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Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction by Margaret Guenther

by davesandel on September 8th, 2012

Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction, by Margaret Guenther, 1992

146 pages

Read 9-2011, re-read and reviewed, 9-2012

Thoughts on Holy Listening:

Margaret Guenther leads with hospitality in her spiritual direction.  She begins (and often ends) in silence, but hers is a soft silence which often includes tea and always includes smiles and welcome and a quiet accepting peace.  Reading her words is a warm, encouraging experience for me.

Integrating the spiritual search with psychological insight and repair has been a chosen task for many Christian counselors, beginning as far back as Carl Jung.  But this integration has become in recent years almost a movement.  Guenther acknowledges that the “disciplines are compatible and frequently share raw material.”  However, when she wrote in the early 90’s she perceived a distinction between the two which I believe is no longer so clear:

In Holy Listening Guenther regards mutuality as distinctive only of spiritual direction:  “the shared commitment to truth ensures that the spiritual direction relationship is one of true mutuality, for both director and directee must allow themselves to be known.  This marks one of the major differences between spiritual direction and psychotherapy: the director must be willing to be known” (p. 46).

As a Christian counselor I have been aware of differing ideas about the value of mutuality in a relationship.  But I have also always chosen to be “known.”  In the mainstream of Christian counseling today, this is more acceptable.  Robert Carkhuff in the 60’s and Gerard Egan in the 70’s began reversing the trend toward separation in their very influential counselor training programs and books.  They encourage counselors to think of their clients as seekers, not patients, in order to restore some equality to the relationship.

Of course, a change in language isn’t always followed by action.  In 2011, David Benner, who has written books on spiritual direction and is a Christian psychotherapist, writes in Soulful Spirituality of the personal risk involved in giving up the position of expertise and diagnostician: “For many people (therapists), the possibility of being changed by the other is simply a deal breaker.  For years I have argued for psychotherapy to be practiced as a form of dialogue.  However, the prospect of meeting the other person in a place where the therapist, not just the patient, might be changed is simply too threatening for many therapists who view what they do as a technical procedure.  Offering psychotherapy in such a way is a clear example of an I-it relationship.  Prizing objectivity over subjectivity, the relationship will always be less than fully personal.”

But Benner is convinced of the value of mutuality in both the psychotherapeutic and spiritual direction relationships:

“Mutuality does not require symmetry of roles.  Even in situations where I am recognized as having the primary responsibility for the care of the other person, mutuality can be present if I am able to answer the following three questions affirmatively:

  1. Am I willing to bring myself, not just my care, to the encounter?
  2. Can I accept the other as a whole and separate person, as he or she is?
  3. Am I willing to be open enough to their experience and ideas that my own may change as a result of our interaction?

“If I can answer these affirmatively, dialogue can be present.  If I cannot, the relationship may involve expertise and empathy, but it will never be an encounter worthy of being called dialogue.”

Benner continues to describe barriers to dialogue and ends with “the need for control.  One can control interviews and conversations, but one must surrender to genuine dialogue.  Much like moving into a flowing stream of water, one must enter dialogue ready to let go and be carried along on a journey.  We can create opportunities for dialogue and we can participate in it, but we don’t actually create dialogue nor can we ever control it.” (Soulful Spirituality, pp. 127-128)

Spiritual direction thrives in an atmosphere of mutuality and dialogue.  I think Margaret Guenther would rejoice to see that Christian counseling is moving in the same direction.  Benner’s words about dialogue sound like words Guenther might use to describe the “three-eared” experience of listening to herself, listening to her directee, and above all listening to God … and helping her directee learn to do the same.


What follow are quotations from Holy Listening, often drawn together over a few paragraphs or pages.  The book consists of a preface, introduction, four chapters and an epilogue.  Notes follow each chapter, and there is no bibliography.

Enjoy …

Preface (written by Alan Jones, author of Exploring Spiritual Direction)

Spiritual direction can easily become too “spiritual” in the sense of being ungrounded and unreal.  It can become too directive by either being overly clinical or authoritarian. (p. ix)

In some ways, the art of spiritual direction lies in our uncovering the obvious in our lives and in realizing that everyday events are the means by which God tries to reach us … All along we’ve had a spiritual ife and we didn’t know it.  There is poetry in the spiritual life but most of the time we are living in the prosaic mode. (p. ix)

True spiritual direction is about the great unfixables in human life.  It’s about the mystery of moving through time. (p. x)

(But) we are haunted by the specter of unfixability.  If someone implies that he or she has anything approaching a disciplined spiritual life, some of us get a sinking feeling inside. (p. x)

Margaret Guenther is able to make judgments without being judgmental, to smell a rat without allowing her ability to discern deception sour her vision of the glory and joy that is everyone’s birth-right in God. (p. xi)

Spiritual direction is very susceptible to the female imagery of pregnancy and birth-giving.  God is the great birth-helper.  It is no wonder that midwifery is the overriding metaphor of spiritual direction … we assist at the birth of each other in an environment of gracious hospitality. (p. xi)

