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A Breathtaking Presence

I set God before me at all times. (Psalms 16:9)

The first time I walked into the office of the Rev. Susan Cole for a spiritual direction session in 1998, I had no idea what would happen. At the time, I was co-leading a team at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College that was developing a program in Jewish Spiritual Direction. We had spent six months reading and discussing books and articles about spiritual direction, but I, for one, did not really understand what the authors were talking about. Discernment? The movement of the holy spirit? These were not words I had ever used before. We all decided that the only way in was to find ourselves spiritual directors and learn experientially.

Susan suggested that we begin in prayerful silence and invited me to begin speaking whenever I wished. At one point in my opening monologue about why I had come to see her, Susan stopped me and said, “Jacob, about five minutes ago you used the word ‘breathtaking.’ Do you remember?”

I remembered. I had been describing an interaction several weeks before with my twelve-year-old daughter, Hana. For months, I would come home to find her sitting with her homework at the dining room table. I’d say hello, and she’d yell angrily, “I need help!” I would sit with her, knowing the outcome. Whether it was five minutes or two hours later, our collaboration would end when she’d slam her book down in frustration, yell “I can’t do this! You are not listening to me!” and run up to her room to cry. Suddenly, one day, she didn’t do that. Ever since, our homework sessions had been productive and undramatic.

“It’s breathtaking,” I said. “I had tried everything. Nothing had worked. And then, on her own, Hana reached another stage. It’s as if she’s a different person!”

Susan invited me back to that moment in the dining room. She asked me to recall what the light was like in the room, my bodily sensations, my breath. By the time the hour ended, I had developed a thorough and intimate knowledge of breathtaking. In the fifteen years since, I haven’t rushed past breathtaking moments without noticing them.

At the most basic level, spiritual direction is a practice of meeting monthly with a spiritual director who witnesses your journey and your relationship with the divine, the holy, the mystery. The directee defines what she or he is seeking. The director doesn’t direct; she or he accompanies you, provides a safe space for you to reflect on your journey, and shines light on moments in your narrative where divine light may been shining through. The director does not answer questions or fix difficulties. Rather, the director asks such questions as Where is God in this?  What is the invitation or opportunity in this?

Just as you learn how to read or swim, so can you develop the ability to notice the divine presence in all things at all times. When I’m having lunch with a friend, for example, I can notice the wonderful and mysterious way that we are connecting, or not. When I notice, that discernment changes what is happening. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great teacher of Jewish mystics of sixteenth-century Safed in the Galilee, taught that there is a spark of divinity in everything, but it is hidden within shells. When we discern a divine spark, we liberate it and make the divine more manifest.

When I sit with others as their spiritual director, I try to be completely attentive to them, and it feels as if my body as well as my spirit are instruments connected to the movement of the spirit in them. I’ll say, “When you said the word X, it felt powerful to me,” and almost invariably, that will unlock an experience or memory that they haven’t consciously looked at in a while. I may then suggest that they sit with that experience, invite the divine in, and see what happens. The results are often surprising and powerful.

I do not “direct.” Instead, my role is as a nonjudgmental witness to each unique journey. Sitting with Jews, Quakers, Catholics, or Pagans, I know that each of my directees has her own beliefs, his own sense of the hidden, mysterious dimensions of reality. The more each of us practices the art of opening our hearts, the more we can notice and let in the breathtaking presence.

Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at

Topics: Spirituality
Type: Essay

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