St. Paul is a man with many titles. Today we would use the cliché ''he wore many hats.''In his pre-conversion life he was called a tentmaker by profession, a Pharasaic Jew by religious affiliation, a Roman citizen by birth, and a terrorist of Christians by social persuasion. In his post-conversion life he was called a traitor by the Pharisees, a man of suspicion by Peter and James, an Apostle to the Gentiles by his converts and companions, an antagonistic preacher by the Jews in Iconium, a lover of Jesus Christ,and a martyr for the Christian faith.
But one title that has eluded him is that of spiritual director. For the purposes of this article I want to propose the image of St. Paul as spiritual director and I want to filter this image through five of his epistles. They contain the centerpiece of his spirituality and his gifts as a group spiritual director.
First, let me define what I mean by spiritual direction. Basically, it is a form of pastoral conversation that focuses on a person's relationship with God; specifically how that relationship is deepened by learning how to attend to the religious meaning of ordinary human experiences, then nurturing that contemplative attitude through prayer, and reflection that supports new behaviors and actions.
It begins with a recurring desire to find someone who can help you uncover the different layers of the mystery of your life experiences so you can learn how to engage God who is hidden in those experiences. That desire is all about God who grabs hearts and won't let go. Attending to the desire is all about you.
It is like a kernel of popcorn stuck in your dentures which you try to free with your tongue. But sometimes it takes floss or a toothpick to get it free. Where the inner life is concerned, God gnawing at the door of our heart sometimes needs a spiritual director to help release whatever is keeping you from giving your heart to God. St. Augustine was right when he said, ''Our hearts are restless, O God, until they rest in Thee.''
Around the year 23, Paul of Tarsus left home at the age of 16 to study at a rabbinical school in Jerusalem. For 10 years he demonstrated violent feelings and ruthless opposition to the growing Christian movement in Palestine. Spiritually we could say he had a restless heart fueled by high resistance to the new faith movement being spread and espoused by members of the New Way. Around the year 37, at age 30, he walked the 168 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus for the purpose of arresting and bringing back to Jerusalem for trial members of the Christian movement.
Those were his plans. God had other plans for Paul. He surrendered his life and plans to God through a life-changing conversion experience on the Damascus road. He escaped the enraged Jews by being lowered in a basket over the city wall. As with Paul's Jewish ancestor Moses, this experience of divine intervention was God's way of being his spiritual director so that the new plan for Paul's life would unfold according to God's plan for him. He journeyed to Aqabah, traveling through parts of the desert that the Jews traveled during their exodus from Egypt. He spent several years there.
My speculation is that it was the sight of a lengthy post-conversion retreat. This was the marker event in which he explored the spiritual meaning of his conversion, where he developed an intimacy with Jesus, from the one whom he was persecuting to the one he was falling in love with, where he discerned his call to be an Apostle to the Gentiles, and where he totally surrendered his life to being a voice and an instrument of Jesus, dead and risen.
Through this lengthy retreat Paul had to learn how to quiet a restless heart so God could convert it into a passionate heart; he had to learn how to discern the false voice of the terrorist that wreaked havoc within him for nearly 15 years so he could attune himself to the true voice of the spirit of Jesus who would direct him to lead a purposeful life rooted in the freedom that comes from giving one's heart totally to God.
The Damascus experience was a moment in his life. Unpacking the meaning of that experience and assimilating all the graces hidden in the radical conversion of that moment took eight years of his life. The old Paul was formed as a rigid Pharisee in the Judeo capital of Jerusalem. The new Paul was formed as an Apostle to the Gentiles in the Arab city of Aqabah. It was the place of his formation into the Christian faith. It is where he was schooled for a new vocation.
And God was the spiritual director overseeing it all, especially the process of transplanting Paul's pre-converted heart, diseased by the emotional plaque of control, inflated ego and stubbornness and replacing it with a heart full of surrender, wonder and ready for new adventures.
The small faith communities Paul founded during his three missionary journeys and the companions he collaborated with were the beneficiaries of his spiritual growth and development in the post-conversion years at Aqabah. Eight years of spiritual direction with God in a desert port city prepared him to be the spiritual director for the communities he founded and the companions who traveled with him.
The issues he addressed in his letters were issues he struggled with during his post-conversion formation. Getting free of his old self and becoming a new man in Jesus Christ (or as he expressed it in Galatians 2:20, ''It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me''), is the testimony he will share as God's new-life plan for his faith communities. They will be based on the spiritual fruits of his conversion and rooted in the good news that faith in Jesus Christ is the way to get to the redemptive side of grudges, prejudices, inhospitality, arrogance, greed, jealousies, lack of charity, sexual abuse, etc.
Let's see how this model of Paul as spiritual director to his small faith communities plays out in some of his epistles. The first letter he wrote was to the Thessalonians. The issue that inspired it was Timothy's news to Paul in Corinth that there was some misunderstanding in the Thessalonian community about the fate of those who had died. Paul writes about the Second Coming of Christ.
