Ask a Spiritual Director: Margaret Mary McFadyen

Here, I am adding a new feature to my blog: interviews with spiritual directors. I am starting with myself, since I think I should not ask people to do something I am not prepared to do myself, and using questions I have been asked, or I have asked, or people have suggested I ask in response to my request for questions. I hope you find it enlightening, and if you do have other questions you would like to ask spiritual directors, please add them to the comments for this post.

Margaret Mary McFadyen: Ignatian Spiritual Director

When people ask you what a spiritual director does, how do you respond? 

I always find this one a bit tricky and never really feel that I get it “right”, especially when I’m talking to people who don’t have a religious faith. I usually say that it is a bit like counselling, except that we talk about the person’s prayer life, their personal relationship with God and the way they live their faith. With non-believers, the usual response is for the eyes to glaze over; for believers who believe themselves do be doing fine in that department there is a polite nod or explanantion to that effect. Sometimes though, with other believers, it makes a connection within someone for more and they start to ask more questions, becoming more thoughtful. Often, these are the ones which will go on to seek ongoing spiritual direction in their lives – not necessarily from me, I hasten to add. I am not necessarily the most appropriate person for them.

What’s the difference between spiritual direction and counselling? 

If I were to sum it up, and based on my own experience of receiving both – I have talked to counsellors during periods of crisis and stress in my life – I would say it is about the purpose and the effect. Even though spiritual direction might overlap a little with counselling, it is not the same thing. I would say counselling is when you are having trouble functioning “normally” in everyday life, when there are issues getting in the way of day to day living. Counselling can help us back onto our feet when we are in crisis. With spiritual direction, on the other hand, we may be ticking along quite nicely, working, living, socialising but we have a sense of there must be more to life than this. Spiritual direction helps us to focus more on those subtle nuances, to improve our day to day conscious contact with God, to deepen our listening and gently and gradually, we begin to live more intimately with God amd more in tune with ourselves, in what He designed us for. It is extremely liberating to live in this way, in my experience.

What made you become a spiritual director?

I would say it was a “first time choice” as St. Ignatius describes in The Spiritual Exercises. I was on retreat at St. Beunos one summer and during mass, at the quiet bit around communion, I was pondering my own spiritual director in life, and the director who was working with me on the retreat – both wise and gentle people who were making a difference to me. I felt a wave of gratitude for them, and for every other director who had contributed their wisdom to my faith journey, and I expressed this sentiment in a prayer. I then “heard” or “felt” the words whispered:

You could be a spiritual director.

I was immediately calm and curious, because I recognised that I had a desire to do that, even though it had never occurred to me before, and I knew who to ask about doing it.

How did you go about training to be a spiritual director? 

My own director was involved with the Ignatian Spirituality Course which was running at The Centre for Spiritual Direction in Lombard Street in London. The course has moved to Mount Street recently. After sitting with the idea for a bit, on the second meeting with him after my retreat, I told him about my experience on retreat. I had a sense that his response might give me an indication of whether I would be a suitable candidate for the course or not. He beamed at me when told him about it, and responded very positively, which to me was very affirming. I had a few things to work out, like going part time in my day job and how I was going to finance it, but the rest is history as they say. I started the course at the next intake.

What is it that draws you to Ignatian Spirituality in particular? 

I remember an adult of my parent’s generation in the church saying to me when I was a teenager:

It’s dangerous to think.

and I knew I didn’t agree with them; I vehemently disagreed with them. Silently, of course, because it would have been deemed as insolent if I had spoken out at that time. I was curious as a student, and well into chemistry at this point. There were more questions than answers, and the interest and questions were self perpetuating. St. Ignatius describes our reason, our ability to rationalise as the second power of the soul: he encourages us to engage our brains with our lived faith, not turn them off. I might not have known that explicitly, but I felt comfortable around Jesuits and enjoyed the sermons whenever I heard them because they stimulated my brain. Imaginative Contemplation is also something I really get into and I started to experience this form of prayer on retreats when I was a student. I’ve been told that I have a very vivid imagination, and this form of prayer connects me deeply to living with God. Ignatian spirituality suits my personality at the end of the day; I feel at home there.

What do think are the benefits to receiving spiritual direction?

