By Marcia Hotchkiss
As a college communications professor, each semester I teach a chapter on listening. “How many of you feel like you have enough people in your life to listen to you?” I ask my students. On average, only one person in 25 raises a hand.
“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together. “Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.”
I have been an Episcopalian for the last 31 years, and just recently I received a certificate in the art of spiritual direction. As the spouse of a priest, I chose an ecumenical spiritual direction program to widen my outlook and to know people who were not in my tradition.
Spiritual direction was somewhat new to me, as it was not offered in seminary when my husband was a student. Until enrolling in my training program, I knew only a few people beside clergy who met with spiritual directors.
“In this covenanted relationship the director has agreed to put himself aside so that his total attention can be focused on the person sitting in the other chair,” the Rev. Margaret Guenther wrote in Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction.
“What distinguishes this listening profession from many other listening practices is its explicit acknowledgment of God,” spiritual director Susan Phillips writes in Candlelight. Spiritual directors are “servants of the holy, listeners with the job of being attentive to God, with and for the sake of another.”
In my three-year training program, I was assigned a spiritual director I met with at least once a month. As the director listened to me, God’s love and interest in my life were fleshed out in a concrete way. I found it helpful to name my struggles with life and faith aloud, without fear of judgment or repercussion. My director also gently questioned and nudged me to look for God’s presence in the mundane and even in the tragic. It was comforting to know that someone cared and was praying for me regularly. The direction strengthened my faith and helped me to see that God’s love is immeasurable and constant.
“It’s easy for Episcopalians to be very head- and action-oriented,” says Nancy Jagmin, a member of Church of the Transfiguration, Dallas, and faculty member at Heart Paths DFW, where I studied. “The notion of personal connection with the Spirit guiding is new for many. Spiritual direction suggests an emotional experience of God, which is an incredible gift for people who tend to be in their heads.”
“The interest in spiritual direction and other contemplative practices is ever increasing in Protestant circles,” says the Rev. Brian Hardesty-Crouch, director of Heart Paths DFW, which began its work in 1982. “People were interested in spiritual direction particularly because it was a way to live out their faith beyond the pew or an additional way beyond church, if you will. In direction, there is also the possibility of building a trusting relationship that I’ve never experienced anywhere else.”
“I feel that spiritual direction is valuable because it allows individuals to deepen their spiritual growth,” says my husband, Tom, an Episcopal priest since 1993. “For some, they are clearly in a seeking posture, while others may be more distressed in their life or in their relationship with God. Either way, insomuch as one is able, as the psalmist encourages us, we are to ‘Be still and know that thou art God.’ Then we can listen to the voice of God in silence, in prayer, in Scripture, and in another person offering to journey with us.”
Brother Michael Gallagher, a Benedictine monk in Texas, echoes this. “It always helps to have a guide or companion, especially in sharing our journeys with someone else. We come to a clearer view of where we are headed and what we are called to become,” he says. “Liturgical traditions are rich in sign and symbol but are not always done well in practice. It helps to have a guide to relate our worship to our life experience and the transcendent underlying those experiences. It is good to know that there are people available to listen to our deepest yearnings and needs and to help us read the signposts along the way toward union with God.”
Connecting fellow strugglers with the God who knows and loves them is the heart of the gospel, and good spiritual direction points people directly to the always-loving God in a powerful way.
In training programs, spiritual directors are taught to think of any direction as a three-way conversation that includes God. Some call this the image of the third chair, and they put a third chair out for the deity. Others light a candle to signify the presence of the Holy Spirit. The point is that both parties are dependent on a loving, present God who wants to communicate with us if we will listen.
As a spiritual director, I find this knowledge calming and freeing, as I know the person across from me is not limited to my knowledge or experience. Instead, the God of the universe is active and interested in this person’s life. My job is simply to wonder where God is active and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us both.
One beautiful example of this was a session when someone was struggling with the possibility of following a new path that made her anxious and unsure. I was led to ask her how she pictured God. She said she saw God as a slightly older man, and the two of them were talking quietly and rocking gently on a front porch swing.
My friend added that as they talked she felt comfortable enough to rest her head on God’s shoulder. After the image soaked in, I asked, “And what would the God who is talking and swinging with you say about this new path?” She smiled and said, “He would probably say, ‘How do you know until you try?’”
Then with an even bigger smile: “And I think that’s the answer — I need to try.”
Some say spiritual direction goes back to the desert mothers and fathers; some say it goes back even further to St. Paul. Regardless, this ancient practice is one of the contemplative disciplines that seems to be gaining traction in the lives of those seeking God both inside and out of the church today.
I hope that the church continues to encourage the formation of spiritual directors who will journey with their fellow seekers. After all, during his earthly ministry, Jesus walked with those who sought him.
Marcia Hotchkiss is a spiritual director in the Diocese of Dallas and teaches at Brookhaven College.