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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Spiritual Advisor and the Public Square

Well, I've been pretty lame about keeping up this blog. Here's something I posted last month on Episcopal Cafe, in case anyone is still out there checking this, and missed it. It seems timely as election day approaches

I recently visited the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (NYAPC) in Washington DC, and enjoyed a fascinating historic tour of the building, especially the “Lincoln Parlor.” Mary Todd Lincoln and the children were members of this church during the Lincoln Administration, and apparently the President relied on the pastor, the Rev. Phineas D. Gurley, as an informal spiritual advisor. On display in the Lincoln Parlor are photos of the Lincolns and the Lincoln cabinet, and, behind glass, an early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The story is that originally, Lincoln intended an arrangement that would have reimbursed the southern landowners for their slaves, essentially a government “purchase” of the slaves, to free them. In private conversations, the president’s spiritual advisor encouraged him to take a more morally consistent position, and the ultimate result was the Emancipation Proclamation as we have it.

Gurley was the preacher at the funeral of the Lincolns’ son Willie (as well as at Lincoln’s own funeral), and apparently met with the president to talk about “the state of his soul” and to listen. Apparently he did make some use of his relationship for what might be called “political” purposes: there are records of his recommending several people for influential political positions. But he seems to be someone whose judgment and integrity were generally held in high regard. He was also known as a preacher who did not preach politics. It appears that there was a relationship of genuine spiritual companionship between Gurley and the President, though they met relatively infrequently and Lincoln never joined Gurley’s church. The obvious spiritual depth of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, together with the story told at NYAPC about the Emancipation Proclamation, give us some sense of the “fruits” of that relationship, but its details were not a matter of public record when those conversations were going on. And , I believe strongly, this is as it should be, when it comes to spiritual advisors to the powerful and famous.

There’s a contrast here to the way that the religious advisors of the powerful have been covered—and, I suspect, manipulated nowadays, and it is dismaying to me. From my training and work as a spiritual director, I know that conversations about the “state of one’s soul” are about a work in progress, God’s work in progress. And there are good reasons why our code of ethics insists on the sacred confidentiality of such conversations. I would think that for a famous person, such a relationship would need to be a place of freedom and absolute confidentiality.

People sometimes quote their spiritual advisors (as Barack Obama does, for example, in his use of Jermiah Wright’s phrase “The audacity of hope”), and that is their prerogative, as well as their spiritual risk. But I grow uneasy –and suspicious– when spiritual advisors themselves take the public stand and talk about their pastoral relationships with candidates From this point of view Jeremiah Wright’s speech to the NAACP was profoundly distressing and obviously embarrassing to the candidate, whatever one might say about the theology of the black church and the value of the Reverend Wright’s ministry generally. I had the same problem with a New York Times front page article a few weeks ago featuring an interview with Sarah Palin’s pastor, who spoke of her worship and prayer practices and her request for Bible passages to guide her in her desire to be a faithful leader. Even apart from my personal objections to the theology and the political priorities expressed in this interview, I was troubled by the situation: What are we to think, when the pastors to the powerful give public interviews about those conversations. Are they doing it with the candidates’ permission? Or if not, whose agenda is being furthered?

It seems to me that revealing publicly the details of a spiritual conversation is a kind of sacrilege, a manipulation of holy things to further a personal or political agenda. There’s a commandment against that: You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain. It seems to me that public discourse about the theological positions of the candidates – and the pressure on them to explain their beliefs is our most blatant contemporary violation of that commandment. There is good reason why pastors and spiritual companions are enjoined to be very respectful of boundaries and confidentiality. In my view, if there is a genuine relationship of spiritual guidance and companionship, this kind of confidentiality should trump the public’s “right to know” about a powerful person’s associates and beliefs.

What a candidate says about him/herself is another matter – and may or may not be the fruit of good spiritual advice. But I have become profoundly suspicious of anything we hear publicly from a “spiritual advisor” about the state of a candidate’s or President’s soul. There’s a Buddhist saying that “those who know, do not speak, and those who speak, do not know.” This seems to me a good guide for processing media stories about the spiritual lives of the candidates, or of any public figures.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park.

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