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Holy Listening: Art of Spiritual Direction – Margaret Guenther

May 2, 2013

HLAccompanying people on their journey, providing space, teaching and learning discernment, avoiding eccentricities)

From the book:

Spiritual direction is uncovering the obvious. We have been on the move since the expulsion from Eden. Hospitality is important and my redesigned living room will enable this. She felt that her years as a teacher prepared her for this.

For most of us, loose ends are frightening reminders of our own powerlessness. To name, to label, to classify gives us the illusion of control, even if the closure reached is a false one.

In all events, it is important to leave the directee free to accept or reject our insights. Whether we are right, wrong or premature, it is reassuring to remember that we cannot do too much harm since people rarely hear what they are not ready to hear. At the very least, we have possibly planted a seed. As director-midwives, then, we must be willing to wait for the seed to sprout — if it is supposed to sprout — and grow to maturity, perhaps long after our relationship with the directee has ceased.

If you feel bored by a conversation, the person might be depressed.

Like children, directees are on loan.

Books should be prescribed cautiously because directee might feel guilty if not appropriate.

To clarify: ‘Tell me more.’ ‘I don’t quite understand.’

The spiritual director as teacher does not make the connections, although she may make observations, give hints (but without being manipulative), and ask the right questions. Her supportive presence sets the directee free to make the connections; and inner and outer work turn out to be all of a piece.

We may spare the very fragile, those who have already more reality than they can bear and are not yet ready to hear the truth. It is sometimes hard to sit with an insight, yet we may say nothing, or we may measure out manageable bits of truth. But with the strong and spiritually mature we need not be so cautious.

Can tell one’s own story if invited or intuit (that it is appropriate/helpful).

The purpose of education is to show a person how to define himself authentically and spontaneously in relation to his world — not to impose a prefabricated definition of the world, still less an arbitrary definition of the individual himself (Thomas Merton, Love and Living, p. 3)

There are many questions in spiritual direction — asked, implied, answered, and unanswered — but as the story gets told and the extraneous stripped away, it is clear that one question lies at its heart: ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eter­nal life?’

It is rarely phrased so baldly, and the person seeking spiritual direction may not be aware that this IS the question. The direc­tor knows, of course, that the yearning for God and relationship with God — eternal life — underlie everything in the work of direction and knit the disparate parts together. For the directee the question may emerge in sharp focus as trust develops, and the work continues. But the question was there all along.

Mark’s gospel account of the rich young man is a paradigm for spiritual direction, especially for spiritual direction as teach­ing. The words of address acknowledge the hierarchical relationship: the petitioner looks to the teacher — the good teacher — for an answer which he cannot find within himself. There is also affectionate connection; it is implicit that the good teacher will have the interest of the questioner at heart. It seems simplistic to note that one can be a teacher only in relationship, that the whole purpose of teaching is to enable another to make his own discoveries. So the hierarchy is a gentle and perhaps transitory one, and the teacher’s apparent power is just that ­apparent. As in Mark’s story, the questioner must be free to deal with and even learn to love the question.

Mark tells us that ‘Jesus looking upon him loved him’. The teacher-pupil relationship is based on love — or should be. We tend to be miserly with our love and to assume its propriety only in close personal relationships. Most damaging of all, we confuse love with warm, mushy, entangling feelings. Such is not the detached, clear-eyed love of the teacher.

I find myself wondering whether the man knew that Jesus loved him. At that moment, probably not! One of the hard tasks of spiritual direction is to speak the truth in love:

. . . speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.”

We may spare the very fragile, those who have already more reality than they can, bear and are not yet ready to hear the truth. It is sometimes hard to sit with an insight, yet we may say nothing, or we may measure out manageable bits of truth. But with the strong and spiritually mature we need not be so cautious.

