Fall in the Bay Area is a curious time. Spring blooms still cling to vines even while autumn color creeps into the canopies of trees. I always feel a childlike anticipation of the school year ahead: Who will I meet? What will I learn? Perhaps you feel some of that even though your year is composed of more or less homogeneous months of work and daily life. Perhaps, like me, you’re eager to learn something new, invigorate your faith, and pay more attention to the One to whom you pray. If so, consider joining us at New College Berkeley!
One of the programs we offer during the school year is Group Spiritual Direction. Spiritual direction is an ancient spiritual discipline in the Christian tradition that increasing numbers of Christians are discovering today. This discovery is happening at a time of significant change in the church worldwide and in a context of greater spiritual seeking by those not affiliated with religious communities.
In a world consumed with materialism, we yearn toward the spiritual dimension of humanness and many of us long to pray. Spiritual direction responds to these desires. Group spiritual direction, a less common form of the discipline, is a gift available to communities of faith, including churches, schools, seminaries, small groups, and our own center for Christian studies which hosts director-facilitated groups throughout the Bay Area from September through May.
As each academic year ends at New College Berkeley, participants in our nine-month spiritual direction groups write to us about their experiences. In 2013 one wrote:
This was my first experience with anything that was so introspective. I was searching for a place where I could step back and re-learn how to be open to God. I was so tired of going through the motions. I yearned to be still and see how God could be known to me in new ways. . . . Having been a Christian my whole conscious life—I don’t remember when I wasn’t—I was in a rut. The group helped me to be open to the mysteries of God in a more silent, experiential, listening way.
Since 2009 New College Berkeley has offered year-long, monthly spiritual direction in small, covenanted groups of four directees with a director. In each meeting there is generous time for silent attention to God and one’s own soul, and to God’s presence in the lives of others. In each two-hour meeting, the group focuses on two directees. Without interruption and for a few minutes, they share personal stories that seem to have spiritual resonance. Group members devote themselves to listening for God and to others.
Following the prayerful listening, people are welcome to respond briefly to the focal person, possibly with something that was noticed about the person or the person’s experience of God. Some share an image or a Scripture passage that came to mind. There is no teaching, judging, interpreting, interrogating, or advising. The directors help everyone maintain the stance of contemplative listening, understanding that God is the ultimate director, the One for whom we all are listening.
This protocol allows—in the words of the directee just quoted—openness to the mysteries of God in a more silent, experiential, listening way. What we have seen over the years of this program is that group spiritual direction cultivates spiritual development through prayer and spiritual friendship. It is a means of God’s grace.
As the color of autumn creeps into the trees, consider opening yourself to this way of noticing the Holy Spirit.
The groups for this year are nearly full, and we have begun a waiting list for the 2016-2017 year, too.
At the time of this post we still have some openings for the Writing Your Journey class and for the Advent Retreat, both of these programs encourage listening for God’s leading in your life.
Susan S. Phillips (Ph.D.) is the executive director of New College Berkeley and the author of The Cultivated Life: From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy.