Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction is a book by Margaret Guenther that explores the practice of spiritual direction. Christianity offers a safe avenue for believers to share and reflect on their spiritual journeys through prayer. A spiritual director incarnates hospitality similar to that demonstrated by Jesus and goes about it with full presence and attention. The director assists a person reconnect by symbolizing the roles of a teacher, a host, and a midwife. This essay looks at each of the three persons involved in the process of spiritual direction. It will also examine the temperament, skills, personality, training, spiritual maturity, and other attributes needed by a good spiritual guide.
Most individuals have at one time or another felt detached from their own life story. They may move on with life with no sense of continuity between actions and habits, who they are, and what they wish to live for. Day-to-day life has a kind of noisiness that tends to mute peoples identity, and suppress any sense of forward progression or progression that they may have with them and with God. An effective way of dealing with this problem is through spiritual direction that handles the noise by providing a silent and peaceful space. It provides a way of accessing God as well as time for the person to hear themselves. Spiritual direction is a powerful practice that can be formative in a persons life. Guenthers book offers guidance on how to go about it.
In Holy Listening, Guenther writes as an Episcopal priest, a teacher, and a woman; and clearly points out that spiritual direction is not psychotherapy and does not involve fixing people. She also examines other notable characteristics of the spiritual directors. They are vulnerable, hopeful, quick learners, playful, gifted interrogators, able to analyze progress, and mindful of their subjects weaknesses. To help people understand their relationship with the world and with God, the spiritual director declares the virtues of silence, mystery, a rule of life, celebration, and regular spiritual activities. The author describes this role as similar to that of a midwife. When undergoing spiritual direction, a new life is brought about by the Spirit.
When playing the role of a host, a space is created by the spiritual director that is both welcoming and safe. Such a space is sacred, and the distractions associated with busy schedules and day-to-day tasks are absent. It can take numerous forms and is meticulously created specifically for people having problems finding direction in life. The spiritual director as a teacher does not order about the individual under their care and tell them what to do. Instead, they ask the questions that are crucial to helping the person recognize their struggles and place in life. The spiritual director assists the individual identify the questions to be answered rather than actually providing the answers.
Often, having questions can be an indicator of spiritual health, and it is unfortunate that this is a situation that most people are uncomfortable with. All people want is find answers to the questions and then move on with their lives. A good teacher is one who assists a student really live in the question as opposed to merely offering a solution. This is particularly important when it comes to spiritual direction. The questions themselves are a kind of a silence and present a place in which an individual can seek refuge from the noisiness of the world and get a chance to hear God. They present platforms from which new insights can materialize. One aspect of spiritual direction is being the type of teacher that makes students ask questions.
The other powerful analogy found in Holy Listening is the spiritual director playing the role of a midwife. In one way or another, most people are hurt and wounded. Life is difficult and full of challenges; meaning that there are always some struggles and hurts that people are contending with. While they naturally tend to bravely bear the hurt and pain while trying to move on, this is not a healthy way to deal with it. In the midst of the emptiness that a person experiences, a new dawn can arise. Inducing and fostering such a new life is among the main roles that a spiritual director can take part in. many people seek spiritual direction because they figure out there is something inside them that has to come out. However, they are often confused by the process and scared of it. It is the duty of spiritual directors to relieve this anxiety and guide their subjects through the process.
The role of a spiritual director as a teacher is inspired by Jesus, with the best example being his interaction at a well with a Samaritan woman. Just like a director helping a subject, the aim of Jesus teaching is self-knowledge in that he helps her examine herself thoroughly and discover a thirst for God. According to Guenther, the director is both a teacher and a learner of sensitivity. On one hand, he/she must avoid distractions and focus all attention on the subject. On the other hand, he/she assists the subject develop and trust their own powers of sensitivity through example and encouragement. Through sensitivity, both the spiritual director and the subject become more knowledgeable of themselves thus learning that God already knows their innermost selves. Such a situation presents a rather freeing recognition.