The expectation of the early Christians is that it is imminent. Paul directs their attention away from some end-time event to how they are living the ''Day of the Lord'' now. He brings their hearts back to focus on that to which the symbol of the Parousia points too, namely Jesus Christ living in their midst. He awakens them again to the truth that Jesus will put order back into their community once they begin to attend to the presence of Christ among them.
Paul the spiritual director is writing from the book of his lived experience. It was Jesus Christ who put order into his life and freed him from his restlessness to tell others about this good news.
As a good spiritual director he guides his community at Thessalonica to focus on the presence of the Lord among the living and give their troubled hearts about the dead to God who will care for them until the ''Day of the Lord'' comes in glory.
In the second letter to the Thessalonians the issue is still the Second Coming of Christ, but in a different context. He encourages them to be prepared while also assuring them that the faithful who have died will have priority over those who wait for the Lord's coming within their own lifetime.
The new spiritual issue in this second letter is the growing division in the community over those who are abdicating their hearts to false teachers. They are the source of ''a lie'' that the day of the Lord and all that it means has already come. Paul says this false prophecy is of Satan.
By using the epistle, Paul practices his ministry as spiritual director of the Thessalonians and encourages prayer for divine strength as the antidote to deceitful spirits. He also encourages them to practice devotion, discipline and diligence in their conduct. As a discerning voice Paul directs them away from the false voices of the unconverted Jews and the spirit of Satan that produce division and anxiety, to the true voice and spirit of Jesus who frees them from being seduced so they can cling to hope and courage.
His spiritual direction is born of his years of being addicted to the false voice that lied to him about being a terrorist. This was the inner voice that he allowed to inflate his ego and shrink his heart. His conversion and formation for apostleship unmasked that lie and freed him of that voice while at the same time empowering him to discern the true voice of Jesus whose spirit directs his new mission as a preacher and evangelist.
In the way he grabs the attention of the Thessalonian community, Paul practices group spiritual direction by doing three simple things: 1. He turned their hearts to a desire for a relationship with the true God, who desires to be in relationship with them. That got lost in the static of the uproar and division created by the false voices of the antagonistic Jews in Thessalonica. 2. He exhorted them to renew their love for one another by practicing conduct that is life-giving to each other. 3. He awakened them to the choice of giving their hearts to Christ in rejoicing, praying and encouraging one another in good deeds and words.
All of this spiritual direction of his community was the result of Jesus directing him in the desert during the years of his spiritual development as a man converted by the grace of God.
He is now sharing the fruit of the graces poured out upon him for the purpose of being a vessel of grace for others. And he's doing it by the way he directs his community at Thessalonica to stay centered in the true spirit of Jesus and reject the false spirits of the false voices of the Jewish leaders among them.
Let's take a brief look at Paul's practice of group spiritual direction to the Corinthian community. The social makeup of this community was extremely diverse. There was a solid nucleus of Jews but many pagans. There were city officials who converted along with ex-slaves. There was a large number of skilled artisans and women of high social rank. The conversions of this eclectic group of people did not result in the miracle of a cohesive faith community.
Those who were educated continued to question and explore a fascination with other religions. Others had their own interpretations of Christianity while others competed for spiritual prestige in the community. The result was a complexity of relationships that came to be known as ''the Corinthian Problem.''
In the spring of A.D. 54, some members of the community visited Paul in Ephesus and shared some details about the life of the Church in Corinth that surprised them. It was clear to Paul that certain basic flaws in the Corinthians' understanding of Christianity needed to be addressed. His reply in the form of two letters was intended to bring them to a true appreciation of the authentic life of Christ they are called to live as a community.
In the first letter he addresses the rival groups in the community who are causing division. In the second part of the letter he addresses lawsuits being filed against fellow Christians. In the third part he responds to questions of social status, problems associated with pagan worship, and isolation of certain people in the liturgical assemblies.
As the spiritual director for this group of conflicted, boastful, and selfish Christians, he diffuses the unheal-thy energy unleashed by those false voices not by scolding or reprimanding them, but by reminding them that love is the greatest gift and prophecy is more important than wagging tongues. By not giving his heart to their small hearts, withered by life-stunting fruits of small, mean spirits, Paul shares a piece of his heart that helps him stand tall; namely the heart of Jesus, who died and rose for them. His resurrection is what transformed them and helps them live as a resurrected community of faith.
Just as a good spiritual director would make some recommendations for prayer and action to nurture ongoing spiritual renewal in directees, Paul makes some recommendations to the Corinthians (16:10-18) to help them become strong and stay centered in love. He mentions Stephanas as a role model. He concludes by expressing his love in Christ Jesus to all the community.
Paul's style of spiritual direction to this divided Christian community is done with confidence and gentle authority in his apostolic mission. He does not stigmatize people. Rather, he addresses the issues on the level of Christian teaching and conduct. As the founder of the community he surely must be disappointed by their behaviors. He rises above his own hurts by centering their hearts again in Jesus Christ, and in the Eucharist and the Resurrection. For Paul these are the mysteries of faith that immunize them from focusing on the wrong things and assuring them of ongoing healing and unity.
