Spiritual Guides

August 30th, 2021

I got an email from a religious sister I know. A guy had contacted her to ask for help with a course he was taking at a local retreat center. The class was called the “Spiritual Guide Training Program”. He told Sister that he needed two “seekers”, people whom he could guide at no cost themselves, in order to complete this one-year program. Sister told me to contact him if I was interested .

I did.

I emailed the man, and we set up an appointment for a Zoom meeting to talk about the process. He needs a person (actually two people) to meet with him in person or virtually once a month for several months. That is a requirement he needs to meet in order to get certified by the retreat center as a spiritual guide.

The Zoom meeting lasted a bit less than an hour, and I found it extremely frustrating. I suspect he did too.

I have previous experience with “spiritual guides”. Some of it was wonderful. Some of it not so much. I have had the most trouble with persons who advertise themselves as “spiritual guides or spiritual directors”. I have no issue with people who have extensive training in the field. I regularly consult with two rabbis I know, and a with couple Catholic deacons. I know several Buddhist dharma teachers who are willing to give me guidance. Being trained in spiritual matters is often helpful, but it is not always a guarantee of competence. I have known priests and other religious professionals who were incapable of providing useful advice. A title or a diploma may or may not mean anything.

My wife, Karin, spoke to me about my meeting with this new spiritual guide. She said,

“With this sort of thing, the two people have to ‘click’. You are hard to ‘click’ with.”

Oh, so true. I am a difficult person to read, especially at the beginning. I seldom make good first impressions. I tend to alienate people rather quickly. It takes a while for somebody to get past my gruff exterior and find out that there is a gruff interior too. Sometimes, they find something worthwhile once they get to know me, but few people last that long.

This guy didn’t.

I asked the man straight out, “What makes you competent to be a spiritual guide?”

He was a bit taken aback. He replied,

“I’m not an expert, but I’ve been doing this as both a seeker and a guide for fourteen years.”

“Doing what?”

The prospective spiritual guide told me about the process we would use, and it made little sense to me. I told him,

“That’s rather vague and amorphous.”

He attempted to explain, “Well, there is no curriculum to this. It’s not like there are books to read, and homework. A person comes to me, and tells me what is bothering him or her, and I respond to what they say. Most of my job is to listen.”

“Are you a good listener?”

He nodded.

“And people actually tell you this?”

He nodded again.

I thought for a while and I asked him, “What do plan on getting out of all this? Are you expecting to help me somehow? Are you going to learn something?”

He replied, “My main goal is to complete this course I am taking. I need to work with seekers for some months in order to finish the class and get ‘official’ approval from the retreat center.”

“So, you’re telling me that you are using me to get this official oky-doky from the retreat center to be a spiritual guide?”

He shrugged, “Well, that’s true to a certain extent, but there is more to it than that. You see…”

I stopped listening for a while. He finally finished talking. I admired his candor, but I was angry at the notion of being a means to an end.

I asked him, “Why should I trust you?”

That stopped him dead. “Well, at this point, you shouldn’t trust me.”

“Yesterday, I talked and drank beer with my friend from the synagogue. We had a heart to heart, and solved no problems. I have other people I can talk to. Why should I talk to you?”

That bothered him. “Well, this process isn’t for everyone. If a person thinks that their lives are good already, and they don’t want to do any personal reflection, then this won’t work.”

All during this conversation, the man had asked almost nothing about me. Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seemed like he didn’t give a damn about my life.

He went on, “What a seeker gets out of this is what they bring to the table. Have I answered your questions about the process?”

“Yeah, I know now that when we meet, I will do all the work, and you’ll sit there.”

“That’s not completely true.”

I had had enough.

“Okay, let’s do this. Right now you know nearly nothing about me. I’m a writer. I will send you some links to what I have written. That is how you can know me. Read some of it, and decide if you want to deal with me.”

He responded quickly, “I can see you got it all handled already. This won’t work.”

“Agreed.”

I left the meeting.

I’ve been thinking about who have been my best spiritual guides. They have been the veterans who were patients in the VA psych ward. They have been homeless people I have met on the street. They have Native American elders who walked with me for miles and miles. They have Buddhist monks who gave me food, shelter, and love. One has been an old Jew who fed me beers while telling stories about the Baal Shem Tov. One was an elderly Black man who gave me moonshine and told me about growing up on Chicago’s Southside. None of them ever called themselves spiritual guides.

My very best guide has been my nine month old grandson, Asher. He has taught more about myself than any other person on earth.

The man taking the spiritual guide class may in fact do excellent work. I don’t know. I won’t know.

Maybe he would be better off going to bartending school.

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