When they arrive, they leave their phones in a basket by the door and grab a bite to eat. We light a candle that's in the center of the table within our circle, a reminder of God in our midst. We pray for God to enlighten us.
"How are you, and what's true for you right now?" This is the question we start with, and one evening I had them illustrate their answer by choosing an item to place on the table. The person who chose a photo of a compass said she felt a growing certainty about the road ahead. Our "camel" felt burdened. Our "lone wolf" was worried about the future—would leaving Berkeley after graduation mean unwelcome solitude?
Each month as I've offered group spiritual direction to these UC Berkeley undergraduates, they've had the opportunity to place their hopes and fears on the table, so to speak, laying them before God and each other in a contemplative setting.
We often use the prayer of lectio divina, a technique of prayerful reflection on a piece of scripture, poetry, or art. One evening, one of the students chose Rublev's Trinity as her focus for prayer. This icon shows the three persons of the Trinity encircling a table. The Creator gazes at the Spirit, the Spirit gazes at the communion cup that sits on the table in their midst, and Christ points to the cup and bows his head to the Creator—a circle of loving interconnectedness. After spending time with this image in silence, the student noted that the bodies of the three figures face towards the viewer, and the table between them is spacious. "It looks like there's room for me in the picture," she said.
It seems to me that life with God is nothing less than an invitation to that table. God is willing to include us in that mysterious circle of love and relatedness—a circle that's beyond our comprehension. And spiritual direction can be a representation of God's table for us, a table where we have freedom and space to lay out the pieces of our lives, and where there's room for us to join the circle just as we are.
In the group we also use the prayer of examen, in which we focus prayerful attention on everyday life looking for signs of the Spirit's presence and action. One of the questions we sit with is "Where has God been showing up?" and it turns out God's been showing up everywhere for this group: In a trip to see family that helped one person remember who she is; in a conflict-filled project that turned out, in the light of prayerful reflection, to be a gift; in listening to music for a class; in meeting a prison minister and becoming inspired about vocation.
Over time, patterns can emerge in the prayer of examen, and this can help with discernment about life decisions. Praying like this can also bring up questions. For example, one person had spent retreat time with the group instead of doing a school assignment, and the assignment had turned out not to count. "Was that God, or just luck?" she wondered. "How does God work?"
Nobody in the group tried to come up with an answer, and I'm grateful for that. It's the kind of question every person needs to puzzle out for herself. In a way it's the question we explore in spiritual direction—how does God work in my life? What's my lived theology?
We sometimes close our group spiritual direction time by having each person share what the gift of the evening was for them. One student said she appreciated having me read scripture and poems aloud during our time together rather than reading them herself. "I'm trained to analyze and make connections when looking at words," she said, "and when I don't have a piece of paper in front of me, my mind doesn't need to start jumping around." Another person had been sick and said that although the extra sleep and time away from class had been restful, our spiritual direction group provided a "different" kind of rest. This "different" rest is what contemplative prayerfulness brings. It's the kind of rest that’s possible when we slow down and use the spiritual tools of the heart, letting the sharp tools of analysis stay idle for a little while.
After our final prayer, we say amen and blow out the candle, and the students collect their phones and head off to potlucks, movies, study, sleep. My prayer for them as they leave is that they'll find themselves often at God's spacious table, more and more aware of God's many gracious invitations in their lives.
Katarina Stenstedt is a professional editor and writer, and a New College Berkeley spiritual director.