Much pain could be avoided if we knew how to frame questions about our longings and were willing to forgive one another, even as we seek to make one another accountable.  Spiritual direction, at its best, does just this.  The spiritual director has the double task of holding up the demands of absolute responsibility and the promise absolute forgiveness.  It is out of such demands and promises that we assist at each other’s birth. (p. xiii)

In the very best sense, hers is a book on non-spiritual non-direction: earthed and wise, compassionate and unsentimental, practical and contemplative. (p. xiii)

Introduction.  This is a book written by an amateur, written for amateurs … The amateur is one who loves, loves the art that she serves, loves and prays for the people who trust her, loves the Holy Spirit who is the true director in this strange ministry called spiritual direction. (p. 1)

Cursillo has brought the words “spiritual direction” back into currency, but most lay people and many clergy are uneasy and unsure of their significance in the late twentieth-century church … “I’m not really sure why I’m here.  I don’t know what I want.” They want God, of course, but they aren’t able to say so.  They want to know themselves in relation to God, but they aren’t able to say that, either.  They want spiritual direction, but that, too, they are often unable to say.” (p. 2-3)

Spiritual direction and psychotherapy are not the same, although the disciplines are compatible and frequently share raw material. (p. 4)

Chapter 1.  Welcoming the Stranger

Genesis 18:2-8, Hebrews 13:2, Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 53.

When someone comes for the first time, I am about to show hospitality to a stranger … I become self-conscious, I wonder what this stranger will want of me … I feel my kinship with Abraham when he lifted up his eyes and beheld three strangers standing in front of him … Spiritually, my own stranger has also come a great distance and is still far from home … Spiritually, we are always on the way, in via, when we long to be in patria.  We are travelers, and we are weary and homesick. (p. 9)

To be good hosts, to offer appropriate hospitality, our first task is one of personal housecleaning, of creating our own inner order … And we must keep cleaning so that we have a worthy place when we invite others to rest and refreshment … So the first step for any director is, with the help of her own spiritual director, to become self-aware … Thus I become willing to be guided, to be the needy, vulnerable, weary traveler as well as the generous host. (p. 11)

Some things we can do for ourselves: I find the personal journal (kept in a looseleaf binder that no one reads but me) a great aid in self-awareness … Retreat time in a radically simplified environment discourages inner clutter.  At a retreat there is “nothing to do” – only silence, simple food, adequate space and, at a monastery or retreat house, the security of being surrounded by a praying community. (p. 13)

But a spiritual director who becomes too “spiritual” is more than a little frightening.  So blessed are those who find God’s hand in holding babies, caring for animals, sawing through logs, scrubbing dirty floors, enjoying music, art and literature.  (p. 14)

Sharing our space. 

Offering hospitality means that everything is focused on the comfort and refreshment of the guest.  For a little while, mi casa es tu casa.  There are provisions for cleansing, food and rest.  It is an occasion for storytelling, with both laughter and tears, and then the guest moves on, perhaps with some extra provisions or a roadmap for the next stage of the journey. (p. 14)

We need not fear being generous with our territory nor do we need fear intimacy with another person.  We offer the best we have. (p. 14)

Again and again, in the silence at the beginning of a session, I hear in my heart the words from Aelred, “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst.” (p. 15)

The place offered for spiritual direction … should be as welcoming as possible: icons, a plant or a few flowers, gentle light, a comfortable temperature, and quiet … it should be a safe place, almost a sanctuary, secure from interruptions.  For 60 minutes there will be no intruders and no distractions.  This gives us both a sense of having all the time in the world.  In this space, the director can be totally committed, attentive ONLY to the welfare of the guest. (p. 16)

It helps (us both) to begin with silence.  Thus the time with the directee is set aside as a time of prayer, not as a conference or a friendly chat.  Emily and I once sat together for an hour in complete silence.  I had invited her to break the silence when she was ready.  Minutes passed, and the silence became deeper and deeper, serene but very alive.  I was with her, but in no way anxious to “do” anything for her.  At the end of the hour we exchanged the peace, knowing that Aelred’s “third” had indeed been present in our midst. (p. 17)

After catching up a bit, after getting a cup of tea or coffee, the silence helps define borders.  During these initial moments of silence I try not to pay attention to the directee, but to get my own house in order, with upright posture, hands open and relaxed, breathing slowed.  And then I pray: perhaps the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or “Dear God help me keep my mouth shut!” (p. 18)

Silence shared with the directee can be a diagnostic instrument, as with eyes closed and our hearts centered in prayer we can pick up fear, anxiety, fatigue, rage, hope, yearning … in ourselves and perhaps in the other. (p. 18)

I often say, “Let’s be quiet together for a few minutes, and then you begin whenever you are ready.”  I have learned to say this very clearly and with sufficient volume, because prayerful silence is out of the question if either of us is unsure of the ground rules.  If this makes someone uncomfortable, I will end the silence with a short prayer, perhaps just a simple, “Come, Lord Jesus.” (p. 18)

Anything can be said here, in this safe space.  Confidentiality here should be utterly inviolable.  This needs to be explained at the beginning.  I am reluctant to maintain any kind of written records.  This is one of the ways in which spiritual direction should be distinguished from psychotherapy.  We risk diminishing our spiritual guests if we reduce them to symptoms and measurements.  The person sitting opposite me is always a mystery.  When I label, I limit. (p. 19)

