The Gift of Spiritual Guidance

 What is a Spiritual Guide?:

[1] Spiritual Guides are sometimes called Spiritual Directors, sometimes Spiritual Companions, even the term Spiritual Life Coach is being tried by some of my peers in search for ways to share this gift of holy listening in a culture that does not widely recognize Spiritual Guidance as a modality for healing and growth, despite its capacity to cultivate these things.

[2] December 2023 was the end of the first full year of my work as a Spiritual Guide, having left higher education after more than 25 years.  I grew up and spent my entire adult life in the Lutheran Church and had never heard of a Spiritual Guide until I discerned and followed a call to enter and deepen my contemplative life. This led me first to monastic formation as a Benedictine Oblate and to Wisdom studies before my recent formation as a contemplative Spiritual Guide.

[3] Since I took this leap, I have found a world opening to and longing for this gift of spiritual guidance. In a short time, my schedule has been filled with guidance sessions that have revealed the incredible and varied ways that God is present and at work in our midst.  Individuals from many age groups, races, professions, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds have found me and my Spiritual Guidance practice, and I have been graced to sit and listen deeply with the ear of the heart and to bear witness and lift up the workings of the Spirit (or whatever name they use for God) in their stories.

[4] One thing I have noticed is the universal presence of grief and trauma along with a universal longing for healing, for health, and wholeness—mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I have also heard an accompanying longing of those grieving or experiencing trauma to know, through experience, that God is here in this moment, in each story, to guide and sustain their path. And I have witnessed the simultaneous fear that this is not the case. Spiritual Guidance offers an invitation to recover, reclaim, and sometimes learn new ways to listen to, connect with, and follow the good, sustaining, and loving Spiritual presence.  Spiritual Guidance makes and takes the time to welcome the stories, whatever they are, to love them and listen to them—for the gift that they are and to discern the light they shine on the path forward.

[5] James Finley is a clinical psychologist and spiritual director who was the keynote speaker at the 2023 Spiritual Directors International (SDI) Conference and at the Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation 2023 Contemplative Voices awards event.  In his most recent book, The Healing Path, he offers his profound experience and wisdom on the integration of spirituality and psychology in healing from trauma.  He writes, “the secret opening through which we pass into wholeness is hidden in the center of those wounds we are most afraid to approach.”[i] A spiritual guide plays a role where, with the Holy Spirit in charge, we can learn to trust, to look into the wounds, and, perhaps with less and less fear, to enter in and see and touch the growth, lessons, love, and new life that is there waiting for us. Important in the work of the Spiritual Guide is to trust and to be unafraid.

My Work

[6] I have been honored to be part of offering spiritual guidance services through a program in my city, Milwaukee, that serves a population that lives in poverty, receives government assistance, and has a mental illness diagnosis. These diagnoses can include Bipolar Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Borderline Personality Disorder, Schizoaffective Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and others. It is a remarkable program that I had no idea even existed until I had the courage to open myself to this work; then, it just knocked on my door.

[7] I meet with individuals weekly in their homes and listen to their stories, their voices, their dreams, their grief, and their trauma.  This often include listening to experiences of physical and emotional abuse, homelessness, extreme loneliness, and routine exposure to gun violence and the grief that accompanies it.  We specifically work together on accessing. through their faith, a relationship with a loving God at work in their ongoing healing and recovery. We read Scripture. We pray. We practice gratitude. We sometimes try to find churches or other spiritual communities to visit. Transportation is almost always a factor in ongoing attendance, and finding communities with open hearts and welcoming arms in both doctrine and spiritual practice is also a challenge. For example, the order of worship is often difficult for the unchurched.  Those churches that do articulate the liturgy and liturgical practices (when to stand up, sit down, sing this, walk here, shake this hand) are still difficult for those new church members who cannot read or are overly fearful of making mistakes.

[8] Honestly, some people in my practice do not want anything to do with churches, which have sometimes been a specific source of trauma. In many cases, relationships with churches or their leaders have been charged with rejection, punishment, or judgement and are a deep source of hurt and confusion in their stories. In these cases, we listen to the grief in their relationship with the church and find ways to separate it from their relationship with a loving God.  Sometimes the words of Scripture or a prayer that they want to say sustains them.

