It’s not uncommon to hear a client say, “I’m exhausted at the end of the spiritual direction session.” Spiritual directors also can feel wiped out after a series of sessions in one day. That’s because heart work is hard work.
The same thing can happen in therapy or pastoral care. Taking a long look at your inner life with someone trained in helping you do that is a deeply personal and soul-searching kind of work, probably much different than what you do as your livelihood. It’s also different than attending a worship service or doing your spiritual practice at home alone.
In the best spiritual direction sessions, you consider your life over the past month and notice when you felt close to God and when you felt far away. It’s that second aspect — the far away — that is what Ignatius of Loyola calls desolation and frankly, pondering desolation takes emotional energy.
In most spiritual direction sessions, the director will pick up on something you shared and ask you a few important open-ended questions to help you unearth the wisdom within. Questions like:
- How was that experience for you?
- What do you desire most in this situation?
- How do you know that is true?
Open-ended questions in which there is no right or expected answer require concentration. They unearth memories and put us in contact with God, but also with our shadow — those parts of ourselves we’d rather not look at. Awareness of God requires this struggling with the shadow. Like Jacob with the angel, it requires wrestling but it also comes with a gift.i The gift is wisdom and discernment, which is life-giving. But the wrestling can leave us weak.
Much like physical exercise, we may be sore for awhile after and we may feel exhausted, but it’s a good exhaustion. So, although heart work is hard work, it’s also good, necessary and meaningful work. Yes, you may feel like you’ve been through the ringer after some spiritual direction sessions (not all, I hope!) but the reward comes in the time between sessions where you continue to process and integrate the work.
Want to learn more about spiritual direction? I have a new book Spiritual Direction 101: The Basics of Spiritual Guidance by Apocryphile Press that addresses many aspects of this practice. It’s available on Amazon.
i The story of Jacob wrestling the angel is found in Genesis 32:22–32.