(The following blog is from a chapter in my new book, Desert Spirituality for Men, to be published by Wipf and Stock in February 2022)
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
—Gospel of John
The farther the outward journey takes you, the deeper the inward journey must be. Only when your roots are deep can your fruits be abundant.
The most important advice I can give to a man seeking a deeper relationship with God is to work faithfully and consistently with a spiritual director. Spiritual direction is “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication with him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with God and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”
Spiritual direction can help you explore your experiences of God, discern important decisions, heal trauma from the past, and grow into God’s deepest desires for you.
The process begins in your prayers as you listen to God’s call for you. Speak with a member of the clergy or someone you know who has been under spiritual direction. Local retreat centers can help you find a spiritual director: someone who has been through a certification program for spiritual direction. Above all, expect that opening yourself up to spiritual direction will take time and commitment.
Spiritual writer and priest Henri Nouwen advises:
“The goal of spiritual direction is spiritual formation—the ever-increasing capacity to live a spiritual life from the heart. A spiritual life cannot be formed without discipline, practice and accountability.”
Nouwen believes there are three disciplines that will complement your experience with spiritual direction: the discipline of the Heart, the discipline of the Book and the discipline of the Church.
The discipline of the Heart involves contemplative prayer, inviting God into our total being, including all that has been hidden and secret.
The discipline of the Book involves reading the scriptures and spiritual writings. You will find that as you read, the Spirit may connect words and phrases to where you now are in your life, what you are currently seeking and pondering. After I began spiritual direction, meditation on scripture helped me to hear those words in a new way, as if they were written for me.
The discipline of the Church will be a challenge for some readers of this book. You may be a spiritual seeker of God, but you do not have a life in a religious community, or, for some reason, you have left that community. The problem is that the Christian faith is communal, not solitary, requiring that if we are to grow with God, we need to have life in community. In regular worship in the Church, we experience the Gospel narratives of Jesus through the liturgical year, an annual calendar of seasons commemorating the life and teachings of Jesus. Our sometimes-messy experience of human relations in a religious community is rich fodder for reflection with a spiritual director.
In our individualistic culture, we can be drawn to the self-reliance of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, how they found a rich spiritual life in their deprivation, silence and solitude. Eventually, they found that physical and spiritual survival in the desert required the help of others, which birthed the first Christian monastic communities. It may be ironic, but successful solitude is always dependent on others. In contrast with the iconic New Yorker Magazine’s cartoons of the solitary guru living in a cave who is visited by eccentric spiritual seekers, Jesus called a community of disciples to follow him.
“The more we let the events of Christ’s life inform and form us, the more we will be able to connect our own daily stories with the great story of God’s presence in our lives. Thus, the discipline of the Church, as a community of faith, functions as our spiritual director by directing our hearts and minds to the One who makes our lives truly eventful.”
In 1990, my psychiatrist Robert Phillips, MD, recommended spiritual direction for me and sent me across the street from his office to the Center for Spiritual Development on the campus of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, California. I had a general idea about spiritual direction, but little experience. I knew it was something deeper than pastoral counseling. I was apprehensive that someone was going to criticize me about my imperfect life or dictate a curriculum for perfection.
Somehow, I ended up with Sister Jeanne Fallon who had recently returned from missionary work in New Guinea. I sensed the fire of God within her. My own life was a frenzy of multi-tasking busyness for the Church. God was in the far distance, and Erik was in and out of the hospital. Sister Jeanne’s exploratory interview awakened in me the realization and the fear that I was actually trying to hide from God. Even after two years of intensive psychotherapy, something lurked in the dark shadows of my consciousness which made me anxious about proceeding. Since that moment of enlightenment, I have asked many clergy about their spiritual directors: most do not have one or if they do, they see them infrequently.
The Spirit urged me to stay with Sister Jeanne. She invited me to begin the year long Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola which take a year to complete. During our weekly meetings, she guided me through this five-hundred-year-old Jesuit program of daily meditation on scripture and contemplative prayer. This experience opened my heart to the actual presence of Jesus as companion and friend, and the secrets in the dark recesses of my soul came out into the light of God’s compassionate love. After I finished the Exercises, Sister Jeanne sent me to a Jesuit priest and recovering alcoholic. At that point, I was attending Twelve-Step meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics, newly aware of long-term compulsions and addictions. I took a Moral Inventory, admitting to myself, to God and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs.
I began the Confession with this prayer: “Almighty God, my inventory has shown me who I am, I admit to my wrongs, yet I ask for Your help in admitting my wrongs to another person and to You. Assure me, and be with me, in this step, for without this step I cannot progress in my recovery. With Your Help, I can do this.”
With this priest, I shared a detailed confession. I had written everything down so that I would not try to evade the hard reality of past behaviors. It was this priest who sent me on to Father Gordon Moreland SJ at the House of Prayer for Priests in the Diocese of Orange, located in the foothills of the Saddleback Mountains.