I learned this in a conversation with Karen, who had come to talk about her growing sense of vocation to the ordained ministry. I knew enough about her family situation and her husband’s implacable hostility to the Church to know that her marriage could not withstand the strain if she decided to pursue her vocation. What I didn’t know was Karen’s great inner toughness, almost ruthlessness. So I said mildly, rather like a spiritual agony aunt trying to make life run smoothly, ‘A person really needs family support, especially a spouse’s support, before she starts off on this road.’ Karen’s eyes flashed, ‘I’m talking about a call from God!’ I knew then that this was a woman who didn’t want minimum doses of sugar-coated truth, so I said, ‘Excuse me for not saying directly what I meant. You know that your marriage probably won’t survive if you pursue the call to ordination, don’t you?’ Karen signed and whispered, `I know.’ (She has moved to another town and we have lost touch. But the last time we spoke she-was still struggling with the implications of her call.)

Had the unnamed seeker in Mark’s gospel come to me I might have been tempted to comfort him: ‘You’re really doing all right. Most people wouldn’t be able to keep all those com­mandments. So just keep on doing what you’re doing, and don’t worry about eternal life.’ But Jesus knew that this man was ready to hear the truth, and so he gave the answer to the ques­tion. And the man’s `countenance fell, and he went away sor­rowful; for he had great possessions’.

Here again Jesus is the teacher of discernment. He is saying, `Look at your life. Look at your treasure. See yourself ‘ What were the great possessions? What are the great possessions which weigh down our directees, which intrude themselves between the seeker and God? Most obviously the man was wealthy in a material sense; and no doubt in first-century Pales­tine as in the twentieth-century world, money management could demand total commitment. Wealth is an attractive idol, easier to get hold of than God, and promising comfort and security. Unlike God, it can be measured and manipulated. But there are other possessions which cause the seeker to go away sorrowful. It is hard to let go of carefully constructed identities, especially clerical and ‘spiritual’ ones. (Perhaps this explains why so many clergy are unreliable as directees.) It is hard to let go of a lifetime of accumulated addictions, not only addictions to harmful chemicals but also to frantic busyness, mind- and spirit-numbing leisure activities and unhealthy relationships. And it is especially hard to let go of the freedom of spiritual irresponsibility, even when drifting aimlessly, trying to ignore the magnetic pull of of God’s love, has its own special pain.

The story of the rich and sorrowful man makes clear that spiritual direction is not to be undertaken lightly. Those who see it as yet another avenue towards self-improvement and self‑

discovery may be surprised at the demands made upon them if they persevere and ‘follow all the commandments’. They may

expect a pat on the head; instead the demands increase as com­mitment increases. As the work deepens in its intensity it is portant for the spiritual director-teacher to remember what is being taught: to look at oneself without flinching and then to act and be accordingly.

Sometimes the cost is too much, and the directee chooses to leave the relationship. Often the reasons for termination are not articulated, or those given are secondary. But a colleague told me the poignant story of a woman who told him she wasn’t coming back. She was well-to-do, leisured, educated — a good woman who observed all the commandments. As my colleague met her regularly for spiritual direction he was delighted to watch her grow and find her true voice. She was being trans­formed before his eyes, and he sensed that she stood on a threshold. He didn’t know what the next step would be; it might involve a radical change in her life-style. Or the change might be deeper: outwardly she would be the same, but her whole life would radiate from a deep inner commitment. And then she said, ‘I won’t be back. This is costing too much. I’m going to have to change and I don’t want to change. I like my life the way it is.’ I don’t know about the woman, but my friend came away sorrowful.

Jesus was able to let the man go. This is a hard lesson for I spiritual directors, maybe because we fear failure. In other words we have a prideful stake in being right, being successful, pointing out the next best step. It is hard to let people go, hard to entrust them to God’s care — which might mean that our time together will bear fruit decades into the future, but that they will wander in a far country and eat husks until then.

Mark doesn’t tell us any more about the rich and sorrowful seeker after eternal life. I harbour the secret hope that maybe he came back!

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