Dan Miller is a spiritual guide, teacher, pastoral theologian, retreat leader, and writer. He is the founder and leader of The Human and the Holy spiritual formation community and is a mentor and supervisor of spiritual directors-in-training. You can read more about his work and his views in an exclusive interview he’s done for MysticMag.
Please tell us a bit about your background and what led you to help guide others in their journey.
I was influenced in my youth by my teachers from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace in Seattle and the Jesuits of the Northwest Province who introduced me to an integral spirituality oriented toward faith that does justice, being contemplatives-in-action, and appreciating the felt sense of the presence of God in all things. All these years later, I still remember the impression it made on me as a 9th grader that we were reading John Howard Griffin’s book Black Like Me in my Religion class of all places, and that some of my Jesuit teachers were joining the University of Washington students who only blocks away from my high school were blocking the freeway to protest the Vietnam War. These years and experiences planted the seeds of suspicion that later grew to a conscious conviction that the Christ-life is necessarily, intimately, and dynamically related to everyday life and our pressing social issues or it is nothing more than a prop or a sham.
When I went to graduate school to study theology and prepare for pastoral ministry, I was given some advice by a mentor who said, “When you get there find yourself a spiritual director.” And I did. I’ve had a number of long-term spiritual guides over the last forty years. So, I’m returning the favor since it was indispensable for me, for who I am, and who – at 68 – I am still in the process of becoming. Some of my formal training includes Master of Divinity and Master of Theology degrees, and a Ph.D. in Theology and Personality.
Why did you choose to call your practice or ministry “The Sacred Braid”?
From my mid-twenties, I was asking the question, “What does an authentic spirituality look like? What are the essential ingredients regardless of the religious tradition?” The original image that came to me was that of a river. Imagine one river with interlaced channels. Like a braided river whose source, flow, and destination is Divine Love, the sacred work of becoming human and holy involves four interwoven movements that make up, what I call, The Sacred Braid. The Sacred Braid is my image of the four primary, requisite movements for an integral spirituality.
Strand One is knowledge, acceptance, and love of oneself. Strand Two is reverence, open-heartedness, deep sympathy, hospitality, and just relationships with other human persons, especially the most vulnerable. Strand Three is care for and kinship with the other-than-human community of the natural world which is inherently sacred, and Strand Four is contemplative and prophetic rootedness in the One in whom we live and move and have our being giving way to grateful praise, compassionate action, and the joyful love of God. I would humbly say any spirituality from any tradition or path that is not consciously tending to these four movements is incomplete.
How does spiritual guidance or direction resonate with you and how would you describe it to those who are unfamiliar with the term?
Scuba divers say, “Never dive alone.”. It’s wise counsel. Jesus sent his disciples out two by two. So the most basic reason I offer spiritual guidance is simply so that people are not so alone. Daring to set out on or continue the sacred journey which involves cultivating a life of spiritual depth can be very lonely. Traveling with another insures safety and accountability, guards against self-deception, and provides intimate companionship and encouragement. So accompaniment is probably the best image for the work I do. In Ireland, where my mother’s people are from, they have a Gaelic term—anam cara or soul friend. My call and work is in soul friending which means listening with someone for that which is deepest in them and together to the Holy One—as I said earlier— in whom I believe we live and move and have our being. I believe every person is a sacred story. I’m a story-catcher helping others not to sleepwalk through life, to live into their deepest truth (not mine), to discern what matters most in life, and together with the Divine to co-author the story of their lives that the world needs to hear and that only they can tell.
I am a Catholic Christian with an ecumenical spirit open to wisdom wherever I can find it. This informs what I do and how I do it. Not all, but most of the people who come to me self-identify as Christians. So I accompany and support them as they live into the Christ-life more deeply and out from it more generously. Whatever the person’s faith tradition or lack thereof, it’s my intention to hold space for others so that they can dare to be broken open to the depths of their lives, to the sheer gift of life itself, and to the incomprehensible surprise of living.
I am not a guru or a spiritual tutor. Nor am I a religious expert who tells, fixes, cures, commands, judges, or rescues people. They’re not passive sponges and I’m not an authoritarian bucket carrier who throws holy water on them to soak up. I’m a soul friend helping them to listen deeply to the Ineffable One who is closer to them than they are to themselves. Another image would be the attending gardener who—together with the Spirit—supports and encourages people to flourish.
What advice do you have for those embarking on their spiritual journey?
I lean toward the wisdom of first digging one hole deeply rather than twelve holes shallowly. Or to switch metaphors, we live in a smorgasbord culture. A little of this, a little of that, and so on. But spiritual sampling or nibbling a variety of hors d’oeuvres does not equal one good, delicious, filling meal. I believe as adults it is essential to be aware of, learn from, and appreciate the strengths and wisdom of other traditions. But, I would suggest people first find one tradition or spiritual path to root themselves in and when they know its truths and inner depths, its beauty and strengths, as well as its blind spots and flaws—then become conversant with other traditions to critique, dialogue with, complement, and expand your own spiritual path.
The Dalai Lama encourages people to keep their own traditions and to glean from other traditions whatever enhances their own. If your family comes from a religious tradition, I’d say start there. Do a deep dive as an adult before leaving it. I would especially encourage people to find out if there is a contemplative or mystical dimension of their own tradition. In the 1960s, sincere Jewish and Christian youth went east (and I don’t mean to Trenton, New Jersey) and found the contemplative or mystical aspects of eastern religions without knowing the mystical tradition within their own faiths. If you come from no religious background, then explore. Read the great writers, attend the worship and rituals, and interview teachers and spiritual guides of different traditions. But don’t explore forever. Eventually, find a home where you can live and venture out from.
I have great respect for Jim Finley who is one of the great living teachers on the contemplative way. He offers some sage advice: Find your contemplative practice and practice it; find your contemplative community and enter it; and, find your contemplative teaching and follow it.
My final—and admittedly biased—suggestion would be to find a faith tradition or spiritual path that nurtures contemplative engagement and compassionate action. One that’s core vision, teaching, and embodied practice is substantive enough to speak into a world that is addicted to violence, riddled with inequity, injustice, poverty, unnecessary suffering, and plagued by planetary destruction and a lot of -isms: sexism, racism, militarism, classism, and consumerism. There is a lot of religion-right and spirituality-lite floating around these days, and sadly, there are each of these two elements amidst those who are active participants in a religious tradition and those who call themselves spiritual but not religious. Choose wisely.
Do you believe we are all here for a higher purpose? Where do we go from here?
Yes, I do—to the first question. I believe the original act of creation was an unsolicited blessing motivated by love. Everything that exists from the starfields to the shiny-headed nine-year-old in the oncology ward to your unconditionally loving dog, to the human capacity to be kind, was a labor of love by Love. I have a chant that gives expression to this conviction: “It is because we are loved that we live. And because we live, we live to love.”
In response to your second question, I have no idea (and who among us does). I have a faith that what goes around (abundant love) comes around. So I entrust what’s on the other side to the Holy One from whom all blessings flow and believe the answer to that question would not change how or in whom I have invested my life. Without a doubt, Christian faith leans into radical hope in the resurrection and an afterlife, but the truth is – spirituality is primarily about how we live before death.
To find out more about Dan Miller and The Sacred Braid, you can visit www.thesacredbraid.com.