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Group Spiritual Direction: Community for Discernment by Rose Mary Dougherty

by davesandel on January 24th, 2012

Group Spiritual Direction: Community for Discernment, by Rose Mary Dougherty, 1995

122 pages

Thoughts on Group Spiritual Direction:

If I tell her that “I don’t know how to pray,” Sister Rose Mary Dougherty would stop me and ask what I quietly notice that is going on around me.  She would ask me to recall a moment when I quieted down and “for no reason just felt bigger than myself.”  She would re-invigorate whatever understanding I have of prayer and offer it back to me as something I already do, but just don’t know it.

For thirty years a spiritual director and teacher at Shalem Institute, a world-renowned spiritual direction training center in Washington D.C., she retired in 2006 at the age of 67.  In her retirement she co-directs a program teaching caregivers to “companion the dying” and volunteers often at a hospice for formerly homeless men who have AIDS.  Since 1965 a member of the Roman Catholic School Sisters of Notre Dame, she has also for many years been a Zen sensei.  She was educated in spiritual theology at St. Louis University and in spiritual guidance at Shalem.

Her book is the first contemporary handbook on group spiritual direction and one of only three books listed on Amazon that deal with this topic: Alice Fryling of IVP wrote Seeking God Together in 2008 and Rose Mary co-authored The Lived Experience of Group Spiritual Direction in 2003 with Monica Maxon and Lynne Smith of the Shalem Institute.

This book emphasizes the value of silence and a “prayer of awareness,” or “my intentionality about joining God’s prayer.” Listening to and praying for others in a group can allow us to practice both of those disciplines with growing compassion and peace.

Sister Rose Mary gets specific about the difficulties and benefits of this kind of group work.  She offers helpful questions for group members to ask themselves, to better get under the surface of their experience to the warp and woof of their relationship with God.  She suggests specific formats and time frames for group meetings, and reminds us to make frequent space for silence.

I have only heard her speak on YouTube.  Her words are quiet, calm, considered, humorous and wise.  She is comfortable with herself, with God, with her listeners.

In the book she cites a group member’s assertion that “breathing is the most ancient form of prayer.” Prayer for one another in group spiritual direction, which she calls “intercessory” and “hospitable,” give us something to say in between breaths, and offer us a way to bring more peace into our world.

Community Supported by Solitude

Solitude greeting solitude, that’s what community is all about. Community is not the place where we are no longer alone but the place where we respect, protect, and reverently greet one another’s aloneness. When we allow our aloneness to lead us into solitude, our solitude will enable us to rejoice in the solitude of others. Our solitude roots us in our own hearts. Instead of making us yearn for company that will offer us immediate satisfaction, solitude makes us claim our center and empowers us to call others to claim theirs. Our various solitudes are like strong, straight pillars that hold up the roof of our communal house. Thus, solitude always strengthens community.  – Henri Nouwen,  Bread for the Journey, 1997

Quotations and Notes from Group Spiritual Direction:


I have discussed with others their understandings of spiritual direction and group theory as well as their exploration of group spiritual direction.  These combined resources have not relieved my state of unknowing.  Rather, they have confirmed the necessity of unknowing for entering with trust into the venture of group spiritual direction.  Thus they have helped me shape an evolving process of group spiritual direction.  This process honors both the unknowing and the knowing I have about spiritual direction.  It also acknowledges the need for a structure to assist spiritual direction in a group setting. – p. 6

Chapter 1.            Spiritual Community: The Ambiance for Group Spiritual Direction

The bond of spiritual community is a common wanting to do the will of God.  Not only is spiritual community the ambiance in which spiritual direction occurs, but also spiritual direction is often the means through which spiritual community is most clearly recognized and claimed. – p. 7

Today, because there is so much isolation and loneliness, people often get confused about what they’re looking for.  They are unable to discriminate between the companionship of interested people and the community of people who can help them seek God. – p. 13

We may be called to let go of some of our vested interests and our traditional ways of caring for other people.  Presence and absence, silence and words, doing and not doing all become relativized against the backdrop of God’s prayer in us. – p. 14

One is brought face-to-face with the primary discernment of spiritual community: “Do you seek God?”  And then, “What does this seeking mean for your life?” – p. 14

Chapter 2.            Spiritual Direction

God is constantly engaged with the human heart.  God is present, inviting, cajoling, challenging, enabling, always loving persons to be who they are – lovers at home in Love. – p. 15

The longing for God is the bedrock of spiritual life and of spiritual direction. – p. 15