Let's take a look at a sample of Paul's style as a spiritual director to just one person, his convert and travel companion on two missionary journeys, Timothy. He served as Paul's representative on missions to Thessalonica (1 Thes 3:2,6), to Corinth (1 Cor 4:17), and probably also to Philippi (Phil 2:19-23). He was in close contact with Paul during Paul's imprisonment in Ephesus (Phlm 1), and was also with him at Corinth when the letter to the Roman's was written (Rom 16:21).
Their relationship, as spiritual director to the one being mentored, was nourished by years of travel, field experience in the different communities and by regular practices of prayer and retreats.
In the first letter, Paul gives direction to Timothy about how to deal with false prophets that contaminate Christian teachings. Since Timothy was quite young, he proposes principles pertaining to his relationship with older members as well as to the presbyters.
He gives guidance for supporting widows, how to disperse the charity offered through collections, how to deal with divisive issues in liturgical celebrations, how to select men for the offices of bishop and deacon, how to respond to relationship issues between slaves and their masters, and the obligations of the wealthier members of the community. Paul's tone is nurturing and directs Timothy to claim the graces of God's favoring him with faith and courage to witness to the good news revealed in Jesus Christ.
He is not an arrogant teacher. Nor is Paul intimidating in making Timothy feel guilty if he doesn't carry out every word. Rather, Paul's letter to Timothy gives credence to his Damascus conversion and supports his radical change from terrorist to pastor of Christians. In his spiritual direction of Timothy, Paul is a true pastor of a soul.
He claims this grace in his letter in a way that Timothy will claim the graces of his call as an apostle and continue to serve the body of Christ as a voice and vessel of the Good News. The letter is about Timothy's relationship with Jesus and not about his relationship with Paul.
Paul's formation as a spiritual director was different from mine. I attended a certificate program at a Catholic college. St. Paul was schooled in the art of spiritual direction in the desert. I needed a master's degree to apply for admissions in a graduate program. St. Paul needed a radical conversion of life. I received a certificate as the equivalent of a license to practice spiritual direction. St. Paul received a transplanted heart, then wrote 14 letters as testimony to his new spiritual life.
His epistles were the vehicles for revealing his spirituality. They were pure inspiration. There was no manual for writing his letters. He wrote them from his heart as his way of sharing his heart -- one that was converted and conformed to the heart of Christ.
The issues he addressed in his communities were about hearts that became unfocused and conflicted once they forgot how to give their hearts to Christ. When that happened, the communities Paul founded became all about them. Moving from founder to spiritual director Paul guided them, like a leader in a 12-step program, how to give their hearts back to Christ and enjoy again the life-giving fruits that only Christ gives.
My ministry as spiritual director today is not so different from Paul's day. The issues are the same, but with different names. I deal with sexual addictions as he did. I hear experiences of false idols in people's lives as he did. I hear people's stories about spiritual deserts as he did. I hear about people's battles with evil spirits and voices as he did. I hear about diversity in the Church as he did. I hear about the inner search for holiness as he did. I hear about people being tortured by slavery to sin as he did.
My style as a spiritual director is similar to his. I am committed to helping people discern how to take their heart back from the false gods and give it to the true God revealed in Jesus Christ. He is the power that leads to inner freedom within.
In closing let me make a practical connection between last year's Pauline Year 2008-2009 and the portrait of St. Paul as spiritual director. The number of Catholics seeking spiritual direction today is increasing. In the past spiritual direction was limited to priests and religious as part of their formation and ongoing formation for professional ministry. But, today more and more lay people are seeking spiritual direction as well as being trained in the ministry of giving spiritual direction.
Centers and programs for training spiritual directors have emerged on both a national and international level. The demand is a result of more and more people attending to new interests in prayer and new desires for deepening their relationship with God as the basis for nurturing their spiritual lives.
Looking for personal benefits of the Pauline Year, you can begin by reading and reflecting privately on the epistles of St. Paul as a form of spiritual direction for your own faith journey. At the same time listen to those epistles when they are proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word during public worship as St. Paul spiritually directing you in a deeper and more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.
Imagine yourself as a Thessalonian, a Corinthian, an Ephesian, a travel companion like Timothy. Substitute your spiritual issues for theirs. Then be still and listen to St. Paul the spiritual director guide you to find Jesus Christ hidden in the issue.
Once you do, Jesus will once again become the one who frees you from the false voices that trick you into believing your options are limited. Jesus will once again clean out all the bad plaque clogging your heart and expand it so you can see what God sees for you as a way out of whatever issue you're struggling with. Jesus will once again become the center from which you will be guided by his direction of your life and get better at revealing Him to others as the center of their lives. TP
Father Mast is a priest of the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, and is chaplain at St. Gertrude Monastery and the Benedictine School. He is a regular retreat preacher to religious communities and leads parish retreats and workshops.