The penitent needs to know we hear but do not judge, that we stand ready to untangle the strands of sin and shame.  This total acceptance does not mean that sin is taken lightly or that consequences of behavior are glossed over … Through her loving acceptance the director is able to model and reflect the love of God so yearned for by the directee, who despairs of his own worthiness. (pp. 20-21)

The gift of hospitality in this time together is the gift of myself, which may not be much, but it is all that I have. (p. 21)

As someone who likes to talk and who enjoys human company, one of my hardest lessons in spiritual direction has been that less is frequently more.  Unrestrained empathy can lead us to appropriation of the other person’ experience, by posture and facial expression if not by words.  I guard myself (not always successfully) by two means.  First, I use the Jesus Prayer, my “egg-timer” prayer.  When I feel myself crowding someone emotionally or spiritually, I tell myself, “Ten Jesus Prayers before you say anything!”  Or when I become impatient that we seem to be getting nowhere, I promise myself, “Five Jesus Prayers, and then you blow the whistle.”  Second, I pay attention to my hands.  So long as they resting on my chair or folded in my lap, I am able to convey a sense of rest because I myself feel unhurried. (p. 21)

As director it is my responsibility to keep track of time and draw the meeting to a close.  About ten minutes before the close I find a way to say, “We’ll have to stop in a few minutes.”  These words almost always result in a sharpened focus, and the most important material of the session may be introduced at this point.  I try to resist the temptation to extend the time.  I might say, “That seems significant.  Let’s start with that next time.” (p. 22)

Storytelling needs to be unhurried and unharried.  It can also be a dialogue, and sometimes the listener helps shape the story.  I don’t let someone go on avoiding inner exploration, but neither can I become impatient … Trust must be formed in strata: just when I think we are hopelessly stuck in banalities there might be a sudden new openness.  (p. 23)

Most of us are well-meaning but cluttered, overstimulated, and pulled in a dozen directions at once.  People sometimes come looking for a spiritual director because they are overwhelmed with good things: challenging work, useful charitable activities, more books than they can read and cultural events than they can ever absorb, more information than they can process, more paths of self-improvement than they can follow.  They simultaneously yearn and fear to hear: “One thing is needful.”  They come because they want that one thing, even when they cannot articulate their need. (p. 24)

Asking Questions.

 Simple, direct questions that cut to the heart of the matter are part of the spiritual tradition.  Jesus had a way of sweeping distractions out of the way with a trenchant question … The question Jesus put to Bartimaeus is an invaluable aid to clarity and order.  “What do you want me to do for you?” … To be able to say what one truly wants or where one is in pain is a great step toward achieving order in one’s spiritual household. (p. 24-26)

People come to direction wanting and needing many things but fearful of “bothering” God and unaware of God’s invitation to do just that!  (p. 26)

When all the layers have been stripped away, God is what the directee wants. (p. 26)

Again and again we hear in the stories of our guests the twentieth-century equivalent of Julian of Norwich’s words, “My kind mother Christ, my gracious mother, my beloved mother, have mercy on me.  I have made myself filthy and unlike you, and I may not and cannot make it right without your grace and help.” (p. 27)

Exposure is salutary.  Spiritual directors are purveyors of light and air.  We hear confessions, stories of hurt received and hurt inflicted, of shabbiness and coldness of heart, of myriad little murders.  When we invite a directee to speak of his burden, the sense of relief is almost palpable … It is as if we say, “Confess it to me, and I will carry it.”  This is perhaps the ultimate act of hospitality, epitomizing the generous mutuality of the direction relationship … We are united in the glory and sinfulness of their humanity; they are part of the same family. (pp. 28-29)

When we listen compassionately with “the mind in the heart,” as Theophan the Recluse puts it, we cannot help taking others’ sins upon ourselves … There is a cheapness and spiritual dishonesty in opening oneself to another’s story while keeping one’s fingers crossed – “I’ll let it touch me, even touch me deeply, but not for long.”  On the other hand, I accept the burden, not to hoard and cherish it as mine but rather to pass it on to God immediately.” (p. 30)

Spiritual directors are not professionals, but amateurs who aspire to reflect Christ’s love.  The assumption of others’ burdens is one of the risks of hospitality … Then we can let those burdens go in holy forgetting, remembering that God was managing nicely before we joined th firm and will continue to cope after we have returned to dust.  But before we can let it go we must let ourselves be touched. (p. 31)

Sharing the story

For me, spiritual direction is always storytelling … For many, spiritual direction is the first opportunity to put into words their earliest awareness of God, which is often quite distinct from their family’s degree of religious observance. (p. 32)

It is no longer fashionable to talk about preparing for a “good death,” yet that is what spiritual direction is all about.  The journey does have an end, and our physical death is one of its markers.  We can help in this as we explore the story of the future. (p. 34)


Directors are primarily listeners, but also participants in their own right.  Do not fear the self-revelation that comes from joining the conversation.  A director’s shared humanity can be a valuable corrective to a directee’s extremely high standards for herself. (p. 35)

