A Nun’s Painting Changed My Life

How Spiritual Direction Creates Personal Change

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Nubble Light — M. Mirabile

I gazed at the picture on the wall. It was a painting of a woman sitting on a bench overlooking a bay. Beyond her, the beach circled into the distance. On the other side of the bay, the landscape rose from the water, forming a high overlook. There, nestled in the hill among trees, was a castle. As Sister Miriam spoke, I stared at the woman in the painting. She was facing the water with her back to the viewer. I was looking at the bay and the beach, the boats and the beachgoers with her.

And God whispered, “And where are you in this painting?”

I was not in the foreground with the woman sitting on the bench. And I was not a part of the day at the beach that everyone was enjoying in the distance. I said, as much to myself as in answer to God, “I am in the castle on the hill on the other side of the bay. I am safely looking down from a distance, cloistered in my castle. Removed. Judging. Contemplating the scene but not in it.”

And God whispered again, “Where are you?”

“I am not with the woman on the bench, in the scene. I am not frolicking on the beach with the people. I don’t exist as a person in the open, but hidden in the castle.”

“What would it be like to come down from there and get into the picture?”

“I’m afraid. I don’t know how to do that. If I stay in the castle, I can stay in control. I can remain removed. Aloof. I can present the image I want people to see. If I come down, I won’t be safe.”

I was in a meeting room at the Ursaline Province Center in New Rochelle, New York, attending a course in Spiritual Direction. The Ursulines are a Roman Catholic Order of Nuns founded by St. Angela Merici in Brescia, Italy in 1535. She offered a new kind of religious life for women who would dedicate their lives to God in service of others while living among the people they served. They were early pioneers of education in the Americas and closely associated with the Jesuits. I attended one of the last courses in Spiritual Direction led by Sister Miriam Cleary, OSU. She taught the art of Spiritual Direction to countless others and had a profound impact on how Ignatian Spiritual Direction is practiced today.

The question, “What would it be like if…” is typical of a good spiritual director. Good spiritual directors do not tell people things, they offer things. They notice nuance. They suggest and invite. They artfully lead the other in a conversation with God into places where they have trouble seeing. Ignatian Spiritual Direction is a Christian practice of prayerful accompaniment in which the director helps the directee to grow in their prayerful encounter with God. Spiritual directors help people get past barriers and impediments to spiritual growth and deepen their prayerful conversation with God.

“What would it be like to come down from there and get in the picture?” What a lovely and unthreatening way to ask a question that would otherwise make you run in the opposite direction.

At that moment I saw myself in a way that I never had before. Asking “What would it be like” is an invitation. It engages the imagination and opens up possibilities. It exposes hidden things. It exposed the fundamental ground of fear I lived my life upon. No one had ever said I was fearful. Quite the contrary. To many, I seemed to live without fear. I was unafraid in the face of challenges and obstacles. I was entrepreneurial. I was even foolhardy. But I also had a long history of making certain kinds of decisions that kept my life much smaller that it could have been. People wondered and said, “Why aren’t you more successful?” What they could not know and did not see, and what I could not see, was the way this deep foundational posture of fear kept me from making the sort of decisions that would have made me more successful. Others could not see the analysis paralysis. They could not see the self-defeating behaviors that I kept cleverly hidden. What I presented was a carefully curated projection of myself.

Fear is terribly constraining, and there are levels of fear. It can keep you from leaving the house or from having a genuine relationship with someone you love. It can keep you from taking the right risks while taking all the wrong ones. Fear ties you up in knots, immobilizing you, keeping you from accomplishing the things you ought to do. Fear can keep you from making new kinds of decisions. The ones that lead to increasing freedom and joy.

You know the saying, the definition of crazy is to keep doing the same thing expecting different results. Right? It’s not crazy. It’s fear. And you need to be free from it. To get different results, you’ve got to become a different person. In order for you to become a different person, you’ve got to make different kinds of decisions, usually the ones that feel unsettling and threatening. Those decisions, if they are the right ones, will lead to increasing degrees of interior liberty and wellbeing. Don’t mistake casting off restraint for freedom. If your “bold” decision destroys relationships or results in the need for more medication, it is likely that you have decided from the same place as other unhealthy ones. Consider the possibility that there is a blind spot. Something so intrinsic to your personhood that you need another voice to draw you out to see it. You need a soul-friend. A spiritual father or mother who has attained real interior liberty and can help guide you to your own place of freedom.

When your life feels like its crumbling, a core belief is usually being challenged. At that point in my life, many years ago, I sought a spiritual director. I was fortunate to live near a nationally known and respected one. He saved my soul. I took a year-long course and became a certified spiritual director because of that experience. That experience enabled me to continue to make life-changing decisions from a place of interior freedom. I went on to make some of the healthiest decisions I ever made and am deeply grateful for the place they have brought me to. I stopped second-guessing my life. I came to understand that I was never really in control of the outcomes, anyway. I rested in the unknown, confident that God in His goodness is in control.

I now apply these skills routinely in my pastoral career, often in ways that people are not even aware of. I have applied them with people who struggle with addictions and life-controlling behaviors. I have used them in casual conversations that have opened up to profound moments of self-reflection.

A life lived well ought to result in interior liberty and joy. The Christian life especially holds the promise of that, yet it is elusive for many. The challenges our society brings to our faith require the insight of other spiritually mature and seasoned people. Why not look for a soul friend? Ask God for this.

What would it be like to examine your life in this way? The question God asks in the garden of Adam and Eve is the question he still asks. Where are you?

Sadly, many people are not aware of the benefits of good spiritual direction. Well trained and insightful spiritual directors are hard to find. Ignatian Spiritual direction is part of the Jesuit tradition, and St. Ignatius of Loyola taught a particular way of approaching it. Spiritual direction itself was the work of spiritual mothers and fathers and in the monastic tradition before him. It is an ancient practice found in both the Eastern and Western Christian traditions.

If you are looking for a director, inquire at a Catholic diocesan office or search online for a certified spiritual director near you.

Critical Believing. A pastor and spiritual director examines issues critical to, for, and of believing, in our post-christian context.

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