In Mary Oliver’s poem “Thirst” (Oliver, 69), these lines invite the reader to reflect: “I have given a great many things away, expecting to be told to pack nothing, except the prayers which, with this thirst I am slowly learning.” The poem might prompt one to ask, “What have I given away? What is it that I thirst for? What are my prayers?” These are good questions, worthy of being asked.
Asking oneself these questions personally is a deepening experience. It is a further deepening to hear this poem in the context of communal prayer, to write in response, and then speak to trusted colleagues about what one has written. This is the process my spiritual directors’ peer supervision group has used during the last twelve years. It is a process that we intend to continue.
During the first few years our group got together, we shaped the schedule of our three-and-a-half-hour monthly meetings. We began with breakfast and checking in, followed by prayer led by one of us, and then two case presentations—or sometimes just one case along with watching a DVD of Thomas Keating or Anthony de Mello. Sometimes one of us reported on a seminar or the Spiritual Directors International Conference. In the fall, we did a twenty-four-hour retreat at a Benedictine monastery. In the spring, we spent a day at a farm in Wisconsin where we walked in the woods, enjoyed the trillium in bloom, evaluated our year, and made plans for the next year. This general schedule has remained the same over the years.
Our group consisted of a Benedictine nun, a School Sister of Notre Dame, and three members of the clergy—a Presbyterian man, a Lutheran man, and a United Church of Christ woman. After several years, we had gotten to know one another well. We had shared cases and had gotten adept at asking the questions that take the focus off the spiritual directee and invite the spiritual director to go deeper. If someone had asked, “Do you think you five could go yet deeper in your sharing?” we probably would have answered, “Hmmm … I suppose so … but it seems that we really go deep already.” We might have thought that the meeting format that had evolved was as good as it gets.
A writing class I took, however, initiated a change. During the class, I began to wonder if writing prompts would invite us to go deeper in our supervision group as it had for me in my writing. When it was my turn to lead prayer, I asked whether the others were willing to try something new—to bring a journal and to write as part of our prayer time. Everyone agreed. We tried it. I do not recall what the prayer was or what prompts I used that first time. But I do know that we all said, “Let’s keep doing this.”
Here is the process. After prayer, the leader invites us to reflect and then write for fifteen minutes based on prompts that the leader has shaped from the prayer. The prompts might be based on any part of the prayer time: a song, a written prayer, a poem, a Bible passage, a piece of art. After writing, we share what we choose from our writing, one person at a time. After each person shares, there is a time for response. There is no judgment or advice but rather an acceptance that invites.
Over the years of meeting and sharing, we have come to a deep trust in one another and in this process. In speaking from our writing, and listening to ourselves and the others, we become witnesses to the movements of the Spirit. Our writing invites the open sharing of our deepest pain and sorrow, our regrets and shame, and our gratitude and joy. This part of our Wednesday morning meeting is a time and a place of transformation. It is really group spiritual direction.
We know that our work as spiritual directors has been influenced by this process. We can offer deep listening to those who come to see us because we have listened to ourselves and to one another. As the compassion we have for ourselves and for one another increases, we can offer greater compassion and acceptance to our spiritual directees. Sometimes our supervision time with cases is influenced directly. During our comments about a case, we may return to the prayer and the prompts and see the connections. There comes that “aha” moment, when we claim insight and understanding with surprise and gratitude.
Later, we found a name for this process that invites soul. Parker Palmer, in his book A Hidden Wholeness (Palmer, 92–93), describes using a “third thing” in circles of trust. He writes of how the soul is shy and how our approach to soul needs to be indirect. He reminds us of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant.”
So rather than asking what is going on right now in one’s spiritual life, a third thing gives an indirect focus. Although a third thing might seem less personal than a direct question, it is in fact more personal. It can evoke greater depth. It functions a bit like the process that I have heard many parents describe when they tell of how much more intimate their conversation with their teen is when they are both in the car and looking straight ahead. The invitation is indirect, offered at a slant.
In our peer supervision groups, we have used poetry, prose, scripture, and art as the basis for our prayer and our prompts, including the following:
“On the road to Emmaus” text (Lk 24:11–35):
After Jesus’s resurrection, he walks with two of his followers, who do not recognize him until he leaves them.
— Lk 24:11–35
Prompts: Who are those who have walked with me, those through whom the Divine has spoken? Are there those who spoke to me whom I did not recognize at the time?
A quote from Saint Bonaventure:
He wrote of God as one “whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere…. Therefore the origin, magnitude, multitude, beauty, fullness, activity, and order of all created things are the very ‘footprints’ and ‘fingerprints’ (vestigia) of God”
Prompts: Where in my life have I seen the fingerprints of God? Where am I currently seeing them?
The poem “In the Time before Death” by Kabir:
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think … and think … while you are alive.
What you call salvation belongs to the time before death.
If you don’t break your ropes while you are alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it after?
— Kabir, 53
Prompts: What experience might I jump into? What experience am I resisting? What are the ropes that hold me?
Now after almost thirty-five years of peer supervision together, we have grown deep in soul. This invitation by a “third thing” has challenged and sustained us as we have held one another in our ministry of spiritual direction and in all aspects of our lives, through sorrows, joys, and challenges, including the death of loved ones, serious health issues, divorces of children, job losses, aging, and recently the death of one member of our group. For our peer supervision group, inviting the presence of the Divine through a third thing has been a gift beyond any of our expectations and hopes. We recommend it.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae, 2nd ed. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Accessed Dec. 7, 2021. www.newadvent.org/summa.
Kabir. “The Time before Death.” In Ten Poems to Change Your Life. Roger Housden. New York: Harmony Books, 2001.
Oliver, Mary. “Thirst.” In Thirst: Poems. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.
Palmer, Parker. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.
Rohr, Richard. “God’s Fingerprints.” Daily Meditations. (March 30, 2017). Center for Action and Contemplation. https://cac.org/category/daily-meditations/2017/03.
has been offering spiritual direction for more than thirty-five years. She is certified through Sacred Ground Center for Spirituality in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA, and is ordained in the United Church of Christ. She received a BA from Bethel College, an MA in literature from the University of Minnesota, and an MDiv from United Seminary of the Twin Cities.