Women in their 20’s and 30’s understand the value of a mentor far more than women of my Boomer generation did when we were their age. For some young women, it may be an experienced businessperson who can coach them through the first years of establishing a career. For others, it may be a veteran mother who can help them navigate the bewildering choices faced by new parents. It’s been my privilege to serve as a spiritual mentor to several young women along the way who were trying to figure out what faith looked like in their young adult years, now that the training wheels of parents and school were removed from their lives.
Some of us who’ve crossed into midlife find that church services and large-group Bible studies taught by polished video communicators aren’t especially helpful when it comes to processing the emotional, physical, and spiritual transition we’re experiencing. Counseling can help us sift through what’s come before and empower us to move forward. (It was quite literally a life-saver for me.) Older friends willing to share their experiences can help us begin to map this wild, uncharted territory.
Spiritual direction is another help in moving through a transition – and continuing to pursue health in our relationship with God, ourselves, and others. There is confusion about what spiritual direction is (not counseling, it’s not coaching). There is also suspicion, often from those swimming in more fundamentalist streams, that spiritual direction is linked to contemplative practices that don’t match the comfort zone of a nice, safe left-brained approach to spiritual growth. A spiritual director is one gifted at listening with the Holy Spirit to your life, and gently point you toward prayers and practices that will cultivate growth in your relationship with God.
What does that look like? Sharon Garlough Brown attempts to answer that question in Sensible Shoes: A Story About The Spiritual Journey (IVPress, 2013). Garlough Brown uses fiction to reveal the way in which God uses spiritual direction both to reveal and shift the inner lives of four women. A burned-out pastor, a widow frozen in grief, a woman with a troubled past, and a performance-driven grad student meet at a spiritual formation group at a local retreat center. As they encounter – an in some cases, flee from – classic practices designed to help them go deeper with God, old regrets and destructive patterns of thinking surface in each one of them. These practices include things like lectio divina, self-examen, and confession.
Spiritual transformation leads to changes in many other areas of the lives of the characters in Sensible Shoes. Because of her budding new relationship with God, the widow finds the courage to begin asking questions she’s never been able to form before. She discovers that there is an older, unprocessed grief buried under the losses she experienced as an adult. The workaholic pastor learns that her need to be needed is anchored in a place of fear.
Fiction-lovers may find the book a bit didactic in parts, as Katherine, the spiritual director explains each discipline, and meets with each of the women one-on-one to work through some of the issues that arise in the course of their group experiences. There are inset pages in each chapter offering instruction to readers about each discipline introduced in the story, as well as discussion/reflection questions at the end of the book. However, I found each woman’s story relatable and interesting, and the formation information was integrated as seamlessly as it could be into the book. This book offers readers two distinct gifts. First, it shows that transformation is a process, not a finished product. None of the women in the book are all fixed and living happily ever after at the end of the book. Each, however, has become unstuck, which is a reflection of the gentle dynamite of the Holy Spirit and the stumbling submission to His process of change. (The process continues as there is another book in the series, with a third releasing later this year.)
The second gift Sensible Shoes offers readers is a portrait of what spiritual direction can be. This is a particular kind of shepherding that is sadly too rare in the Christian world, and perhaps Garlough Brown’s work will help it become less so. Most all of us could benefit from a wise guide committed to listening to both the Holy Spirit and our lives.
Have you read this book – or Two Steps Forward, the next in the series? If so, what did you think?
Have you had experience with a spiritual director? Was it helpful for you?
* Regret imprisons too many of us, stifling growth and freedom.