We are all spiritual guides for ourselves and each other

Charlotte Rørth

More | Personal Experiences

We are all spiritual guides for ourselves and each other

Charlotte Rørth

More | Personal Experiences

How can pastors help people of today live with a sudden or doubtful faith

Late afternoon December 9th a WhatsApp-message appeared on my phone.

I would not normally check my phone for messages on a Sunday, but that dark day I did while wrapping Christmas gifts and writing back and forth with my sister in Copenhagen about the upcoming holiday.

The message was brief: Don Fernando Nieto had died.

The 93-year old chaplain in the Chapel of Our Savior, La Capilla de El Salvador,  in Úbeda, Spain had for almost ten years been one of my closest advisers and guides and it is not too much to say that I owe him my mental and spiritual sanity.

When I on Wednesday afternoon February 25th 2009, sat down on one of the benches in his sacristy behind the chapel, I had a 20-minute long vision of Christ. He was standing on a gravel road in a warm valley with olive trees wearing a blue tunic and talking to me in a language I didn’t understand.

But his gaze on me needed no words to be understood. He showed me he loved for no other reason than my existence. He did not show me I was special nor that I had to do something in particular to be loved by him. Existing was enough.

Therefore the gaze was not meant for me but for the whole of mankind.

As this happened in Don Fernando’s sacristy I felt the urge to talk to him.

I was not used to talking to priests. I was at that time what we in Denmark call a cultural Christian. I was a member of the Danish Common Church, the protestant Lutheran/Evangelical Folkekirken because I agreed with the values of the religion, not because I beheld a faith. I saw religion and faith as the same thing, as a construction made by humans in order to force ourselves to strive to be better persons and not only focus on ourselves and our materialistic needs.

I went to see Don Fernando three months after my first encounter with Jesus.

He was very reluctant to see me and had only wanted to grant me five minutes, he had said to my close friend, Andrea Pezzini, who made the appointment on my behalf.

When I met him before late mass an evening in May 2009, he was at first unfriendly, almost aggressive. But when I told him about the 20 minutes in his sacristy, his eyes changed, he smiled, took my hands, blessed me and took care of me from that day on.

Every six months I have since travelled to Úbeda and have had deep conversations with him. Actually, they were never long, and some of them were hardly about faith. Words were not always needed, but if I needed to ask, I knew he would listen to whatever was troubling me.

He was there.

For ten years he existed as a firm ground beneath my faith being the carrier of a two thousand-year -long wisdom and tradition.

When he died in December he had helped me so profoundly I did not feel lost.

I feel at home where ever I am. He helped me carry my faith in my soul, my heart and my body and made it possible to live with it where ever I – and he – will ever be.

Besides the first and later a second encounter with Jesus I had had a series of strong and strongly surprising spiritual experiences. My faith was deep and steady, but I knew nothing about how to live with such an absoluteness nor with the firm knowledge of the existence of God and his Son.

I would not have learned that without the generosity, knowledge, hard work, caring and many conversations with Don Fernando and other spiritual companions of very different kind, all of them necessary and all of them in the need for support from the Church.

If I had not been met with generosity from so many I might have suffered from the despair, mental illness and solitude, that many suffer from after having had experiences like mine or having gotten lost on the path of faith in other ways.

After having worked thoroughly with faith and spirituality as a professional for ten years, I hope I can pass on some knowledge that can be of use.

1. The theologically scholared guides like Don Fernando are the ones we desperately need after having had one or several of the spiritual experiences, that 50-75 % of us have according to BBC, UK, and the Pew Institute, USA, or when one finds the longing for faith whether standing in a crisis or out of emotional or intellectual curiosity.

The scholared guides provide the crucial knowledge that one is a) not alone in encountering or wishing for a closeness with God and that b) it is possible to lead a normal life if you c) respect the knowledge they and the religion they represent, mainly d) stabilizing yourself with prayers and a church/monasterial rhytm and e) not distancing yourself from a normal life caring for other people in order to only focus on your own experiences or longing.

Being a scholared spiritual guide to new-comers is not taught today in any theological education as far as a I am aware. It should be. Of course people already enrolled in the life of the church are in the need of help as well, but the people knocking on the door without existing knowledge are above that often shy and have no words for what is going on in their lives.

They need to be welcomed.

In Denmark I found a pastor who helped me immensely and still does, Liselotte Horneman Kragh. Being a pastor in Folkekirken, she is now my main spiritual guide also because she f) helps me bridge my experiences into the church where I live and belong. She g) helps me find the eternal and present words in my mother tongue for what is happening with me.

As well as the two closest to me I have other h) guides in more specific areas like meditation/prayer  and embodiment.

Learning to be a sholared guide should be an important part of every pastor’s education.

