How does spiritual direction impact our bodies?

By: Dr. Gena St. David

Spiritual direction in liminal spaces

We are approaching the fifth weekend in Lent, where night is growing shorter with increasingly more daylight as we approach Easter Sunday. Lent is a time of transition–a liminal space–between Winter and Summer. We might think of Lent as an in-between space where we are leaving one home for another–departing from our homebase, and experimenting with practices with which we are less familiar. We may be fasting, or giving up something we enjoy, or adding a new ritual to our daily routine. And we do not yet know what we have learned–if anything–from this Lenten experiment. We are in the middle of a story, and we do not yet know how it will end for us.

The beginning of our story may be horrific–whether that’s a story of spiritual trauma, childhood, racial violence, gender-based abuse, systemic oppression, or other types of human pain. In the middle of our story–the liminal space between leaving home and entering a new season—may feel excruciating. We may feel ourselves to be wandering in the wilderness, what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.” A trusted spiritual director is a companion through the middle part of our story–through the maze of liminal time–to help us tend well to our spiritual needs, which in turn will change how our bodies feel.

Trauma-informed spiritual care

I went through a painful time of upheaval a few years ago. Everything suddenly felt unfamiliar. I had lost parts of my identity, relationships and people to which I had been extremely loyal. I had left home, in multiple ways, but not by choice. It was more as if I had been tossed out of my home–abruptly ejected from what had been familiar relationally and spiritually. And I felt lost. When I looked into the future, I couldn’t see anything clearly.

One day I was talking with a friend about how difficult it was to live in this unfamiliar territory that didn’t feel like home to me. My friend connected me with a spiritual director, Robin, who was extremely helpful. Robin spoke with me about the wisdom we can encounter when we leave home – voluntarily or involuntarily – and courageously embrace the liminal space.

In her words:

The word for threshold in Latin is “limin,” it means a doorway or portal between here and there. Liminal space is a place of transition, one where we often feel unsettled or anxious – life is not as it was before, but we don’t yet know how it’s going to be. It’s a place of mystery, the unknown, the place where we let go of our expectations, our attachments, validations, illusions, securities, and prejudices. Liminal space is the simple beckoning from within that invites us to journey where we haven’t imagined before. It’s where we stand on the threshold between what was and what will be, and unburden ourselves of our fierce determination to control the outcome. Staring into the unknown, we solemnly acknowledge this in-between place. We feel. We breathe. We trust. We resist the temptation to force a premature solution. We consent to what is, and allow the mystery to unfold inside us. – Robin Hebert, Spiritual Director

Individuals and communities will often seek spiritual direction when we find ourselves suddenly thrust into the discomfort of a liminal space–when we have left our homeland of denial but have no vision for the road ahead. In order to leave home well, we must turn our back to what’s been familiar to us. And that can bring up a wide range of emotions for us. What helps us leave home “in trust?”

Leaving home in trust

In Genesis 12 we read, “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” We’re told the Lord said, go from your country–our autopilot sense of who we are, our assumed identity, the kind of person we think we are, things we and others have assumed about us. And go from your kindred–our autopilot loyalties, our allegiances. And go from your father’s house–our autopilot authorities who’ve held power over us. In other words, leave these familiar aspects of home and enter an unfamiliar territory.

Throughout this story, we find God is supporting Abram spiritually and relationally with this idea that there are some things we can only learn in life by leaving home and entering into a liminal space. When we speak of spiritual “healing,” we are referring to the process by which we come to be able to tell a resolved story about it. We can recall the memory of the event, and speak about it, without our threat networks hijacking us, meaning, we may still feel some distress over the memory without slipping back into the illusion that the original danger is still present today.

The process by which we come to tell a resolved story involves three things: that 1) the original danger has indeed passed; 2) we gained the resources to learn what to do to increase our safety and decrease our stress; and 3) we accessed the support of others to take the steps to do so.

Body and spirit

In reflection about how healing occurs, here is one way of considering what’s happening inside our bodies when we are engage in spiritual healing:

For optimal wellness, the human brain needs to be sufficiently resourced and supported. An unresolved story is one where something distressing took place and we felt under-resourced and under-supported. A story is given a new ending when we re-experience the distress relived but this time, with sufficient resources and support. When this occurs, the brain forms new linkages which we experience as healing; this in turn reduces stress and increases our capacity to experience life, relationship, kindness, creativity, and joy. – Gena St. David, The Brain & the Spirit

As we take steps to address our unresolved stories, we may find the most helpful ingredient to our own healing is often added by someone else. Living with unresolved stories produces conditions which can agonize and torment us; and resolving these stories through compassion, creativity, resources and support can change our brain. We experience these changes in our brain as “healing.” Once new linkages between the networks which hold the distressing memory and the networks with hold awareness of our resources and support are established, we may find ourselves suddenly capacitated to be more compassionate, creative, and spiritually supportive of others.

Questions for further reflection:

In what ways are we leaving home in this Lenten season and entering into liminal space?

What might we learn about ourselves, God, and love as we step into unfamiliar territory?

How might a spiritual director help us “leave home” in trust? 

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