I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?  Will it help the directee?  Or will my self-revelation be harmful, taking time, attention, and energy that belong to the person sitting opposite me?”  … In early meetings I ask if there is anything about me the directee would like to know.  Common questions are, “What brought you you here?  How did you start doing this work?”  Later they might ask, “Did YOU ever feel this way?” (p. 36)

This is a delicate and dangerous business, because I can use the directee to feed my ego. (p. 36)

However I join in the storytelling, whether by invitation or my own intuition, our sense of solidarity is increased.  We are united in our sinfulness, our baptism, in the commonalities of our journeys. (p. 36)

I am constantly surprised at how much shared laughter there is in spiritual direction.  At first, I was sure I was doing something wrong; after all, spiritual direction is serious business.  But laughter helps reduce our inflated selves to manageable proportions.  Laughter makes and keeps us childlike.  And … we also share tears.  When I am left without words, when there are no words that are not cheap, tears come.  The importance of shared emotion, of empathy and compassion cannot be overestimated. (p. 38)

Jesus had a way of taking over at the dinner table  So too in the ministry of spiritual direction – when all is said and done, the Holy Spirit is the true director … If I am ready to relinquish my role to the true Host, the burden of responsibility drops away and the space I have prepared becomes gracious and holy. (p. 39)

Chapter 2. Good Teachers

What does the spiritual director teach?  The spiritual director is simultaneously a learner and a teacher of discernment: what is happening?  Where is God in this person’s life?  What is the story?  Where does this person’s story fit in our common Christian story?  How is the Holy Spirit at work?  What is missing?  (p. 43)                                         

The first step in discernment is perception.  Deeply attentive to the person sitting across the holy space, then by example and by judicious interpretation, the director helps the directee toward equal openness and attentiveness.  Together they look, listen and wait.  This work is not easy or automatic. (p. 44)

The second step in the work of discernment is judgment: what does one do with the perception?  It’s important to focus on the next steps, despite temptation to operate on a grander scale … One of the major teachings the director can offer – and offer again and again – is the value of the present moment. (p. 44-45)

Shared commitment to truth ensures that the spiritual direction relationship is one of true mutuality, for both director and directee must allow themselves to be known … Spiritual direction attracts a disproportionate number of introverts who require a great deal of time and patience to reach the level of trust necessary for self-revelation … When he allows himself to be known to be himself, to another, and to God, the directee will be aware of the web of relationships that connects him to all creation. (p. 46)

The Great Model: Jesus the Teacher

The great model for all teachers who are spiritual directors is Jesus himself.  In the gospels there are over forty references to him as teacher, and just skimming through them is enlightening.  He taught as “one having authority.”  Sometimes his teachings were painful.  He taught in the synagogue and at the dinner table with stories, parables, hard questions, koan-like sayings, and authoritative pronouncements.  He used visual aids.  He taught also by indirection and silence.  (p. 46-47)

Desert Teachers.

True learning in the desert came from looking inward, facing oneself (and God) in solitude: “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” (p. 52)

As a spiritual director, I am in danger from other people’s anger and my own reaction to it.  Most of us want to be liked and are consequently reluctant to offend.  Since most people have trouble expressing anger, especially in anything to do with God, we are often faced by testing behavior or denial in our directees when they come to us full of rage.  How long do we let it go on?  How do we respond combining love and truth?  How can we help the directee use her anger? (p. 53)

Discerning the Questions.

The story of the rich man asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” makes it clear that spiritual direction is not to be undertaken lightly.  Those who see it as yet another avenue toward self-improvement and self-discovery may be surprised at the demands made upon them if they persevere and “follow all the commandments.”  As the work deepens in its intensity, the spiritual director must remember the essence of what is being taught: to look at oneself without flinching and then to act and be accordingly. (p. 57)

People don’t always stay.  This can be come “too much.”  It is hard to let people go and hard to entrust them to God’s care – which might mean that our time together will bear fruit decades into the future, but in the meantime they might wander into a far country and eat husks. (p. 58)

Good Teachers.

A good teacher encourages play.  Not culturally driven “leisure,” but play which is not competitive or compulsive.  Holy, useless play.  My fingers type, “It will be necessary to play about this.” The linking of play and prayer is apparent in the fourteenth-century mystical work, The Cloud of Unknowing: “Sickness…will often leave you indisposed and keep you from prayer’s heights.  Yet, at the same time, I counsel you to remain at it always either in earnest or, as it were playfully.” These are reassuring words for director-teachers trying to help their directees through aridity, poor health, personal difficulties, and distraction.  “Rely more on joyful enthusiasm than on sheer brute force … Do not impatiently snatch at grade like a greedy greyhound suffering from starvation.” (p. 58-59)

Play is intense but liberating.  We are freed from our compulsion for right answers, from the need to acquire and achieve, from anxiety.  In our imagination we are rich beyond belief.  Everything matters tremendously, and not at all.  Play allows us to unself, to shed masks and let ourselves be known.  Play provides gentle help in discarding icons that have turned into homemade idols, just as we once knocked down blocks and sand castles that had served their purpose. (p. 60-61)

Resistance to play tells me a great deal about a directee’s image of God.  While serious “penitential” assignments might be welcome, she might be frightened or even angered at the prospect of play … Directees who resist play often combine a poor self-image with a tendency to “spiritualize” everything, avoiding the grittiness of everyday life, their pious conversation divorced from reality. (p. 60-61)

A “merry candor” is better taught by example than by precept, and the director can begin by demythologizing himself. (p. 62)

A good teacher knows the pupil’s limits.