How it should be done, needs an in-depth study of how to up-date the teachings in order to speak directly into modern society’s blizzard of distractions.


2. The silent guides are the one found in books.

For me, the most important ones have been Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross and other mystics, that have written down their own lives lived with experiencing God. Reading slows me down and forces me to sit still and wonder.

Lectio Divina is a way of reading that I found valuable to have been taught.

Reading The Bible and meditating over a text daily is also a way of anchoring myself in a religion that is not only something I create on my own, but a deeply rooted community.

Inspiring people to read and to read in circles, in rhythm, in Lectio Divina or aloud to each other, is for me an immensely valuable lesson to pass on.

The conversation with the silent guides can be opened by the church with a library, with recommendations, in the sermons, with the children.


3. The fellow wanderers are perhaps more important a bit later on than in the beginning of the journey of faith.

Facilitating relationships between people of faith should be an important part of the pastoral care of today.

I go to Sunday service in my church, Budolfi, or other churches, when I travel. I always feel at home.

I have joined a Bible study group where we meet twice a year for retreats with silence and Lectio Divina as well as conversations on our life and faith. The group is led by a pastor and I find this a necessity. A group can get lost if not lead by a competent and conscious person who does not participate on the same level as the others but has the job of managing a calmness and a security for everyone to be heard.

I have several one-on-one relationships with people that have had experiences like mine and the hours with them prevents me from feeling like another kind of species. It’s a relief to be able to talk about your experiences without having to explain or have them explained.

I think many would feel lucky if they, like me, have a very close relationship outside my family. Andrea Pezzini was with me when I had the encounter with Jesus and has seen me glow on several occasions. In that way my experiences have become his.

We talk about everything and are deeply depended and intertwined because of our shared experiences. The respect we treat the road we travel with, is the same and of that I am truly grateful.

Friendship might not be taught but if we talk about the value of honest closeness we might get better at it.

The conversation with strangers can be facilitated easily by the church with coffee, maybe even breakfast before the Sunday Sermon, but also by arranging Bible Study Groups with an open approach or pilgrim walks that tend to attract others than the church building does.


4. The family is a necessity when it comes to living with faith in today’s secular society.

The need to be able to be honest in your own home is obvious. In many homes some are believers and some are not.

That is not the problem.

The difficulties grow to saddening proportions when believers as well as non-believers feel the need to change the other. It is not a work to be done in our homes by us. Let God do that work and let us each live as our faith leads us to do.

My husband is not a Christian but our mutual respect makes our home a truly loving one – which is essentially the way every home should be.

I have felt no need at any time to convince anybody that they are wrong if they do not see the world as I do. I have no right. The two encounters with Jesus taught me that.

The conversation in the family can be helped on its way by the church if pastors help seekers find a way to live alongside people that are different than they are.


5. Strangers can be a bigger help then imagined.

I have felt relief by knowing many people have had experiences like mine. I only know them as numbers in statistics, as readers of my books or audiences at my talks.

They give comfort to each other, too.

Since my first book was published in 2015 I have given 300 talks for more than 50.000 people in Denmark and Norway, as well as having had tv-series, radio shows and many articles written on me and all in all my books have sold more than 70.000 copies and are in libraries in several countries. The pure appearance of a poster on a wall for a talk of mine or an interview on tv can help people feel less estranged.

The conversation with strangers might be without dialogue, but it gives voice in the common room to many people. It can be helped forward by the church by hosting arrangements, by writing in the media or in books and by appearing where ever people gather.


6. Everybody has to be a spiritual guide themselves.

Not only to themselves but to others.

It might not happen at first, but in the end we all end up having to help others.

I wrote the first book when I was a complete newcomer into faith. This made the book accessible to other newcomers because I did not pretend to be any other than someone like them.

I did not pretend to have all the answers.

I still don’t because I don’t have them.

And I do think, knowing it’s a theological stand, that we as humans do not have the answers.

God does.

The humility that this has given me is what keeps me sane. It is also what keeps people wanting to talk to me and read my books.

They do not feel they have to live up to a standard or be able to quote the Bible in full or act in a specific way in order to talk about God. Right or wrong many have the impression that the pastors  do not welcome people unless they, like school children, have done their homework.

The conversation with ourselves as believers can be helped by the pastors speaking more openly as humans and not only as professionals with an answer to whatever topic. If the pastors show themselves as fellow wanderers, they become guides in themselves for us to look at. Then we can find hope that we, too, might live a wonderful life with work, family and faith in joint abundance.

About the author

Charlotte Rørth

Charlotte Rørth, Denmark, (1962), journalist, author of “I met Jesus” (2015), “We met Jesus” (2017) and “Oh, my God, you’re right here” (2019) all in Danish, the first book translated into six languages, including Dutch and German.