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  • Writer's picture Brian E Pearson

Holy Listening

Photo Credit: Harli Marten on Unsplash

We've all been there. Someone in a small group is sharing a personal story, something that has meaning and significance for them. We're listening, but only sort of. Because while they're talking, a story of our own is awakening within us, making it difficult for us to let them finish, so excited do we become about telling our story. But then, as we keep ourselves in check and feign interest in what they're saying, someone else cuts in with their story. No fair, we think. It was my turn!

We, most of us, are terrible listeners. It's because we so badly need to be heard ourselves. An unholy descent into confusion and cacophony accompanies even casual conversation as each of us, feeling unheard, is unable to listen to others: we talk over one another; we fidget as their talking goes on too long; we measure the conversation by how much air time we're getting. It's like a competition every time we open our mouths.

In any kind of conflict resolution, the first challenge is simply to get the parties to stop talking and listen to one another. "Bob, before you tell us your side of the story, what did you hear your wife saying just now? Mary, has Bob heard you? No? Okay, let's try again. Mary?" There is healing power when someone responds, "What I hear you saying is ... ," and they actually get it right! Only when I've been heard can I, in turn, hear you.

We all need someone we can talk to, someone who will listen to our stories while holding back on their own, letting us say it all until we're done. Not that everything we say is worth listening to. The first "confession" I ever heard as a priest was not a confession at all. A young man had been sent to me so he could unburden his conscience. Only, that's not what he wanted to do. He wanted to brag--about all his sexual exploits. This became evident ten minutes in, but I listened for another two hours, wishing I had cut him off as soon as I saw where this was going. So, not that kind of listening.

Nor do we need the constant attention of those in the counselling professions whose livelihoods depend on diagnosing our sickness, recognizing our problem, discerning our sin, reminding us that there's plenty wrong with us. Because also, there's plenty right. Even our neuroses and our compulsions serve to remind us that something deep inside requires our attention, calling us back to wholeness. Whatever is "wrong" with us is actually pointing us in the "right" direction ... if we have the ears to hear with.

What we need most is deep listening, the kind that hears not only the old worn-out stories we tell ourselves but also the new stories trying to emerge, not only the bad but also the good. We need what some would call "holy listening"--listening for the presence of the Divine within us, for the inner deaths and rebirths calling us to new life, and for the subtle movements of Soul that want to guide us toward the life we are meant to be living.

This precisely describes the field we know as Spiritual Direction. Despite the traditional nomenclature ("spiritual direction" comes from the hierarchical monastic practice of a senior monk advising a junior), it's more about companionship than advice. One person is simply listening to another, paying attention to what is happening beneath the stories and the hurts and the hopes, to what God might be doing in the midst of it all.

Spiritual Direction is an art. And I can think of no one better to talk about it than spiritual director Lois Huey-Heck, who also happens to be an artist. Lois has put in her hours, both receiving and providing training in spiritual direction. But even more, she has the natural gifts that make it second nature to her: compassion, depth, inquisitiveness, generosity, attentiveness, humour. She knows how to create a welcoming spaciousness for the people who come to her, whether in person or, more commonly these days, online.

As you listen to my conversation with Lois about the soulful practice of Spiritual Direction, I suspect many of you will want to know more. Someone would actually listen to me? Without judgment? And with an ear for what God is doing in my life? Sign me up! Others may reflect that they already listen this way themselves, to their family and friends. They might be encouraged to hear the work they do so naturally described as "holy listening." Either way, there are loving, generous, and open-hearted souls out there who want to hear what we have to say, every last word.

To listen to this episode of The Mystic Cave, press Play in the display box below. To access the show notes, with links to several networks of spiritual directors, press the Information (i) button and scroll down the page that appears.

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