This calls for good timing: knowing when to speak and when to keep silent.  Educate literally means to bring forth what is already there. (p. 62)

Jean’s manner was friendly but brisk, her language precise.  She wanted a director who would challenge and confront her, not let her get away with anything.  I decided to take a risk and asked, “Why are you afraid of gentleness, Jean?”  Tears came to her eyes and she shook her head.  Still, the director needs to combine gentleness with candor and expect commitment and hard work from the directee.  A good teacher demands accountability, which is why we usually learn better with a teacher than we do on our own.  But this accountability is mutual, and there is no place in it for fear or coercion. (p. 63)

A good teacher is always hopeful.

I am convinced that much of the grimness of contemporary secular education exists because it is a loveless enterprise from which no fruit is really expected.  As Julian of Norwich wrote, “God loves and delights in us, and so he wishes us to love him and delight in him and trust greatly in him, and all will be well.” (p. 63)

It is painful to linger in a place that seems dead and fruitless.  Our tendency is to want to get on with it, what “it” might be.  We both seem the tomb is empty, so come on, let’s go!  But as we linger, stoop to look in once more, “so it happens that we find Jesus.” (p. 64)

Our true work is neither to impart information nor to support a change in the directee’s lifestyle, however desirable these aims might be.  Our work is to follow Christ’s example and inwardly teach those who come to us to seek him. (p. 64)

A good teacher asks questions.

But they must be the right kind of questions, that open doors and invite the directee to stretch and grow … In the ministry of spiritual direction, there are no right answers, only clearer visions and ever deeper questions.  (p. 65)

The good teacher also encourages directees to discover and embrace their own questions.  In Rilke’s deceptively simple Letters to a Young Poet about discernment and self-knowledge, he urges his reader to “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.  Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.  And the point, to live everything.  Live the questions now.” (p. 65-66)

Directees who come to us wanting a quick fix of spiritual certainty will be sorely disappointed. (p. 66)

A good teacher is willing and able to evaluate progress.

A good teacher is vulnerable.

A good teacher is always a learner.

A good teacher (like a good parent) is educating for maturity.

In spiritual direction, a relationship that is initially hierarchical may turn into a rich spiritual friendship … The give-and-take between friends cannot substitute for the careful attentiveness of a lovingly distanced director, and the directee will eventually need to find a new director. (p. 69)

The teacher of prayer.

Essential only is that there be a “naked intent stretching out toward God” (Cloud of Unknowing). (p. 70)

It is easy to substitute reading about prayer for prayer itself … But sometimes less is more.  Spiritual gluttony is a danger.  Immersing oneself in other peoples’ recipes for the spiritual life is an effective delaying tactic.  Then the prescription of faithfulness and simplicity is in order. (p. 70-71)

Pray anywhere.  Two of my favorite holy places are the subway and the kitchen.  Repetitive tasks in the kitchen can be sanctified by the Jesus Prayer.

There are so many avenues: praying imaginatively in the Ignatian way or following the author of the Cloud of Unknowing in imageless prayer; praying with the aid of icons, crucifixes, candles, and rosaries; praying, standing, sitting, kneeling, and prostrate; praying through keeping a journal; praying the Jesus Prayer of the Heart; letting Scripture speak to us through the method of lectio divina.  It is a rich feast, and it is important for the director to be sparing with suggestions. (p. 72)

People also come to spiritual direction seeking aid in formulating a rule of life.  The desire for help in shaping daily routine is at least implicit in almost every case.  A good rule goes beyond the narrowly devotional, more than a schedule for visiting hours with God.  There is a common tendency to take on too much, and a busy life calls for creativity and flexibility.  A good rule encompasses the stewardship of energy, creativity and time. (p. 73)

The Cloud of Unknowing cautions, “Be attentive to time and the way you spend it.  God, the master of time, never gives the future.  He gives only the present, moment by moment …”  We fill our days so tightly that we close God out.  Our excessive busyness masks the sin of sloth. (p. 73-74)

Many of us routinely – even proudly – violate the command to observe Sabbath.  We need a workable rule of life to bring proportion to our stewardship of time and energy.  I sometimes ask people to keep a careful record of their activities, hour by hour, for one day – or better still for a week.  This log will reveal soft places, waste, and evasions. (p. 74)

A rule of life takes into account my relationship to god, others, and my deepest self.  Self-care is a holy obligation, yet many of us stipulate time for prayer and Eucharist but ignore dangerous addictions to food, alcohol, nicotine.  We also don’t provide for fun, but we should.  In Middle English “silly” means “blessed.”  So I ask my directees, “What have you put in this rule for fun?  Where’s the blessed silliness in it?”


