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The following is excerpted from an article titled "Noticing the Duck: The Art of Asking Spiritual Questions" written by Portland Seminary professor MaryKate Morse. If you find these excerpts helpful, be sure to read the whole article for accompanying examples, context, greater depth, and the story behind the article's title.

Beginnings: Getting-to-Know-You Questions

Beginning questions are usually easy for people to answer. People are not anxious or confused by them. These questions give the spiritual director a starting point for knowing the person and his or her spirituality. Beginning questions are not leading questions. Leading questions are asked when someone wants a particular answer. These questions, on the other hand, have no right answers. A person may respond in any manner they wish without any internal fear of judgment.

The following are some examples:

  • Who is the first person who created a memory of God for you?
  • What is your earliest experience of God?
  • Who is your spiritual hero-role model?
  • What is a story from your life that represents the essence of who you are?
  • What is a story that represents your current need?
  • When you think of God, what picture comes to mind?

Ready to Go: General Current Spiritual Reality

General questions that probe understanding about the spiritual directee's present spiritual reality are a helpful way to progress. For instance, questions from Ignatian spirituality explore the current movements within a person either toward God, called consolations, or away from God, called desolations. However, for those not trained in Ignatian spirituality, simply asking the following questions accomplishes, in a general way, the same outcomes. They are not sophisticated, but they help describe the current spiritual reality of a spiritual directee. They are open questions, so the spiritual directee brings whatever level of intensity or investment he or she desires.

  • What is your desire for God?
  • What is God's desire for you?
  • What are the hindrances?

Going Deeper: Specific Current Spiritual Reality

Once a person feels comfortable, the spiritual director or mentor can invite the person to share more about how they usually experience God, what their specific feelings are right now, and what they have done to nurture a relationship with God. At this point in the relationship, the spiritual mentor begins exploring the spiritual house, becoming familiar with its habits, pitfalls, graces, and struggles.

  • Tell the story of your spiritual journey from childhood to today. Include the history of your family and your growing-up experiences.
  • What has been happening in your prayer life?
  • What are your predominate feelings about your relationship with God?
  • Do you have any internal movements (calls, inclinations, intuitions, initiatives)?
  • Are there specific blocks or temptations in your spiritual life?
  • What are your patterns or habits for sustaining your relationship with God?
  • Who are your friends and closest relationships, and how are they sustaining you in your spiritual walk?
  • How are you growing or developing spiritually in your work or ministry?
  • How do you discern the presence of God in your life?

Going Still Deeper: Unpacking Questions

When a deeper trust is established, a spiritual director or mentor can begin to gently guide a spiritual directee into interior areas he or she might normally avoid. These are areas where a person feels unfree and internally bound. These are places where she or he feels confused, ashamed, or frightened. Sometimes individuals will tell a story that has intense meaning for them, but they don't know why. They have very strong feelings of hurt, betrayal, confusion, or anger. They wonder about God in the story. On these occasions a spiritual director might simply ask "Why?" several times. This is not the "why" that looks for reasons to explain why something happened or why someone did something. Instead it is the "why" that explores underlying feelings and thoughts. Asking "why" can lead to insights about what is fundamentally troubling about an experience. The questions create potential for the Holy Spirit to bring new awareness.


Question-Asking Etiquette

So what is the etiquette for question-asking in spiritual direction? Etiquette is not a popular concept. In much of Western culture, etiquette is often perceived as a bunch of rules and prescribed behaviors that stifle natural, authentic interactions between persons. However, etiquette is more than suggested guidelines for how to behave at meals or in social settings. In spiritual direction, etiquette is simply the way of honoring someone by treating the person with dignity and care. Here are a few guidelines for question-asking etiquette for the spiritual director or mentor.

  • Ask questions that focus on the person, not your perceptions. It's not about you. Avoid lengthy stories about you or giving explanations about your views, experiences, or theology. Withhold any response or question until you have fully listened.
  • Keep the questions open, not closed. Questions that get a yes or no answer or lead the spiritual directee to a specific conclusion are closed questions. Open questions give the spiritual directee opportunities to honestly share whatever is going on within her or him.
  • Maintain the spiritual directee's connection to his or her spiritual quest, not any connection to you. Be careful to keep a neutral, grace-filled, and hospitable stance. Some people with attachment disorders or victim problems will try to stay connected to and need you rather than focus on their spiritual development. They may ask you questions in order to feed your ego and to make you the "rescuer."
  • Always get permission to go deeper. "Do you mind if I go a little deeper? May I ask you a follow-up question? May I push back on that a little bit?" None of these types of questions can be forced. If a person tells me, "I don't want to talk about it," we don't talk about it. I once waited a whole year before a spiritual directee brought up again a particularly difficult situation. When she brought it up, she was ready to bring it into the light.
  • It's a stroll, not a sprint. Pace and match the person's emotional state and stamina. If the person is depressed or tired or anxious, trying to have her or him share more is not helpful. Simply be present to what he or she is able to bring.

Spiritual Direction Programs at Portland Seminary

For those interested in spiritual direction training, the following degrees and certifications are offered both online and in Portland, Oregon:

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