My year in Melbourne – The Heart of Life Centre & the Practice of Spiritual Accompaniment.
By Kim Mannix
Last year I was in Melbourne participating in a full-time course of study at the Heart of Life Centre for Spiritual & Pastoral Formation. My particular course was the Siloam Program for the formation of spiritual directors. The course is now in its 44th year and continues to guide candidates from Australia and around the world in preparation to companion others along the path of contemplative discernment and following the way of the heart.
Siloam began as an initiative of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart whose founder Jules Chevalier (1824-1907) saw the formation and education of people in ‘spirituality of the heart’ as the most important task of the congregation. To follow the way of the heart stems from the belief in God’s inclusive love for all people, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 5:5)
The Heart of Life website describes the Siloam course as… “an intense program of personal and professional transformation through the experience of contemplative listening and discernment. It is open to men and women of varying faith and cultural traditions who are drawn to listen deeply to their own hearts and the hearts of others, and who seek to discern whether they may be called to the ministry of spiritual direction.”
When I was asked a few weeks ago about my time in Melbourne my reply very simply was, “It was one of the best experiences of my life”. When family and friends would call from Sydney during the year to see how I was going, my consistent response to them was “it’s both challenging and wonderful!” It was challenging at a personal level due to the nature of the self-reflection and the interior work required in the program. It was challenging academically in that the necessary reading and assignment loading was quite heavy. Ultimately, we survived the stress of assignment deadlines and came to appreciate that all aspects of the course were amazing tools for our learning and personal development. Very life-giving for the nine of us walking the Siloam journey last year!
Why I felt drawn to ‘Siloam’…………
I first came to know of the Siloam program about twenty years ago through my association with the St Mary’s Towers Retreat House at Douglas Park. Over the years I had listened to the beautiful testimonies of some who had been part of the program hearing that it was ‘life-changing’ for them. I think I had a small seed of longing planted as I listened during those years, hoping ‘one day’ I might be able to participate, but unable to imagine how that would ever be possible.
I continued with my theological studies and having regular spiritual accompaniment at the Retreat Centre at Douglas Park over the years, feeling at home with a more contemplative way of praying and continuing to notice at times, that gentle nudging in my heart towards the Siloam course. I valued how helpful it was to have someone companion me in my questions and wonderings through the joys and sadnesses of my own life and faith journey. In treasuring this kind of spiritual accompaniment, the desire grew to want to listen to others, to be able to offer a space and the kind of helpful contemplative conversations that had meant so much to me and for which I was deeply grateful. Ours is a God of providence and surprises and amazingly just after my 60th birthday in 2020, things began to align and Siloam was seeming a possibility. After completing the necessary reflective application process and interviews I was accepted for the 2021 program.
The nature of the study………
I loved the course content, some of which was familiar and some very new. The subjects were awareness raising on many levels, particularly in a growing and deepening understanding of myself, in relationship with others and the Mystery of God. The topics captured my mind and heart! They included: Religious Experience and the Christian Tradition; Grace & Conversion; Discernment; Ecological Spirituality; the Spirituality of Human Life Stages; Human Experience of God; Professional Standards in Ministry and the Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors.
The Siloam approach to formation for spiritual accompaniment at Heart of Life is soundly experiential and based on solid theological, biblical, and social sciences theory and praxis. The lecturers and supervisors foster a discerning, contemplative approach whereby spiritual directors-in-formation become more and more attuned to the movement of God’s Spirit in themselves and in their directees. (Heart of Life Website)
My group was a cohort of nine made up of four priests and five women, three of whom were Catholic and two from other Christian traditions. There was a heavy emphasis on the ‘practicum’ aspects of spiritual accompaniment. We were offered many opportunities to develop contemplative listening and to ‘practice’ accompanying people. Monthly spiritual direction was also an expectation of the course for each of us. We were asked to find a Melbourne director who would accompany us through the year. We journeyed almost daily with our three Heart of Life supervisors who guided us in shared conversations, in our questions, during our times of personal retreat and retreat-giving, through surfacing memories and emotions and through various other reflective exercises. It all served to make for a very cohesive and closely bonded group. We became friends and remain in contact post Siloam.
I was blessed to stumble upon accommodation in a Marist Community, ‘Marist House’ in Fitzroy. I shared daily life and chores, cooking and prayer times with the three resident Marist Brothers and five young students from different parts of Australia studying in various universities close by in Melbourne. We got on well together. It was very homely and a lovely community to come back to each afternoon with lots of long conversations and laughs around the dinner table. The Brothers, knowing Melbourne so well, helped us figure out which trams went where! Their culinary skills would seriously give some of the contestants on Master Chef a run for their money as they were excellent cooks and set a high standard for the rest of us to live up to when it was our turn in the kitchen! Br Frank particularly baked delicious sour-dough bread at least twice a week and the smell through the house when he was baking was fantastic, especially on cold winter Melbourne days. Covid isolation periods were not so hard for us in a large house with so many living under the same roof. Having the beautiful Carlton Gardens right across the road from the house, also meant that we could get our daily exercise in a lovely setting.
