Creative and Spiritual Relationships

A few weeks ago I completed the first graduate-level course I have ever taken–a course in spiritual formation at a Catholic seminary. I have to think if one is to fall in love with the idea of graduate-level study or spiritual formation this is the way to do it: under the twinkling eyes of Sister Kitty with assignments in discerning and receiving God’s wisdom and love in the company of people whose eyes shine as they grow in serving others and in prayer. In a week I will begin my second class, in theology. Both of these courses are leading to a two-year program for forming spiritual directors that I hope to begin in September.

From what I know so far, spiritual direction is much like making portraits. In spiritual direction, you perceive and reflect an entire someone back to her by being attentive to the particulars that form her inner life–this is done through much listening and offering a few prayerful carefully considered words. In making a portrait,  you form an outward appearance of someone by spending more time observing little things about them–shapes, light and dark–than you do by drawing, painting or sculpting with broad strokes.

We all have a similar set of needs and desires as we all have certain bony prominences on our skulls. We all have relationships and vocations as we all have nasal bones. It’s the size and shape of these things that make our inner and outer selves unique. As Michelangelo might say, an artist chips away everything that isn’t his subject as God reveals his subject to him.

From what I understand about spiritual direction so far, when we ask for it we ask for companionship in asking God to chip away what is not us as God reveals us to ourselves.

From what I understand so far, spiritual direction is much like teaching art. A spiritual director guides a directee in paying attention to the movements of God’s spirit in her life. A good teacher of art similarly teaches awareness. These practices of leading others presuppose there is wisdom in us and beyond us and that this wisdom is accessible when we look and listen.

That the source of wisdom, or God, connects us to nature and to each other is the belief that leads the leader as she leads. “Art is not something that can be taught, it can only be communicated from one creative person to another creative person,” my art teacher quoted his teacher as saying. Both teaching art and spiritual direction form friendships not unlike what Jesus had with his disciples. We read about the disciples’ blindness and ineptitude while we see Jesus struggling with his vocation in teaching them (and us). As Jesus struggles and his disciples grow, we read incidences of his disciples beginning to understand, and even emulate, him.

Struggling with what it means to lead a meaningful life or to make meaningful art that positively affects others means both receiving and giving direction from others–feeling like you are at the top of the world with God looking down and offering wisdom, and sometimes being on the bottom in need of divine help. I suppose this is why spiritual directors are supposed to have spiritual directors as well as spiritual companions–companions being friends whose amount of expertise is close to own own.

Roles flip during creative partnerships. As I think of struggling to finish a book-length memoir, I think of my writing partner, who, with a P.H.D. in literature, a dedicated practice of reading, and a great sense of humor I often feel has more to offer me than I can offer her. But she keeps a copy of an email I wrote about what I see her memoir becoming–a portrait of its unique set of shapes, lights and darks–in her incredibly well-organized binder because it helps her.

The next time I post, I will reflect on how I think I can use what I have learned so far about spiritual formation and art to help me finish my memoir. I can contend with this beast because in the background of this writing and reflection is the community who supports me. If it weren’t for you people I would never have posted this.


  • Hello Brynna,
    I appreciate this essay. It brings about the realization that mastering art or spirituality is not entirely possible. But the thought of pursuing something that we may never attain, or perfect to our satisfaction, should not stop us from trying. Right? Because what else is there, sitting on the couch eating potato chips?

    • Hi Pascale–
      I agree, though my son would point out that sitting on the couch eating potato chips is an excellent thing to do. But at a certain age we realize such activities do not fill the hunger that keeps driving us to want more. What I find so fascinating about spiritual direction as understood by St. Ignatius is that the practice recognizes that we are creatures of desire, and that all desire is God-given but perhaps distorted into undue fascinations with, let’s say, potato chips. Growing spiritually is refocusing our gaze on our desires so we can truly perceive them. St. Ignatius created exercises for doing this much as our art teacher, also through trial and error, created drawing exercises to change the way we see.

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