Do not let spiritual direction meetings turn into an inquirer’s class.  I do always encourage people to read the Bible … to read one of the Gospels through as if it were a long-awaited bestseller.  Next I suggest Psalms because of the vast range of human emotion expressed. (p. 75-76)

Frequently my assignment is to “lighten up,” to listen for God let oneself be surprised.  And I border on the authoritarian in discussions of self-care.  Of course the “assignment” is really a permission, a permission that becomes less necessary as directees become more able to honor and care for themselves as parts of creation. (p. 76-77)

Most frequently I ask directees to “think about” something.  Think about God, God’s possible images for her, the stepping stones or turning points in her life, or not so lovely skins she may have shed at each point of transformation.  I urge people to make a list, or at least notes, because writing fosters focus and specificity. (p. 78)

Finally, I ask directees to be attentive to causes for celebration in their lives. (p. 78)

The Slow Work of God

When people come to us for spiritual direction we usually assume that they expect a life-changing word from us.  But we need to live with the silence, not merely to endure it but to be comfortable with it, acknowledging that often there are no words. (p. 79)

In the silence we embrace ambiguity and darkness.  When we persevere we discover that the darkness and silence increase rather than decrease.  Seeking answers, we find that our questions proliferate.  But as good teachers, we learn for ourselves and help them learn the need for almost infinite patience and trust “in the slow work of God.”

Chapter 3.  Midwife to the Soul.

The language of piety is filled with the imagery of giving birth.  (Romans 8:22-23, John 3:1-4, Psalm 22:9-10, Psalm 23: “The Lord is my midwife; I shall be kept safe.” (p. 82-84)

If I were to name my most profound spiritual or theological experience, without hesitation I would cite the birth of my three children.  Each birth was glimpse into the mystery of Creation and Incarnation. (p. 85)

The midwife is not a wife, or even necessarily a woman: the word means “with-woman.”  Spiritual directors are with-women and with-men.  Both men and women can be sensitive midwives of the soul. (p. 86)

What the Midwife Does.

The midwife does things with, not to, the person giving birth.  She helps the birthgiver to ever greater self-knowledge.  No question is irrelevant or dumb.  The midwife assists at a natural event, and if she needs help she will ask for it.  Under her guidance, the birthing is humane and based on sympathetic human contact throughout. (p. 87)

A midwife sees clearly what the birthgiver cannot see.  She knows the transition period – a time of desolation, of seemingly unmanageable pain and nausea – to be a sign of breakthrough and great progress. She knows when the birthgiver should push, when she should hold back, when she should breathe deeply, and when to pant in shallow breaths.  The mother’s body should know this instinctively, but fear and pain may cause her to forget. (p. 88)

The Facts of Life.

How do you know if you are spiritually pregnant?  When the angels comes to you (perhaps on a very modest scale) in supermarket, on the expressway, in church … and says, “Hail, O favored one, have I got a deal for you!  Get ready to have your life turned upside down.” (p. 89)

When in doubt, I always assume that God is indeed at work. (p. 91)

The First Stage: Presence, Patience and Waiting.

At this stage, much of the work is devoted to exploring the depths of the story slowly.  It is also a time to explore ways of praying, again in a gentle and unhurried way.  We have not managed to speed the process of gestation.  So too, there are times in spiritual direction when our waiting is inevitable, ordained and fruitful.  Despite our cultural bias to fix and improve, fix and improve, we wait in the company of those who cannot be fixed, repaired or made right except by God.  To do this I must recognize the discomfort I feel at my own powerlessness. (pp. 92-94)

A radical change happens to Jesus as he moves from action to passion (passion meaning being “done unto”).  He becomes the object rather than subject of the action.  After Judas “hands him over” Jesus is inactive, speaks very little and then ineffectively.  In John’s gospel, with the coming of night he becomes inactive.  No work can be done at night; it is the time for waiting. (p. 94-95)

To wait is part of the human condition, but instead of being a regrettable yet inevitable waste, it is a condition for growth, potentially holy and even Christlike.  Busy achievers come to us for spiritual direction, baffled by their realization of emptiness and essential impotence.  They want to push hard at life, even as they see that this is only making the pain worse.  As midwives we invite them to embrace the passivity of waiting, to breathe lightly and become receptive.   This is not as easy as it sounds. (p. 95-96)

Mutual Presence.

In the uncertainty and discomfort of waiting, loose ends are frightening reminders of our own powerlessness.  To name, to label, to classify, to diagnose gives us the illusion of control, even if the closure reached is a false one. (p. 98)

We are not altogether sure what we are waiting for.  Meister Eckhart presents us with the image of a God so filled with love that he is repeatedly born in the empty, welcoming space of the soul.  Abandonment is the fear of us all, although with the passing of infancy we learn to control or at least conceal it.  And when we tap deep enough to find the root of our fear, it is that we will be abandoned by God. (p. 99)


The old ways no longer serve.  The comfortable rhythms of worship and solitary prayer feel empty and sterile.  Gone is the image of a loving, immanent God, replaced by a forbidding image or the perception of God’s absence and indifference.  This spiritual homelessness can be terrifying and terrible. (p. 101)

This is a time of liminality, a “threshold.”  But there is “no hint of exotic adventure here, just groping and grasping.”  The director can help by naming the transition for what it is: a time of change and transformation, reminding that images of God are just that – images – and as we see their limitations, we outgrow them.  We have not outgrown God; we have outgrown our images.  But the ground no longer feels firm beneath our feet, and “everything is up for grabs.” (p. 104-105)

The director can share the patterns he sees and that this transition has beginning and an end.  The directee may be skeptical but should have sufficient trust to know that these are not words of cheap consolation. (p. 104)

The Second Stage: Active Work.

