Spiritual Direction through Skype
By SDI member, Ulysses Castillo
David and I met last summer at a Buddhist retreat in Estes Park, Colorado, USA. Both of us Christians, we connected during a Buddhist Christian Dialog group that got together for support during the retreat. Afterwards, I thought I’d never see David again.
Several months later, David sought me out via Facebook (an online social network) and asked if I would be his spiritual director. He noted that he was having trouble finding a spiritual director who could appreciate both his Christian and Buddhist spiritual journey. I was thrilled at the opportunity. We e-mailed back and forth a few times, to determine if his expectations and needs and what I had to offer were a good fit, and decided that we were compatibly matched. There was just one problem: David lives in Chicago, and I live in Kansas.
We considered several options, like e-mail and telephone, but e-mail doesn’t allow you to hear emotions, and telephone doesn’t allow you to watch body language. Ultimately we settled on Skype. Skype is a free video-conferencing service that allows you and your friends to have a conversation over the Internet with a computer and a videocam.
I was concerned about the distance at first, and so was David. Both of us knew that we needed to be able to feel a connection, to see each other’s body language, to notice each other’s spirit, and we weren’t sure if videoconferencing would allow that. We were worried, but decided to give it a try. I’m so glad we did!
From a technology perspective, I am lucky enough to have a portable laptop. But the speakers on that system are very poor, so I purchased some inexpensive Logitech external speakers designed for laptops ($20). The sound was immensely improved. I also purchased a Microsoft LifeCam VX-5000 ($40), a good quality, light-weight video cam with a built-in microphone that works well in low light and sits easily on top of my laptop screen. Installing and configuring Skype (www.skype.com) onto my laptop was a breeze. Prior to my session with David, I made sure that my set up was working properly. I didn’t want any last-minute technical failures.
I set up in the same space that I normally do spiritual direction. I sat in my normal seat, with my back to the fire place and positioned my laptop on a small end-table that is normally right next to my directee’s chair. I made all the preparations I normally make: prayer beforehand, lighting a candle, and so forth. Even though David couldn’t smell the candle, I could, and smell is always a subtle reminder of the sacred space that I am entering.
David and I had a wonderful first session. After the initial “jitters” that everyone has at a first session, we settled in quickly. Afterwards, we discussed how God was present to us in the session. We both had the feeling that the Spirit was bridging the gap between us, surrounding us with perceptible energy.
In later sessions, I’ve sometimes sensed the Spirit behind David, sort of hovering above his head. It makes me smile every time.
Far from the Spirit being absent to us because of the technology, it has made us even more aware of God’s presence, and of our need for that presence to be with us, to make the connections, and we are able to place our trust into God’s capable handiwork.
In the months since, we have continued to meet regularly via Skype, and I’ve had the chance to fine-tune our experience.
Here are some tips I’ve learned:
- Get your technology squared-away beforehand. One time, my Internet connection decided to not work on the laptop, and I had to move everything to my messy office with just minutes to spare before our session was to begin. I felt rushed and harassed. The lesson: make sure everything is working well ahead of the session.
- Allow extra time between sentences. There is sometimes just the very slightest split-second delay in the audio. Allowing a little extra time after your spiritual directee has spoken will make sure that you don’t accidently “step over” his or her words.
- Watch your lighting. Normally we like our spaces to be somewhat dim, but video cams need a good amount of light to be able to see each other well, so plan on having some extra light. And watch out for backlighting (a lamp or bright window positioned directly behind you for example), as that will cause you to be nothing but a silhouette to your spiritual directee.
- Turn your screensaver off. There’s nothing more disruptive than having your screensaver kick in while you’re listening and watching your spiritual directee speak. And when you get back, your cam may temporarily freeze the video. Remember to turn it back on after your session.
- Give audible cues during silence. Often during silences, there is that almost perceptible intuition that the time for silence is over. That is often still present in our sessions, but we make sure that we give each other an audible cue, like saying, “Amen,” to let the other know for sure that we’re ready to continue.
I would love to do spiritual direction with David in person. Skype will always remain second best for me. But advancements in technology have opened a whole new world for my spiritual direction ministry. Far from being an impediment to deep connection, it’s been my experience that Skype has given me an even deeper awareness of God’s presence during my sessions, and I gratefully yield even more into God’s hands.
Ulysses Castillo, OblSB, is a member of Spiritual Directors International, a lay member of the United Methodist Church, and an Oblate of the Order of Saint Benedict, affiliated with Mount Saint Scholastica, Atchison, KS. He received his spiritual director training from Souljourners Ecumenical Program for Spiritual Directors and is a retreat leader with interests in Benedictine spirituality, Sabbath rest, and Christian Buddhist dialog.