Natalie Weaver, a 25-year-old musician who lives in Roxbury, does not go to church. But every three weeks or so, she visits a white vinyl-sided building on Dorchester Avenue, a former convent, to meet with her spiritual director.
For about an hour, she sits with a gentle, bearded man in a quiet room with gleaming oak floors and talks about the experiences that most awaken her spirit, the people who make her feel most connected and alive.
“It’s another person who is listening, and kind of asking questions and even just pointing things out,’’ she said. “I think it holds you accountable to dig deeper.’’
Spiritual direction is a tradition of religious mentorship with roots in ancient Christianity. For centuries, monasteries and seminaries offered direction to clergy and members of religious orders. But the practice is increasingly going mainstream, as more people, Christian and otherwise, seek help exploring their relationship with the divine.
Membership in Spiritual Directors International, the largest such organization in the nation, has increased from about 400 at its beginning in 1990 to more than 6,000 today, including more than 250 in Massachusetts.
Driving the growth are millennials like Weaver, who are more apt than previous generations to identify as “spiritual but not religious.’’ Ed Cardoza, Weaver’s spiritual director and the founder of Still Harbor, a South Boston nonprofit, mostly sees people in their 20s and 30s.
Some, he says, are evangelical Christians who have a strong relationship with Jesus but realize, after arriving in Boston from the Midwest or South to study, that they differ with their parents’ church over political or sexual issues. Others have little religious background but find themselves undergoing a spiritual awakening and do not know where to turn.
“What you recognize is there’s this growing population of folks who are out of the purview of traditional institutions,’’ Cardoza said.
Ardently faithful people of all ages form the other major group seeking spiritual direction. Often, they are confronting a trauma or transition or want to deepen a particular aspect of their faith or practice. Asking their priest or rabbi for spiritual direction is not always an option. Often clergy limit the number of sessions they have with individuals in order to focus on the broader congregation. Many also lack the training to provide the kind of “sacred listening’’ required in spiritual direction.
In a society that is increasingly comfortable hiring experts as private consultants - personal trainers, personal organizers, life coaches - the decision to seek out a personal spiritual director no longer seems as exotic as it once might have.
“Maybe it’s compensating for something missing, that used to happen in other informal ways,’’ said Barbara Jansen, an Episcopalian who sees Cardoza’s colleague at Still Harbor, Colleen Sharka. “Your cousin went running with you; your grandmother gave you spiritual books to read.’’
Sharka, who is both a licensed mental health counselor and a spiritual director, said many people she sees are desperately in need of time for quiet reflection.
“They’re just absolutely running on empty because they’re never stopping,’’ she said. “In fact, sitting in silence causes some trauma because they don’t know what to do with that.’’
Some spiritual directors work free of charge, but most charge $30 to $75 for an hourlong session. Many hold degrees from divinity schools or have completed specialty training at places like the Shalem Institute in Washington. But there is no standard course, and directors emphasize that the practice is as much an art - or a “charism,’’ a gift from God - as a skill.
What attracts people to spiritual direction, those familiar with the practice say, is the chance to talk one on one with a sympathetic and usually learned listener, without the clamor of a communal worship service or the isolation of praying alone. There is no pressure to join a group, make a weekly offertory pledge, or endorse a specific creed.
“What I just focus exclusively on is what goes on when they are aware of God,’’ said the Rev. William Barry, a Jesuit priest and influential spiritual director who coauthored “The Practice of Spiritual Direction.’’ “And we just talk about that and see what the next step is, where that relationship with God seems to be moving.’’
Yet Barry and the spiritual directors at Still Harbor say they are not an alternative to a religious community; those who seek direction tend to find a spiritual home if they don’t have one already.
“We really see ourselves as a safe mooring, a place where people pull their ships in, in good shape or bad shape, draw down their sails, unpack their stuff, and begin to restock up for the journey out,’’ Cardoza said.
Barry - who finds the work so invigorating that at 81, he still meets with as many as eight people a day - cofounded one of the first local spiritual direction centers in Cambridge in the 1970s. Today, spiritual directors and the people they “accompany,’’ as many put it, extend far beyond the Catholic Church, and even Christianity.
Rabbi Carol Glass, the former dean of students at Hebrew College’s rabbinical school and founder of a spiritual direction program called Ikvotecha there, meets with laypeople, as well as rabbinical students.
The language of spiritual direction, she said, often needs to be reinterpreted for Jews to fit with their religious or spiritual vocabulary. For example, while many Christians speak to Jesus in a casual and familiar way, she said, contemporary American Jews tend to be more accustomed to formulaic prayer, often in Hebrew. And in a community whose culture has historically prized rationalism and social activism over mysticism and belief, the notion of trying to “tune in’’ to God’s presence can feel foreign. But Glass believes that is changing.
“I think Jews are very thirsty for opportunities to do more interior spiritual work,’’ she said.
Evangelical Christians are also adopting spiritual direction as a new tradition. Francisco Paulino, a 23-year-old former gang member who became a born-again Christian in prison, spends Saturday mornings writing, praying, and talking with Andrea Bliss-Lerman, an evangelical Christian spiritual director, at the Lynn Public Library.
“It has really helped me understand what I believe in when I say I believe in God,’’ said Paulino. “I’ve gotten clear about that. So when I am in church singing songs about Jesus, I know what I’m doing - I’m not just doing what everybody else is doing or what tradition dictates.’’
The Rev. Michelle Sanchez, a young evangelical Christian pastor, believes the interest in spiritual direction highlights what is missing from religious institutions today. She has created a program at Highrock Covenant Church in Arlington requiring all members of her youthful congregation to meet at least once a year with lay “spiritual guides’’ she has trained in the basics of spiritual direction.
“So many religious traditions end up feeling quite divorced from your everyday life and experience, so it’s essentially irrelevant,’’ she said. “I think people are tired of that, and I think they hunger for a God they can experience, that is relevant, and close, and that can actually transform them.’’