Chaplains’ Corner: The value of spiritual direction in college

Seth Wax

For almost the past two and a half years, I have been in a training program to become a spiritual director. And it’s one of the best things I have done in the last ten years.

Spiritual direction is a process by which a person and a director, or a small group, explore questions of meaning, purpose, faith, belief, and whatever it is that matters to each person participating, on an ongoing basis. In spiritual direction sessions that meet once a month, people share fears, joys, and hopes; seek to discover purpose and calling in life; sit with confusion; reflect on big decisions or the direction of their life; make time to integrate spiritual practices into daily life; try to heal from difficult religious experiences from earlier in life; and explore what spirituality might look like for them in their lives today. 

The focus is spiritual and not clinical, and spiritual direction is rooted in the awareness that each person is in possession of great wisdom. The role of the spiritual director is to listen to the questions, insights, and wisdom that arise, and then reflect them back to participants, as they seek to understand how they might grow and learn from those insights. Different forms of spiritual direction have roots in a number of religious traditions, and people of all backgrounds — including those who do not identify as religious at all — take part in it.

As I’ve gained training in how to be a spiritual director — and as I also reflect on the twelve years I have been in spiritual direction myself — I’ve come to appreciate how important it is to tend to and be curious about our spiritual lives, and to receive support and community for it. At Williams, awareness of the importance of caring for our mental and emotional well-being has grown and deepened over a number of years. Many students, staff, coaches, and faculty across the College — especially my wonderful colleagues in the Dean’s Office, Integrative Wellbeing Services, the Davis Center, Accessible Education, and the Chaplains’ Office — dedicate their time to offering the kind of support that each individual needs and deserves as they make their way through their time at Williams. 

Alongside and as part of this support, I also believe that addressing the needs of our inner lives — the parts of ourselves that seek wholeness and transcendence, our yearning for deeper knowledge of ourselves and of the world, our attempts to become better people in our interactions with our friends, classmates, and community — is a critical dimension that deserves our attention on its own terms. It is already a part of the work that my colleagues and I do, but I think it is important to uplift and name it as a distinct aspect of our experience at Williams.

I started spiritual direction over 12 years ago, when I was still in rabbinical school. My program offered us the opportunity to meet with a mashpi’a — the Hebrew word for spiritual director — once a month throughout our five years of school. In those early sessions, I was able to bring questions about my spiritual practice and religious life that I struggled with. I also had the space to wonder about how the things I was learning in my classes intersected with and impacted my life. When I was in college and graduate school, the pace of learning and the workload was so intense that I rarely had the opportunity to sit back and consider the meaning of all that learning. In spiritual direction, one of the things I could do was sit quietly and ask myself what all the things I was learning taught me about my life. I could wonder about what the deepest parts of myself that I so often ignored were telling me about what I should do with my life. I could do all this with the support of another person, my director; I could seek guidance about how I might want to deepen my spiritual life and practice.

Today, as a spiritual director myself, I have the privilege of sitting with Williams students of all different backgrounds, exploring questions of meaning and purpose as we sit in silence and wonder what this life is about. In small groups and one-on-one, we explore what is coming up for us, ask questions to help each other go deeper in our discernment, and offer a presence that is supportive, intentional, and caring. I feel transformed by the time each session concludes, and I am always eager for the next one. 

In a recent meeting for a spiritual direction group in which I am a member, one of the participants reflected on upcoming changes in their life. They were about to leave a job they had worked at for some time, and they were processing complex and contradicting emotions about the impending change. While they shared and while the group sat listening quietly, they asked a simple yet powerful question: What do we do as we wend our way through the world, when we do not yet know where we are going? I found it to be a very compelling question. Each one of us is on a winding path toward some undefinable goal. Many of us keep our eyes on what is next — a summer job, classes for next semester, a study abroad program, a full-time job or grad school, a promotion, a tenure application, or a job prospect at another employer. Embedded in those questions are deep concerns about where we are going. What are we doing with our lives? Are we doing what we are meant to be doing? Are we living lives that are intentional and connected to what our souls (for lack of a better term) are trying to guide us toward?

Spiritual direction has taught me to cherish these questions, to honor them, and to give them the space and time to be pondered, wondered about, and allowed to move with us over time. As we move into a season of deadlines, finals, and transitions to summer break or post-Williams experiences, as the to-do lists pile up, and as we sometimes feel more like workers than human beings, I want to invite each of us (and I include myself in this, too) to take time to pause, reflect on our own or with others, carve out some space for not knowing and wondering, allow ourselves to be amazed, surprised, and have our hearts broken open. To be, in a word, human. 

For more information about spiritual direction, please contact Rabbi Seth at smw4.

Rabbi Seth Wax is the College’s Jewish Chaplain.