Now, more than ever, the directee is leading the way.  The whole process will actually start over again and again, but for now the direction is clear, the energy level is high, and the next steps are apparent. (p. 105)

What may have started as a voyage of self-discovery becomes a journey into the great web of connection.  Compassion is never a cheap or easy gift.  What is known cannot be unknown.  As it is so often, the director’s task is to give heart.  Don’t stop now, keep going, trust yourself! (p. 106)

By this time the barriers between director and directee are flimsy affairs, erected for convenience, because both know that they are on the same path and doing the same work. (p. 106)


When the baby is born, we cannot forget to celebrate.  Each small birth is the chance for joy and celebration.  Meister Eckhart said, “Tend only to the birth in you and you will find all goodnessd and all consolation, all delight, all being and all truth.  Reject it and you reject goodness and blessing.  What comes to you in this birth brings with it pure being and blessing.” (p. 107)

Chapter 4.  Women and Spiritual Direction.

Women as Listeners.

The gift of listening as an unconscious means of self-understanding can be a fruitful first step toward ministry, as she grows to a sufficiently secure sense of self to be able to put that self aside.  She no longer needs to use others to learn about herself, although increasing self-knowledge is an inevitable concomitant of doing spiritual direction.  Rather, she can employ her highly developed listening skills in a spirit of loving detachment.  She can listen maternally.  (p. 112-113)

Often the mother’s help is on the daughter’s terms, while the father’s help is offered on his terms.  Maternal conversation is an appropriate mode for spiritual direction: the director is willing to listen and to be present to the directee where he is.  Simone Weil says of the Good Samaritan’s actions, “The actions that follow are just the automatic of his moment of attention.  The attention is creative.”  It is through attentive love, the ability to ask “What are you going through?” and the ability to hear the answer that the reality of the (directee) is both created and respected. (p. 114)

My inner alarm bells sound when I find myself growing curious, taking sides, or becoming over-invested emotionally.  I know that I am about to step over an invisible line and that the delicate balance can be destroyed.  Even if my words and actions remain correct, I am in danger of using the directee for my own gratification. (p. 114)

Women as Outsiders.

Over the centuries, women have kept the church going by their faithfulness, but have lived their inner lives around its edges.  Yet it is frequently their very otherness that makes them able and open as spiritual directors, especially effective in ministry on the margins and in the cracks. (p. 114-115)

Women as Nurturers. 

Jesus learned about being human, like all infants, from looking into his mother Mary’s face, hearing hr voice, feeling her touch.  She was the first person to teach him about steadfast love.  From her, he learned about feeding, washing, and healing – surely women’s work, yet an essential part of his ministry. (p. 116)

In their instinctively murmured words of comfort, mothers do not deny the pain, uncertainty, even terror of life.  They simply remind the child – and themselves – that at the deepest level, it is all right.  If we believe with Julian of Norwich that, in spite of everything, it will be all right, all will be well, that all manner of things will be well, we need not say these words.  We will embody them. (p. 119)

Women in Spiritual Direction.

I know women who accept a life of utter self-effacement without questioning the purpose or the object of the sacrifice.  While there are scriptural grounds in support of self-sacrifice, there must first be a mature self to sacrifice, and the spiritual director can assist in the development of that self. (p. 122)

Issues of Language in Directing Women.

Valuing Experience.

It is common for the dominant group to assume that it understands the experience of an oppressed group. (p. 124)

In her fear of seeming trivial and in her undervaluing of her own experience, the directee may avoid topics and areas of deep concern.  The spiritual implications of a long and “uneventful” marriage are often unexplored and underrated.  The costs and fruits of faithfulness are not always evident, but have a profound effect on the woman’s spiritual identity.  The spirituality of housework is another neglected area.  Most of my male friends are unaware of the burden of repetitive menial work that is never completed, work that is noticed only what it is neglected.  Further, time spent with very young children can simultaneously enrich the spirit, deaden the mind, and tax patience beyond belief.  All of this is the raw material of spiritual direction; all of this has a God-component. (p. 125)

The directee must be taken seriously, even when (especially when) she seems not to take herself seriously.  Asking the right questions can clarify and dispel tentativeness, helping the woman to move away from undue dependence on the authority of others and claim own innate authority.  “Where do you hurt?” is such a simple question that the director might forget to ask it, particularly when the directee seems strong and positive. (p. 126)

A supportive director can help the women find her place in the communal Christian story.  The women around Jesus not only included the sexual sinner who anointed his feet (Luke 7:37-38) but also a women who poured the ointment on his head (Mark 14:3-9).  One woman crouches weeping on the floor, the other stands tall, a prophet anointing a king.  “What she has done will be told in memory of her.” (p. 127)

The director can encourage both women and men to become comfortable with feminine imagery for God in prayer.   He can point to often overlooked feminine imagery in Scripture. (p. 128)

The Eighth Deadly Sin.

