Deep Listening: Spiritual Direction and Beyond

Article by Joan Conway (September 2017 eNews)

Within the space opened up by recent retirement, I am being challenged to listen anew for God in my life. Shalem’s group spiritual direction workshop…afforded me an opportunity to refine my skills in the contemplative practice of deep listening. It also provided the chance for me to reflect on the challenge of living in the midst of the violence and the injustices of our times. Often as I listen to the news, I am unable to believe with Teilhard de Chardin that we are all moving through daily life in the 21st century together with Christ, the Omega Point. However, I was struck that the practice of deep listening may offer a way through the chaos and into the center of this Love.

Recently while studying the life of St. Francis of Assisi, I came across the suggestion by Leonardo Boff that some of the dysfunction of our day is due to the extent in which logos has dominated our Western culture in an unbalanced fashion. Applying this to the process of listening, the often-used logos approach would be to listen, to make a list of responses and ideas, and then to suggest ways of fixing the given situation or to provide advice. Boff reminds us that one of Francis’ gifts was his ability to live out of his pathos or empathy and sympathy and to “listen” to all of creation in balance with his logos (his simple rule) in such a way that he dramatically changed his 13th-century world. I believe that this is what the process of deep listening offers to all of us at this time.

Listening from a place of pathos balanced with logos can transform the world in small ways. How do we begin? We create and protect a safe space with a simple structure based on the wisdom of logos. In spiritual direction these are the agreements of frequency of meeting, length of time, place, and confidentiality. We then continue with the pathos of compassion that listens to the other person, to ourselves and to God. Always wanting to do a good job, I remind myself that the Spirit of God is the actual director; therefore, it is up to me as I participate in the conversation to be the viaduct for the Spirit. While I may never be a completely open vessel, I seem to have a split second where I can see and make the choice to let go of my own mental baggage. When I say the simple “yes” to the letting go, a sense of spaciousness is often created. This choice allows me to be open to the presence of God as I listen on behalf of the person who is speaking. It also creates the possibility that in the process of listening I can be freed from ideas that might hook my mind or emotions.

In other words, I can be simply present and allow the Spirit to do the work. I can follow and trust in the slow process of God within the relationship. With this trust the words uttered are allowed to take a secondary role. It is at this interface that I have experienced the freedom produced by the trusting of what I profess—there is no right or wrong way, no rules, no fixes, just open attentiveness to myself and to the relationship between the directee and God. Usually I am not being asked to help but to give each person the affection of listening with compassion and kindness. This deep listening calls me into an experience of poverty before God. So much of this work is beyond my skills, my thoughts, my emotions. It is dependent upon the grace of the Creator.

Deep listening is truly the work of those of us called to be contemplatives, and it is a gift we bring to the world. This practice can break through into other venues. As I practice listening, I am being shown the many different places to which I can bring this skill. Because I believe that I am touching into the Love of God for me and for the other person(s) in the dialogue, I also believe that I am bringing God’s Love into the world. In a limited way, those of us in the conversation are part of the transformation of the world into the Love we all crave.

Joan is a 1988 graduate of Shalem’s Nurturing the Call: Spiritual Guidance Program. A version of this article first appeared in the Shalem News, Winter 2008.

September 09, 2017 by Shalem Institute
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