Did Mary and Joseph experience spiritual direction? The answer may surprise you! Mary and Joseph, perhaps obviously, are the primary role models for christian parents raising faithful children. I have noticed how meeting with my spiritual director helps me as a parent and I wondered if there was any evidence of Mary and Joseph experiencing spiritual direction in the Bible. I opened up the Bible to Matthew and Luke’s Gospels because they are the Gospels that focus on Mary, Joseph and the early life of Jesus. I found three examples in Luke's Gospel that reflect what goes on in spiritual direction.
Before I get into what I found in scripture, I want to clarify what spiritual direction is and what happens during spiritual direction. The primary people in conversation in a spiritual direction session is between the directee (the one seeking spiritual direction) and the trained spiritual director. The title ‘spiritual director’ can be misleading because a trained spiritual director understands that God is the one directing. The primary relationship in spiritual direction is the one seeking deeper intimacy with God and the self communicating God. So what is the role of spiritual director? A spiritual director in the christian tradition is a fellow christian that gives help to another christian to enable that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her. Furthermore the director encourages the directee to respond to God in prayer and to live out the fruits of the relationship. Through active listening and conversation, a spiritual director helps us to see more clearly how God is interacting with us in our daily life and encourages us to relate and respond to God directly. In doing so our faith and love for God increases and we desire greater intimacy with God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us how the Holy Spirit is the primary director working through gifts given to the spiritual director to serve the directee. “The Holy Spirit gives to certain of the faithful the gifts of wisdom, faith and discernment for the sake of this common good which is prayer (spiritual direction). Men and women so endowed are true servants of the living tradition of prayer.” (2690) I opened up the Bible and looked through the Gospels for experiences of spiritual direction in the lives of Mary and Joseph. I looked for examples of interactions with Mary or Joseph that helped them to see more clearly God’s activity in their daily lives. I hoped to find an example of Mary and Joseph responding to God directly as a result of this interaction. Finally I looked for an indication that such an interaction helped Mary and Joseph to grow in deeper intimacy with God.
The first example I found was in Luke’s Gospel, in the infancy narrative after the Annunciation. After the Angel Gabriel announces the birth of Jesus to Mary, we read that Mary “traveled to the hill country in haste” to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Luke tells us that upon hearing Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed* that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:41-45) There are a few things that stand out to me in this passage. First we are told that Mary travels as fast as she can to see her cousin. Without a doubt, she is visiting her cousin to confide in her all that she experienced and to share the good news given to her by the Angel Gabriel, that God had blessed her. I can certainly appreciate Mary's urgent desire to share with a trusted family member that through the Holy Spirit, she would become pregnant with the Son of God. Mary sought to share with Elizabeth just as a directee shares their own experience of God in his or her own life with a spiritual director. Then, Luke tells us that upon hearing Mary’s voice, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Luke is intentional in telling us that the Holy Spirit is working through Elizabeth. Only through the holy gifts of faith, wisdom and discernment could Elizabeth have known and recognized Christ’s presence literally in Mary’s womb. From Elizabeth’s acknowledgement of Christ in Mary’s womb, Mary is so affirmed of her experience of God and Christ within her, that she proclaims the greatness of God. She speaks to God directly out of gratitude for all that God has done for her. This is one of the graces of spiritual direction. With the help of another, we are encouraged and inspired to reflect on our experience of God and relate and then respond directly to God. Mary's encounter with Elizabeth certainly seems to reflect what goes on in spiritual direction. There are two other examples in Luke's Gospels where Mary and Joseph seem to experience the graces of spiritual direction in a more informal way. Luke tells us that After Jesus' birth, angel of the Lord appears to shepherds in a field and tells them good news of the Messiah who is born in the city of David. They immediately left for Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph with the baby as it was revealed to them.
The Gospel writer tells us that when they saw Mary and Joseph “they made known what had been told to them about this this child” (Luke 2:17). They told Mary and Joseph what they came to know by the power of the Holy Spirit, that their son was the promised Messiah. We are told further that all who heard it were “amazed” and that Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” In sharing "all that had been made known to them", the Shepherds served Mary and Joseph as a spiritual director serves their directee. The shepherds affirmed Mary and Joseph in their experience of the second person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus in their midst. This affirmation brought a deeper sense of “amazement” of God to Mary and Joseph and then we are told that Mary responds directly to God through a quiet prayer of her heart.
The last example I found occurs when Mary and Joseph travel to Jerusalem to present Jesus at the Temple. We are told about a man in Jerusalem named Simeon who is “righteous and devout”. Luke is very descriptive about the holiness of Simeon, and tells us "the Holy Spirit rested on him” and revealed to him that he would not see death until he had seen the Messiah. Luke again is intentional in emphasizing that it was the Holy Spirit that guided Simeon into the temple. Upon seeing the Holy Family, Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God saying “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Then Mary and Joseph watch as Simeon lifts Jesus in the air and blesses him. Simeon tells Mary “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Simeon's words and actions cause Mary and Joseph to gaze upon Jesus in amazement once again. This is what a spiritual director does for us. He or she helps us to contemplate God's activity in our lives. Simeon's words and actions cause Mary and Joseph to look upon their child Jesus, the self-communicating God, with amazement.
What are the implications of these experiences of Mary and Joseph for me? I am particularly drawn to the way these experiences deepened Mary and Joseph's intimacy with God while simultaneously enhancing their their feelings for their son Jesus. Now clearly for Mary and Joseph, their son Jesus is God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity. Even still, I find meaning in this because I notice the same increase in my affection for my own children when I experience deeper intimacy with God. Elizabeth, the Shepherds and Simeon through the power of the Holy Spirit, helped Mary and Joseph deepen their relationship with God and allowed them to live out the fruits of that relationship as parents of Jesus. Meeting with my director helps me in the same way. My director helps me to reflect on where God is active in my life. He helps me to relate to God, to respond to him directly in prayer and this experience inspires me to be a better father.