Women’s patterns of sinning are different from men’s, and although embracing the role of victim is a way of remaining “sinless,” this very willingness to let oneself be hurt or even destroyed is a striking example of an essentially sinful way of being.  Far from being pride, women’s distinctive sin is self-contempt.  This self-hatred is symbolized by and centered on the body.  (p. 128)

Women’s self-contempt manifests itself as an unwillingness to grow and take the risks that growth demands.  By over-zealousness in their obligations toward others, especially husbands and children, and a corresponding neglect of themselves, women manage to avoid inner growth. (p. 129)

Women’s tentativeness is another manifestation of self-contempt, as is an apparent absorption in triviality.  Both are a noisy kind of silence, a screen erected – perhaps unconsciously, against clarity.  By hesitating to take firm stands or express herself in decisive language, she sends a strong message that she does not deserve to be heard.  By letting herself become immersed in trivialities, she sends a message that she does not deserve to be seen.  Furthermore, absorption in trivialities deadens pain, for the woman is too preoccupied to face herself, her human relationships, and – of course – God. (p. 129)

Denial of a woman’s own authority inevitably manifests itself as passivity, not the passivity of a healthy self open and empty to receive the Holy Spirit, but a leaden inertia.  At least some depression is of spiritual origin. (p. 130)

Self-contempt is a sin, for at its heart is a denial of God’s love and the goodness of God’s creation.  The woman discounts herself as part of creation and assumes that the rules of divine love do not apply to her.  That love is there for everyone else, but not for her. (p. 130)

There is the waste of gifts that have not been used, frequently not even acknowledged, coupled with the inability to receive the gifts of others.  Self-contempt is a loveless field that offers prime growing conditions for other sins, among them false humility, envy, manipulativeness and sloth.  Sloth is especially sneaky since it can disguise itself in busy-ness.  Absorption in trivialities is often a symptom. (p. 130)

Listening for patterns of self-deception, my two favorite questions are “What do you want?” and “Where do you hurt?”  These also tend to reveal the innate beauty and goodness the woman denies. (p. 131)

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing aptly observes that sin is “a lump” – we need to differentiate the lump and understand its parts, for every likely it contains a lot of inert matter and perhaps even something of value.  The director assists in separating the good from the bad, the significant from the insignificant.  It is delicate and gentle work, for sin always involves hurt: hurt of others, hurt of God, hurt of oneself.

Survivors of Abuse.

Statistics: one woman in four has been violated (ranging from rape to isolated instances of improper touch or fondling.  Verbal violation is not included.) One woman in ten is the victim of ongoing sexual abuse.  Usually the abuse is by a known and trusted person. (p. 133)

I am developing a sixth – and at this point indefinable – sense of the special woundedness of the sexually abused.  However, it is especially important to tread softly if the person is in a state of amnesia; and I may know intuitively much more than I need or should articulate to the directee.  At most, I permit myself a gentle invitation to go deeper: “I sense that you have been hurt a lot.” (p. 134)

The greatest gift the director can bring is a loving presence.  While it is important to maintain detachment, a deep emotional involvement is also inevitable and desirable.  There are no shortcuts, and this can be heavy, lonely work. (p. 135)

I ask from time to time, “Where was God when this was happening to you?  Where is God now?  Do you feel angry with God?”  The victims often have a tendency to excuse God as if God’s attention had merely wandered during their ordeal.  Along with this unwillingness to face squarely the presence or absence of God, most abuse survivors are just as reluctant to confront the probable complicity of their mothers.  It is more bearable to see the male as acting in isolation.  (p. 137)

It should go without saying that I am cautious about paternal imagery in prayer, for example, in the use of the Our Father.  To avoid the possibility of unwittingly inflicting more pain upon her, I am willing to be led by the directee, who may either find in God the loving father whom she has not known on earth, or who may prefer to separate herself as far as possible from all parental imagery. (p. 138-139)


Spiritual direction as a work of love is also a work of freedom.  The director’s love is contemplative, immune from temptation to devour, possess or manipulate.  Seeing the other as a child of God, she is filled with respect and even awe in the presence of the person sitting across the sacred space. (p. 141)

Letting go and letting be, the director is unwilling to despair. (p. 141)

More than host, teacher, or midwife, as a spiritual director I am a holy listener.  In a way, not to be heard is not to exist.  The holy listener is reluctant to dismiss another person; as an amateur who is open to surprises, he makes a willing gift of his attentiveness. (p. 143)

We can be Eli’s for our directees.  We can listen and help them listen for the voice of God in Scripture, dreams, the words of friends and enemies, to hear “what they knew all along.”  We can encourage them to go trustfully into a dark place and to wait: Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears.” (p. 144)

Too often we become isolated both from our own story and the Christian story and become preoccupied with our afflications or our work.  Separated from our true context, we can be overcome by our present situation – even when it is basically “good” and when we feel that God has called us to it.  Separated from our stories, we lose our identity. (p. 144-145)

End of book: Sometimes the listening takes place in the warmth of the stable, sometimes in the pure white light on the high mountain apart, sometimes in desolation at the foot of the corss, and sometimes with fear and great joy in the encounter with the risen Christ. (p. 146)



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