Marshall McLuhan famously said: “The medium is the message.” He meant that the way we learn and grow is at least as important as the content of that learning. I’m an introvert, so a truth that may seem obvious to you has taken time to settle in for me: We are not meant to make this faith journey alone.The way we grow more deeply in our relationship with God is through community, not in private.
About 10 years ago I read the book Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer by David G. Benner, with a friend in ministry. We read separately, then emailed our thoughts and highlights and responses, then gathered about once a month on the phone or by Skype to discuss what we were reading. Talking about prayer and faith with another person was a powerful experience. This dialogue was impacting my own conversation with God—I became more open and honest in prayer, exposing my whole self. At first, I credited the book, but then I saw how the process was vital: read, reflect, journal, discuss.
Because of the power of this process, we went on to read another Benner book together, Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction. I read a line from the preface to the book that struck me as profound, and I wondered seriously about its validity: “If you are making significant progress on the transformational journey of Christian spirituality, you have one or more friendships that support that journey. If you do not, you are not. It is that simple.” That’s a pretty bold statement, I thought. But throughout this reading, I began to consider my own friendships and where and how they supported my faith growth.
I’ve had a number of ministry friends through the years. We share ideas, methods, tools, and resources. We’re really good at talking about the “doing” of ministry. But too often church leaders (myself included) get caught up in just that—the doing—and we forget to nurture our own relationship with God. We can lose ourselves in ministry and convince ourselves that we benefited from that retreat we facilitated, that prayer service we led. We need to tend to our own souls, not just by tending to others, but through accompaniment. Benner says, “Intimate relationships with others prepare us for intimacy with God.” So, are you allowing someone to get to know you? To see you?
In Sacred Companions Benner tells the story of a friend who was not happy with his church, but continued to go. When Benner asked why, he said, “…church keeps me in touch with others on the spiritual journey. Spiritual growth is just too hard to maintain alone.” We need one another. We need the witness of those who have gone before us. We need the companionship of those who walk with us today. Having a spiritual companion on the journey has helped me through challenging times and drawn me back to my greatest call: to remember I am loved by God. How can I help anyone else on the journey if I am not paying attention to my own? I need someone who will hold me accountable, someone who can ask me (with care and love, not judgment), “How is your soul today?” Benner says, “The task of spiritual friends is to help us discern the presence, will, and leading of the Spirit of God.”
Spiritual companions might be a mentor, friend, or a spiritual director we meet with once a month. They might also include the Christian mystics who we might enter into dialogue with through discussion with a friend. Consider your own spiritual journey. How might you more intentionally walk together?
1. Find out more about spiritual companions or spiritual directors through one or more of the following resources:
- Spiritual Friendship by Aelred Rievaulx (a spiritual classic)
- Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction by David G. Benner
- Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction by Margaret Guenther
- A Friendship Like No Other by William A. Barry, S.J.
- Walking Together by Mary DeTurris Poust
- Spiritual Friendship by Mindy Caliguire
- Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible by Joan Chittister,
2. Reflect on your own friendships. Who supports you on your spiritual journey? Consider inviting someone into a more intentional accompaniment—checking in on a regular basis, or reading spiritual works together.
3. Consider working with a spiritual director. You can find out more about spiritual directors and the work they do at Spiritual Directors International—https://www.sdicompanions.org.
Blessings on your journey!
Denise Utter, M.A., is a freelance consultant, writer, and a speaker—she’s been coaching with Vibrant Faith since 2018. She has worked in ministry and education for 30 years. Denise loves to inspire ministry leaders to reimagine faith formation, put families at the center of faith, and provide innovative approaches to faith formation.