Jim Neafsey

Jim Neafsey was one of a handful of spiritual directors invited to Bread of Life in 2002 for a series of conversations about the experience of forming people for the work of spiritual direction. He had long been involved in spiritual direction, first as a Jesuit and then in independent retreat work and as a staff member at Mercy Center, Burlingame.

The group came together to explore what had been best in our own experiences of being prepared for the deep work of tending the human soul, and what might take this work to the next level. At the end of these conversations, I was delighted that Jim accepted the invitation to join a new Bread of Life faculty team working to create our next phase “Internship in the Art of Spiritual Direction.” Jim has a remarkably discerning spirit and his leadership has been crucial in giving shape and form to the program which just completed its third 3-year cycle. We celebrated Jim’s retirement from the program in May.  -- Sandra Lommasson
You helped bring the 3 year Internship in the Art of Spiritual Direction into existence. Looking back, what most stands out in your mind about how it all began?
For me it all began with an invitation to be part of a group gathered by you, Sandra, about twelve years ago to discern what new form the Bread of Life spiritual direction internship might take. Two internships based on a 2-year cycle had already taken place, but you felt that some revisioning and perhaps lengthening of the program needed to take place.

Jim & Julie Garvey receive gift
mosaics upon retiring

What stood out for me was the opportunity to gather with people experienced in formation work to dream freely and dream big about what was possible. This dreaming was not just fantasizing about an abstract ideal. Discussions were grounded in the lived experience of those present.  

A year or two earlier I had left a full time job at Mercy Center in Burlingame which I had loved. Part of that job involved working on the direction formation program there. The program at Mercy Center had grown from a one year program to a two and then three year program one step at a time. What was exciting for me at

Jim intent in conversation
with an intern

 Bread of Life was getting in on the ground floor of envisioning a formation program as a whole. Those who were part of those early discussions brought rich experiences as staff and participants in several programs.  The initial invitation led to a series of meetings over nearly two years. Along the way the group narrowed itself down to six people who made up the staff of the first “new” three-year internship that began in January of 2004. 

 What are some key moments that particularly stand out as you look back?

Early on the planning group for the internship met for an overnight retreat where each of the eight people involved had a chance to tell his or her story in depth. As we reflected on that process several core principles emerged:  Having experienced the power of storytelling in our own experience, we wanted to invite participants in the program to a deeper exploration of their own personal stories.   As a staff we also realized the importance of teaching out of what we had lived because that’s where Spirit resides. We wanted to keep our teaching as close to our actual experience as possible.

Another important principle was the realization that a holistic approach to teaching and learning was essential. Several in the group had experienced the power of engaging imagination, artistic expression, movement and dance in their spiritual journeys.  We wanted to make a holistic approach a consistent part of the internship experience.  Marjorie Hoyer Smith was a special resource in this area.

The original 3 year team
L to R Joan Stock, Marjorie Hoyer- Smith, Jim Neafsey, Sandra Lommasson, Gerry Hair, Barbara Ernst

The importance of community was another key component. Just as we as a staff had committed ourselves to forming a community in the planning process, we realized that inviting interns to share their stories and get to know each other was a crucial foundation for learning how to be a spiritual director.  We saw that the formation of directors involved the need to face one’s own personal gifts and blocks to freedom. This happens best in a place of trust and support where over time we can grow in the freedom to look at the things that are both enhancing and inhibiting to our ability to be present to other people.

This focus on deep sharing in community ties into the focus on Contemplative Dialogue as an important part of the internship process. Contemplative Dialogue was just beginning at BOL when the three-year internship started. It underscores the same principle of speaking and listening to one another in a way that allows for freedom, vulnerability, honesty.

Still another significant moment in the formation of the program came when we decided to delay its beginning by several months because we just weren’t ready. We saw the importance of honoring the deep process that was going on that wasn’t quite ripe yet. It’s important to real discernment not to force things but to have flexibility to be listening to ourselves in process and allow that process to shape the form and timing. 

During the process you did a lot of depth tending of your own soul. Say something about how that happened for you.

Interpersonal challenges in the work with staff, small groups, and individual supervision was a place of major growth for me. The challenge for me was consistently in the direction of being more engaged, more direct, and more honest in holding myself and others accountable. 

