STUDENTS TAKING advantage of Wycliffe College’s new spiritual mentoring program have enthusiastically referred to their spiritual directors as “an absolute gift” and “spiritual parents.”
Many Christians choose a spiritual director to help them along their journey to God. Such a soul friend can be any man or woman, lay or cleric, who could confidentially provide wise counsel in both practical and spiritual matters.
The Diocese of Toronto now requires postulants for ordination to have a spiritual mentor.
Dr. Merv Mercer, Wycliffe’s assistant professor of Anglican formation, arranged in September 1999 for 10 experienced mentors to assist first year divinity students who sought spiritual direction. Of the 60 students who came to an introductory meeting, almost 40 continued to meet privately for about an hour each month with a mentor of their choosing.
Dr. Mercer insists that the mentors be external to the University of Toronto college. “No one wants to talk about deep doubts to someone who will grade them academically. We keep that world apart from their grades.”
In his doctoral research on theological education, Dr. Mercer discovered what many have noted anecdotally, that studying at a theological institute seemed actually to damage, not enhance a student’s spirituality.
“The mind and heart need to be in sync,” Dr. Mercer said. “We need to address not just the intellect but the whole being. Simply going to church services, saying the daily offices and attending Bible studies and fellowship groups isn’t enough.”
Spiritual formation is now part of the curriculum. “Just because a person is a priest or studying to be one, doesn’t mean that he or she is spiritual. This gives those studying for the ministry an opportunity to develop a lifetime of spiritual practice.”
“It is a privilege to have permission to listen to their story, to listen with them,” said Rev. Wendy Lywood, an Anglican priest and adjunct instructor who assists with the mentoring program. “Helping a person see that God is active in their life deepens their identity in God.
“Spiritual mentoring is accompanying them on their journey. We trust the Lord is there with us. It is not a counselling session but it is profoundly healing to have someone listen, to help them hold their experience and to wonder at it. We often go to where the joy is, the wow moments.”
Amy Bunce, a first year Master of Divinity student, considered her mentor “an absolute gift” who made her feel “really cared for.” Ms. Bunce wanted someone more spiritually mature who would give her “a lot of space.” Together they explored such questions as, Where is God in your life today? Where might he be calling you in a certain relationship or situation?
“God is with you all the time, all day, but in retrospect, the mentoring gives me more awareness that He’s with me.”
Mentors are not therapists. Indeed, Wycliffe’s mentoring program has uncovered some needs for more formal counselling in marital, sexual and addiction issues. Dr. Mercer believes the college is now able to address such problems earlier.
Lyn Youll, a second year Master of Divinity student, wanted her spiritual director to be an older woman who had been “through the mill of life a bit. Mine was a ball of fire.
“You learn how to interpret the working of the Holy Spirit in all aspects of your life. The mentor was there to walk alongside me in my journey, to help me discern what God was saying to me.”
Gethin Edward, a first year Master of Divinity student, found each session rather like a spiritual debriefing. “The older mentor provides ideally a more hopeful and stable perspective. To see a life that’s been shaped by the habits of prayer is a real strength. A mentor is like a spiritual parent.” Sue Careless is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
The following books provide more information on spiritual direction:
A Study of Christian Spirituality
by Kenneth Leech, Harper and Row (1977)
The Art of Spiritual Direction
by Margaret Guenther, Cowley (1992)
of Spiritual Direction
by Wm. Barry and Wm. Connolly, Harper and Row (1982)