Receiving spiritual direction raises our conscious contact with God. We become better at listening and noticing where God is calling to us, and our desire for God increases. It is a safe place to say things that we might not be confident about saying out loud, even to those we are close to, because it could invite critcism, or people think we are weird, or worse. If you say things like “I heard God say…” in the real world out there, it can be received with derision and hostility and that is not a safe environment in which to explore what is going on. Sure, the spiritual director might ask “How do you know it was God?” and that is an important part of the discernment process. They are not unbelieving in the idea that God speaks to us through our imagination, thoughts, dreams and experiences. Personally, at the beginning of my Ignatian journey, I found it difficult to talk about what was happening within me. I worked with sceptical scientists after all and even the fact that I believed in God was often regarded as a curious anomaly, even though it is not really that rare to believe in science and in God. Being able to open up about my personal relationship with God in spiritual direction, and to explore it openly and safely in this way, has literally changed my life and to find out who I really am and who I am created to be at a profound level. I would definitely recommend it.

When starting on a session or series of sessions with a client, do you like them to begin by talking about how they feel and what they are hoping for from the experience, or do you prefer to let this emerge gradually, perhaps with the help of imaginative prayer? 

I always start my sessions the way my directee would like them to start. With most of them, they like to start with a prayer, so I use an informal prayer around the preparatory prayer and the presupposition of the Spiritual Exercises and the annotations, bascially asking for open and honest discussion, for each to presuppose the good intentions of the other, and for where there is a lack of clarity, to ask. I think this format is helpful in reminding us both of the purpose, and that if the communication is not quite flowing, that no judgement or ill is meant by it, and that asking for clarification is the way to go to open things up. When people are sharing deeply and of painful things, it is important to know that I am not sitting in judgement of them. I am aware that I can sound like my “teacher voice” and I furrow my brow when I am thinking, which can also leave people wondering if they have said something wrong! Not my intention at all, so asking for clarity is always open. Otherwise, I am there in service of my directee, so I allow things to emerge, and I will lead in an imaginative contemplation as appropriate, usually by prior arrangement.

Do you start your sessions with a prayer?

I do , as I said in the previous question, if that is the preference of my directee. Interestingly enough though, I do not like to start with a prayer when I am receiving spiritual direction. When the director does that, I feel that I have to be a “good girl” in the session, and it limits my expression of negative feelings and attitudes, thus not allowing me to explore deeply what is going on. Whenever that happens, my sense of the process is superficial. Fortunately, my director in life does not start our sessions that way and it has allowed me to fully explore the good, the bad and the ugly. God, after all, sees it all.

Why do you have supervision as a spiritual director?

At the very least, we pray not to get in the way.

Gerard W. Hughes, Loyola retreat, 2009

I was fortunate to go on this retreat that Gerry Hughes led in Loyola, and this is what he said about spiritual directors in his introductory talk on the first evening of the retreat. For me, it sums up the role of supervision. I have my own feelings, issues and biases – I am a human being, and some of these may be subconscious. The spiritual direction conversation is between the directee and God, and I am the channel that seeks to facilitate that conversation. Supervision helps me to be aware of what is going on inside me that might be helpful or detrimental when I am directing, so that I can adjust and maintain that position of equilibrium in order that God can work with the directee, without me getting in the way.

How do you feel about online spiritual direction?

Online spiritual direction has been one of the surprises of the pandemic for me. I was sceptical at first, thinking it would be better that nothing but I was dubious about how well it would work. I still believe face to face to be better, but in both receiving and giving spiritual direction online, as well as receiving supervision, it has changed my opinion. I think it has value in itself and may be the way forward for people who would like to receive spiritual direction, but live too far away from any directors to make it practically possible to travel. I travel for 2 1/2 hours to see my director and it takes up most of the day. Not everyone is able to do this, but online makes it possible, even for the busy working person or parent who might not catch a break until the evening. I’m excited about it as a possibility for widening the reach of spiritual direction.

Do you charge for spiritual direction? 

I do ask for a donation in line with earnings. I firmly believe that the labourer deserves their wage, and that if the Levites were not sustained by the people’s tithes, they would not be able to look after the temple, but would have to be working in the market places and farms in order to live. I do pay my own director. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to make a living as a spiritual director. Most do it as part of a paid ministry, or have some other form of income – a day job. I teach in a school. I have directed people for free when I knew they were not in a position to pay. It is the work that is important after all. At the most, I hope to at least break even, after I have paid for supervision and ongoing CPD courses to support my work. Over the course of a year, I will generally have received more than I have spent.

If someone wanted to receive spiritual direction from you, how could they go about contacting you?

They could contact me here, through my “Contact me” page, or by leaving a comment, or through my email address published on the Spirituality Page on the RCDEA website.

Finally, thank you for taking the time for this interview, and for your openness and honesty. God bless.

Thank you.

Margaret Mary McFadyen.

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