“Those who have no guidance,” the fourth-century Latin monk John Cassian once wrote, “fall like leaves.”
As a young man, Cassian visited the Egyptian desert, where Christian hermits were renowned for offering spiritual counsel to those who came with this request: “Abba, give me a word.”
Cassian experienced an early form of “spiritual direction.” Today, Bryna Bozart and Linda Flynn are helping revive this ancient practice in 21st-century Charlotte.
Bozart is founder and director of the Charlotte Spirituality Center, which offers a two-year training program in spiritual direction.
The goal is not teaching people about theology or telling them what to do. Instead, spiritual direction is built on taking notice of God’s presence in a person’s life.
For a fee of $25-$50, directors meet with their subjects for an hour, once a month or more depending on individual needs. They listen to why their clients are there – dryness of prayer, perhaps, or a period when God seems distant.
The director might ask open-ended questions – What’s stirring inside of you? What’s God’s invitation here? – to clarify the next spiritual step.
The Spirituality Center sprang from a program Bozart developed two years before her retirement, when she was manager of chaplains at the Carolinas Medical Center pastoral-education program.
Instead of bringing in spiritual directors as outside consultants, as some hospitals did, Bozart – a trained spiritual director, teacher and chaplain with 20 years’ experience – taught students in the CMC chaplaincy program to become directors and stay on the hospital staff.
When it was time for her to retire, chaplain David Carl, executive director of the CMC-Charlotte pastoral-education department, offered Bozart an unused parsonage at Big Spring United Methodist Church in Charlotte, where he serves as pastor.
Bozart took it from there. What started at the hospital with only four students has grown to 30 students and two campuses.
“All of a sudden, we have so many folks who are just finding us,” says Flynn, the center’s co-director and head of its Rock Hill campus, which opened in 2011.Students are mostly local, though some drive from as far as Columbia and Greensboro. They include Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, Baptists, United Methodists, Presbyterians and one Hindu.
Nationally, interest in the practice has grown. “We’ve become such a doing culture that there is a need for being,” says Liz Budd Ellman, the head of Spiritual Directors International (SDI) of Bellevue, Wash.
“There’s a need for reflection, there’s a need for pause, there’s a need for silence. There’s a need for companionship.”
She says spiritual direction has been going on for thousands of years. “In Ireland, in the Celtic tradition, the language would be ‘anam cara,’” which is Gaelic for “soul friend.” “In the Jewish tradition, ‘mashpia’ is the Hebrew word for ‘spiritual guide.’” Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, spiritual direction flourished in monasteries and among mystics.
“As people get more educated about the roots of their Christian tradition, some of these very old traditions are coming alive,” Ellman says.
As with most of these training programs, the Spirituality Center’s curriculum is drawn largely from Christian tradition, but it is open to any faith tradition.
Since 1990, SDI has provided support for spiritual directors and educational resources for training centers and seminaries.
In 1995, the organization had 1,200 members. Today it’s 6,200, and the group expects to reach about 10,000 by 2016.
According to Ellman, there are some 300 training programs for spiritual directors worldwide. The Spirituality Center is one of only three such North Carolina programs listed on the SDI website, along with Duke University’s Divinity School and the Haden Institute in Flat Rock.
Many churches, synagogues and other houses of worship have spiritual directors on staff and available to the community.
Bozart and Flynn, for example, offer direction at their church, St. Luke’s Catholic. People can also go to the Spirituality Center for individual spiritual direction sessions.
Meanwhile, Flynn says the Spirituality Center has begun to offer free spiritual direction to veterans. She was moved by a talk last summer from an Iraq war veteran about how hard it is to return from war and rejoin a faith community.
When somebody at church was thanking the veteran for his service, he said he was thinking, “Why thank me? I ran over a 3-year-old with my Humvee,” Flynn recalls.
Bozart says students at her center often tell her that their previous theological education concentrated more on learning information than on forming their spiritual lives.
“You’ve been taught a lot about God,” she says of such students. “But the question we (ask) is, ‘How do you experience God? What are your memories of how you’ve experienced God? What is your image now of God?’”
These new spiritual guides help people slow down, listen and become more aware of the presence of God in their lives – and in those they encounter.
“To this day, when I stand by the window of the center and watch the students driving up the driveway,” Bozart says, “I think, ‘This is just amazing to behold.’”