In my first experience with spiritual direction, my director and I worked out what I later came to recognize as a classical model … we met once a month for about an hour to focus specifically on my spiritual life, God’s invitations moving in me and my responses.  He said, “The Holy Spirit is really your director.  I’m only here to help you listen to the Spirit speaking within you.” – p. 18

My prayer and reflection usually provide the content for our meetings.  In an atmosphere of prayer the director may question, challenge, and make suggestions as seems called for. – p. 19

Time together begins with prayer and is frequently punctuated with periods of silence, silence meant to be more than an absence of words, silence that provides spaciousness in which both of us can hear God’s prayer for us. – p. 19

“Wasting time with God together” is another way I have come to describe prayerfulness during spiritual direction.  In the lack of agenda, questions might come up: Are we still doing what we hoped to do when we began?  What has changed?  What change is called for?  Do we seem to be coming to a deeper sense of God together, or are we sidetracked by the dynamics of our relationship? – p. 21

Sometimes when I was feeling uncomfortable with my relationship with God, I would attempt to divert our attention by posing some theological issue.  Always he brought me back to the point of our being together: “What does this have to say to you about God?  What does God have to say to you about this?” – p. 22

Chapter 3.            Discernment and Spiritual Direction

It is because one antelope will blow the dust from the other’s eye that the two antelopes walk together. – African Proverb, p. 24

Seeing what God gives us to see is often referred to as “discernment.” – p. 24

We often incorrectly equate discernment with a skill which we must master rather than the gift of God’s love which guides us home to love. – p. 25

My director asked me, “How would you like to pray?  How would you like to be with God?  How would you like God to be with you?  Can you talk with God about it?” – p. 27

I realized I would need to notice if my prayer continued to honor and reflect God’s presence in my life.  I knew I would need help with this.  I also knew that this discernment should be included in the ongoing conversations of all spiritual direction. – p. 27

We can move too quickly from the simple awareness of an experience to an interpretation of it.  When prayer seems to go unanswered, there can be a graced edge to what might begin as mistrust.  “I’m not sure I’m even praying.”  In this time we might find that spiritual direction helps to ustain us as we wait for God.  And mistrust of ourselves and our interpretations may give way to a deepening trust of God’s Spirit at work in us.  Prayer is God’s initiative.  (When I am uneasy, my heart has responded, and my mind just needs to catch up.) – p. 29

There is no human process that can protect us from mistakes and failures.  We will never really be sure of the right course of action.  As long as we are human and dealing with other human beings we will be subject to uncertainty and ambiguity in our motives.  We can, however, open ourselves to God in the uncertainty, in the ambiguity, and allow the compulsion for rightness to be transformed into an openness to responsible love. – p. 30

Waiting for Love to unfold, I can ask of myself with God, “What do I want?  What do I really want?” – p. 31

My spiritual director challenges me to keep my eyes on God and helps me uncover the drivenness of my unfreedoms that keep me from enjoying the dance. – p. 31

I have come to trust God more in my unknowing than in my knowing.  I am not always comfortable in this place, but it’s the only place I can be.  And deep inside, I am grateful for the place of unknowing.  I wanted my directee to be there also, but that had to be God’s work.  The best I could do was risk not having an answer and only trust and, in the theology of Julian of Norwich, to act as though I believe in the goodness of God. – p. 32

Thomas Kelly names the “holy abyss, where the Eternal dwells at the base of our being.”  He speaks of the need to “center down” and “live in that holy Silence which is dearer than life,” taking all of our life, including our decisions, into that place with us.  He is describing here the habitual attitude of discernment that I referred to earlier as prayerfulness. – p. 33

Chapter 4.            The Practice of Group Spiritual Direction

Group spiritual direction is grounded in mystery.  We use a very simple process which honors and supports this grounding: silence, the sharing of a participant, silence, response from the group, silence.  We repeat this process until all individuals have had time for their sharing and response from the group.  We add a few minutes at the end to reflect on our time together.  Sometimes, if it seems that we have lost sight of the Mystery or our reason for being together, we return to silence in the midst of our response to an individual. – p. 35

Although there is less time for individuals, people often become aware of God’s ways in their hearts as they hear how God seems to be present for others.  Many faces of truth can be uncovered in any given situation. – p. 35-36

Members must commit to 1) an honest relationship with God, 2) wholehearted participation in the group process through prayerful listening and response, and 3) opening their spiritual journeys to the consideration of others.  The shared desire to be touched by God’s desire is the group’s cohesion. – p. 36-37