[9] Scripture, prayer, and God are not the possessions of the church, but some people do not know this. The permission to reclaim and rebuild a relationship with God using the prayers and Scriptures of the church without a relationship with the church can be empowering. Simply to sit and study Scripture, to pray, to light a candle, to create and conduct a small worship service, to sing, to receive the gift of holy listening, acceptance, forgiveness, and love–these practices are at the heart of this healing ministry.

[10] I’ve heard things. I’ve seen things: deep trauma, deep grief, and deep healing.  I am assured that the Holy Spirit is out there, outside the church walls, outside of doctrine, outside of literacy and expertise, outside of analysis and judgement.  The Holy Spirit is healing and feeding the brokenhearted.

[11] The other half of my practice is done outside of the program I described above.  Individuals schedule directly with me through email and calendars once a month. We meet in my office (I call it my prayer space) or at coffee shops or at churches or online.  Most of these individuals fall into a more privileged demographic than the first. I work with pastors, chaplains, and deacons. I work with lay leaders. I work with individuals who request spiritual guidance when on personal retreat at the monastery. I work with Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Gen Z’s; with all genders and sexualities; with churchgoers and non-churchgoers.

[12] Despite layers of privilege, this group of seekers has remarkable commonalities with the first that I described.  They, too, are grieving. They, too, have experienced trauma. In fact, this group, I would venture to say, has experienced often a more pointed trauma in their relationship with the church than the first.  I find people who are frustrated and saddened by challenges with the misalignment of the doctrines and practices of the churches they know and love with the ways they believe they are being called by God. They, too, are often comforted to know and experience that God is not only the church and can be accessed—recovered–reclaimed right where they are. This group struggles with mental health, too, although its treatment is often better resourced. In some ways, guilt and shame seem to plague these seekers a little more, perhaps in some belief that they “should” have been able to think themselves out of the predicaments of their woundedness and the woundedness of the world.  This group is lonely too and is longing for community, specifically a community where they can practice listening to themselves and one another with love, acceptance, and non-judgement. They get a taste of this in the gifts given and practiced in Spiritual Guidance.

What is the role of the church?

[13] Many people come to Spiritual Guidance with this question:  I am hurting; what can I do? As a spiritual guide, I invite them to simply stop, to be still with the question. I ask them to touch the hurt, breathe, and listen.  Listen. Listen. Listen. If they don’t have the tools or spiritual practices or the courage at first to tackle the question, I remind them that this is ok.  “God has got you,” I say. If they feel a longing to be able to sit quietly, to be less afraid to listen within, to make time to consider the question, then maybe, gently, they might open the longing to God in prayer. Listen. Listen. Listen. If they feel they don’t know how or need new ways to listen, maybe they are being invited to practice new ways to listen, as Benedict would say, with the ear of the heart.

[14] These practices could be offered more often in churches: the reading of Scripture using lectio divina, silent meditation, contemplative dialogue, personal retreat. Churches might teach and offer a welcome to what is in each moment and proclaiming God is present in each person, each experience, and each feeling. A congregation might consider making space for a spiritual guide. They might budget monthly spiritual guidance for clergy or other leaders.

[15] The emphasis might be to find a way to reach the poor and hurting inside and outside the church and in doing, so find a way to the stories. And then, most importantly, listen. Listen. Listen. Listen to the stories-with the ear of the heart and look for the workings of a God that sustains and has sustained us in all the grief and all that trauma and who invites healing in every moment.

[16]  My hope is also the hope expressed by James Finley, which I will leave you with today, that “as you continue on this way, I hope that you will continue to discover, in all sorts of unexpected ways, that you are becoming a healing presence in an all-too-often traumatized and traumatizing world. By that, I mean you will continue to be graced with realizations that you are becoming someone in whose presence others are better able to experience the gift and miracle of who they really are deep down and who they are called to be, so that they in turn can pass on the contagious energy of healing to others.[ii]



[i] Finley, James. The Healing Path-A Memoir and Invitation Orbis Books, 2023, page ix.


[ii] Finley, James. The Healing Path-A Memoir and Invitation Orbis Books, 2023, page xxii.


Heather Lee Schmidt

Heather Lee Schmidt is a contemplative Spiritual Guide in Milwaukee, WI. She completed her spiritual guidance formation at the Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation in Washington DC and was formed as a Benedictine Oblate at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison, WI. Heather and her partner, Chris, who is a licensed psychologist, lead a small business called A Moment of Retreat that aims to impact spiritual, emotional, and physical health through self-reflection, values-based decision making, and loving action.