While Dawn Carrillo was studying for her doctorate degree, she fell in love with the history of the Desert Fathers and Mothers — a Christian movement that began in the third century and encompassed great numbers of pilgrims who journeyed to the deserts of Egypt to form small communities.
These pilgrims lived simply, giving their lives to Christ. Their communities are believed to have been the beginnings of some Christian monastic traditions.
“I was fascinated with why these people would go to the desert,” Carrillo said. “Desert pilgrims would go out and apprentice themselves to the Desert Mothers or Fathers for life in this harsh environment because they wanted to see the face of God. There were certain characteristics that really showed their spirituality that struck me as being very relevant to my life with Gabe.”
Gabe is the youngest of Carrillo’s five children and is an energetic 13-year-old with Down syndrome. Carrillo received the diagnosis about 12 weeks into her pregnancy.
“I did my wrestling with God early in my pregnancy,” said Carrillo, who is director of liturgy and faith formation at St. Mary Parish in Melrose. “When I was pregnant with him and coming to terms with all of this, I remember having a thought that this little boy is going to require my honesty, my clarity, like never before.”
During that time, Carrillo had recently finished her master’s degree in pastoral ministry at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville and was working with the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls. She met many times with her spiritual director throughout her pregnancy.
“When I spoke to my spiritual director, her response gave me freedom,” Carrillo said. “She listened with no judgment or opinion, and told me that, no matter what, she was with me on the journey. It was almost that in speaking to her, I knew in a tangible way that I was not alone. That she understood without judgment my shock and confusion, and so did God.
“After spending time with her, I was slowly able to move forward, to move into educating myself and preparing myself for what was to come. By the time Gabe was born, I was certainly still scared and worried, but it was for him. Working with my spiritual director, I was able to move beyond my fears and to ready myself and my family for the gift of my son,” she said.
Carrillo said that Gabe has kept her “rooted.”
“Spiritual direction is supposed to help us on the journey to becoming who we really are, to strip away any of those things that block us from coming face to face with God, which was the movement of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, which is my movement with Gabe. So it’s almost like he is my little spiritual director now in many ways,” she said.
Having experienced spiritual direction — a practice that exemplifies the spiritual work of mercy, “counseling the doubtful” — Carrillo found herself intrigued with the idea of becoming a spiritual director herself. So when the opportunity presented itself during her doctoral studies for her to get a certificate in spiritual direction, it naturally fell into place.
As she neared the end of her three years of coursework at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri, she needed an idea for her doctoral project.
“I had sort of fleshed it out that I wanted to do a retreat with parents who have children with a disability,” she said. “I wasn’t real sure what it was going to look like, but I also was very interested in the online realm. People who have a child with a disability aren’t always as free to go to a retreat, so I thought this could be a possibility.”
Carrillo was required to take two electives for her project. She took one with Mary Hess at Luther College in St. Paul whose expertise is in online media. That laid the foundation for her to prove that an online option was viable for her project.
The second elective she took was a spirituality class on the Desert Fathers taught by Eileen Flanagan from Neumann University in Aston, Pennsylvania.
“All these things started clicking with me, lingering questions that I didn’t understand about how God works in our lives and naming some things I had not been able to name before,” she said.
During the class Carrillo met Becky Van Ness, who was auditing the class in preparation for a pilot program she was creating in spiritual direction, an initiative of St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in collaboration with the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict in St. Joseph. Van Ness cautioned Carrillo not to take on too much.
“I really thought long and hard about it,” Carrillo said. “Then practicality took over. The program was being offered right in my backyard and I thought it might help me with my project, but I had no idea how much it would help.”
For her project, Carrillo put together a series of five 25-minute videos and created an online retreat for parents of children with disabilities. The videos incorporated four characteristics that Carrillo drew from her own life and experience with Gabe as well as the traditions of the Desert Fathers and Mothers she had grown to love — simplicity, detachment, incarnational spirituality and prophetic spirituality.
She said what she began to create was a spirituality for herself that had come from living with a child with a disability.
“I think of it as going to the desert,” she said. “We all have deserts. I think what the Desert Fathers and Mothers and pilgrims found is that, yes, the desert has a harsh climate but it is also a place of beauty. Where’s that oasis in the desert? It was actually this movement in me, this cathartic naming of what has happened to me since Gabe has entered my life.”
Though others who have a child with a disability have their own unique experiences, Carrillo felt some of the same characteristics could apply to their lives as well.
“For instance, simplicity. Gabe needs me to keep things simple,” she said. “The detachment part, you have to let go of that dream, or that expectation you may have had for your child. But it’s turned out to be such a good thing. The incarnational piece is in developing an awareness of compassion. Gabe can’t move as quickly as other people, physically or intellectually. I increased my ability to be compassionate with him, with myself and with others in a new way. Prophetic spirituality … [Jean] Vanier said if you want to see the face of Jesus, look at the face of someone with a disability.”
Carrillo has been working in ministry in the St. Cloud Diocese since 1995 and one of the reasons she was attracted to spiritual direction training was that she also saw the need for it.
“In ministry there are always situations that come up. I sort of intuitively knew that these are holy moments, sacred moments, and I needed to be careful in how I proceeded. I just knew I wanted more training,” she said. “And as nourishing as it has been for me personally, it certainly has impacted everything I do professionally, too.
