In a first-time event twenty one people, Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans from eight countries, met near Hannover in the beautiful setting of Kloster Loccum for an ecumenical conference on spiritual direction. The beauty of the venue and its spiritual history as a mediaeval Cistercian monastery, now a Lutheran seminary, contributed much to the depth of our work.
The initiative for the meeting came through members of Spiritual Directors International. For some years the correspondents for Ireland, the United Kingdom and Western Europe had considered various possibilities for co-operation in some form of continuing formation and development, but recognised that meetings in America were too distant for much European participation.
In 1999 Johan Muijtjens, a Dutch Catholic lay brother, Maike Ewert, pastor in the Evangelical Church of Hannover, and Peter Ball, an Anglican priest, began to plan a weekend conference for a limited number of people, with the idea that perhaps ten or twelve people might be attracted by a letter which offered an opportunity for:
In the event there were twenty four registered, though three had to back out because of illness.
People came from countries in a range from Ireland to Bavaria, Finland to Malta, with English as the conference language. Catholics were inthe majority with a number of Lutherans from Germany and Finland and two Anglicans. There were clergy from all three denominations, a strong representation of Catholic religious sisters and brothers and five lay people. Originally invitations were sent to members of SDI or subscribers to Presence, then later to people who had been on courses at the Institute for Spiritual Leadership in Chicago and to a number of personal contacts. Several of the members were psychologists or psychotherapists by profession. Women outnumbered men by thirteen to eight.
The three organisers designed a programme flexible enough to meet the (largely unknown) needs of participants and at the same time provide a secure structure.
Plenary sessions included one opening input presenting a map of the ways people pray and introducing work on accompanying people in contemplative prayer.
Other plenary topics responded to the group's suggestions. Periods of prayer together before breakfast, at midday and early evening offered times of silence, symbol and movement.
Most of the session opened with a time for silent reflection.& There were two Eucharists, one on Saturday led by the three Catholic priestsand one on Sunday led by the three Lutheran women pastors.
The second morning's main activity was a turning point in the conference journey. Members met in confidential groups of three for an hour and a half to tell and to listen to each other's stories. This exercise in the actual work of spiritual direction helped everyone to find an energy and vision which was seen to be lacking before in the meeting.
Smaller groups met round specific themes and review sessions gave members the opportunity to voice their responses and to take full part in choosing the way the conference went forward.
Short workshops on training and training opportunities, on spiritual direction and psychotherapy and counselling, and on direction in a pastoral setting gave the chance for people to share interests and exchange ideas. A quick session in regional groups produced suggestions for future work together.
Many of the needs and hopes which people brought were clear on the first evening. They looked forward to the opportunity for deepening their ministry; those who were involved in spiritual direction came for companionship, to hear the experiences of others and to learn from the diversity in the group. Some wanted help in developing spiritual direction in a local church or religious congregation. A strong common experience linked a number who were or had recently been in the administration and leadership of their order. Their travels to different parts of the world had faced them with the stark facts of loneliness among their brothers and sisters. They had spent a lot of time in listening, but realised that when they returned home, in the country there were very few resources to help those they left there. Often this need for people to listen was observed back home as well.
Several of those working in psychology and psychotherapy had found that spirituality played an increasing part in their work and looked for help in deepening their skills.
Responses at the closing quick evaluation showed that many of these needs expressed at the beginning had been met and some hopes had been fulfilled. Meeting others across national and church boundaries proved a real gift. (For some it was even a novelty to meet religious from another congregation.) Many saw in the event a symbol of hope for unity; when people are open to the Spirit and work together, a true unity in found. To meet each other in trust and openness was to be enriched and invigorated.
There was gratitude, too, that the members had been enabled to take responsibility for much of the conference as it proceeded, which gave a sense of positive collaboration.
Some people valued the aspect of input and regretted that there was not more through the days. Others felt there could with advantage have been more times of silence or quiet exchanges with each other.
Negative responses related to the problems which arose from not knowing exact costs beforehand (and that in a foreign currency); difficulties in finding the place and in making contact by phone; a long and tiring session the first evening at the end of a long day's travel; and for some a sense of exclusion due to working in what was for them a foreign language.
Some memories may go down in the folklore of future conferences. There was the shared anxiety of the case lost in transit somewhere in Frankfurt; the two days of fruitless mobile phone calls and the general rejoicing when the lost sheep was finally delivered on Sunday afternoon. Or the moment when a period of deep, relaxing group silence dissolved in a fit of laughter (and for some helpless giggles) when Christa and Eike's Boxer joined in with loud snores from under her chair. And the echo of our singing Ubi caritas round the resonance of the cloister in the farewell closing service.
The weekend and staying in Kloster Loccum proved a place of peace and space where we were able to share deep things and be truly present to ourselves and to each other. By the second day a community had been formed, stories had been shared, we had prayed together and new friendships had been made.
Before we parted, a new group had accepted responsibility for arranging a second meeting. The suggestion was that it probably should be in Belgium, probably in February 2001.
Canon P. W. Ball