I remember my first encounter with Father Gordon, welcoming me at the entrance to a compound of Southwestern-styled buildings. As I sat in a chair facing him in his office, the windows behind him revealed a vast desert garden. We shared a common interest in desert landscapes and plants. Over months and years, that chair became a sacred space for encounters with the Lord.
For many years, Father Gordon had been novice master to young Jesuits, fostering their spiritual formation (some of them would become bishops and cardinals). He spent thirty-five of his sixty-nine years as a Jesuit in the Diocese of Orange where he became a revered retreat leader for its priests. In 2021, he moved to the Jesuit retirement residence in Los Gatos, California.
I remember that my early years with him were filled with tears and anxiety about Erik’s health crises, and epithets and curses of anger and frustration about my parish and diocesan ministries. I would arrive with heart ache or rage-driven fantasies and leave with a spiritual infusion of God’s love and affirmation from Father Gordon. He did not act as a therapist, analyzing my interior life and making prescriptions. In Father Gordon I found a mellow, mature soul to whom I wanted to be accountable. That is something I learned from the Twelve-Step experience: to be accountable for my life and practice bringing everything into the light. As I look back, I believe that as I talked with Father Gordon, I was practicing being real and honest with God.
For twenty-seven years, I committed myself to meeting with Gordon every month.
The four gospels of the New Testament in the Bible are presented as eyewitness accounts of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There are also persons who come into our life as “eyewitnesses” to the living Christ, persons whose deep encounters with the Lord radiate their living faith to us and, by their words and presence, draw us closer in faith and friendship with Jesus. A Gospel is an evangelium, “Good News.” Father Gordon Moreland, SJ has been an evangelion of Jesus to me.
As I sat with Father Gordon, I always held a yellow legal pad on my lap. I would write down phrases he said, scripture passages, and spiritual reading to be explored later. Writing helped me to listen. From these notes during my last year With Father Gordon, I have gleaned only a small part of The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus ChristAccording to Father Gordon Moreland SJ, but here are some of the things he would tell me.
God is love and joy. Most people think of God as power, an entity to cope with, to dread, or to hold in awe. St. Paul shares his own experience of God in the Epistle to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
God is joy. Joy wants to diffuse itself into creation, creating humans who are capable of joy. What God wants from us is joy. Erik radiates that joy to everyone around him. I frequently talked about that nagging critical voice in my head, reminding me of past sins or being negative about people close to me. Gordon’s advice: focus more on seeing myself as the Lord sees me. It helps to remember with gratitude moments of joy.
God is love, personified. God is joy, personified. God is mercy, personified. This creates a new matrix for thinking about God as other than the serious, chastising Judge, watching our every move.
Gordon remembers notorious criminals in prayer at his daily mass. For instance, he remembered in prayer Andrew Cunanan, who murdered Gianni Versace in 1997. Father Gordon prayed for him during an early morning mass. He sensed Cunanan’s presence, who was so full of guilt that he could not accept the Lord’s help. Gordon experienced the blessing of the Lord on his prayer friendship with murderers and the unfaithful departed. He wants to help them let go of their sins to the Lord and pray that they will experience a surge of joy from the Lord. “You cannot welcome the Lord Jesus if you are still given over to your corporal sins.”
I often arrived at the House of Prayer heart-heavy. Memories of dark, depressing times would rise up and become vividly real again. Was this the work of the dark spirit creating resistance to Father Gordon’s words of light and hope? Gordon responded: Jesus said, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” He shared his memory of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross (1542-1591), who knew dark times when he was beaten and persecuted by his Carmelite community for his reforming efforts. Yet, locked up in a dark cell next to the monastery latrine, he wrote the Spiritual Canticle, proclaiming his love of God in dark times. As a teenager, St. John had worked in a hospital caring for men with syphilis and dementia. He would clean them with such reverence that people were much taken by his servant persona. In John’s love for these dirty, sick men, he saw Christ in them. This experience made him aware of God’s love.
In my imagination, I see John of the Cross locked up in a tiny, dark room next to the nauseating smell of the monastery latrine. At night, he was in total darkness. His food was bread and water and salted fish. God seemed distant and the fire of his faith was almost out—only embers remained. But the living flame of God’s love did not abandon him. Later, when he escaped captivity, the fiery ardor for God rekindled, inspiring the mystical poem The Living Flame of Love (c1585).
Father Gordon advised:
“It is so important to be in touch with God’s love for us more than our love for God.”
“Let yourself be loved by God. Know yourself as beloved.
“The Lord loves me more than I love me. I am safe in His hands.”
“The Lord loves Erik more than I love Erik. Erick is safe in His hands.”