“Ministry is really about empowering other people to live their baptismal call, living the dream that God has for them, living more fully who God uniquely created them to be, which is what spiritual direction is all about.”
The ministry of listening
Van Ness is the director of the spiritual direction certificate program at the SOT, a two-year program in core theology and the art and skills of spiritual direction. A lifelong teacher, Van Ness was chosen by the sisters and the SOT to begin the pilot program in 2013.
She participated in a four-year internship in spiritual direction at the Spirituality Center at St. Benedict’s Monastery and afterward decided to pursue a master’s degree in spirituality with a certificate in spiritual direction embedded in it at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. A few years after finishing, she was approached to work with the new program.
“There was real support for it,” she said. “It just all felt like it was meant to be, the time was right. And how unique to have an academic institution, a graduate school of theology and the Spirituality Center collaborating on this.”
The pilot program began in 2013 and the first cohort, which included Carrillo, completed the program in 2015.
“When people choose to do a program in spiritual direction, it’s for many different reasons. The skill of listening and being present to another person is not just a charism and gift. It’s a charism and gift that we can develop. That’s what the program helps to do and gives us insight on what it means to be contemplatively present to another person,” Van Ness said.
“It makes a difference in how I talk to students, to really hear them and be present to them, even collectively. There’s just something about the growth that you experience. It’s huge personal growth.”
One thing both Van Ness and Carrillo pointed out is that in being fully present to another, one must get their own interior life in order.
“A big part of spiritual direction is discerning what’s moving within because we can get caught up in our own emotions,” Van Ness said. “We need to spend time noticing how God communicates with us and sifting out when it’s really God communicating with us and whether it’s something inside that is wounded and needs some attention. I’ve always thought that so helpful to sort through and that’s what this program does.”
The program has three main outcomes, Van Ness said. First, “we want our students to … be able to talk about how God reaches out to us in our everyday lives to have a relationship with us.
“The second thing, in our response, we need to discern what is going on inside of ourselves,” she said. “There needs to be a real honesty inside because we are human beings and there are a lot of things going on and sometimes we project things onto God that aren’t God at all. We need to be able to sort through that.
“The third outcome is the art and the skill of being present to another. Contemplative listening is a gift and yet we can foster that, we can nurture that. When a spiritual director listens, it’s so important that it is embodied listening. There is actually a person in the flesh who is listening to you. That makes a big difference and in a very imperfect sense, it is Christ’s presence to the other.”
And that is why Carrillo thinks of Gabe as her “abba,” or father in the desert.
“All my children, but to a greater extent Gabe, have taught me patience, compassion and to be less critical of myself. He’s the most forgiving person in the world and he has seen me at some of my ugliest moments, as our children do. For him, it’s gone the next moment.
“I speak of him as my ‘abba’ in the desert,” she said. “I love the changes he has brought to me. I am so grateful — not grateful that he will have struggles in life — grateful that through him those changes have come to me, grateful for his presence in my life.”
What does the church say about counseling the doubtful
and instructing the ignorant?
The phrase “pay it forward” gained widespread exposure through a 2000 film of the same name, in which students are challenged by their teacher to devise a plan for making positive change in the world. Eleven-year-old Trevor McKinney formulates the “pay-it-forward” principle, which encourages people to share the good they have received with others instead of trying to pay back the donor.
As we examine the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, a notably similar trait emerges: each in its own way is an exercise in “paying it forward.” We share with others the gifts we have been so blessed to receive: food and drink, clothing, shelter, time, comfort, forgiveness. It is because we have received that we know how to give.
So also with the Spiritual Works of Mercy, particularly the two we consider today: Counsel the Doubtful and Instruct the Ignorant. We are only able to engage in these merciful works on behalf of others to the extent that we ourselves have been open to counsel and instruction.
Both of these practices hinge upon our understanding of the importance of community. Because we are made in God’s image — the Triune God whose very nature is communal — we are fashioned for community as members of the Body of Christ. We learn to love, to forgive, indeed to live in the midst of our elders, our peers, and even the youngest among us.
And, when we face a problem, a difficult decision, a moral dilemma, or some other predicament, we seek the counsel and knowledge of those in our community who have more lived wisdom, who have studied life’s complexities and who can help us navigate the present challenge. In the process, we ourselves grow in our capacity to give counsel and to instruct others. And, thus, we pay it forward.
Personal prayer, discernment, dialogue with a spiritual director or mentor, and a listening heart are all key components of this capacity for counsel and instruction. These practices and attitudes equip us for the work of assisting others on their spiritual journey, whether by offering advice, clarity, perspective or pertinent knowledge. And the settings in which this sharing occurs are as varied as the places we visit each day and the people with whom we live and work.
You may be thinking, “But I’m no expert in theology, and I’m certainly not a therapist! How can I ‘counsel’ or ‘instruct’ someone else on their faith journey?” The reality is that your faith is what matters most. The witness of your own life, of how God has worked through other people to bring you clarity and strength, is the gift you can pay forward to others.
Maureen Otremba, a writer and workshop presenter, is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Sauk Rapids.