When asked by a friend how she prayed for her, Julian of Norwich responded, “I look at God, I look at you, and I keep on looking at God.” – p. 37

Silence is an important element in the group’s time.  Many people are uncomfortable with silence.  After acknowledging possible difficulties we speak of silence as a way of consciously making space for God together.  Listening to God for and with one another is the only purpose of our gathering. – p. 41-42

We encourage people to risk speaking out of the silence what they sense is being given for another but not to feel compelled to speak.  Whatever words we have for one another need to come from a place of prayerful listening.  And it is to prayerful listening that we must return. – p. 42

Suggestions for preparation: Use your spiritual practices to notice (for example): 1) your desire for God and your desire to desire God, 2) the persons and circumstances that seem to draw you to God or to meaning or hope for your life,  3) the way you sense God involved in your life, 4) your resistance to God or areas where you shut God out, 5) what you want to say to God, what you want to hear from God.  Spend time in prayer before coming to the group, reflecting on your prayer and journaling since the last meeting. – p. 47

Breathing is the most ancient form of prayer. – p. 49

Here is the format we use.  Meetings last about 2 ½ hours: (p. 48-53)

  • 5 minutes silence, with invitation for someone to begin sharing when ready.
  • 10-15 minutes sharing by one person (without interruption)
  • 3-4 minutes of silence
  • About 10 minutes of response from group
  • 5 minutes of silence (pray for person who has just presented.  Presenter may want to take notes on what he or she has heard
  • Repeat process until all members have presented, with a short break midway
  • If anyone is absent, include at least 10 minutes of silence in the middle of the meeting to focus prayer for them
  • 10 minutes (or more) of reflection on the time together:

How prayerful were we during this session?  What was the quality of our silence, our attention to God?  What seemed to take us away from attention to God?

How well did we stay focused on the spiritual life of each person and the God relationship beneath the content of what people presented?  Did we do too much problem solving, become too analytical or philosophical, or share our own experiences when it wasn’t called for?

As a directee, was I vulnerable, willing to share, and open to hearing what others had to say?  Were there times when the words of another seemed to interrupt or get in the way of my discernment?  Is there any feedback I need to give people about this?

As a listener for the others, did my words and silence come from a place of trust, a place of competition, a need to feel superior or appear learned?  Can I offer a question, idea or image and then let go of it, or do I keep pushing it?

Is there any particular awareness of prayer that I take from our time together?  Any particular way I would like the group to pray for me?

If the person has shared something very painful or very intriguing, the group may become overly talkative, wanting to “fix things” for the person or simply being curious.  The facilitator or someone else in the group may ask for silence to bring the group back to where they can listen to God together.  Silence might also be suggested if it seems that participants are offering too many different ideas or images to the person. – p. 51

It is helpful to remind the group that since the spiritual life is ongoing, there does not need to be closure in any one session.  Also, our presence to the person is not meant to replace the person’s presence to God which must continue as the person leaves the group. – p. 51

Chapter 5.            Decisions: Participants, Groups, Facilitators

Other group formats: reflection group, Bible study group, Cursillo accountability group, prayer/faith sharing group, support group.

Is there a need for therapy rather than direction, or as an adjunct to it?  Is a person focusing on problems to escape a deepening relationship with God?  Can he or she relinquish this focus?

Could one person’s emotional or spiritual turbulence potentially kidnap the group?

In groups some people are 1) too easily distracted, 2) prefer just to listen and not share, 3) become competitive, 4) find it hard to sort out what they need to take for themselves from the words of others.

In spiritual direction, content is not emphasized as much as the implications of the content for my relationship with God.

 Chapter 6.            Issues in Group Spiritual Direction

Sometimes too much regard for psychological group theory and practice can eclipse one’s reverence for the grace operative in the group.  Social dynamics such as personality conflicts, polarization, lack of common interests, poor self-esteem among group members, which could be destructive in other kinds of groups, may even be of benefit in group spiritual direction. – p. 68-69

A group might gradually take on a less God-centered identity, and often silence is an early casualty … “I like our conversations.  They flow naturally.  The silence interrupts my thinking.”  Hard questions need to be asked often in every group: “How does what is going on support and reflect our attentiveness to God for one another?  Have we shifted from being present to God for one another to being present to one another with only an occasional reference to God? – p. 69