A friend to China. Gordon made more than a dozen month-long trips to China, touring the back roads-less-traveled with Chinese friends as guides. He carried in his heart remembrance of Matteo Ricci (1552-1620), the Italian Jesuit priest whose profound missionary work pierced the confines of the Forbidden City to encounter and counsel the Emperor, syncretizing Confucian values and traditions with Christian values and traditions. In his travels, Gordon asked the Lord that he might be a friend to China and waited for confirmation from the Spirit.
At the end of one visit, he was at dinner with his friends and several military officers. You can imagine some tension there between Chinese officials and this lone American. Gordon did not speak Chinese, but his expressive face communicated the love and joy of the Lord. All the people at the table stood, raising their glasses, toasting Gordon: “Welcome to a friend of China.” The Lord Jesus seemed to confirm Father Gordon as spiritual ambassador to China. At the end of the evening, he was asked, “What did you think of this evening?”
Gordon responded, “I am a religious man, a Jesuit priest. Before I came to China, I asked the Lord that I could be a friend to China. One thing I am certain of is of God’s love for all of us.”
A guest answered, “On behalf of the Third Regiment, I welcome you as a friend of China.” Gordon told me this story several times, radiating some of the joy he must have communicated at that memorable dinner. The Spirit must have infused the dinner guests with the joy of the Lord, because two men in their fifties approached Gordon as he sat in a car ready to leave. Smiling, they greeted Gordon, saying, “We love you.”
There has been a lot of progress in the country of 1.5 billion Chinese. Though four-hundred million live on one dollar a day, there is a burgeoning middle-class and indeed more billionaires in China than anywhere else. A systemic command-economy has pulled two-thirds of the people out of poverty in just seventy years. The United States has not been able to do that. We need to acknowledge, even applaud this accomplishment.
Rather than “spiritual direction,”Gordon preferred the term, “spiritual conversations.” As a teenager working on his family’s farm in eastern Washington State, he planted new grapevines. Gordon slowly learned how to train two lower branches and two upper branches of the new vine plant on a long wire trellis. The trick is to guess which sprouting buds can be encouraged by pruning correctly. If you choose poorly, then you can lose part of the crop. Working at vine cultivation requires developing intuition, learning to see how the plant wants to grow. The analogy is clear: the task of spiritual direction is to draw out a person’s deepest desires.
Gordon referred to the special dignity of the penitent. I remember hearing private confessions at my parish in Santa Ana. Some people carry their sins like heavy rocks in their spiritual backpack. Shame and guilt wear them down. Previous counseling from other clergy often added to the shame of these penitents. When I look back to that spiritual inventory of the Fifth Step with the Jesuit priest, I remember feeling like Lazarus: The Lord had set me free. As I arrived at a Twelve-Step meeting in Dana Point, California, on a dense foggy night. Several men were outside the entrance welcoming everyone, glad that they had shown up. Listening to those testimonies of recovering alcoholics that night, one of whom was at the time a student of mine at the college, reminded me of an Easter Sunday service, but there was more Easter resurrection there than I have ever felt in church.
When Father Gordon transitioned from the Northwest to southern California, on Ash Wednesday, as he imposed ashes on parishioners, he was especially struck by Latinos, and how they would wear the penitential mark on their foreheads with pride. These ashes are not mortification, as taught by ancient theologies. We glory in our penance. We are worth the blood of the cross of Jesus. It is not that we forgive and forget our sins; it is better to know you are forgiven and remember your liberation from sin and death. I am remembering how through our many years of marriage; Jan and I continue to learn about forgiveness with each other.
Gordon tells a story about a crooked, bent tree that grew beyond the corner of a house, a “wounded tree,” obscured under the lattice of the roof. It worked its way out into the light. The forestry person pronounced the tree as “broken,” but now the tree had become strong, growing to one-hundred feet in height.
From his own life with God, through all the struggles for faith within his own humanity, Father Gordon experienced the love and forgiveness of the Lord. He has lived his evangelion through a radical love for the unfaithful departed, helping them to let go of their sins and embrace the joy of the Lord. You may ask him: What does God want from us? More obedience, following the rules, spiritual perfection? God wants a relationship with you. The trick is this: We love because God has given us the ability to love.
My prayer is that these words and my experience with Father Gordon will encourage you to seek a spiritual director and to make that time together a priority. You and I need the help of these spiritual friends to be reminded again and again that we are beloved by God.
 John 20:30-31 NIV
 Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love
 William A. Barry and William J. Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, 8.
 Nouwen, Spiritual Direction, xiii.
 Nouwen, ibid, xvii.
 Step five in Alcoholic Anonymous is called “Confession”, when we “admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrong.” This step involves a written inventory of our wrong and should be shared as early as possible in recovery.
 Romans 15:13 NIV.
 John 8:12 NIV