Sister Clara Zhang Jin Ping, a member of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Hanyang, China, exchanges the sign of peace with spiritual director Johanna Chao during a 2014 Mass at the Cenacle Retreat Center in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. Good spiritual directors listen, ask questions, offer insights and allow those who seek their counsel to arrive at their own answers, nourished and enlightened by prayer, faith and love. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz
Sister Clara Zhang Jin Ping, a member of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Hanyang, China, exchanges the sign of peace with spiritual director Johanna Chao during a 2014 Mass at the Cenacle Retreat Center in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. Good spiritual directors listen, ask questions, offer insights and allow those who seek their counsel to arrive at their own answers, nourished and enlightened by prayer, faith and love. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

By David Gibson | Catholic News Service

In appreciation for "the givenness of life" helps people thrive in their daily existence. The world around them needs this appreciation too.

But what is "the givenness of life"?

To speak of life's givenness is to speak of "the eternal truth that God's grace is never exhausted," Chicago's Archbishop Blase J. Cupich said in his May 18 commencement address at Jesuit-run Boston College.

Children, he remarked, "instinctively grasp" life's givenness. "They sense that more is always coming, and the 'more,' because it is beyond their making, is inexhaustible, leaving them unafraid of their God-given thirsts."

Others who surround a person often stand as reminders of life's givenness, Archbishop Cupich suggested. He told the graduates:

"These are the folks who have been grace for you in their steady and supportive presence, by the example of fidelity to their own relationships to one another, in their commitments to work and family on your behalf and in the many second chances they gave you."

While others around us fulfill the role of supporting our appreciation for life's givenness, however, we may well see at many points along life's road that others need us to fulfill a similar role for them.

"The world needs the hope of those who know the givenness of life," Archbishop Cupich said. "Keeping fresh that sense of givenness will have an impact not only on you but on our world."

It makes a big difference when the sense of life's givenness is kept fresh, the archbishop made clear. He explained:

"Keeping fresh a sense that grace is ever breaking into our existence is the pathway to living a truly free, authentic and rewarding life. Trusting that God is always rushing in with more will sustain you in moments of doubt about your future."

Can those who support and encourage our appreciation for life's givenness be regarded as Spiritual guides of a sort? There are different kinds of Spiritual guides, it seems.

What is essential for me, though, is that Spiritual guides recognize meaning below life's surface, believe that human existence is undergirded by divine presence and accept, to borrow words of Archbishop Cupich, "that God's grace is never exhausted."

Spiritual guides in a formal sense may be priests -- including confessors who enter into conversations in the context of the sacrament of penance -- who are supportive.

These are conversations inspired by a hope that someone's sense of having reached a dead end in life can be overcome by another sense, namely that God never ceases to offer second chances intended to impact life here and now -- third, fourth and fifth chances, too.

Spiritual guides in the formal sense also include pastoral counselors on parish staffs, in retreat centers, monasteries and convents, in the campus ministry centers of colleges and universities and in other settings.

Spiritual guides in a less formal sense may be found among one's relatives, friends or others in the faith community who stand out for their balanced appreciation of life's givenness.

Way back in the sixth century, "The Rule of St. Benedict" for monasteries indicated that those guiding monks need to be able to "point out to them all that is good and holy more by example than by words."

Speaking of the abbots who head monasteries, St. Benedict insisted that if they teach "that something is not to be done, then neither must (they) do it." An abbot, moreover, must not neglect or treat lightly "the welfare of those entrusted to him," St. Benedict wrote.

At the outset of his rule he described himself to monks as "a father who loves you."

Perhaps in all this St. Benedict offers a bit of advice regarding Spiritual guides in our times. If so, our formal and less formal Spiritual guides should be people of integrity who do not take our lives lightly, whose counsel assumes the form of words, yes, but more so of example, and whose presence to us is not self-centered but is an expression of authentic love.

People often seek a Spiritual guide because they are confused or feeling at a loss over a stressful turn of events in their lives. It may also be that a Spiritual guide's counsel is sought because a fear of some type is exerting excessive control over a person's life.

Then again, this need may arise because someone who is part of one's life is becoming difficult to understand and a big challenge to handle alone.

More simply, a conversation with someone able to listen attentively and whose presence is genuinely nourishing, as well as honest and caring, may be sought because an individual, a couple and even an entire family needs support and understanding.

Possibly what they need is refreshment for their roles in life. They may need to believe in themselves again and to reawaken their appreciation for life's givenness.

Few of us, if any, really want to go through life entirely alone. Anyway, why should we? People benefit in this complex world from the insights and companionship of others who care.

Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.

Some guide us into the light without realizing it

By Mike Nelson | Catholic News Service

One of my guilty pleasures is watching "Days of Our Lives," the NBC daytime drama celebrating its golden jubilee in 2015. There is a distinctly Catholic tilt to "Days," although it is admittedly more present in its characters' professed faith than in their actual behavior.

A while back, a "Days" storyline featured a man, Father Eric, who loved his vocation but had also fallen in love with a woman he'd been in love with years before he became a priest. In other words, your typical soap opera dilemma, for which Father Eric sought help from his Spiritual director/friend, Brother Timothy.

Amid your typical heavy-handed soap opera dialogue, I was nonetheless struck by how the Spiritual director addressed his priest friend's problem. Rather than tell him, "You should take this course of action," Brother Timothy challenged Father Eric to really discern what he wanted, and what God wanted for him.