Guenther is of the opinion that, as a teacher, a good spiritual director is one who encourages play. She states that play enables people to cross boundaries and stretch themselves to their limits. Individuals seeking spiritual direction who resist play often have a poor self-image and an inclination to spiritualize everything. Simply put, they try to avoid the grittiness of day-to-day life and expect to have a conversation with a director that is far from all reality. The author is of the opinion that playfulness goes a long way in sanctifying the ordinary and bringing back naturalness. A good teacher also knows the subjects limits. This is all about timing whereby the director knows when to speak and when to be quiet. The author warns that while it is tempting to convert teaching into giving instructions, its not the duty of spiritual directors to tell subjects things or assist them analyze themselves. Rather, their role is to educate and help them learn what already exists.
A good spiritual director playing the role of a teacher has the ability to evaluate progress. This trait also necessitates sensitivity as one of the reasons as to why people go to directors is for orientation. Sometimes, an individual may be stuck and has reached a point where having faith does not seem to work. Such a person may be discouraged and feel like he/she is slipping backwards. In such a situation, it would help for the spiritual director to assure the subject of the change, growth and progress that has taken place. Good teachers are also vulnerable. They reflect on their own scars and partially healed wounds, and then count them as gifts. Such reflection of the directors own vulnerability imparts on the subject some useful humility. The other crucial trait of a good teacher involves teaching prayer. Spiritual direction also happens to be prayer. Guenther warns that while books about prayer can be of immense help, caution should be exercised when prescribing them. She explains that substituting prayer itself with reading about it is quite easy.
Gunther elaborates on the role of the spiritual director as a midwife. The birth in question is the process over time in which people become more fully human. They become more fully alive in relation to themselves, the world, and God. Jesus is being uniquely born or formed in them. Such formation is done by the Holy Spirit that does away with our inner chaos and offers freedom from bondage. The role of the spiritual director as a midwife is to accompany this re-birth, which is a rather humbling experience. The process is a rather theological and spiritual experience for both the director and subject. According to Guenther, the term midwife literary means with-woman. Hence, a spiritual director playing the role of a midwife implies a person who is deeply attentive to possibilities of a new life, Gods movements, growth, and change within the subjects life. Such an individual is the one with the birth-giver. Simply put, it is the subject who gives birth rather than the spiritual director, or midwife.
When offering spiritual direction, a director shares space, whereby he/she invites an individual into a space that presents shelter and space. Such a person puts aside their needs and focuses all their attention on entertaining the guest. Hospitality can thus be said to be both physical and spiritual. According to Guenther, the physical space set aside for spiritual direction should be made as welcoming as it can be. In addition, it should be a safe and secure sanctuary that is free from interruptions. The spiritual director reflects the ample hospitality shown by the host at the lavish banquet. In the case of spiritual direction, there happens to be a kind of a reversal of the roles played by a host and a guest. Here, the guest is Jesus while the person seeking direction is the host.
Guenther goes on to state that spiritual direction is a form of storytelling in that the person seeking it tells their story. However, it also a kind of a dialogue a sometimes the spiritual director, who is the listener, actively participates in shaping the story. The duty of the director is to help connect the subjects narration to the story. Hence, he or she assists the subject recognize identity in Christ and claim it, as well as to welcome the action of the Holy Spirit into their life. Spiritual direction is, for many, the initial opportunity to put experiences, stories, insights, and questions into words. Hence, spiritual directors are mainly listeners who listen to and witness the adverse presence of God already making its way into the subjects life. They look out for ways in which God reaches out, and then invites the subject to move closer to God.
The three persons involved in the process of spiritual direction presented in Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction can be of immense help to those seeking it. Other spiritual director identities may enrich peoples understanding with various perspectives and emphasis on spiritual direction. All in all, Margaret Guenthers analysis on the subject is noteworthy and particularly useful.
Guenther, M. (1992). Holy listening: The art of spiritual direction. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications.
Jones, W. P. (2016). The art of spiritual direction: Giving and receiving spiritual guidance. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books.
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