Spiritual direction and pastoral counseling can be incredibly transformative experiences when the proper elements converge upon one another. Some of these elements are the development of a good relationship between facilitator and client, solid theological and pastoral education in the facilitator, and a willingness on the client’s part to be open to the movement of the Spirit (Note I will use the word facilitator for spiritual director/pastoral counselor to keep things simple since this discussion relates to both of these experiences). One element I want to discuss in this brief article is the facilitator’s ability to create something I call “Sacred Space.” Sacred space is that slice of time and location where two souls meet and encounter the divine presence so intensely that it profoundly shifts both parties sense of reality. When client and facilitator leave this sacred space they’re no longer the same people who entered it. A good facilitator can cause sacred space to emerge in a pastoral counseling or spiritual direction meeting if they’re intentional about what they do. Too often facilitators believe sacred space is something that just happens but the truth is there are ways to facilitate this experience. It’s not magic nor is it some psychological trick; it’s merely a way to intentionally experience what ‘s already there, the Holy Spirit in the midst of desiring believers.
One of the first things a facilitator can do is be prepared to receive whatever the client brings to the meeting. It might be joy, pain, sorrow, or excitement, but whatever it is, let the client offer in this particular space and time whatever they want to share. Within spiritual direction and pastoral counseling the space we occupy and the time shared together is like a sanctuary ready to receive whatever gifts the client wants to place upon the altar. We do not choose what ‘s brought before God, the client does. By helping them recognize their emotional experience is acceptable and something God wants from them, clients understand this place and time in which they dwell is an intimate meeting with God, not merely a meeting with another person. The facilitator sacramentally represents the receiving nature of Christ, taking from the client whatever they have to offer God. In a sense the facilitator is demonstrating the sacrificial love of God. He or she is saying to the client, “I love you in your pain, your joy, and in your sorrow. You are my child.” When a facilitator is strong enough to withhold from giving advice or judging what’s brought into this metaphysical sanctuary they convey a message of love and acceptance. Carl Rogers often taught for clients to heal they simply need to experience unconditional positive regard from the therapist. While I believe there’s more to good counseling and direction than conveying unconditional positive regard for the client, I do believe the sacredness of the meeting is initiated by the experience of God’s unconditional love sacramentally expressed through the facilitator.
The second initiative facilitators can employ for creating sacred space is the power of presence. I read a wonderful BLOG post by Susan Bryan reminding coaches, healers, and therapists about the effectiveness of presence when engaging clients. Presence is the ability to be actively engaged in the “Now” of what’s happening. When we’re present we’re not thinking about what to say next, what the client “should” do, or a myriad of other things needing done after the meeting is over. Attending to what someone is saying, their body language, your sense of how they feel, your own reactions to their comments and expressions, and a great many other things are all part of being present to someone. Yet there’s more to presence than utilizing attending behaviors you learn through professional training. The client must unconsciously experience the fact you’re with them at this very moment of dialogue. The sense of your presence reminds them they’re in a space with “others” and not alone in their situation. Then, the facilitator uses the client’s sense of “other” to guide them beyond the interpersonal encounter between two people to a God encounter through the Holy Spirit. Many therapists working from a mere mental health perspective stop with an interpersonal encounter providing the client with the sense that they’re being heard and understood. When providing pastoral counseling and spiritual direction this sense of being with others includes acknowledging God is in the midst of those gathered together. This meeting is a sacred space because it involves more than two human beings engaging in a discussion, it involves two human beings open to an encounter with the divine presence.
The third way a facilitator creates sacred space is by experiencing compassion. I don’t mean faking it or presenting compassionate expressions for the client to see, I mean actually feeling compassion for the client. The client must be seen as a fellow human being walking on a journey toward God, not merely a problem to be solved. No matter what the client brings into the meeting, the facilitator must have compassion for the client and recognize this is a person to love. The word compassion has its roots in the Latin phrase cum passio meaning “To suffer with.” The client can sense if you’re willing to “suffer with” them or if you’re indifferent to their experience. This almost subliminal sense allows them to feel the “other” described above. The importance of compassion in spiritual direction and pastoral counseling reaches another level in comparison to other forms of coaching or therapy because the “suffering with” experience transcends what you bring into the relationship and points the client to the God who is willing to “suffer with” them. Remember, an important distinction of the Christian faith is that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is willing to suffer for and with his creation. Compassion conveyed to the client in a purely natural way brings that element of sacred encounter into the relationship.
The fourth way sacred space is created is through the silent moments arising in the meeting. God is not only experienced kataphatically but also apophatically. These theological terms convey the sense prayer can include images, symbols, words, and actions (Kataphatic prayer) as well as a transcendent emptying encounter with God (Apophatic prayer). Often the meeting between facilitator and client places a great emphasis on kataphatic content. Facilitator and client pray together, share experiences, and use religious symbols like candles, Icons, and the scriptures to explore God within the meeting. All of these are wonderful tools yet to truly create sacred space there must also be moments of pure silence in which the Spirit empties both client and facilitator to fill them later with holy inspiration and gracious love. Clients purely kataphatic in the session rely too much on reason to understand God ignoring a myriad of other means to encounter the divine. Spiritual direction and pastoral counseling should be a more holistic experience and rely on more than cognitive techniques for interpersonal exploration. They also need to explore the emptiness frequently filled with things other than God. If within the sacred space the client is allowed to experience the emptiness and transcendent nature of God they can see how quickly they fill themselves with things other than the divine. This understanding can then be corrected and the client can develop a deeper experience of God in this emptiness.
Lastly, it ‘s the facilitator’s responsibility to invite the client to experience “active receptivity.” Within this sacred space an encounter with the divine can be profound but not because of any spiritual exercise or techniques being utilized, rather it’s because our gracious God wants to share himself with us. God wants to be invited into your very being. Unlike other spiritual traditions in which the individual meditates, practices yoga, recites mantras, and performs special rituals to experience ecstatic states, the Christian approach to spirituality makes oneself available and open to the grace of God by simply surrendering to him. God is perpetually willing to pour himself into the believer. The believer must make himself or herself available to God. This process of making oneself available is called active receptivity. By actively making oneself present to God and surrendering to him we passively receive his grace and comfort. It’s the facilitator’s role to invite the client into that place.
So often we believe we must be in some ancient cathedral or emotionally hyped up worship service to experience the divine presence. Spiritual directors and pastoral counselors often rely on the assumption sacredness simply appears because one is “doing” spiritual things. By expressing sacrificial love, presence, compassion, silence and the invitation to active receptivity, the very space and time occupied at that moment could be sacred space where God is encountered and lives are changed. Intentional efforts to create a sacred space for is a key role we have as pastoral counselors and spiritual directors actively seeking to help souls who want a closer relationship with God through their meetings with us.