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By Rachel Amiri

Paula Sapienza

Paula Sapienza’s journey to ministry as an Ignatian-trained spiritual director began with her experience of “finding God in all things.” Sapienza, who earned a PhD in Slavic languages and literature and taught at Union College and Fairfield University, found God in Russian novels.

“All of a sudden, questions that I had about God were being answered,” she said. Compelled by the beauty of the novels, she began studying Russian so that she could read them in their original language.

“I was always finding God in Russian literature, but it took me a while to realize that what I really was seeking was God,” she said.

Sapienza was already working on the last chapter of her dissertation when she felt pulled in a new direction. “I heard God say to me, ‘You know, you don’t really want this. What you really want is me.’”

She found God through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. The discernment of God’s particular, explicit call informs Sapienza’s service for the past 15 years as an Ignatian spiritual director. Retreat director at Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House in Sedalia, Colorado, since 2019, she brings her keen ability to listen and ask questions to the individuals she meets in retreats and spiritual direction.

“The Spiritual Exercises are just a tremendous gift to me, to have that foundation in my life and to be able to share it with others,” she said.

Paula Sapienza speaks with an attendee during a break at a recent day of prayer.

“God’s the Director”

That foundation was first laid for Sapienza during college at the University of Michigan where she participated in a faith-sharing group inspired by the Exercises. She felt immediately attracted to spiritual direction when she learned about it as a young adult.

Later, she completed the full Exercises while at Fairfield University, affirming her in her academic vocation at the time. But she felt a pull in her work to accompany others in a deeper way.

“Compassion, ‘being with,’ empathy – what really matters at the end of the day is accompanying one another in our lives, and that’s what I wanted to do with my students and my colleagues,” she said. “As time went on, I realized that I wanted to do it in a way that would really hit at the heart of who am I as a person: talking about faith. I needed to be able to move into a place where I could talk explicitly about God.”

After a move to Denver in 2000, she completed the Exercises again, through the Ignatian Spirituality Program of Denver. That intentional discernment confirmed for her the call to enter the formation program for spiritual direction. “The formation that I received was excellent,” she said of the program.

She discovered that ministering as a spiritual director drew on skills she had cultivated in her academic training.

“It allowed me to get to the heart of what I really care about, which is people in their journeys in their lives, whether through this study of literature and great works of art or through how Christ accompanies them in their lives and in their prayer,” she said.

She also found that spiritual direction was something altogether different.

“The thing that I found very freeing about spiritual direction is that the spiritual director is not the director. God’s the director,” she explained. “When someone comes to share what’s going on in their relationship with God with me, I am not there to give answers or find solutions to problems. I’m there simply to reflect back what I’m hearing.”

Listening and Accompaniment

Sapienza leads a day of prayer at Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat Center in April 2024.

Reflective listening in spiritual direction, Sapienza says, involves asking questions and summarizing, inviting the directee to name their own experiences of God. “I think the most basic gift Ignatian spirituality gives to people is the ability to trust that God actually cares about what is happening in their lives right now, that God is with them and wants to hear about it,” she said.

Accompaniment teaches people that “they can show God or tell God what’s on their heart, be it positive or negative,” she said. “Anger, disappointment, rage, joy, thanksgiving, gratitude, the whole gamut of emotion – it’s safe to show it to God and to share it with another person.”

Sapienza uses the tools of Ignatian spirituality to invite others to go deeper with God.

“I really love taking stories from the Gospel and doing a careful imaginative, prayerful explanation of what is going on, helping people notice things that are new,” she said. She also loves sharing about discernment. For group retreats, she designs reflection questions to help people enter more deeply into prayer with Jesus.

Sapienza’s ministry is deeply connected to the first of the Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus: to show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment. “I personally have not experienced a better way to deepen one’s faith than to make the full Spiritual Exercises. I see how transforming they can be for people,” she said.

Her days are now filled with reading, praying, reflecting, writing retreat talks and meeting with individuals for spiritual direction. In June, Sacred Heart will host the province’s colleagues retreat, where Sapienza will meet with individual retreatants. She has also been invited by her Jesuit colleagues in the community at Sacred Heart to preach on a weekly basis, an experience she describes as “very humbling.”

“I felt it was a sign and confirmation of my dignity as one of the baptized,” she said.

Accompanying others and having a window into the work God is doing in their lives encourages Sapienza in her own spiritual life. “As I’m given the gift to be able to accompany other people in their lives, I see how it is that God is always accompanying them and accompanying me,” she said.

“I am growing ever more in the conviction that God is constantly giving me everything that I need. It doesn’t mean that God is protecting me from suffering, it doesn’t mean that everything is going successfully or smoothly in my life. But God is giving me what I need to move through it together.”

“I see my trust increasing, my hope increasing. Somehow there’s greater love, and it’s not that I’ve created it, it’s that it’s a gift that’s been given to me.”

To schedule an individual or group retreat at Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat Center, visit their website. Find an Ignatian spiritual director or retreat ministry in our province here.

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