Ashes, which many Christians will receive on their foreheads today to mark the beginning of Lent, are intended to encourage repentance and renewal.
Those who want guidance in that process can turn to spiritual directors. Most clergy aren't spiritual directors and not all spiritual directors are clergy. They have special training in guiding others into a deeper life of prayer and in seeking God's will.
"Ash Wednesday is a time of renewing and turning away from that which is distracting us from God, and recommitting to being in a relationship with God. That is what spiritual direction is designed to support," said Liz Ellmann, executive director of Spiritual Directors International, based in Bellevue, Wash.
Her organization includes 6,400 spiritual directors from many faiths, though most are Christian and more than a third are Catholic. Its website, www.sdiworld.org, includes a regional directory.
Life-changing events -- such as a serious illness -- can lead people to seek spiritual direction, she said. And over the past year, job loss has had a similar effect.
"People are asking, is the work I was doing really my calling?" she said.
Sister Ardath Blake is one of four spiritual directors at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in New Bedford, Lawrence County, run by the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. Parish ministry led her to discover a gift for helping others to deepen their prayer life. So she studied spiritual direction in Belgium, Canada and at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.
She does both group direction for people on retreat and private direction, usually on a monthly basis. For the latter she asks for a sliding-scale stipend of $25 to $40 per session.
Praying from the heart can be difficult for those raised primarily on memorized prayers, she said. She reminds directees that prayer involves listening.
"If we're willing to allow moments of silence into our lives, where we see how a scripture passage resonates with us and how it might apply to our lives, it can be a very consoling experience."
She tries to help people overcome the emotional barriers that can block that process. She recalled parents who were proud of their son until he came home from college with news that he had gotten his girlfriend pregnant and that many of his plans had changed.
Sister Ardath's role "was to help them to show the unconditional love of God to their child and to their coming grandchild, yet to still be able to verbalize their disappointment and frustration and hurt," she said.
Although spiritual directors aren't psychotherapists, they need enough education in psychology to recognize when a person needs psychological help and refer them for it, said Susan Muto, dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Beechview, which offers a certification program for spiritual directors.
Those searching for a spiritual director should seek one with a solid theological education, training and experience in spiritual direction and a word-of-mouth reputation for wisdom.
"Ask around," she said. "You don't entrust your soul to just anybody, you need to make sure they've got a good background and didn't just go to a summer camp for spiritual directors."
She advises getting recommendations from trusted clergy, retreat centers, religious education directors, seminaries, monasteries or convents.
Although spiritual direction is often thought of as a Catholic and Orthodox practice, it is growing among Protestants.
The Rev. Graham Standish, pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, studied spiritual direction as part of his doctorate from Duquesne University. His congregation considers spiritual direction part of his job, so he doesn't charge for it. In recent years most of his directees have been other pastors.
Like the laity, they bring questions about what God is calling them to do, he said. Often they believe that if they were doing God's will, their churches would grow to thousands of members.
"There are a tremendous number of pastors out there who feel like absolute failures," he said.
His role is "to help them get clarity about what their calling is, versus what they may want to have happen. How do you disengage your focus from, 'How do I become a successful?' and move it to, 'How do I simply serve God as a pastor?'"
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.