Often when individuals or groups have been particularly open and vulnerable with God in a given session, they tend to do some back-peddling in the next meeting.  They may criticize the process, undermine the facilitator, or become very passive.  Such behavior may be a sign that things going almost too well.  It reflects a natural part of the process of growing openness to God. – p. 70

Individuals can, of course, create difficulties for a group.   For example, they may 1) resist spiritual intimacy, 2) share only generalized issues or interesting stories, 3) ask for advice or information and respond to others in the same fix-it way, 4) usurp time allotted to others or continue conversation when the group is obviously moving into silence, 5) attempt to refocus the intent of the group to meet personal needs, 6) initiate socializing outside the group, or 6) introduce causes for the group to espouse. – p. 71

Sometimes group members can address these problems, rather than the facilitator: “I liked the story, but what does it have to do with you and God.”  “Are you aware that you often interrupt our silence?  Why?”  Do you really want advice?  I don’t feel like I have advice to offer you, and I know that is not what I want from you.” – p. 71

Chapter 7.            The Contemplative Dimension of Group Spiritual Direction

Group spiritual direction can be a form of contemplative prayer. – p. 75

Silence gradually expands our capacity for awareness of God in all of life.  We might start the morning with a few moments of “unproductive” silence.  We can choose reminders for moments of silence throughout the day: the chiming of a clock, ringing of the phone or doorbell, call of a child.  Or familiar images, perhaps a picture, a candle, a plant, or even a smudge of dirt.  A bodily sensation like anger or pain can serve as a reminder. – p. 76-77

These moments of silence have no end other than to create a spaciousness for God. – p. 77

Gentle awareness involves being present to life just as it is.  Begin by taking five minutes periodically throughout the day just to stop and listen to the sounds around you, sounds of nature, family, office machines, traffic.  This can also be done while in a group.  There is nothing to do with this listening except to listen. – p. 77

Often silence isn’t really silence because there is so much inner noise.  Listening with gentle ears even to that noise softens its harshness, and it can become nothing more than a passing cloud in the sky of silence. – p. 77

Gentle eyes can observe the entirety of a candle, a plant, or any object in the room, then carefully observe and describe each detail, looking at it as it is without thinking of how they would like it to be.  And of course my inner eye can examine myself and others in this same comprehensive but non-judgmental way. Spend a few minutes watching your breath, feel the coldness of the air as it passes through the nostrils.  Thoughts are not necessary; they often get in the way of seeing what is really there. – p. 78

Faith-filled listening – listening to God’s Spirit in ourselves, in others, in the holy sources of our faith, in the events of our lives and our world – is an act of faith in God’s promise to us, “When you seek you you will find me.”  Intentional quiet time for open presence to God and prayerful reflection on one’s day foster this sensitivity to God. – p. 78-80

Open presence is the time one takes to be present to God without agenda or without pre-conceived notions of what should happen. This is not wasting time, even if it feels like it, even if other times might call for other prayers – of tears, petition, work, deciding. – p. 80

Daily reflection on life acknowledges that we often miss God’s presence with us.  We look back with God at the events and relationships of each day, not thinking about the day but bringing it to our prayer.  It’s like sitting down with God and watching a video of our day, with God as the commentator.  He invites our unfinished business and plans for tomorrow, and we can open these concerns to God rather than trying to figure them out.  Journaling makes this practice more concrete and easier to sustain from day to day. – p. 82

Humble faith sharing is the practice in which two or more people share experiences concerning their relationship with God, their awareness, their struggles to believe, ways in which they have responded to or resisted God’s presence, places of suffering, confusion or joy that have been entry points for prayer.

Intentional faith sharing is done in an atmosphere of reverent listening and confidentiality, surrounded by prayer.  People are asked to share their experiences simply and to receive the sharing of others without judgment or attempts to change the experience.  The sharing of each person is followed only by a prayerful silence during which the group holds the person in prayer.  If there is any dialogue, it comes only after everyone has shared.  It is generally related to the common experience of the group rather than the experiences of specific individuals.

This can be structured around a specific spiritual discipline or a particular type of group or group task.  Faith sharing becomes an invitation to hospitable prayer; it is also the fruit of such prayer. – p. 82-85

Hospitable prayer acknowledges our solidarity with all creation and makes us open to receiving whoever or whatever is given us by God for our prayer.