“Accountability” is frequently talked about in organizations, but I experienced it becoming a reality for me in the internship. Our ways of giving feedback to one another on staff and to interns got consistently clearer and more defined. This rubbed against my habitual defense mechanisms of withdrawal and avoidance. As a staff we were often engaged in difficult and sensitive evaluations about the participation of interns in the program – discernments that involved their life dreams, shadow sides, hidden assumptions as well as our own as staff.  These situations frequently brought me to the cutting edge of my own self-awareness and growth in freedom. 

And then there was email… Since staff members were widespread geographically the corporate work of the staff frequently took place through email.   We often asked for help and feedback from one another on difficult discernment issues. Putting questions, concerns and feedback into writing took time and energy, but it was worth it.

Jim and Sandra Lommasson reacting to the surprise news that the graduating internship class 2013 has established The Luke Fund for those preparing to become spiritual directors.

Jim, turning now to Bread of Life as a whole, what has been most important to you in the work of organization and in your connection to it

I see some of the same principles we used in forming spiritual directors present in the larger mission of Bread of Life. Spirit in the Arts resonates with the internship focus on creativity as core to spiritual practice. The creative dimensions of our being help ground the spiritual life so that it is not just a mental thing or a silent, solitary pursuit, but something that engages us at the level of feeling, imagination, body, intuition, and will to move out. I see that in the availability of art studio space for folks in the neighborhood as well as in the focus of many of the workshops that BOL offers.

Also very important is the conscious choice to locate Bread of Life in a challenged neighborhood economically and to make spiritual and creative work and practices available to people who wouldn’t have access otherwise. I have found that relating to people who do not share the same life world I move in is a continuing source of challenge and creativity in itself. I feel that the challenge to include people who would ordinarily be left out or overlooked keeps Bread of Life alive and growing.

The important place Contemplative Dialogue had in the internship has been a growing dimension of the larger mission of Bread of Life as well – discovering and practicing better ways of engaging one another in interactions is a cutting edge aspect of what it means to be an institution today. This parallels in some ways what I was saying about the neighborhood. There’s something very important about continually inviting what has been left out or unsaid to come forward for expression in a group. This extends beyond personal wholeness to neighborhood wholeness and social wholeness.

Formation at Bread of Life is not just for spiritual direction but for
dialogue and transformation in all aspects of life. 

There’s a huge need in our time for a holding container of integrity –
like a cocoon – for people’s spiritual and psychological transformation. 
There are not many places where you can get that
kind of sustained formation for which many people hunger. 

What Bread of Life does goes beyond the people who come for their
own formation.  It forms people to offer that same gift elsewhere. 
I believe that the totality of what Bread of Life does gradually raises
the level of the surrounding community--something like the way
yeast works in dough.

 We are having a conversation now about what the ‘charism’ of Bread of Life might be. Any thoughts?

The word “charism” means a particular gift given by the Spirit. One gift that weaves through everything we’ve been discussing is the contemplative attitude.  In the internship we defined it as fostering a sense of deep listening and deep seeing, or a taking a “long loving look at the real.” We first look and listen to our lives with a focus on where the invitations to growth and transformation are taking place. Then we ask how we can respond to or cooperate with the movements of the Spirit. Contemplation is not just something you do alone in your room – it’s also listening for the currents of spirit in another person’s story, in a neighborhood, in one’s  imaginative life and dreams, and in our institutions.

Bringing contemplation intentionally into the realm of dialogue, interpersonal relationships, institutions, and listening for the soul through art is a key to what Bread of Life is about. It acknowledges that there are transformative processes already at work in each of these areas. Cultivating a contemplative attitude allows us to connect to and respond to those movements.

What I especially value in this way of understanding the contemplative attitude is that it is ‘at home’ as much in a contentious meeting as in a quiet church. It’s ‘at home’ in the political and economic struggles in the neighborhood as well as in listening in silence for the Spirit at a retreat center. At the core is this deep listening and responding to the whole of life.

 I believe Bread of Life has received a gift from the Spirit to respond to
 these kinds of needs that we’re talking about – to provide a spirituality
 that is socially engaged, interpersonally engaged, creatively and   
 artistically engaged, and attuned to contemplative attitude as a
 foundational practice in that engagement.  

 Bread of Life continues to try to hold all these pieces together as
 integral parts of a new spirituality that is trying to come to birth –
 each element flowing into the others.