate announcement of hope here and now, because it not only manifests the overarching plan of God but also brings the colours of this rainbow to daily life. In fact the sine qua non of the rainbow is the utter imperative to love, respect, serve and cherish each human person and to work with all our minds, hearts, bodies and skills for cultures and societies according to this way of life. Our understanding of the Redemptive nature of the love with which God loves us and calls us, the exposure to that love, is the key which can unlock our attitudes and efforts towards a very different world where we will require of ourselves and our structures an effective respect for all people and the needs of their daily lives.
A natural catastrophe of global breadth and intensity may spur us to effectively address the need for a change of attitude of mind, heart and practical behaviours, and this bigger perspective can, and I would say must, be the foundation of change for Christians. It is massively important in personal ethics, in business, in economic systems, political systems, in responding to racism and obscene inequality: it is entirely consonant with, for example, the anger of Karl Marx at the alienation of the worker from the fruit of his labour, the worker as a means to the profit of the owner. The profound injustice as the Christian understands it, however, is not merely in alienation and inequal distribution, but far more radically, it stems from the radical loss of dignity of the human person, this we may regain through the perspective of the life of the Trinity and our identity within that, in a way which motivates and prompts the urgency of our response to need as part of our spiritual life. It is up to individuals according to their way of life and means to find the ways they will respond to the display of profound need that will emerge as the corona virus recedes, but the fundamental response is formed in the Father’s choice of us before time.
We are not all called to make grand gestures, spearhead world-changing movements or necessarily become political activists, neither do we enter a lockdown of pious isolation. Called to share the life of God we do have civic responsibilities and neighbourly responsibilities, because we are all called to understand the inviolable dignity of every single human person who has sheltered under the rainbow. Let’s recall that this rainbow is not a symbol merely of community spirit and encouragement. It is God’s gift of hope to the world and ‘the future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping’.
So we are created to share in the love which is the inner life of God, but, as I have intimated several times, isn’t there a massive disconnect here between this and our daily lives? Isn’t it pretty remote from our everyday desires and struggles – our very selves which we experience in such low key, hum drum ways? How does this really extremely lofty theology fit with our experience in such a way that we can embrace it and find it to be a way forward, particularly in this global crisis?
The remoteness of these theological truths, perhaps seems quite out of reach to the point of irrelevance, and may even heighten our sense of powerlessness, impotence, and fear. There’s one very simple thing which I would say here, and it takes up very nicely the spirituality of St Therese of Lisieux: Taking on the fullness of our own humanity, as did Christ, we enter with our own littleness and confusion into the self-emptying of Jesus Christ. With faith in our call as co-workers with God, we inhabit both the emptying of Christ and simultaneously the humiliation, darkness, despair and needs of humanity. United with Christ in discipleship and in baptism we are able to receive from Christ the gift of the Spirit to ‘provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping’. This, I think, presents a rich mine for daily life and though articulated very briefly here, when formed and infused with the previous very exalted ideas in mind, it can be a tremendous resource for spiritual direction.
The celebration of Easter occurred around the time some countries were experiencing the height of the pandemic in terms of deaths and new infections. The vigil cry of the Easter Hymn brings to a climax the recitation of salvation and references the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ responding to the depth of our inability to generate our own source of hope:
O felix culpa, quæ talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!
O happy fault which gained for us so great a Redeemer!
Here and now in the midst of the fault lines of human existence exposed so pitilessly by the corona virus, this is the joyful cry of hope of all Christians, one which may help you to help others to we take their places in the vigil of the world, currently and for some time to come, in terrible darkness,- but already under the Redemptive Rainbow of God’s love.
Do you think this framework of the love story of the Trinity might be useful in spiritual direction? If so, how might you be able to use it in a regular spiritual direction setting?
If not, what context and ideals do you think could stimulate positive growth in a time of global crisis?
©Mary Stevens October 2020
John of the Cross, and Roy Campbell. The Poems [in Spanish text and English translation on opposite pages.]. London: Harvill Press, 2000.
John Paul II, Pope. Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope John Paul II Redemptionis Donum to Men and Women Religious on Their Consecration in the Light of the Mystery of the Redemption. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1984. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031984_redemptionis-donum_en.html.
———. Sources of Renewal : The Implementation of the Second Vatican Council [in English]. London: Collins, Fount Paperbacks, 1980.
Second Vatican Council. “Ad Gentes, on the Missionary Activity of the Church.” http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651207_ad-gentes_en.html.
 Pope John Paul II, Sources of Renewal : The Implementation of the Second Vatican Council (London: Collins, Fount Paperbacks, 1980) 71
 IX, Romance I, John of the Cross and Roy Campbell, The Poems (London: Harvill Press, 2000) 71
 IX, Romance III, ibid. 79
 John 17:15-16
 Eph 1: 3-4, 9-12
 Gaudium et Spes §31
 John Paul II, Sources of Renewal, 66
 Second Vatican Council, “Ad Gentes, on the Missionary Activity of the Church,” http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651207_ad-gentes_en.html,, § 3
 John Paul II, Sources of Renewal, 69
 Ibid., 86
 Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope John Paul II Redemptionis Donum to Men and Women Religious on Their Consecration in the Light of the Mystery of the Redemption, (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1984), http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031984_redemptionis-donum_en.html § 10
 Gaudium et Spes §31