Spiritual Directors International

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Spiritual Companions across the Centuries

Guest Author: 
Margaret Benefiel, PhD

Spiritual Companions across the Centuries


Photo by Flickr user b.roveran.

“Rebuild my church.” God used these words from Francis of Assisi’s story to speak to me as I sat in prayer with two spiritual companions in Greensboro, North Carolina, USA, after a heartbreaking disillusionment. I had left a job that I thought was my dream job; my dream shattered. “Oh God, what now?” I cried. My two companions, Quaker ministers like myself, sat with me in my pain and confusion.

As my friends sat with me in discernment, Francis of Assisi’s story came to me. When Francis heard the words, “Rebuild my church,” while praying before the cross of the forsaken San Damiano chapel in Assisi, Italy, he understood God to be telling him to physically rebuild that church, which he began to do immediately. Only gradually did he realize that the more important calling for him was to spiritually rebuild the church of his time.

When those words came to me, I knew the call was spiritual (after all, I have no building skills, and unlike Francis, I had no aptitude for learning them). Yet, like Francis, I didn’t yet know the full extent of the call. I didn’t yet know what the “church” was for me, as I didn’t feel called to pastor a congregation. Over time, I gradually came to see that my calling was to rebuild the spirituality of congregations and organizations across traditions.

A year and a half ago, fifteen years after I had sat with my two friends in North Carolina, I found myself in the chapel of San Damiano in Assisi. My heart stirred as I prayed in the place where Francis received his call. I felt drawn into deeper and deeper contemplative prayer as I sensed the prayerfulness of the simple, clear, uncluttered space. After Francis had rebuilt the chapel, Clare of Assisi and her community of sisters settled there. They formed a contemplative community, and they and their spiritual descendants bathed the space in prayer for centuries. The walls reeked of prayerfulness. The space invited me to pray like I had never prayed before. I felt deeply grounded in God. Clare and her sisters became my spiritual companions, just as my two friends in North Carolina had been.

Across the centuries, across traditions, and in different lands, God speaks. I was reminded in Assisi that our spiritual companions can come from any time or place. God’s deep work in the lives of Francis and Clare touched my life and invited me to go deeper. I tasted a depth of prayer I had not tasted before, and I have not been the same since.

Editor’s note: Margaret Benefiel, PhD, is an active member of Spiritual Directors International and is one of three pilgrim guides for the upcoming SDI Interfaith Pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy: Cultivating Compassion with Saint Francis and Saint Clare.



Margaret Benefiel's picture

Marcelle, it's wonderful to hear that Francis and Clare have been guides for you for quite a while, too. I find a deep resonance between Franciscan spirituality and Quaker spirituality, and it's so good to know that you do, too.

Any chance you could join us in Assisi in May? It would be lovely to have you with us.


Marcelle Martin's picture
Submitted by Marcelle Martin (not verified) on

Thank you, Margaret, for these stories of companionship in prayer, in the flesh and in spirit. Thank you for the story from Assisi; Francis and Clare have been guides for me for quite a while; I'm glad to know that there is still a deep well of prayer in the place where they worked, lived, and prayed. Blessings, Marcelle

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