Just as people who want to keep their bodies healthy schedule regular doctor visits, those who are pursuing spiritual growth and equilibrium often benefit from regular interaction with a spiritual companion.
Eleven women from throughout the Jefferson City diocese recently completed a two-year certification program to prepare them to engage in this important ministry.
“The greatest gift that we share is the gift of who we are,” said Sister Madeleine Lane of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who led the program.
“Spiritual companioning helps you become your best self,” she stated. “Your personal spirituality is your lifeline. It’s who you are.”
Spiritual companions, also known as spiritual directors, help people by listening to their story with an ear to what is holy and divine.
“It is a confidential conversation in which God’s Spirit is present as you share with your companion,” said Sr. Madeleine.
A spiritual companion is not a counselor or a therapist but is a one-on-one listener who helps others become aware of God’s presence and more open to the action of God’s Spirit in everyday life.
With the blessing of their pastors, women entered the program to discern whether God is calling them to this important work, and to prepare for it.
LeAnn Korsmeyer, recently retired director of women’s ministry for the diocese, and Sister Kathleen Wegman of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, formerly diocesan director of parish and charitable services, invited Sr. Madeleine to lead the program here.
Sr. Madeleine has taught in the graduate programs in spirituality at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska; and Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.
She is the founder of a St. Louis nonprofit that offers spiritual direction and family therapy, and is a retreat director and facilitator.
The diocese’s invitation to St. Madeleine to lead the class came in response to a great need; people were calling Mrs. Korsmeyer’s office in search of a spiritual companion, but few were available.
The certification program was challenging but rewarding for the women who participated and now seek to put what they learned into practice.
One participant called it the most growth-filled experience of her adult life.
“I experienced tremendous personal, spiritual and professional growth, and that has led to deep transformation, growth and fullness of life,” she said.
“My faith is much deeper now,” another participant stated. “I find that things that I may have fretted about two or three years ago no longer bother me because I know there is a plan that our Creator has lovingly prepared for me.”
Her prayer life has also noticeably advanced.
“We examined different types of prayer, and I found that different methods spoke to me in different ways,” she stated. “I am more open to letting the Holy Spirit move in my life rather than being apprehensive about whether or not I feel like I can do something.”
Another participant talked about her newfound ability to embrace “the sacred pause — to truly sit with God and discern the holy in my life before a decision is reached.”
“Words and emotions can get in the way,” she said. “It’s the quiet reflection and prayer time that give us peace and joy. Sometimes, we just need a safe space to speak our truth. Companioning allows the ear to hear what the heart is saying.”
The certification process was partly based on the joy-filled relationship the Blessed Mother and her cousin Elizabeth cultivated before the birth of Jesus and St. John the Baptist in the Bible (Luke 1:39-56).
“It’s based on your spirituality — how you pray, the image you have of God — and how you move away from your childhood image of God” and toward something much deeper and more mature, Sr. Madeleine stated.
As leader of the program, she helped each participant take a deep look inward.
This was necessary and helpful for individual growth.
“As humans, it’s typical for us to examine all that is ‘wrong’ in ourselves on a surface, worldly level,” one of the participants noted. “But this process made me examine the graces I have been given and to accept those gifts.”
It helped her recognize that those graces far outweigh the negatives, “because the gifts we receive from God are far more powerful than what the world tells us is ‘wrong’ with us,” she said.
Another participant said she learned the value of God’s first language: silence.
Early on, she also learned about “benevolent glancing,” a practice of looking upon all people with unconditional love.
“I use the word ‘practice’ because it does take a lot of practice,” she stated. “But it is another tool that has allowed me to grow in many ways.”
In the process, she discovered some unresolved grief and previously unrecognized un-forgiveness in her heart.
“Given the time and the tools to deal with these, I have noticed a more beautiful flow of the Holy Spirit in my life,” she said.
Yet another participant said it was a gift just to be able to meet and spend time with so many women who are actively seeking God.
“To journey with others and know we are all on this road through life and that we want to find God in the ordinary things we experience — that in itself helps strengthen my spiritual life,” she stated.
She said it’s nice to know she has friends who will listen to and really hear her while they move together toward Christ.
“That’s what spiritual companioning does!” said Sr. Madeleine. “For those who continue on this journey, it changes one’s life! It’s a perpetual process of growth.”
Sent on mission
For those who are called to be spiritual companions, this kind of preparation turns their gaze outward toward helping other people grow in their sense of “God, Who is within me today.”
Sr. Madeleine noted that people who are spiritually healthy strengthen family life and the life of their parish, because they are aware of their gifts and are committed to putting them to good use for others, in God’s name.
“It’s not just for me to keep to myself,” she said. “It’s about mission. We’re all growing our spirituality in order to grow our mission.”
One participant in the spiritual companions program noted that she has had companions with her throughout every phrase of her life — “people who have been there to listen, to give me a leg-up, to pray with me, to encourage me to help in any way I need as I sought a deeper relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“I hope to do the same for others as we all continue our journey in faith,” she stated.
Another participant, also eager to help others who are seeking to deepen their faith life, noted that the faith journey is different for everyone.
“You don’t need someone to tell you what to do or how to feel, but it’s helpful to have someone to walk with you for support and love while you discover your graces and decide how you want to respond to those graces,” she said.
“Our graces are a gift from God that are meant to help us experience life to its fullest,” she stated. “We are not meant to be on this journey alone. It’s a humbling journey to companion together.”
Sr. Madeleine lauded the sacrifices the 11 women made in completing the program.
“They took the time, spent eight weekends away from their families, and invested their personal resources,” she said.
“Most of all, they invested their heart in finding their personal spirituality and helping it grow,” she stated. “And for most of them, it was like watching a light turn on.”
“We hope the diocese will provide another opportunity in the future to expand this program for men and women who are seeking to become spiritual companions,” she said.
She emphasized that helping the women become spiritual companions was a team effort. Two other instructors assisted her with some of the formation weekends.
Also, all of the candidates were required to have their own spiritual companions to guide them through their discernment and ongoing formation.
The women who completed the program and are now certified to serve as spiritual companions in the diocese are:
As the newly-certified spiritual companions begin their work in the diocese, Sr. Madeleine asks for prayers for them to “continue to receive in abundance the gift of their own spirituality and continue to share it.”
“Our own spirituality is about mission, so when we receive a blessing it continues to bless us and others,” she noted. “But we have to care for it and nourish it and water it.”