What is Spiritual Accompaniment?
The Conference of Spiritual Directors Australia describes spiritual accompaniment as a confidential conversation one believer has with another about their life in the light of their faith.
The spiritual director encourages the other to notice the action of God in their ordinary life experiences – pausing, remembering, looking and listening for the movement of God in their heart.
Respect for this process and the uniqueness of each person before God guides the director in their contemplative listening and responses. As the person being accompanied responds with greater awareness, noticing and interpreting the signs of the Spirit, his/her relationship with a self-communicating God grows in intimacy, impacting on all aspects of their life.
Why might a person consider spiritual accompaniment?
Spiritual Accompaniment is something that is growing in our times. Perhaps this trend is influenced by the hectic pace of 21st century life, the extensive use of all kinds of IT devices and the changes we’ve all had to manage because of the global pandemic. People carry all kinds of questions and wonderings about their faith and the spiritual dimension of human life. There are many and varied reasons why a person might look for spiritual accompaniment.
Some might include:
- feeling drawn towards a more meaningful and deeper personal relationship with God
- wanting to foster a more contemplative lifestyle
- having an important decision to make and wanting to carefully discern a response
- to explore aspects of their spiritual journey
- to be able to share their story and reflect where God is present
- to talk about prayer practices and explore new ways of praying
- to talk about hopes, fears, joys and challenges in relationships
- to share a particular religious experience they’ve had and want to explore for deeper meaning
- to consider a particular piece of scripture that is resonating for them
- feeling curious about some aspect of faith
- wanting to talk about feelings and faith questions arising, perhaps provoked by some personal, family, community or worldwide current event
- facing illness or bereavement and desiring God’s presence, comfort and strength in new ways
- sensing an invitation or ‘nudging’ of the Holy Spirit
- to talk about something spiritual they have read that’s stirring within
…just to name a few. Any aspect of life can be a focus for spiritual accompaniment.
Close on twenty years ago, I personally sought spiritual accompaniment to help make sense of the joys and challenges of my life. I remember being taught as far back as my primary school years that there is a spiritual or ‘God’ dimension to our lives. I remember the religion text books (which my mother had covered so nicely with brown paper, a holy picture and plastic) telling me that God is everywhere and with us too! I hadn’t really taken all that to heart. I sometimes felt as though God was absent. Serving in parish music ministry throughout my teenage years and adult life in whatever parish I was living I think kept me grounded, connected to my faith and open to the Holy Spirit. The words of hymns, psalms and other spiritual songs, old and new, often ministered to me.
Regular spiritual accompaniment as an adult offered me a chance to speak openly and honestly about my faith in a setting of trust and complete confidentiality. The conversations met and nourished me in my wonderings, doubts and questions and in my desire to have a better sense of the ‘Divine’ in my ‘ordinary’ life. My spiritual companion listened to me always with gentleness and respect, encouraging me to look for God in all things.
Having completed my Siloam training, I’ve come to realise that the type of compassionate, attentive listening that is characteristic of spiritual accompaniment can bear fruits beyond imagining. It can be a space where our self-communicating God touches into individual human experience, revealing great love and concern for a person in their particular life circumstances….. and they are changed.
Some relevant information…..
If you feel drawn to this kind of study or ministry, I highly recommend the Heart of Life Centre. As well as ‘Siloam’ it offers several other courses in various aspects of ministry, professional supervision and spirituality. The good news for NSW from the Director Clare Shearman is that a Heart of Life Campus will be opening in Sydney based at Kensington. The hope is for a face-to-face cohort commencing early Feb 2023. I think that some of the short courses and day seminars they offer which gently nurture personal faith, may also appeal to some of you. This will take you to the Heart of Life website http://www.heartoflife.melbourne
If you are interested in Spiritual Accompaniment for yourself, the Conference of Spiritual Directors Australia is a helpful website. It has a FAQ section and a directory of accredited people in Australia who offer both face-to-face and Zoom accompaniment. This will take you to the CSD Australia website https://csdaustralia.com
Remembering the testimonies all those years ago from Siloam graduates, I also feel it has been a wonderfully life-changing experience in preparing me to be able to embrace the ministry of spiritual accompaniment.