The Art of Spiritual Direction

Margaret Guenther’s book, Holy Listening, helps the reader to understand what spiritual direction is, making no presumptions about prior knowledge. She writes from her experience and elaborates her points by referring to incidents and narratives from her time as spiritual director.  She uses the three roles of a host, teacher, and midwife to develop a multidimensional understanding of spiritual direction.

As ‘host’, the spiritual director creates a space that is safe and welcoming. When you meet for spiritual direction, tasks and schedules fall away; this is a sacred time and space. It can look any number of ways, but it is created with care by the one providing the hospitality.

As ‘teacher’ the spiritual director is not telling the other person what to do, rather they use to helping the directee (the person who comes for spiritual direction) recognize her/his place and struggle. They help the directee identify questions more than provide answers. Spiritual directors are like teachers who invites questions that allow new insights to emerge.

The spiritual director as ‘midwife’ is another powerful analogy. Most people are wounded in some way. Life is challenging and there are hurts and struggles that people carry. Generally people bury pain and try to move on. Sometimes out of the midst of the brokenness, new life can emerge. Fostering and birthing this new life is one of the primary roles that spiritual directors engage in. Many people come to spiritual direction because they recognize that something in them that needs to come out and they are frightened and confused by the process. Spiritual directors can help transform times of fear and confusion into growth and celebration.

My overall impression is that this book is precious. Within every chapter I have highlighted sentences that are gold, for example, “At its simplest, hospitality is a gift of space, both physical and spiritual, and like the gift of attentive listening, it is not to be taken lightly.” (p. 13) Also Holy Listening is very practical, for example, “Physical space is, in its way, as important as spiritual space. I find that I cannot see people for spiritual direction in my home: there is too much confusion of roles and personae.” (p.14) There are also suggestions about what to consider to make the space comfortable and sacred, how to begin, what to do with your hands!

I found the development of the metaphor of midwife very powerful and noted the repeated use of the quote from Meister Eckhart “Tend only to the birth in you and you will find all the goodness and all consolation, all delight, all being and all truth. Reject it and you reject all goodness and blessing. What comes to you in this birth brings with it pure being and blessing.” While this is not a new metaphor for me, I found my perception enlarged by the exploration of stages of pregnancy and the accompanying feelings.

Surprisingly the most profound section was the last: Women and Spiritual Direction. Here there is a strong acknowledgement of the experience of women and spirituality: the differences of language, life experience, experience of God, ways of praying and ways of sinning. (p 110) The chapter affirmed women’s capacity to listen and through listening, to enable growth. In addition, Guenther, explores how women’s experience as outsiders, as one on the margins and powerless, can be a gift of freedom. As nurturers, all women (and men) act maternally.

The later part of the chapter investigates women as receivers of spiritual direction. Here I struck by the fact that most seekers of spiritual direction are women. She challenges the ‘passive receptive role’ that many have been socialised into as women. Women may be needy but inarticulate and should listened to patiently. She names another issue where women might suppress their natural speech and use forms of verbal tentativeness.

Within Christian traditions, there has been an emphasis on self-denial and sacrifice on one’s needs for the sake of others, which has deeply affected women. Guenther says too that ‘women have had little to do with posing the questions or creating the agendas of theology”. (p. 123) It seems that much of women’s experience has been discounted and seen as insignificant. Holy Listening reminds the reader that “All of this (women’s experience, including housework, raising children, an uneventful marriage) is the raw material of spiritual direction, all of this has a God-component, even though the directee does not see in the minutiae of her life an experience of God.”

Other issues are the need for women to let go of ‘out-grown faith’, to overcome the sin of self-contempt, and a sense of guilt.  Guenther writes too of the experience of women who have been abused.

Overall exploring the three metaphors of host, teacher and midwife produces an inspiring and encouraging book. The notion of coming to birth (Chapter Three: Midwife to the Soul) is especially heartening and a wonderful reminder of the day to day reality of incarnation.