Saying Goodbye in Direction

As a young spiritual director in training, one of the common challenges I’ve encountered is finding and keeping directees. A practice I’ve inherited from my teachers is that I ask for an initial six-month commitment, which can become helpful when early conversations suddenly become challenging and uncomfortable, or when the outcomes are not immediately evident or satisfying, or when meetings become inconvenient to schedule. Still, for many reasons, not everyone is able to see that initial commitment through. In my last year and a half of training, sadly, several have simply dropped off the map. Only one directee has stayed with me to term—in fact, for almost a year.

This week, that same directee let me know that he would be ending our time together, and I realized then that this was the first time I’ve had a direction relationship actually conclude—not just break off. The sense of loss was acute, and the sadness rested on me for most of the day—indeed, I still feel some of it now. I could hardly imagine better terms on which to terminate direction, it being part of a natural outworking of his own journey, on which I’d been blessed enough to accompany him for an extended time so that he could enter the next leg. At the same time, I’m happy to acknowledge how much I’ll miss watching the Spirit work in his life as we checked in for monthly conversations of an hour or, typically, more.

A sadness for the loss, happiness for past and excitement for his future all went into a hopper, where they belonged together, and danced and sifted, yet the sadness continued to rise to the top. I stayed with that happy sadness through the afternoon and in my lunchtime prayer stroll, because I knew there was love operating in it that made it good and because I knew there was something there for me to unpack and pay attention to.

I’ve jokingly referred in passing (to myself) of his email to me a “breakup letter,” but I also had to acknowledge what I’d hit on there about what’s affecting me so much in this, in a way so different from the directees I’ve lost to an anonymous black hole: the finality of it. Directees who stop returning emails and text messages can always at any time reappear and reach out again: “Oh man, I’m sorry I’ve been so busy, but I’ve kept thinking for months, I need to schedule some time with you.” Someone who tells me that Gød is leading him into a different chapter of their formation, however, is saying goodbye. They’re saying goodbye to me. And goodbyes always, always make sad. It is like a breakup, and I have to acknowledge that, right now, that touches a very vulnerable, very tender part of me, and in grieving this loss a little, I’m grieving many more losses. I think this is the way of things, and it seems good to me.

As I continued turning over that admixture on my walk that day, which made me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable and grateful and alive, listening for what Gød might be doing in that moment, the image that came to mind was of a great, heavy stone being lowered and set into place. (Think: Stonehenge-size, just for gratuituous insight into my mind.) This was about the weight of it, it seemed to me, yet also, the purposefulness of it, the importance of it and the stability of it. As it settled into m, into the space I was making for it, it felt fitting—as though it were the right size for me and I for it. What I would allow to press uncomfortably into me, I reflected, to press on me, into my excavated earth prepared for it, promises to be a fixture in what Gød is building in me. The sense I had is that if I consent to this, I am consenting to much more. And it seems good to me.

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