"I can't make that decision for you, Eric," Brother Timothy told him.

That is how good Spiritual directors and guides work: they listen, they ask questions, they offer insights. And they allow those who seek their counsel to arrive at their own answers, nourished and enlightened (they hope) by prayer, faith and love.

I have never had a Spiritual director or guide, not in the formal sense. I am, however, blessed with knowing wise people who over the years have offered assistance, advice, counseling and direction of a Spiritual nature, rooted in God's love. It has helped me through challenging times.

Sometimes, they help me with their attitude of understanding, as much, if not more than, the words they use. Sometimes, the message comes without the messenger even knowing it.

I well recall, before I ever thought of becoming Catholic, listening to a priest speak at a religious education conference about his life with conviction, with humor, with honesty -- sharing the challenges and joys he faced in his priesthood -- and coming away thinking, "This man is living a life he loves, a life built around his love for God. But he has not forsaken his own human nature, his own capacity for loving people, his own penchant for wiseacre humor."

The message I received from this was not, "Let's all be priests," or even, "Let's all be Catholics." It was, "It's OK to have God at the center of your life."

This priest had, without knowing it, opened the door to a new direction for my life. He had helped guide me, without a single shove, toward a closer relationship with God.

Years later, after I had become Catholic and was working for a Catholic newspaper, I got to share that story with the priest I'd heard that day. He seemed genuinely surprised, but happy.

"I never knew anyone was actually listening to me," he laughed.

There were other people and events that guided me at that conference -- speakers, musicians who sang, people who loved the Lord and one another joyfully and genuinely.

Most of all, there was my wife who had encouraged me to attend this event with her, believing in her heart that something good would happen for me and for us. She was right, of course -- the best Spiritual guide anyone could ever marry (and she's taken!).

Reflecting on all of this, it occurs to me that Spiritual guidance is available to a greater extent than we realize -- certainly from those who practice it as a profession, and do it very well, but from (and for) each of us, by the lives we live and the examples we set.

All God asks is that we observe, we listen, we pray and, ultimately, we believe God is with us, guiding us like no one else can. And, like Father Eric, we won't need Brother Timothy to tell us what to do.

Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Peter's example to guide our lives of faith

By Susan Gately | Catholic News Service

I've always loved St. Peter. The first Pope, the rock, the enthusiastic leader, the man who would jump first and think later, who would deny and repent, who told Jesus three times that he loved him, only to later deny him.

It is probably St. Peter's well-publicized failures that make him such a good Spiritual guide. We see that even if we stumble through faith like Peter, it is possible to become close to God and it is possible to affirm our faith.

According to Father Michael Mullins, author of "The Gospel of John: A Commentary," we would know little about the night trial of Jesus with the high priest if it were not for the episode involving St. Peter's renunciation, which came just hours after he had valiantly declared, "I will lay down my life for you," (Jn 13:37).

"In the first days of the Church, Peter's denial became awfully important for Christians because of the persecutions, like the frightful persecution by Nero. A lot of people may very well have denied the faith and they were in danger of despairing so Peter's story of denial and then reinstatement would have been important for them," Father Mullins said.

Peter guides us through his story of faith in Jesus and Jesus' reciprocation with a boundless trust in his chosen instrument. Peter met Jesus through his brother Andrew. Moved by Peter's answer when he asks him who he is, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16), Jesus calls him "blessed" and reveals to Peter his mission: "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church" (Mt 16:18).

eter's strong faith and frailty are contrasted when he sees Jesus walk on water. Jesus bids him to join him. Immediately Peter steps out of the boat in faith but takes fright when he starts to sink. "He discovers his own vulnerability," says Father Mullins. Jesus catches him, holds him and says, "Why did you doubt?"

Jesus knows Peter as he is. He knows he will deny him. At the Last Supper he tells Peter he has prayed "that your own faith may not fail," (Lk 22:32).

His trust in Peter plays out movingly in the Gospels.

The hearts of the disciples of Emmaus burned as Jesus explained the Scriptures to them. After Pentecost, Peter constantly does the same.

"Peter is looking at the history of the people of God and seeing the death, Resurrection and glorification of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit that God has brought about as the fulfilment of the whole historical process," says Father Mullins. "He opens the Scriptures to people and is a Spiritual guide."

At the same time, Peter keeps before him at all times the figure of Christ's infinite love. "Let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins," he writes, putting into words the love and trust he himself experienced from Jesus.

Gately is a freelance writer from Dublin, Ireland.

Food for Thought

Perhaps one of the most celebrated cases showing the strength of a Spiritual guide can be found in the relationship between St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare.

As a young girl, Clare, who came from nobility, was moved by Francis' preaching, particularly his devotion to the poor. She was so moved that she decided to give up her life of luxury and comfort, fled her home and went to live a life of poverty like Francis. Like him, she took up a brown habit and eventually became founder of her own order, the Poor Clares.

In his general audience of Sept. 15, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned their Spiritual bond. "Francis of Assisi was not only a teacher to Clare whose teachings she was to follow but also a brotherly friend," he said. "The friendship between these two saints is a very beautiful and important aspect."

Their "Spiritual friendship," the Pope said, led "them to share devotions and Spiritual interests, so as to have but one mind between them."