care of the mind, care of the spirit

Gerald May 1

“Besides differing from psychotherapy in intent, content, and basic attitude, spiritual direction is generally surrounded by a characteristic atmosphere that is seldom encountered in any other interpersonal relationship. The atmosphere is one of spaciousness and underlying peace; of openness and receptivity; of a kind of quiet clarity in which it is easier to allow and let be. As one person put it, ‘Being in spiritual direction is just like being in prayer, only there’s someone with me in it.’”

Gerald G. May M.D. Care of Mind/ Care of Spirit, a psychiatrist explores spiritual direction, p. 113.   

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I noticed Dr. May’s book, Care of Mind/ Care of Spirit, on my bookshelf, and when I opened it, a bulletin from September 1990 fell out about a book group at my church reading Care of Mind/ Care of Spirit. There were no marks in the book, so I knew I had not read it. This was over twenty-seven years ago, two months before I went into recovery. In the previous year, our book group had read May’s book, Addiction and Grace. For some reason, I was not ready to hear May’s words again for the second time so long ago, but today is different. In 1990, I was becoming a missionary member from my church to start another Episcopal church in a new part of our city. May’s book would have been helpful in starting a new congregation as I began a life in recovery, and even more so when I was studying to become a deacon nine years later. 

This has been one of the best books I have read about spiritual direction. Dr. May emphasizes how spiritual direction is different from pastoral care and therapy that he is so skilled at practicing. In pastoral care and therapy the director or caregiver “hopes to encourage more efficient living in the prevailing culture, seeking to bolster an individual’s capacity to achieve a sense of autonomous mastery over self and circumstances.” Spiritual direction “seeks liberation from attachments and a self-giving surrender to the will of God.” This means that at some point spiritual direction may turn in opposition to many of the cultural standards and values that psychotherapy supports. May skillfully writes about how a spiritual director is constantly seeking out rabbit holes or traps the directee may be encountering in looking for God in his life. May also reminds us that the real healer is God and that the director and directee are merely channels. He cautions spiritual directors about how easy it is to become distorted in our roles, “playing God”.  

This is a book I keep as close to me as possible while doing direction. I sometimes see myself trying to keep from obsessing about what would May say about this in a meeting and hurrying to look up his chapter when the session is over. But of course, May would say our job is not to worry at that moment about what he says but concentrate solely and “most soulfully” on connecting this person to God during our meeting!