Stillpoint: The Center for Christian Spirituality began 30 years ago with a simple conversation among friends.
And contemplative conversation has remained at the heart of its mission as the organization has grown into a nationally recognized spiritual formation program, a sacred place to talk about the presence of God and, as of December 2015, an institution of the Diocese of Los Angeles.
That conversation involves “learning how to listen deeply to your own life and then being able to do that for someone else, helping another person to do the same,” according to the Rev. Elizabeth Rechter, who was instituted as executive director in a Jan. 24 Taizé-inspired service at the Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Encino.
The addition of Rechter as full-time executive director and the agency as a diocesan institution marks a turning point for Stillpoint and an opportunity to be of deeper service to congregations and to church leadership, according to Ravi Verma, program director and a program graduate.
“We’ve wanted to work within the church and formalize this in some ways, and knowing that within the Episcopal Church there is freedom for us to connect with other groups,” according to Verma.
But the agency is also branching out, planning to work with the Lutheran church and with other denominations, he said.
“We really are open and inclusive; available to anybody that’s wanting to go deeper in their lives,” said Rechter. Throughout the two-year spiritual direction program “there’s a bit of looking at your theological assumptions so that if you bump into them with somebody, you recognize it.”
With an annual budget of about $200,000 the nonprofit offers a program “born out of a belief in the contemplative life, that contemplative living is an important component to hearing the deep part of ourselves,” she said.
“Even if you aren’t headed to spiritual direction, you can acknowledge that this can be a helpful way to live, to listen deeply to teachings that honor one’s own soul, one’s own words that live in one’s heart.”
The early beginnings: ‘From the grassroots up’
Ann Jaqua remembers a 30-year-old conversation with an ecumenical group of friends about reclaiming former spiritual practices.
The group — of Catholics, Protestants and Episcopalians — has since become known as “the founding mothers,” and that initial conversation led to others, and to monthly meetings, research, practice and eventually “at the end of a year we decided we would like to offer these as workshops for local churches,” recalled Jaqua, 79, a long-time member of Trinity, Santa Barbara.
After receiving requests for spiritual direction, they organized training sessions for themselves, and eventually began to teach weekend sessions at the Mount Calvary Monastery and Retreat House in Santa Barbara before organizing as Stillpoint.
“That was how the training program began; it came from the grassroots up and was not connected to any particular denomination,” Jaqua said.
Eventually, Christopher McCauley was hired as a half-time director. With minimal overhead, Stillpoint offered classes and workshops in various locations around Los Angeles. During McCauley’s tenure Stillpoint began offering classes at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, New Mexico, according to Jaqua.
She still serves as a spiritual director and for a time led group spiritual sessions at Trinity, Santa Barbara, where she is a vestry member. More recently, she has taken a step back from teaching or other involvement, especially now “that we have this wonderful new director and I’m delighted that it’s now part of the diocesan program.”
But she continues to see directees, she says. “We listen, we pay attention to what we see as a threesome: the directee, the director and the Holy Spirit in the room. My job is to listen to the Holy Spirit, essentially. That is what happens: we pay attention to what’s happening inside us where God reveals something and we risk sharing that, asking some questions or just pointing out what we hear that is God, moving in you this way.”
But the name is a bit of a misnomer because “it’s not directed. We’re not telling people how to live their lives in God,” she said. “We’re paying attention to them, that’s why it’s such an exciting practice.”
Spiritual direction: a threesome
Becky Smith heard two women talking about spiritual direction and was so intrigued she interrupted them to find out more; they were from Stillpoint.
That conversation 10 years ago led to a whole new life after she enrolled in Stillpoint’s two-year program. The first year, called Journey, “is an introduction into spiritual formation and discernment, and I loved doing that,” she told the Episcopal News.
“I had to stretch myself to do that but I liked the small group, I liked hearing other people’s stories, sharing my story” and now she teaches the Journey class in various locations around the Los Angeles area.
Although very active at the Brentwood Presbyterian Church for more than 30 years, Smith said she that “I had found that I wanted to go deeper in my faith. I had a longing to find someplace I could talk about these things, and my church community didn’t seem like the right place.”
She began a small practice, working from home, and describes spiritual direction as “tending the holy … companioning” because the word “direction” can seem rigid. It is really an invitation “if you want to deepen your relationship with God and you want to find other people on that same journey.”
She describes the experience as “a gradual unfolding” centered in the knowledge “that we can’t do it completely alone; you need community.” Stillpoint, through workshops and classes, offers its students “different ways of prayer, forms of contemplative exercises, readings, music, art, movement, ways to stretch and expand their sense of who God is in their lives and how they’re called to live and respond to that in the world.”
As a directee, Smith, 65, recalled being helped through the difficult challenges of dealing with an aging parent with memory loss who was determined to stay in her home and reluctant to stop driving, and feeling “supported by God in what was difficult and a sense that it would be well even all the way through my mom’s death.”
She added that: “It is important for people to know they can begin from wherever they are; that the invitation is very open and they can go as deeply as they feel comfortable.
“The program will affect you and mold you and shape you, but it’s very individual and depends on what you’re looking for … it doesn’t feel binding. It’s tending the soul and how you do that in a way that allows the soul to come forth.
The beauty of Stillpoint, she said, is it doesn’t “have any brick and mortar, we meet in different places and we’re open to everyone,” although more women than men tend to enroll and most students are probably mid-life or retirement age “because they have the time.”
The courses meet on a Saturday for six hours over a period of eight months and “we are starting to see young people coming,” Smith said.
Program director Verma estimated that over time the program has trained more than 700 spiritual directors “but we touch many more lives because of programs that are one-day retreats and weekend retreats and many come to us without going through the program.”
Some students may attend the two-year formational program for enrichment but not to become directors.
Similarly Verma, 64, a former engineer, said that through a series of life events he felt a new vocation stirring in his soul.
“This hunger was always there and through a series of events—what one might call crises … my father died, a job ended, I broke up in a relationship, it sent me in a different direction.” He found a spiritual director — a misnomer of a title because the role involves listening, not directing, he said — and felt led to explore it on a deeper level.
“Slowly my life kept calling me and I entered a discernment process,” Verma told The Episcopal News recently. “I realized this is what God is calling me to do. I love this work. I started working with Stillpoint as an administrator in the beginning but very quickly started teaching and became program director.
“Spiritual direction is a contemplative process; we slow down enough to listen to that small voice. But contemplation or whatever is going on inside is not an end in itself; it calls us to act upon it, to be of service to the world in whichever way each of us is called to do that,” Verma said.
Stillpoint, he said, provides “space and program for people to go deeper to find their voice, their role, their next steps. Some will be spiritual directors and help others doing that; others will use it in different ways in their own lives. It is the one thing that can make a difference in today’s world, because the more we go deeper, the more we realize we are all one, with each other, with God.
“That spirit, that energy, that force is so needed in today’s world and we can help individuals, groups do that. People are so hungry, in the church and outside. They are hungry for that kind of authentic connection with something bigger.”
For more about Stillpoint programs, visit the website at stillpointca.org.