We are far from realizing all that human spirits can do for one another on spiritual levels if they will pay the price. – Evelyn Underhill – p. 87

This “price” is intercessory prayer.  It is a price we pay for those who we love.  Often we do not know its effects. – p. 87

One morning I heard the words, “Let your writing be your prayer.”  That invitation has changed the way I write.  My writing is no longer a means to a finished product.  Instead, it has become an expression of my willinness to be present in the moment, waiting for whatever might be given.  The writing has become an act of intercessory prayer also. – p. 87

“Being in group spiritual direction has changed my approach to life in general.  Even when I am sitting in faculty or vestry meetings I find I can pray for those who are with me and the work we are doing together.” (Episcopal teacher) – p. 89

As we are “gentled into God’s caring love by those who hold us in love, we come to trust in many diverse situations.  Gradually we come to be at home in the Heart of Love and our hearts expand to embrace our brothers and sisters.  We can love them with a detached compassion; the gift of intercessory prayer will be a hospitable heart. – p. 90

Appendix.  Group Spiritual Direction as Support for Ministry

Each meeting should focus on how the prayer experience and faith life of the presenter is impinging upon and being affected by ministry or a situation in ministry.  Specifically, the group should try to keep the focus on the presenter’s spiritual concerns, experiences, feelings, faith, blocks, blind spots, gifts, discernments, confidence and confusions in relation to the situation in ministry rather than on “what to do in this kind of situation” or “how to solve the presenter’s problem.”

This is best accomplished when the presenter plans to present him/herself in relation to the situation, and not to present the situation as a “case.”  The presenter should also try to state specifically what feedback is desired and avoid asking questions like, “What has been your experience in this?” or “Do you have any ideas on what I should do?”

The subject of the presentation is the presenter – specifically the spiritual life of the presenter.  It will help both the presentation and subsequent discussion if the presenter includes reflections like these: 1) How do I feel about myself in this situation? 2) How have I been praying for the persons involved, for the situation, for myself? 3) What seems to happen in this prayer? 4) What is my sense of prayer while I’m in the situation? 5) How do I sense/feel/think God at work?

The meeting agenda should be approximately as follows:

1. Opening by facilitator, including reminder about intended focus and attitude.

2. Silence, 15 minutes, led by facilitator, with or without a reading, music or spoken prayer.

3. Faith sharing statements related to ministry by people other than the presenter, up to 15 minutes.

4. Presentation, up to 15 minutes (others listen silently; if the presenter has not talked about his/her prayer, the facilitator may ask about this).

5. A few moments for clarifying questions only.

6. Silent prayer, reflection and writing – 2 or 3 minutes.

7. Discussion – 30 minutes.

8. Evaluating the process of meeting – 10 minutes. How well did we stay focused on the presenter rather than the situation?  How did we get off-track?  What was the quality of silence and attention to God in the group?

9. Silence – 2 to 5 minutes with or without spoken prayer.

10. Closing

Questions to reflect upon during the presentation:

Questions about prayer:

1. How does the presenter pray for or about the situation and what happens?

2. Do the people involved pray together, share faith together?  Does presenter pray with them?  Silently?  Aloud?  Do they have an agreement to pray for each other?

3. Does the presenter’s way of relating to God affect his/her way of relating to people in this situation?

Questions about the situation or ministry:

1. What are the expectations of those involved?  Are those expectations clear to all?

2. What expectations does presenter have for him/herself, and have they been made explicit with God and the others involved?

3. What seem to be signs of grace; how is this situation a “gift” for the presenter, and vice-versa?

4. How does the presenter feel before and after being in the situation?

5. Is there any threat or challenge to the presenter’s values, beliefs, or psychological adjustment?

6. Are there issues of dependency, attachment, sexuality, anger, power or manipulation that might need to be addressed?  Are they seen as obstacles or invitations to growth?

Questions about the presenter:

1. With what attitude and preparation does the presenter enter the situation?

2. What is the nature and quality of the presenter’s moment-by-moment awareness of or attention to God while in the situation?  What seems to help and hinder this awareness?

3. What was the quality of that awareness while the presenter was presenting the situation?

4. What is the nature of the presenter’s love/compassion in this situation?

5. How is the presenter ministered to in this situation?  What is the nature of the presenter’s confidence, either over or under?

6. Does the presenter feel a need to “do it right?”  Can the group help him/her to relax and trust more?

Questions about discernment:

1. How does the presenter seek Holy Spirit guidance and that of others?  Are there any available sources of truth that the presenter continuously shuts out?

2. How much freedom does the presenter seem to have in responding to the Spirit in this situation?

3. How relaxed or tense does the presenter seem to be?  How surrendered is the presenter?  Is this a surrender to God?  To self?  To the situation?  To the expectations of others?

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