Many years ago in Baltimore I heard Pete Seeger play the five-string banjo. I was seized with the conviction that I must do it, too. I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University at the time and had little money, but poverty was no deterrent in the rush of such urgencies. I went to the pawnshops on East Baltimore Street the next morning and bought a banjo for 11 dollars. I found an instruction manual in a used-book store for 50 cents. I was on my way.
I applied myself to strumming and frailing and three-finger picking. I had neither the time nor the money for formal instruction, but in odd moments between seminars and papers, I worked at making the sounds and singing the songs Seeger had introduced into my life.
In the years following, the impetus of the first enthusiasm slackened. I repeated myself a lot. From time to time I would pick up another instruction book, another songbook. Eventually I realized that if I was going to advance, I would have to get a teacher. It wasn't that I lacked knowledge—my stack of instruction books was now quite high. It wasn't that I lacked material—there were already far more songs in my books than I could ever learn well. But I didn't seem to be able to get the hang of some things just by reading about them.
I have not yet gotten a teacher. It was never the right time. I procrastinated. I am still picking and singing the same songs I learned in the first few years. My crisp, glittering banjo sound that used to set feet tapping and laughter rippling now bores my wife and children to tears.
A desire for prayer was kindled in my early life. When the embers cooled, as they did from time to time, I applied the bellows of a lecture or a book or a workshop or a conference. The evangelical movement, in which I grew up, gave frequent exhortations to pray. I was told in many and various ways that prayer was urgent. There was also a great quantity of didactic material on prayer, most of it in books. I responded to the exhortations and read the books. But useful as these resources were to get me started and established, there came a time when I felt the need for something else—something more personal, more intimate.
But what? As I groped for clarity, I found out what I did not want. I didn't want a counselor or therapist. I was not conscious of any incapacitating neurosis that needed fixing. I did not want information; I already knew far more than I practiced. It was not for lack of knowledge that I was unsettled. And it wasn't exactly a friend I wanted, a person with whom I could unburden my inner hopes and fears when I felt like it.
My sense of need was vague and unfocused. It had to do with my development in prayer and my growth in faith—I knew that much. But I didn't know how to get it. I began to pray for someone who would guide me in the essential, formative parts of my life: my sense of God, my practice of prayer, my understanding of grace.
I knew from my books that in previous centuries, spiritual directors were a regular part of the life of faith. I also knew that in other traditions it was unthinkable for persons with any kind of leadership responsibilities to proceed without a spiritual director. Spiritual intensities were dangerous and the heart desperately wicked—anyone entering the lion's cage of prayer required regular, personal guidance. But this knowledge, like the footnotes and appendixes in my banjo books, was outside the orbit of my associations.